Islamic Republic’s Lasting Legacy Will Be Destruction of Iran’s Environment


Iran’s revolutionary regime, which marked its 40th year in power in February, has achieved global notoriety for its nuclear program, repression of the Iranian citizenry, and support for international terrorism. The Islamic Republic’s most catastrophic and enduring legacy, however, may be the war it has waged against Iran’s environment, which threatens to make Iran largely uninhabitable.

December 28, 2018 marked the one-year anniversary of Iran’s new protest movement—one that has focused on pocketbook issues. In the past fourteen months, demonstrators primarily hailing from marginalized communities have kept up sustained protests against the regime’s economic mismanagement, corruption, unjust labor practices, rising inequality, inadequate provision of social services, and lack of attention to infrastructure needs.

Environmental deterioration is another salient, lesser-understood factor undergirding Iran’s domestic unrest. Although environmental considerations are rarely the direct causal factor behind protests, they act as a force multiplier—an added combustible ingredient on top of the Iranian citizens’ social, political, and economic grievances. Indeed, a significant portion of the protests that have gripped Iran in the past year have taken place in areas hit by environmental maladies caused by the regime’s mismanagement.  

A new report from United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) chronicles the extent of Iran’s environmental deterioration due to the regime’s policy missteps. Among the multi-pronged, interconnected environmental challenges facing Iran are widespread drought, air and water pollution, soil erosion, toxic sand and dust storms, desertification, and loss of cultivable farmland. However, the three most salient factors underpinning Iran’s mounting environmental crisis are the regime’s agricultural policy mismanagement, reckless dam construction, and its disregard of technocratic expertise.

Agriculturally, since the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s leaders have emphasized self-sufficiency in food production, pushing farmers to grow water-intensive crops ill-suited for Iran’s arid environment despite experts cautioning that it would be cheaper and more sustainable to import key foodstuffs like cereal grains and beef.

In pursuit of the chimera of food self-sufficiency, Iranian officials knowingly turned a blind eye as farmers have extracted 70% of the nation’s groundwater. The subsequent depletion of the water table has left much of the remaining groundwater brackish and unusable. In October, the head of Iran’s Department of the Environment, Issa Kalantari, warned that up to 70% of Iran’s cultivable farmland may be lost over the next 20 to 30 years if Iran maintains its current course. 

Due to Iran’s unsustainable and wasteful farming practices, the country is the world’s worst offender in terms of consuming its renewable water resources. Iran uses an estimated 81% to 92% of its renewable water, well above the international recommended guideline of 40%. As a result of this agricultural negligence, Iran’s renewable water resources have dropped to the level commonly associated with water stress—which is when water demand outpaces supply—portending an insecure water future.

The haphazard manner in which Iran’s revolutionary regime has proliferated massive dam construction projects for irrigation and hydroelectricity generation has placed further stresses on Iran’s water resources and has led to severe follow-on environmental consequences. Since assuming power, the Iranian regime has built over 600 dams in an effort to divert water to benefit favored constituencies irrespective of environmental concerns.

The large number of unnecessary dams, coupled with the government’s deliberately permissive attitude toward farmers’ over-extraction of groundwater, has led to the depletion of over 300 of Iran’s 609 aquifers and blocked the rivers that historically replenished them. Iran today faces the drying up of lakes, rivers, and wetlands; land subsidence; water quality degradation; soil erosion; desertification; and more frequent dust storms as a result of these policy missteps.

Numerous Iranian environmental experts and activists have warned that the regime’s mishandling of environmental and water resources is setting the nation on an unsustainable, calamitous path. The Iranian regime has disregarded their protestations and expert advice and responded instead with repression.

Experts such as Kaveh Madani, an American-educated water management expert who was recruited by Iran’s Rouhani administration to reverse Iran’s water shortages, have advised that Iran should invest in aquifer management as a panacea for Iran’s water crisis. This cheap and easy alternative to environmentally destructive dams would enable Iran to store 30 billion cubic meters of water each year for current and future use.

Madani’s technocratic advice was ignored, however, due to the corrupt incentives undergirding Iran’s over-construction of dams. Dam construction in Iran is virtually exclusively the domain of Khatam al-Anbiya, the civil engineering and construction arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s political survival is predicated on his patronage links to the IRGC, and lucrative, no-bid dam construction contracts have been vital to grease the wheels.

Worse still, the IRGC embarked on a harassment campaign against Madani and his family that led to him fleeing the country in April. Madani’s advice threatened the IRGC’s profits, and for that reason, he was unable to proceed in his mission to improve conditions in his homeland.

In a similar vein, in January and February of 2018, the IRGC arrested 13 environmental experts and wildlife preservation activists, many of whom were current and former staff of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. The experts had installed cameras on U.N.-protected environmental preservation areas in order to monitor plant and animal life and report back their findings to the U.N.

The IRGC, which frequently carries out military activities on protected lands with little regard for environmental considerations, accused the detainees of spying on their ballistic missile program on behalf of U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. The IRGC’s claim was absurd on its face, as the cameras were only able to film short distances of 50-60 yards. According to a report in an opposition website, the true motivation behind the IRGC’s targeting of the activists was their opposition to the IRGC’s efforts to install missile silos and related military equipment on the U.N.-protected environmental preserves.

The IRGC Intelligence Organization has held the detainees in its wing in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where they have suffered from mistreatment and abuse. The IRGC has denied the detainees visitation with their families and lawyers. In June, two of the detainees reported suffering a nose injury and broken teeth. In October, five of the detainees charges were reportedly upgraded from espionage to “corruption on Earth,” a capital offense.

The most prominent of the detainees, Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen and managing director of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation, was declared dead on February 9 under suspicious circumstances. A Judiciary spokesman declared his death a suicide several days later before an autopsy was even conducted. Since his death, Emami’s family has faced ongoing harassment and persecution by the Iranian regime, including raids on their home, long interrogations, and prevention from fleeing Iran.

In the end, Iran will not be able to evade the environmental consequences engendered by its mismanagement and ineptitude through repression. Iran’s environmental deterioration not only entails numerous risks to public health but also threatens national cohesion. The situation facing Iran is reminiscent of that which faced Syria in the run-up to the current civil war, a conflict that has been exacerbated by environmental factors. As in Iran, a million Syrian farmers and herders were forced to the margins of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs in the years preceding the war due to drought, resulting in societal cleavages and resource competition that contributed to the outbreak and intractability of the Syrian civil war. This ominous precedent should loom large for policymakers. The environmental consequences and ensuing political backlash will catch up to them.

The prioritization of short-term regime survival and profits over environmental concerns has brought the Islamic Republic to the brink. As a result, the lives and livelihoods of 50 million Iranian citizens at risk of displacement are being held hostage to the corrupt motives and incompetence of the ruling regime. Absent an urgent course correction, the Islamic Republic’s ultimate legacy may be the destruction of the proud Iranian nation.

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).