by Austin Bodetti
As tensions flare in the Persian Gulf, the news media has wondered whether Iran and the United States’ exchange of escalatory rhetoric and retaliatory measures will spark an international crisis. News agencies have ignored a development with just as grave implications for Iran, however: the acceleration of global warming. Iran has often struggled with desertification, extreme weather, water scarcity, and environmental degradation as a whole. Climate change will only exacerbate the environmental issues afflicting Iran, creating the potential for an ecological crisis.
“We are generally expecting Iran to get drier and hotter,” says Kaveh Madani, a Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at Yale University and the Deputy Iranian Vice President and Deputy Head of the Iranian Environment Department from 2017 to 2018. “This means less water availability and soil moisture together with increased water demand for farming.”
In particular, global warming will increase the frequency of droughts and floods, environmental issues that have long plagued Iran. The World Resources Institute ranks Iran fourth on its list of the world’s most water-stressed countries, and floods caused deaths earlier this year.
“Aggressive water consumption and decreasing water availability increase desertification and other problems, such as declining groundwater tables, land subsidence, sinkholes, dust storms, biodiversity loss, wildfires, and so on,” Madani tells LobeLog. “The impact of global warming is not limited to less precipitation and increased temperatures. More frequent, intense, extreme events—such as droughts and floods—have been damaging to the urban, agricultural, and environmental sectors under the current management and with the existing infrastructure.”
Though Iran’s challenges with climate change are becoming dire, they by no means seem unique. Masoumeh Ebtekar, who led the Iranian Environment Department from 2013 to 2017, dubbed global warming “a serious threat for life on Earth” and the Middle East in particular in 2015.
Aliakbar Shamsipour, who heads the University of Tehran’s department of physical geography, notes that many government agencies are handling climate change in Iran, including the Iranian Agricultural Jihad Ministry, the Iranian Environment Department, and the Iranian Meteorological Organization. Nonetheless, environmental issues have sometimes overwhelmed officials in Iran. This year’s destructive floods forced the country to seek assistance from the United Nations.
“Both the managers and public were not prepared for such extreme floods,” Madani tells LobeLog. “The loss of institutional memory of the possibility of destructive floods in Iran from years of drought and water shortages made the floods more destructive.”
Some experts posit that U.S. economic sanctions, while aimed at the defense and petroleum industries in Iran, have restricted the country’s ability to respond to climate change.
“The American sanctions serve as a major barrier to the transfer of international environmental funds to Iran, but, more importantly, sanctions that target Iran’s economy prevent the country from moving away from its current, oil-based economy,” argues Madani. “Under the current conditions, Iran cannot really diversify its economy. Business as usual continues under the ‘resistance economy,’ limiting Iran’s capacity to apply major reforms to its development strategies and invest in climate change mitigation and adaptation.”
In October 2015, before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action lifted sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community, Tehran had already argued that the restrictions had hurt its environmental policy. As the newest rounds of American sanctions constrict Iran’s economy, the country’s leaders have again resorted to funding projects that strengthen economic development at the cost of accelerating climate change and overtaxing already-limited water resources.
“Certainly, American economic sanctions have a significant effect on reducing Iran’s ability to provide modern equipment and instruments for measuring accurate and efficient management of floods, droughts, and other atmospheric phenomena,” says Shamsipour. “It should be noted, however, that Iran has high technical capabilities and human expertise.”
Iran might be equipped with the sufficient scientific and technological capacity to meet the challenge of climate change. To use this capacity, the country’s environmental policy has to be adapted. A successful effort to prepare Iranians for global warming would likely require Iran to adjust its economic policy to the needs of environmental protection, a challenging task in a recession.
“As Iran’s economy weakens,” says Madani, “the country will be less likely to invest in renewable energy, modernize agriculture, and create jobs in the service and tourism sectors and alternative livelihoods for farmers already suffering from Iran’s water bankruptcy.”
Despite the logistical and political obstacles to environmental protection in Iran, Iranian officials can implement new policies and revise some of their current ones to limit the country’s own role in environmental degradation. Iran is already working to protect and repair several long-suffering forests, an initiative that it can expand to its ever-shrinking aquifers, lakes, and rivers.
“Iran suffers from environmental degradation that is largely homemade, consisting of water shortages, disappearing lakes and wetlands, polluted air, sandstorms, desertification, biodiversity loss, and shrinking forests,” says Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “If the root causes remain untouched, in the long run entire ecosystems risk disappearing and regions becoming inhabitable. As such, the ecological crisis has become a source of economic hardship, ill health, social disruption, and political protests.”
As big a distraction as the cold war between Iran and the U.S. presents, Iranian officials will also have to address the dangers of environmental degradation if they want to keep Iran from sliding into a permanent ecological crisis. Just this February, Iranian environmental scientists warned in Scientific Reports, “Iran is experiencing unprecedented climate-related problems such as drying of lakes and rivers, dust storms, record-breaking temperatures, droughts, and floods.”
The international political pressure can create obstacles and justify inaction. But like other countries in the Middle East, Iran needs to take urgent steps to combat climate change. Unfortunately, that remains unlikely until Iranian leaders realize that environmental degradation under climate change is a significant national security threat.
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.