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Iraq-Iran: from Water Dispute to War

Type of conflict main
Intensity 4
Region
Western Asia
Time 1944 ‐ 1988
Countries Iraq, Iran
Resources Water
Conflict Summary The Shatt al-Arab River forms the boundaries between Iran and Iraq before flowing into the Persian Gulf. Due to its strategic importance for both Iraq and...
Iraq-Iran: from Water Dispute to War
The Shatt al-Arab River forms the boundaries between Iran and Iraq before flowing into the Persian Gulf. Due to its strategic importance for both Iraq and Iran, for centuries both countries have defended their sovereignty rights over the river. The Shatt al-Arab dispute was an important cause which led to the outbreak of the 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran.
Conceptual Model

Social and Economic Drivers

Iran and Iraq have been relying on the Shatt al-Arab River as waterway for transportation and exports. In the dry climate of the Middle East, the river has ever since been of great importance to both countries, therefore tensions over the river’s management have a long history that supported the escalation of the water dispute in the run up to the outburst of the Iran-Iraq war. In recent years, the conflict resurfaced as water-development projects of upstream Iran threatened the water supply for Iraq’s agriculture. Moreover, tensions grew as the interstate war led to pollution of the Shatt-al Arab.

Environmental Change

Sovereignty claims of both riparian states were incompatible and led to the fear of losing the usage possibilities of the river and its water. As citizens lost their livelihoods due to pollution of the water, pressure on the states to ensure supply with good quality water was rising.

Intermediary Mechanisms

After several attempts to establish bilateral agreements on the delimitation of the river failed, the disputed escalated into a full-scale ware between Iran and Iraq, which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversInfrastructure development changes the allocation of water.Freshwater becomes scarce as an essential resource. Pollution reduces fish stocks.Decline in fish stocks endangers the livelihoods of fishermen.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources leads to tensions between states.Livelihood insecurity leads to interstate tensions.Construction of major infrastructure, such as dams, canals or roads.Infrastructure DevelopmentAn increase in the scarcity of clean water and/or an increased variability in water supply.Increased Water ScarcityReduced availability of essential natural resources, such as land and water.Change in Access / Availability of Natural ResourcesPollution and degradation of ecosystems, such as coral reefs.Pollution / Environmental DegradationA decline in fish populations.Decline in Fish StocksA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood InsecurityTensions between states that may but need not escalate into overt violent conflict.Interstate Tensions
Context Factors
  • Water-stressed Area
  • History of Conflict
Conflict History

The delimitation of the Shatt al-Arab River has been a point of contention between the co-riparians for centuries. Tensions due to incompatible sovereignty claims over the river escalated in the 1960s and led to a full-scale war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Recently, after centuries of dispute, bilateral strains have been normalised and the co-riparians have concluded an agreement on both the delimitation and the joint management of the Shatt al-Arab River.

Strategic importance of the Shatt al-Arab River for both Iran and Iraq
The Shatt al-Arab River is formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers in Iraq. The river constitutes the border between Iraq and Iran on the last 50 miles of the river and continues to flow down to the Persian Gulf (Francona, 2001). Being the only access point of Iraq to the Persian Gulf, the Shatt al-Arab River has a strategic importance for the country’s transportation and exports. Moreover, given the dry and humid climate in this part of the Middle East, the water from the river is crucial for agriculture (ICE, 1998). Although Iran has other accesses to the Gulf, a high quantity of crude oil produced in Iran is transported through the Shatt al-Arab River.

In addition to that, this river also symbolises a cultural line between Persians and Arabs (Ibid.). This boundary illustrates the many fault lines between Iran and Iraq: Shi’a vs. Sunni Government; heir of Persian Empire vs. heir of Ottoman Empire; Fundamentalist/Secular Government (Ibid.). The delimitation of the Shatt al-Arab River’s borders has been a point of contention between Ottomans and Persians for centuries and both empires have sought to control it (Francona, 2001). After the Second World War, and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the dispute shifted to an Iraq-Iran conflict (Ibid.).

In conclusion, the differing cultural heritage between Iran and Iraq has been a factor that has made the issue of sovereignty between Persians, on the one side, and Arabs, on the other side, even more salient. Indeed, this was particularly the case for Iraq who have perceived the Shatt al-Arab to be “totally Iraqi and total Arab” (Pipes, 1983).  The second part of this case study assesses the cooperation efforts attempted by third parties in order to settle the Shatt al-Arab dispute.  

