Morphologically similar populations of Aphanius that are currently considered as A. sophiae inhabit the endorheic Kor River Basin in the Zagros Mountains. Using genetic analysis based on mtDNA (cytochrome b), combined with examination of morphology (morphometry, meristics, otoliths), we discovered that what is thought to be A. sophiae is actually two distinct species, one of which is described as A. shirini sp. n. The males of the new species can be distinguished from those of all other Iranian inland Aphanius species by having only 7–10 clearly defined white flank bars, which is the lowest number of flank bars among the Iranian inland Aphanius species. Both males and females differ from all other Iranian inland Aphanius species by having a significantly longer caudal peduncle and a smaller dorsal fin depth. Based on the PhyML and Bayesian likelihood trees, A. shirini is sister to A. vladykovi from the Karoun Basin in the Zagros Mountains. Our results indicate that an ancient exorheic Kor River Basin existed in the Late Miocene and Pliocene. The close phylogenetic relationship between A. shirini and A. vladykovi suggests that the pre-Pliocene drainage in the ancient Kor River Basin was directed to the north-west (to the Karoun Basin), and not to the south-east as in the present-day Kor Basin. Both A. shirini and A. vladykovi represent the highest altitude records for Aphanius. We conclude that the splits of A. shirini and A. vladykovi can be linked to tectonic events in the Middle to Late Miocene, which created the highest altitudes (>3000 m) in the Zagros Mountains, and led to isolation of populations. The present-day endorheic Kor Basin is known to have formed in the Late Pleistocene or Early Holocene, and the ‘young’ age of A. sophiae is clearly related to this history. Our results contribute to elucidate the link between geological history and the present-day species diversity in the tectonically still active Zagros Mountains of Iran.