Iran is fast approaching an ecological disaster. As Iranian policymakers grapple with the likelihood that their ongoing cold war with the United States will only escalate, they must consider a possibility that presents no less of an existential threat to Iran: their country is descending into a perpetual ecological crisis.
Iranian officials have been losing their war on climate change and environmental degradation for decades. Iran’s once-extensive forest cover shrank from nineteen million acres in 1900 to fewer than fifteen million in 2012, dipping below eleven million three years later. In some parts of Iran, meanwhile, precipitation has declined by an average of 2.56 millimeters a year for the past forty years, contributing to desertification and water scarcity.
In the meantime, the United Nations has warned that desertification threatens eighteen of Iran’s thirty-one provinces and ninety-seven of its cities.
In an alarming sign, Iran now ranks fourth on the World Resources Institute’s list of the countries at the greatest risk of exhausting their water supply. Global warming has caused a paradoxical combination of droughts and floods to buffet the country, drying aquifers, lakes, and rivers throughout Iran as deluges of water kill dozens of people in the Fars and Golestan Provinces. In the meantime, the United Nations has warned that desertification threatens eighteen of Iran’s thirty-one provinces and ninety-seven of its cities.
The administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seems well aware of the potential for an ecological crisis. In 2015, Masoumeh Ebtekar, the current Iranian Vice President for Women and Family Affairs and back then the head of the Iranian Environment Department, described climate change as “a serious threat for life on Earth.” The same year, Esmail Kahrom, an advisor to the Iranian Environment Department, lamented to Iran’s state media, “With the current deforestation, Iran will have no forest in the next seventy-five to a hundred years.”
To combat environmental degradation and global warming, Iranian officials have initiated a well-publicized crackdown on environmental crime and sought assistance from the U.N. and the international community as a whole. In addition to the Iranian Environment Department, several government agencies play a role in Iran’s response to climate change, including the Iranian Agricultural Jihad Ministry, the Iranian Meteorological Organization, the Iranian Natural Disaster Management Organization, and the Iran Water Resources Management Company, a state-owned enterprise. This coalition has allowed Iranians to dedicate much of their bureaucracy to environmental protection.
American economic sanctions have restricted Iran’s ability to reform its environmental policy.
Despite Iranian officials’ apparent commitment to addressing climate change and environmental degradation, Iran’s domestic and foreign policies have led to a series of complications, many of them tied to the country’s historical tensions with the U.S. Some analysts have suggested that American economic sanctions have restricted Iran’s ability to reform its environmental policy by limiting the funds that the country can allocate to environmental protection. Iranian diplomats have often made what amounts to the same assertion while defending their record.
On a broader level, the suffocating effects of sanctions on Iran’s ailing economy have compelled Iranian officials to support resource-intensive projects that accelerate economic development on the one hand but tend to aggravate environmental degradation and hasten global warming on the other. As the stranglehold on Iran’s economy tightens, the country will have fewer incentives to spend its already-limited reserves on environmental protection.
Even so, sanctions shoulder just part of the blame for environmental degradation in Iran. Iran’s aggressive, quixotic pursuit of self-sufficiency in agriculture and several other sectors—a goal that predates the most restrictive sanctions—has come at the cost of sustainability. Iranian leaders have cleared forests and drained reservoirs to meet the demands of the country’s tumultuous domestic market.
Years of brain drain have compounded Iran’s difficulties with climate change.
Years of brain drain have compounded Iran’s difficulties with climate change. Many of the country’s best climatologists and environmental scientists have moved to teach at universities in Europe and North America. Iranian authorities have expedited this trend by persecuting Iran’s small community of environmentalists, arresting several on dubious charges of espionage. One Iranian environmentalist even died in prison under mysterious circumstances.
In one of the most self-defeating examples, the Rouhani administration invited the leading environmental scientist Kaveh Madani to leave his post at Imperial College London to join Rouhani’s government as the Deputy Head of the Iranian Environment Department—only for Iranian security forces to detain him and accuse him of espionage too after he had held the job for a few months. To the surprise of few, Madani fled Iran for the U.S. Now a Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at Yale University, he uses his time to draw attention to the plight of Iran’s environmentalists.
In the face of an ecological crisis that seems all but self-inflicted, Iran will have to make a series of major changes: retooling its environmental policy to confront the oft-deadly consequences of climate change, shifting its economic policy toward sustainable development, and welcoming the contributions of environmentalists and scientists instead of harassing the most dedicated activists and best minds that Iran has left. As big a challenge as comprehensive sanctions might become, global warming will portend far more dire problems for Iran. Iranian officials have an obligation to their people to keep their country from sliding into a permanent environmental disaster.
Many analysts have noted that, while the U.S.’s sanctions on Iran may look all encompassing, they feature an exception for humanitarian aid.
Many analysts have noted that, while the U.S.’s sanctions on Iran may look all encompassing, they feature an exception for humanitarian aid. Given that environmental degradation and global warming have already cost Iranians their lives, providing Iran assistance with its underpowered response to climate change would likely qualify for this exception. Just as Western countries have voiced their interest in backing Brazil’s efforts to stop forest fires, the remaining signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action might prove willing to help Iran mitigate water scarcity, reverse deforestation, and slow desertification if they received American acquiescence. In fact, France has hinted at giving Iran a $15 billion line of credit to blunt the impact of sanctions.
Whatever Iran and its partners in the international community do, they will have to act fast. The future of the oft-beleaguered country, like the rest of the Middle East, depends on environmental protection whether Iranian officials choose to acknowledge this reality or not.