Iran’s Environment: The Grass Beneath Two Fighting Elephants

Image by Alosh Bennett via Flickr

by Fatemeh Aman

U.S. sanctions aimed at making Iran act like a “normal country” have had a disastrous effect on Iran’s environment and that of the entire region for generations to come.

A famous proverb of Kenya’s Kikuyu people warns: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” As the Islamic Republic’s hardliners and the U.S. Treasury Department fence with their tusks, Iran’s biodiversity and delicate ecosystems are being trampled underneath.

Iran’s disastrous management of water and environment need to be corrected urgently. The country needs regional and international cooperation and assistance more than ever before, and its public needs to be mobilized quickly to save what is left. There are major obstacles, however. The authorities either don’t understand the extent of the damage or must walk a fine line so as to not threaten the financial interests of those responsible for the catastrophe. Hardliners, a small but very powerful group, view any form of foreign cooperation and assistance as suspicious and espionage-related. More importantly, U.S. sanctions have targeted international cooperation and financial assistance to Iran that include some vital programs to save the environment.

International cooperation is also threatened by the U.S. administration’s efforts to isolate Iran over what it calls the country’s “regional activities.” Since it took office, the Trump’s administration has linked all regional and international cooperation with Iran to Iran’s presence in Syria. The result has been dire for Iran’s air and water. All international assistance and cooperation, if they involve U.S. funding, has been suspended.

For instance, the UN Development Program (UNDP) has funded several initiatives in Iran, including the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Program and the Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Program. Financial assistance from UNDP has been cut, which will have an adverse impact on the success of safeguarding endangered species. The World Bank, which committed more than $1.1 billion in the early 2000s—including support for management programs in the Alborz Mountains region in northern Iran—has not initiated new programs in Iran because of U.S. sanctions, which forbid U.S. support for multinational lending to Iran.

The European Union’s official policies currently do not follow the United States. However, European countries may decide to sever ties with Iran out of fear of retaliation from the United States or even just being portrayed as unreliable partners for U.S. companies. European businesses involved in Iran’s environmental sector can face sanctions. Restrictions on traveling to the United States will present an obstacle to participants who have traveled to Iran.

Given all these potential difficulties, why would Europe insist on continuing to cooperate with Iran? “The security of the region, and even global security, requires continuation of international engagement and cooperation and experience exchanges on the environment with Iran,” Susanne Schmeier, lecturer at IHE Delft, said at a recent Atlantic Council event. International cooperation with Iran is of huge importance and “goes far beyond internal politics within Iran,” she added.

Environmentalists Under Attack

Drought and lack of rainfall are important factors contributing to the current crisis. However, growing population, disastrous agricultural practices, poor water management, and aggressive groundwater withdrawal and dam building without proper impact assessment are the leading causes of the current water bankruptcy and socio-economic drought. But these are also political issues for they touch on the financial interests of powerful institutions. Companies linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been involved in dam-building businesses. The military has commandeered wildlife protected areas.

Conservationists and environmentalists are under enormous pressure and subject to mistrust and suspicion. Decades-long activities have suddenly become illegal.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor who ran the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), lost his life while in detention in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran in February. There are still environmentalists and conservationists in prisons. A brilliant Iranian scientist Kaveh Madani, from Imperial College in London, joined Hassan Rouhani’s government as deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment because of his belief that security in the Middle East and Iran is directly linked to water security. He came under the surveillance of the Iranian Intelligence Services and was eventually forced to leave the country under pressure from hardliners.

In an open letter, 800 Iranian environmentalists recently urged President Hassan Rouhani to defend the rights of detained colleagues. They expressed dismay and outrage that the legitimate activities of environmental organizations are suddenly labeled as “espionage and criminal,” even though they are “backed by the constitution.”

International institutions, such as the Middle East and North Africa Regional Integrated Development program (MENARID), which have conducted vital work in Iran, have also come under attack. Tehran’s Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi accused environmental activists in February 2018 of “creating crises in some environmental areas in Iran and [ultimately] sending collected data to the US” and accused MENARID of being directed by the CIA and the Mossad. An “expert in strategic affairs” explained in the hardline media that MENARID’s objectives are ultimately attempts “to put an end to Iran’s agriculture and create major issues with food and strategic goods.” This paranoia about food security, stemming from international sanctions, has exacted a heavy toll on the country’s water resources. To provide food security, more than 90 percent of the renewable water in Iran is used on agriculture with a very low efficiency that causes huge water losses.

In response to more sanctions and restrictions, Iran will probably adjust its economy to the new reality. The first victim of such a scenario will always be the environment. There will be more water and air pollution under sanctions, as there was before. The sanctions imposed by the Obama administration on Iran’s oil industry, especially on petroleum, had a disastrous impact on air quality. The intensity of restrictions is set to escalate exponentially under the Trump administration, which has made clear that it has no interest in policies to protect the environment and combat climate change.

