Iran’s Reactions to the Inauguration of the Ilisu Dam

The completion of Ilisu Dam and HPP has occupied a broad place in the Iranian press, and there has been an intention to create a public opinion through serious allegations.

Using hydroelectric energy is encouraged by the states since it is a cleaner and more renewable source compared to fossil fuels in the global fight against climate change and supplying increasing energy demand. One of the significant investments of Turkey in this field, Ilisu Prof. Dr. Veysel Eroglu Dam and HPP was opened on Saturday, November 6 with the participation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The drought problem is growing in the region as a result of climate change. It creates enormous pressure on the region’s water sources which are already limited. Almost 60% of the regions’ water sources pass through the borders of more than one country. This situation causes these (transboundary) waters to be a subject of dispute between countries.

Turkey’s Policy of Transboundary Water

Iran, Iraq, and Syria are not the only countries in the region that faces drought and water stress. According to the Falkenmark Index1, currently, Turkey classified as a water-stressed with an annual usable water amount of 1,340 m3 per capita. Turkey focuses on the efficient usage of water both within the country and in the region. This process is carried out in cooperation with the neighbors who are affected by the transboundary waters instead of a conflict method. The official transboundary water policy of Turkey is based on just, reasonable, and optimum usage of waters with minimum damage. Turkey has been coming together with Iraq on the subject of water since the 1980s. The Joint Technical Committee was established in 1980 with Iraq, and Syria joined the Committee in 1983. During the construction of the Ataturk Dam, Turkey signed two protocols with Syria in 1987. In the 2000s, the issue of water has become an area of cooperation, especially with Syria. In 2009, a memorandum of understanding was signed separately with both Syria and Iraq. Turkey had started to build a friendship dam with Syria in 2011 on the Orontes River. Nevertheless, the project has been suspended due to the developments in Syria.

Turkey has shown an approach that prioritizes cooperation with the downstream countries and the humanitarian dimension of water during the construction and filling phases of the Ilisu Dam. For instance, while the dam was planned to be filled in March 2018, it was postponed in three different periods due to the dryness of 2018 and the needs and demands of Iraq. As a result, it started to be filled on July 19, 2019. In this process, Turkey has considered the water need of Iraq with delicacy. The Ilisu Dam, which will produce 4 billion 120 million kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric energy per year, is expected to provide 3 billion TL (approximately 300 million dollars) benefit to Turkey. Therefore, Turkey renounced an important amount of hydroelectric energy production because of these postponements and suffered serious economic damage. Furthermore, the necessary information was given to Iraq concerning the cooperation and good neighborhood in the process of filling the dam. Furthermore, the Ilisu Dam will regulate the Tigris River’s flow which means ensuring Iraq receives a high amount of water during the summer when the ratio of normal flow dramatically decreases.

Turkey is in a cooperation process with Iraq, and its emphasis on “water” presupposes that water is an area of cooperation and not a conflict. In line with this, Turkey paid an official visit to Baghdad in January 2019 with the participation of the Presidency and a committee led by Prof. Dr. Veysel Eroglu who was assigned as the special envoy to Iraq. During the visit, a plan of action was presented which included the establishment of a joint research center with Iraq that would work on technical issues in Baghdad. In addition, a memorandum of understanding on the water issue, which was signed in 2014 between the Turkish Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs (its former name) and the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, was approved by President Erdogan on September 2021.

Turkey is one of the countries in which the energy demand is rapidly growing. Electricity forms a significant part of this demand. Increasing the share of domestic and renewable energy in electricity generation in order to strengthen energy supply security is the main purpose of the country’s “National Energy and Mining Policy.” Currently, the transition to renewable energy from fossil fuels is a prominent and supported process for all countries to reach the goals of the global fight against climate change and “net-zero emission”. Ilisu plays a significant role in Turkey’s transition process to renewable energy.

