Iran’s power over Iraq includes electricity

President Trump’s decision to use a drone to kill Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad and Iran’s retaliatory launch of missiles have caused a furor in diplomatic and political circles. While the long-term repercussions of Soleimani’s death remain unknown, one thing that is clear is that Iran’s grip on Iraq isn’t limited to military and political power. It’s also about electric power.

Ever since the Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the U.S. military repeatedly attacked its electric grid, Iraq has struggled to produce enough electricity to meet demand. In May 2018, some neighborhoods in Baghdad were getting just three hours of electricity per day. The ongoing electricity shortages sparked widespread anti-government protests that continued into 2019. 

To help bolster its tattered grid, the Iraqi government turned to Iran. In 2017, Iraqi officials signed a long-term natural gas supply contract with the Iranians. That gas allows Iraq to generate about 2,500 megawatts of electricity. Tavanir, Iran’s state-run grid operator, now provides about 1,200 megawatts of electricity to Iraq via transmission lines that cross the border into the provinces of Basra, Diyala and Maysan. Iranian energy now accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the electricity consumed in Iraq.

In the months before the killing of Soleimani, the Trump administration — which has imposed economic sanctions against Iran — was pressuring the Iraqi government to quit buying gas and power from its neighbor. Those efforts met with strong resistance from Iraqi officials, who understand that any reduction in electricity supplies could spawn more anti-government protests. Further, Iran has shown that it could cut off Iraq whenever it chooses to do so. In July 2018, Iran stopped sending some power to Iraq, claiming it hadn’t been paid for the electricity it was supplying. 

Iraq’s electricity woes can be traced to 1991, when the U.S.-led bombing campaign nearly destroyed Saddam Hussein’s electricity infrastructure. The campaign included 215 sorties aimed at Iraq’s grid. Cruise missiles outfitted with “blackout bombs,” which used tiny carbon filaments to short-circuit the Iraqi grid, also were used. Before the war, Iraq had about 9,500 megawatts of electricity generation capacity. By the time the bombing stopped, that had been reduced to about 300 megawatts. One analyst concluded that the attacks “virtually eliminated any ability of the Iraqi national power system to generate or transfer power.”

Human Rights Watch condemned the bombing, saying that the destruction of Iraq’s grid “resulted in severe deprivation of clean water and sewage removal for the civilian population and paralyzed the country’s entire health care system.” The lack of clean water led to a cholera outbreak. Water contamination and other health-related problems resulted in a surge in civilian deaths with credible estimates putting the number of Iraqis killed by disease at 70,000.

Iraq’s electric grid took another beating during the unrest that followed the launch of the Iraq War in 2003. After the American military’s invasion, saboteurs toppled power lines to harass the government and looters stole copper wire and sold it for scrap. By mid-2004, saboteurs were attacking the country’s high-voltage transmission lines an average of twice a week. The New York Times quoted U.S. military officials saying that insurgents realized that “with summer coming on, damaging the electrical and water infrastructure could sow widespread distrust and discontent with the occupation and its allies.”

Since the Iraq War, the Iraqi government has spent some $40 billion on electricity-related projects. But much of that money has been lost to corruption, and an Iraqi government official recently estimated another $30 billion will be needed to upgrade the country’s grid. The latest data from the World Bank show that per-capita electricity use in Iraq is about 1,300 kilowatt-hours per year. In Iran, that figure is about 3,000 kilowatt-hours per year, which is close to the world average of about 3,100 kilowatt-hours per capita per year.

Iraq’s growing reliance on Iran shows that electricity politics can be more important than old rivalries. During the 1980s, the two countries fought a bitter eight-year war that left about 1 million people dead. Despite that conflict, and despite the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure sanctions campaign against Iran, the two countries remain tied together by their gas and electric grids. Last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi declared flatly that “Iraq will not be part of the sanctions regime against Iran.”

That sentiment was reinforced last Sunday when the Iraqi parliament approved a non-binding resolution to expel American troops from the country. In short, the killing of Soleimani, against the backdrop of Iraq’s desperate need for reliable energy, could further weaken America’s political influence in Iraq and assure that the country’s electric grid relies on Iran for years to come. 

Robert Bryce is the producer of a new documentary, “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.” His sixth book, “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations,” will be published in March. Follow him on Twitter @pwrhungry.

Tags Donald Trump electricity grid Gulf War Iran-Iraq relations Iraq protests Iraq War Power outages Qassem Soleimani

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