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.