The activities in the region regarding the dams come into prominence as a controversial issue with the effects of increasing water scarcity and concerns about the drought. In line with this, the Ilisu Dam has occupied a wide place in the Iranian press both during and after its construction, and public opinion has been tried to be shaped on the dam through several allegations.

The Ilisu Dam in the Iranian Press

Iran has long been skeptical of and opposed attitude towards Turkey’s dam activities in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. In 2016, a group of Iranian citizens and several NGOs field a complaint in United Nations (UN) General Secretary concerning Turkey’s dam activities. In 2017, then-President Hassan Rouhani called Turkey to stop its dam activities on Euphrates and Tigris by asserting their potential destructive results. The reflections of the opening of the Ilisu Dam on the Iranian press have not been different from the previous reactions and included harsh discourses and allegation.

The Khorasan Newspaper that is known for its closeness to the conservative circles covered the results of the Ilisu Dam for Iran and especially for Iraq by the “Death Knell for the Tigris and Hoor al-Azim” headline. The news stated that the regional and Iranian press is concerned about the assassination attempt in Iraq against the Prime Minister but condones another assassination (implying the Tigris). The dam is argued to affect not only Iraq’s environmental security but also Syria’s. The project is presented to be not based on cooperation and interaction by manipulating the statements of President Erdogan in the opening of the dam, and the concerns of the neighbors are asserted to be right. The Ilisu Dam is argued to cause dust storms and make the threat of drought in Tigris, Iraq and Hoor al-Azim in Iran more serious. The news also included that the files concerning to environmental impacts of the Ilisu Dam have been prepared to present to the international authorities.

Fars News Agency, as one of the prominent new agencies of conservatives, mentioned that the protest in Iraq and Iran concerning the Ilisu Dam has not been followed sufficiently by the Rouhani government in its news titled “Opening of the Ilisu Dam and Completion of Turkey’s Water War against its Neighboring Countries”. The Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River is specified as a strike against Syria, Iraq, and Hoor al-Azim, and the Ilisu Dam is asserted to cause environmental disasters for Iran. Turkey is accused of being responsible due to its activities on Euphrates and Tigris for all the drought in the region, the ravaging of Iraq’s and Syria’s agricultural lands, and the dust storms. While it is emphasized that the Ilisu Dam will cause environmental, social, and maybe security problems for Iraq, Turkey’s policies of the dam are argued to directly affect the drinking water consumption of the Syrian people along with Iraq. The statements of President Erdogan that “We have to use all our potential to protect our country against food and increasing energy crisis that is triggered by drought” and that “It is necessary that we reach the highest level in the production of renewable energy that is based on our sources” are manipulated to argue that Turkey perceives this situation as a water loss. It is stated that Turkey tries to use all its means to impose its strategy on the neighboring countries. The rightful statement of the President concerning Turkey to be a water-stressed country is distorted by the Fars News Agency through “Does Turkey try to be prepared for the future of the region and escalation of the water crisis and try to control the waters of the region?” counterargument.

In its news titled “Turkey Has Opened Its Most Dangerous Dam for Iraq”, Jomhouri-e Islami Newspaper has used the discourse that “the opening of the Ilisu Dam after years of delay means the violation of norms and principles between the regional countries along with the fact that it will create a tragedy for Iraq”. Tasnim News Agency, on the other hand, claimed that the dam was prevented for a couple of years due to the concerns of Iraq in its news titled “The Opening of the Ilisu Dam With the Participation of Erdogan.” Similarly, Mehr News Agency, ParsToday, Iran’s official news agency IRIB and Rahbord-e Moaser has approached Turkey’s water policy with a systematic attitude through their similar contents with the mentioned news agencies.

