Vol. 5, No. 8 (April 15, 2012)

Iran’s call for Caspian Sea—Persian gulf canal ‘unrealistic,’ experts say

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Iranian Energy Minister Majid Namjou, drawing on ideas that have been circulating for more than a century, announced at the beginning of April that Tehran plans to begin construction of a canal from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean.  However, both because of the technical difficulties involved and because of the enormous geo-economic and geopolitical consequences such a canal would have for all Caspian littoral states, experts say that there is little likelihood that the latest Iranian effort will be realized. [1] 

As outlined by Namjou, construction of the canal would cost approximately seven billion US dollars and would benefit Iran’s central regions, which have been suffering from a severe drought.  However, the Iranian official did not indicate how the proposed canal could be built given that the Caspian Sea is 29 meters lower than the level of the ocean and that there are both mountain ranges and lowland deserts along the route such a canal would follow.  At the very least, those topographical problems would require an enormous amount of energy both before and after any construction.

Ismail Kahrom, an Iranian ecologist, told Azerbaijani news agencies that these plans were only “a dream” and that Namjou’s proposal could not be realized.  He called attention to the fact, neglected by the minister, that “every liter of water of the Caspian Sea contains 13 grams of salt” and consequently, any use of such water for irrigation would be counterproductive.  Moreover, Kahrom said, the land along the proposed route is not suitable for agriculture, even if water were to become available.

Chingiz Ismailov, a geographer who heads Baku’s Caspian Scientific Research and Information Center, agreed, saying that he “does not believe” such a canal will ever be built.  “For the realization of such a megaproject, the agreement of the Caspian littoral states would be needed.  In addition to the obstacles in the north in the form of a mountain range, these regions are heavily populated and for construction work there would have to be the evacuation of the population and the payment of compensation.”  Moreover, such a canal, which would extend some 2,000 kilometers, could cause flooding because it could not possibly be lined along its entire route with concrete.

There are, however, two more serious obstacles, Ismailov added.  On the one hand, there is the frequency of earthquakes along the entire route.  “The northern regions of Iran are considered seismically dangerous,” and saturation of the ground as a result of a new canal could make the consequences of any earthquake even more serious.  And on the other hand, such a canal would drain “at a minimum” ten percent of the water of the Volga.  Because that river currently provides 85 percent of the inflow into the Caspian, such a plan would have enormous consequences for the littoral countries and the oil and gas rich seabed.

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani geographer and Iranian sources pointed out, the Iranian government has given the Corps of Defenders of the Islamic Revolution, the group that has been involved in terrorist actions against Azerbaijan, some two million US dollars to begin the canal project, yet another indication that the announcement of this plan may be more about politics than about anything else.

Kahrom said that given Iran’s failure up to now to shift more water into Lake Urmiya, a plan that Azerbaijani officials have said threatens the size of the flow of the river that forms the border between the two countries, the newly announced plan to construct “a Caspian-Persian Gulf canal bears a purely political character and is nothing other than empty words.”  That would be completely in the Iranian tradition on this issue, he said, noting that former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani also wanted to build such a canal, but never achieved anything in that regard.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/326058.html (accessed 14 April 2012).