Independent of Iran’s political system—and some of its disastrous policies in many parts of the world—what’s at stake is the very survival of innocent Iranian citizens, who have not been well represented by their government. But the consequences go beyond Iran. The impact of dust storms resulting from drying wetlands and disappearing lakes are not limited to within Iran’s borders. Water shortages and drought are not issues that Iran alone must address. The destruction of the environment and the loss of biodiversity have an adverse affect on the health and wellbeing of people throughout the region, and ultimately, threaten global security.

A Perilous Situation

Efforts to halt and reverse Iran’s environment degradation may not even be realistic, according to a recent report by the Atlantic Council. The crisis of Iran’s ecosystem is the result of decades-long damage. Desertification, deforestation, dust storms, air pollution, loss of biodiversity, ground-water overdraft, and shrinking lakes and rivers cannot be fixed easily and in the short run. These problems require great financial resources and the will to correct them.

More sanctions will dramatically accelerate the damage. How can the Trump administration purport to sympathize with the Iranian people and yet simultaneously accelerate the environmental destruction of the country? In the battle between Tehran and Washington, the environment is one of the first casualties. Having a safe and sound environment is a human right, and depriving Iranians of this is a violation of their rights.

The administration’s goal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated recently, is to push Iran to act like a “normal country.” No country, “normal” or otherwise, should be deprived of the chance of normalizing the quality of its water and air.

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).



  1. Fatemeh

    Do you seriously think that the sanctions placed on Iranians by the Ayatollahs is less than the sanctions placed by Trump?

    People are dying every day because of these monsters. Never before in the history of mankind has the world been so cruel to 80 million people.

    Iran is so isolated that no one cares. A group of children stuck in a cave had the whole world searching for answers, but no one cares about the dying Iranians.

    Why? Just look at the comments I get from fellow Iranians right here. This has been going on for forty years and the world has watched Iranians argue and throw horrid slogans at each other. We have become the laughing stock of the world. We cannot sort out our problems in a civilized way. Just watch this space.

    Anyway, the ancient Iranians knew more about irrigation than these monsters. Everyone knows what happens when you build too many dams. The water evaporates even more.

    Fact is that building contractors, who are mostly relatives of the Ayatollahs made a lot of money building those dams. They had no knowledge of the hydrology.

    Iran is suffering under the ignorance of xenophobic Ayatollahs. But Iran is suffering more from political discourse.

    For the sake of Iran let us just stop the politics and save Iran.

  2. Ali is right regarding the old wisdom of Iranians in water management but he doesn’t mention that the so-called white revolution which was directed under US advise and support was the turning point that started to degrade a thousands of years old agricultural and social management system. Even the Islamic revolution is one of the side effects of that ‘reform’ which was backed by US.
    Interestingly the Ayatollas were against that so-called reform!
    Ayatollahs are people like yourself that insist on an ideology! You are a Ayatollah in action without the dress when you insist to create a relation to them in every matter. I bet sure that you are son of an ayatollah yourself! Just changed the course but the same dogma that is searches always for an external enemy. Most world leaders are Ayatollahs in nature like Trump and Bush and Ayatollahism is the most widespread syndrome in political atmosphere! A shaved face and different dress doesn’t change anything inside the same way that it doesn’t create any relation between Ayatollahs and rightness.
    Self conscience is marked by self criticism and forgetting about the external enemies. Because then we will understand that no enemy could harm us more than what we have done and can do! Then we may find a way out of Ayatollahism paranoia!

  3. Today the average Iranian consumes 2x to 3x more water than international standards, and we have exiles trying to self-promote using droughts. Under the Shah, half the people in Iran were illiterate and most didn’t have clean running water at all. After the revolution, even though the population had tripled (due to a population explosion that started before the revolution) Iranians significantly improved their living standards, gained 22 years in additional lifespan, and a middle class came into existence with middle class consumption. Trying to accuse “the ayatollahs” for economic realities is just politics and opportunism.

  4. Cyrus, well said!
    Ali is fixated on Ayatollahs and not the people and he only has a one-liner with no document to support his claims! Unfortunately as a fake journalist in NE area he doesn’t even respect his own colleagues who do a lot of research to inform us of many critical situations! Haven’t seen any sign of appreciation other than being critical of the authors which is very telling!

  5. Ali, you are disappointingly outing yourself as a one-trick pony.

    We get it: you want the current ruling regime overthrown. To be replaced, no doubt, by a regime in your own image.

    If not a regime characterised by your own very senior participation.

    So good for you to be dangling your CV on these pages. It shows a noteworthy degree of determination, if nothing else.

    But, please, learn a few new tricks. We’ve all seen this one before.

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