Iran's dam diplomacy

Article Highlights

  • Dam construction has been the flagship of the Iranian push into northern Lebanon.

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  • Iranian dam building cannot be dismissed simply as an outgrowth of Tehran’s desire to diversify its economy.

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  • While Iran has been building dozens of dams across the country, it has increasingly looked to the external market.

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Iran’s best known exports are oil, pistachios, caviar, and carpets, but over the past decade the Islamic Republic has quietly become a major force in dam construction. Iran today ranks third in dam building internationally, after China and Japan, and today it is building the world’s tallest concrete dam in Lorestan, in western Iran.

While Iran has been building dozens of dams across the country, it has increasingly looked to the external market. The Eini project announced in the excerpted article is part of Iran’s outreach to Tajikistan. It is not the first hydroelectric plant Iranian engineers have built in that Central Asian republic: in 2006 an Iranian firm began construction of the Sangtoudeh II plant, approximately 45 miles southeast of the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Iran is also building dams in Kyrgyzstan and in neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. More recently, Iran has begun to develop dams further afield, for example, in Nicaragua and Ecuador. Dam construction has also been the flagship of the Iranian push into traditional Sunni and Christian areas in northern Lebanon, an area of increasing strategic importance to the Islamic Republic, as it abuts the Alawi-dominated Latakia region, to which supporters of Bashar al-Assad would likely retreat should the Assad regime collapse in Damascus.

Iranian dam building cannot be dismissed simply as an outgrowth of Tehran’s desire to diversify its economy. The firms contracted to build such hydroelectric plants without exception fall under the rubric of Khatam al-Anbia, the economic wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Not only do they therefore represent a mechanism by which the IRGC can bolster its budget beyond ordinary line items and win Iranian hard currency, but also the dam construction can provide a means to insert IRGC members into areas where they could, in theory, conduct surveillance or support other operations. Khatam al-Anbia can also exploit partnerships with construction and engineering firms outside Iran in order to acquire technology and equipment which the Iranian government would be unable to import directly because of sanctions.

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