Resolution Efforts

Successive bilateral agreements on the delimitation of the river
After the First World War (WWI), Iraq and Iran once again concluded agreements over the delimitation of the river: in 1937, with the support of the League of Nations; and – after the 1937 agreement failed – in 1975, on the initiative of the Algerian President Houari Boumedienne (Bureau of Intelligence and Research, 1978; Karsch, 2002).  However, these agreements were doomed to failure, as Iraq never altered its stance according to which the country should have full sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab River. Even though these agreements managed to appease bilateral relations momentarily, they never eradicated tensions present in the region.

Incompatibility of perceived sovereignty rights impede agreements
Due to the fact that Iraq never recognised Iran’s sovereignty over one half of the river, since the 1960s, both countries have engaged in a race for power to defend their perceived rights. In the 1960s, Iran started scaling up its military capacities in order to defend its sovereignty rights over half of the river (ICE, 1998). In 1969, when Iraqi leaders claimed sovereignty over the entire river, Iran, whose military capacity was in 1969 greater than Iraq’s, unilaterally withdrew from the treaty and claimed its sovereignty over half over the river (Karsch, 2002). In order to put pressure on Iraq, Iran provided support to the Kurds who were seeking autonomy in the Northern part of the country (ICE, 1998). By using this strategy of linking the water dispute to the Kurdish issue, Iran succeeded in bringing back Iraq to the negotiation table and to get the latter to recognise Iran’s sovereignty claims (Pipes, 1983).

Even though a new agreement was reached between the co-riparians in 1975 with the Algiers Agreement, the fact that the treaty recognized the co-sovereignty of Iran was seen as “humiliating” for Iraq (Ibid.). As a result of that, in 1979, when Iran’s military was scaled down, Iraq announced its withdrawal from the 1975 treaty (Ibid.).

The role of the Shatt al-Arab dispute in the 1980-1988 war
Due to the incapacity to delimit the river in a way that would be acceptable for both co-riparians, the dispute over the river was a major cause for the break out of the hostilities of the 1980-1988 war, which opposed Iraq and Iran (ICE, 1998). However, the Shatt al-Arab dispute was not the only issue, which was at the roots of the war. In fact, Iraq wanted to take control of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan at the border with Iran (Onwar, 2015). The territorial dispute over three Persian Gulf islands seized by Iran in 1971 and Iran’s diversion of the Shatt al-Arab’s tributaries upstream contributed to increase tensions (Pipes, 1983). Moreover, Hussein also feared that Iran’s new Islamic revolutionary government could foster rebellion amongst Iraq’s Shiite majority (Onwar, 2015).

Consequences of the 1980-1988 war
During the war, as both parties were determined to defeat each other, one million people were killed and one million refugees were reported (Global Security, 2011). Moreover, the considerable impacts of the conflict on the environment also contributed to destroy the livelihood of the population. The strategy of both sides to target each other’s oil infrastructure led to major oil spills in the Gulf, impacting the Gulf population, for which fishing was the main source of livelihood (TED, 1999). In addition to that, the destruction of 17-18 million date palms in Southern Iraq – strategy to reduce potential for attacking forces – contributed to increased soil salinity and had detrimental impacts on agriculture (UNEP, 2003).

Cease-fire despite the unsettled Shatt al-Arab dispute
After eight years of conflict, characterised by heavy human, environmental as well as economic consequences, both parties accepted the ceasefire brokered by the UN (UCDP, 2015). Nevertheless, even though Iraq and Iran put an end to the violent hostilities, both parties publicly indicated immediately after the cease-fire that they had not changed their position regarding the status of the Shatt al-Arab (Wallace, 1988).

The cease-fire did not therefore succeed in settling the Shatt al-Arab. However, in fall 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Koweit, Iraq and Iran restored diplomatic relations (Onwar, 2015). This move initiated by Hussein must be understood in the wider context that, following Koweit’s invasion, Iraq had lost support from the West – who tacitly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. On the other hand, by multiplying diplomatic initiatives, in 1989 Iran had succeeded in restoring normal diplomatic relations with France, Italy and Germany and prospects of improvement of relations with US were boding well (Tarock, 1998). Fearing that such rapprochement could lead to an alliance against itself, Iraq withdrew its troops from occupied Iranian territory – which Iraq occupied despite the ceasefire – and agreed on a division of sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab with Iran. Iraq also agreed on an exchange of prisoners-of-war (Ibid.). The Algiers Agreement was however not reinstated.