Etemad Online, as one of the reformist newspapers of Iran, prepared an infographic titled “What Kind of Results Will the Ilisu Dam Cause?” regarding the so-called impacts of the dam. In the content, there are serious allegations towards the dam to cause significant results for Iran and Iraq. Aftab-e Yazd, as another reformist newspaper, accused the Ilisu Dam of being “the last strike which ends the pain of death”. Possibly the number of these cases are that took place in the Iranian press are enhanceable. The speech of President Erdogan in the opening ceremony has been reflected in a different way from the intended meaning in the contents of the Iranian press. When the titles and contends such as “Death Knell, Water War, The Most Dangerous Dam” are considered, it becomes visible that the conservatives have approached the issue through highly harsh discourses. The fact that reformists have approached the issue with a similar attitude with the conservatives and the similarity of their discourses with the conservatives draw attention. Furthermore, the opponents of the establishment who live abroad, like Akbar Ganji, seem to develop similar discourses with the Iranians’ arguments. This general stance represents a systematic and common attitude against Turkey’s transboundary water policies.

Iran is a significant downstream country in the Euphrates-Tigris basin even though it does not bring it to the agenda apart from essential situations. The country which carries out dam activities on the tributaries of the Tigris River has serious disagreements with Iraq. According to the researches, Iran is building dams to direct a part of the water to the center, and this represents one of the reasons behind the water scarcity in Iraq. According to the Iraqi officials, Iran has been changing the direction of Tigris via its activities on the Litte Zab and Sirwan rivers which are the two tributaries of the Tigris. Iran cuts the waters of the Little Zab river in summer and shows the same attitude for several other rivers. Iran has decreased the flow of the river by 75% through its Daryan and Garan Dams on the Diyala River. It almost annihilated the capacity of Darbandikhan and Hemrin Dams in Iraq to produce hydroelectric and provide irrigation water. Reports indicate that Iran’s dam activities will cause social and environmental destruction. In line with the reports, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources stated that “the increase in the salinity of Shatt al-Arab river is caused by Iran’s water drainage, and caused the death of millions of fishes and serious environmental degradation”. Recently, Iran is one of the countries which has built most dams in the world. It has built numerous dams on the rivers which flow into Iraq. Hassan al-Janabi, former Iraqi Minister of Water Resources, said in a statement that Iran has small but numerous dams which together functions as a single large dam. Iraq defines Iran’s activities on transboundary waters as a violation of international codes. Lastly, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources declared that it is going to fill a complaint in the International Court of Justice against Iran as a last-ditch since they could not solve the water crisis between them and Iran, and Iran has different agreement methods which prevent the diplomatic efforts. In addition, the necessary demands concerning the issue were declared to be delivered to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Iraqi Minister of Water Resources al-Hamdani said in a statement that good results were obtained from Baghdad's talks with Turkey but an agreement with Iran cannot be reached. In the statement, it was said that the activities of Iran on transboundary waters have caused irrecoverable damages to the Iraqi economy and the population of the region. Iran and Turkey follow different methods in their transboundary water policies. Iran transfers the waters of the rivers originating from its land and flowing into Iraq to the other basins inside of the country by cutting the majority of them off. On the other hand, Turkey does not have such a policy in the transboundary waters.

In conclusion, the Euphrates-Tigris basin, as one of the significant basins in the Middle East, has a special role in the relations of its downstream countries. It becomes easier to understand the usage of harsh discourses on the water subject when the pressures that arise from climate change and population growth are taken into consideration. However, since the 2000s, it is a well-known fact that cooperation in the usage of transboundary waters will provide a win-win situation for all the downstream countries. Iran also makes suggestions for cooperation with Turkey occasionally on technical issues through official channels. Today, Turkey continues to regional cooperation process in transboundary water policies in the context of its official water policy.


1 “Falkenmark Index” is one of the most used indicators to define the water supply of a country. According to this indicator, the countries which have 1,700 cubic meters (m3) per capita have sufficient water, those who have 1,000-1,700 m3 water per capita are experiencing water stress, those who have 500-1,000 m3 water per capita are experiencing water scarcity, and those who have less than 500 m3 are facing an absolute scarcity.

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