Tensions over the Shatt al-Arab continued
Although bilateral diplomatic relations improved after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the following governments kept the strong position that Iraq would never reinstate the 1975 Agreement (Hunter, 2014). Tensions also remained over the Shatt al-Arab River due to Iran’s water-development projects upstream of the river, which were a major source for Iraq’s agriculture downstream (Waterinventory, 2013). In 2004, Iraq’s ministry of water resources voiced opposition to Iran’s diversion plans (Ibid.).

New development on a mutually acceptable delimitation of the Shatt al-Arab
In recent years – and particularly since the beginning of the war in Syria –, relations between Iraq and Iran have majorly improved (Duman, 2013). This has been reflected on the Shatt-al Arab issue. In 2014, Iraq and Iran’s Prime Minister met to discuss the how to delimit the river in a mutually acceptable way and to put an end to the status quo (Dinar Advice, 2014). Water-protection aspects took also a major space in the talks (Ibid.). This perspective of cooperation is very timely, as reports point out the increasing deterioration of water quality and its hazardous threats for health and agriculture (Myers, 2010). Fifteen years after the Iran-Iraq war, both parties are finally taking steps to cooperate on cleaning-up the hazardous reminders of the war, which keeps polluting their waters dangerously and threaten the resilience of the ecosystem.

To conclude, after attempts to resolve the Shatt al-Arab disputes since 1939, and a culmination of the conflict with the 1980-1988 war, the first real steps towards cooperation have been made in 2014. Today both countries have restored bilateral diplomatic relations and reached agreements on a mutually satisfying delimitation of the river. They are also jointly working towards the protection of the river. However, these agreements should make sure they do not restrict themselves to the area of the Shatt al-Arab and that they also address the impacts of Iran’s dams on the downstream part of the river. In fact, reports have pointed out the severe impacts on water-quality and water-quantity that Iran dams on the upstream part of the River have for the population downstream (EJOLT, 2013; AMAR, 2007). Failure to do this could revive tensions between both parties.

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
Intensities
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Influences
Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Diplomatic Crisis Interstate War (COW)
Fatalities
1 000 000
Violent Conflict Yes
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement More than 100.000 or more than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Resources
Water
Resolution Success
Reduction in Violence Violence has ceded completely.
Reduction in geographical scope The geographical scope of the conflict has decreased.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future The capacity to address grievances in the future has increased.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been mostly addressed.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity Conflict resolution strategies have been clearly responsible for the decrease in conflict intensity.
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political


Actors
Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Iran Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Iraq Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
United Nations
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
Conflict Resolution Strategies
Institutional solutions to reduce conflict
2 Increased coordination The strategy is an important part of the conflict resolution process
0 Reduction in conflict potential of scarcity through
better management institutions This strategy is applicable because improved resource management can reduce the water scarcity contributing to the conflict.
Economic and technological adaptation
0 Reduction in scarcity through (adoption of) technological innovation This strategy is applicable because the long-term scarcity and low quality of water could be alleviated by technological innovation.
0 Shift of livelihood bases This strategy is applicable because fishing and agricultural livelihoods are being destroyed by consequences of the 1980-1988 war and environmental changes, as illustrated by TED, 1999; UNEP, 2003.
0 Compensation This strategy is applicable because the population is severely disadvantaged due to pollution of water and soil, as illustrated by TED, 1999; UNEP, 2003.
2 Restoration/Protection of environmental livelihood base The strategy is an important part of the conflict resolution process
Third Party Tools
2 Peacemaking / Mediation The strategy is an important part of the conflict resolution process
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Common-pool resource: No one can be excluded from use but the good is depleted.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Mixed: The abilities of parties to affect the environmental resource is mixed.
Broad conflict characterization Resource Capture is present.
Ecological marginalization is not present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse
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Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

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Co-Benefits

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Conflict Transformation

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Energy

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Finance

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Gender

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

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Sustainable Transformation

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Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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