Iran’s environment has undergone a drastic transformation over the last century-plus. The environmental issues plaguing the country today did not exist at the turn of the 20th century. Iran had plentiful water, rich biodiversity, and did not yet suffer from air and water pollution, soil erosion, and desertification.
As population growth accelerated between the 1950s and 1970s, Iran’s environmental policies under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had both positive and negative attributes. On the positive side of the ledger was the Shah’s prioritization of conservation, despite popular resistance due to the prevailing ethos that fish and wildlife were God-given gifts to be pursued without regulation. In response to over-hunting and fishing, which threatened Iran’s abundant wildlife and biodiversity, the Shah inaugurated Iran’s first governmental-backed wildlife-conservation effort. In 1957, the Shah created the Game Council of Iran with the backing of a wealthy businessman who provided the majority of the funding.
A decade later, parliament expanded the Council’s mandate and increased governmental involvement, transforming the council into the Game and Fish Department of Iran. The newly empowered department created a basic administrative and regulatory framework for game hunting and fishing, and also established wildlife parks and protected areas. The Game and Fish Department’s strict enforcement allowed wildlife populations to rapidly increase.
In 1974, the government integrated the Game and Fish Department into the newly formed Department of the Environment (DOE), whose duties were analogous to those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Park Service. The DOE worked cooperatively with scientists from Colorado State University to establish best practices for hunting, using aerial monitoring technologies to set quotas for culling excess wildlife in protected areas. International sport hunters and local hunters paid for licenses which helped defray Iran’s conservation expenses, and meat from sport hunts was distributed among local villagers. As a result of these measures, “on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, Iran was reputed to have the best wildlife and natural-areas management in Asia, and a program that rivaled European ones,” according to an Atlantic Council report.
While Iran’s conservation record was a success under the Shah, his efforts to rapidly modernize and industrialize Iran gave rise to numerous other environmental issues. In 1955, the Shah inaugurated an ambitious Seven Year Plan for economic planning and development. The DOE sought to ameliorate the environmental impacts of the Shah’s plans, but his relentless focus on development ensured that environmental concerns were secondary to economic ones.
Iran built factories with little regard to air and water pollution and vehicles proliferated, also contributing to air pollution. The Shah’s economic planning was beset by an overarching belief in the superiority of Western technology and ideas, which resulted in the pursuit of numerous goals and projects that were not suitable to local conditions. According to Iran scholar Nikki R. Keddie, in many instances, the Shah pursued “large, impressive projects” over those that would “increase the output of the intensive labor of peasants, nomads, and small-scale workers” who had up to that point formed the backbone of the Iranian economy.
One of the more harmful environmental legacies of the Shah’s economic planning was an emphasis on massive dam construction for power generation and irrigation purposes. Under the Shah, 13 such dams were built. According to Keddie, the dams built by the Shah were “showy and spectacular,” but poorly planned and wastefully expensive. Moreover, the dams ultimately had utility only in power generation and not irrigation, because, as Keddie noted, “often, the subordinate local irrigation systems, without which the dams serve no agricultural purpose, were not built for years, if ever, nor have the areas been adequately studied to see if the planned types of irrigation and field allotment are suitable to the regions.”
Another harmful practice that the Shah advocated was the introduction and subsequent overreliance on modern, expensive Western agricultural equipment such as tractors and deep wells with motor pumps that proved deleterious for the local environment. The Shah had instituted a major land reform initiative in 1963 which redistributed large amounts of land previously held by large landowners into smaller farming units for peasants. The Shah sought in this manner to reduce the political power of the wealthy landowning class while at the same time co-opting the peasantry by increasing their reliance on the government. The Shah’s government favored the import of tractors for plowing farmland and subsidized the practice, in keeping with its belief that Western technologies were inherently superior. The use of tractors was unsuitable for Iran, an “arid country with few remaining forests and thin topsoil,” according to Keddie. The tractors over-plowed topsoil in many instances, often depositing it into rivers and streams, which increased flood risks and, in some cases, even altered the directional flows of rivers.
Deep wells with motor pumps caused further environmental damage during the Shah’s reign. Iran has traditionally relied upon underground water channels, known as qanats, for its irrigation needs. Qanats originated in Persia during the early first millennium BC and are a sustainable, non-ecological damaging method for harvesting and conveying water from aquifers situated on higher ground down to lower lying areas using gravity. While labor intensive, qanats allowed for water to be distributed equitably to landowners based on the size of their farms. Skilled managers, known as Mirabs, were responsible for ensuring fair distribution and ensuring that groundwater was not overly extracted from aquifers. The introduction of deep wells with motor pumps led to the Mirabs becoming functionally obsolete. As landowners sought to maximize profits, they abused the system by drawing increasing quantities of water from the qanats, significantly lowering the water table in many qanats. These unsustainable water extraction practices rendered many of the areas previously serviced by qanats uncultivable.
While the Shah’s counterproductive agricultural policies laid the groundwork for environmental deterioration in Iran, the environmental mismanagement and corruption of the post-revolutionary regime has exacerbated the situation to the brink of crisis.
The first factor negatively impacting Iran’s environment since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is rapid population growth. Iran’s population has grown precipitously since the turn of the 20th century, a trend which has especially accelerated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In 1900, Iran’s population was under 10 million. At the end of 1978, on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s population sat at just under 36 million people. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s population has more than doubled and, according to the most recent estimate by the CIA World Factbook, now sits at over 82 million. Iran’s clerical leadership has encouraged this population boom and advanced policies to facilitate it, paying scant regard to the profoundly deleterious ecological effects and strains on natural resources engendered by rapid population growth and the attendant wide-scale modernization of the country.
Iran has many environmental stakeholders, both within the government at the DOE, Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Agriculture, and outside in the private sector and academia, who are aware of environmental best practices. However, due to corruption and mismanagement, Iran has steered a perilous course to the brink of an environmental crisis. A confluence of intertwined policy missteps by Iran’s revolutionary government have led to the current state of play.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Iran’s leadership was consumed first with consolidating the Islamic Revolution, and then with the brutal Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980-1988. Iran’s precarious domestic stability and regional position were the highest priority, and environmental concerns largely fell by the wayside. The government has severely underfunded the DOE as a result, and the department has further suffered from a series of incompetent and/or corrupt managers, although President Hassan Rouhani has succeeded in placing technocrats at the DOE since assuming the Presidency in 2013.
Another factor in the environmental deterioration has been the regime’s prioritization of self-sufficiency in food production since the Islamic Republic’s founding. The notion of food independence fit within revolutionary Iran’s anti-colonial ideological paradigm which eschewed reliance on Eastern or Western powers. The government’s preference for food self-sufficiency also grew in concert with Iran’s increasing international isolation as a result, first, of the Iran-Iraq War and, later, of mounting sanctions over its illicit nuclear program and human rights abuses.
The regime courted farmers, many of whom were harmed by the Shah’s agricultural policies, as a base of political support. Peasants and displaced farmers sought to occupy and expropriate the land of large corporate farms created under the Shah, labelling the owners as un-Islamic. The revolutionary regime tacitly backed these tactics and were quick to label any activity to rein in farmers as counterrevolutionary, but the unrest served to dissuade would-be investors whose funds were needed to modernize Iran’s agricultural sector.
In the post-revolutionary climate of lax environmental enforcement, the regime myopically encouraged farmers to increase crop production with scant regard paid to sustainability or environmental consequences. According to Nikahang Kowsar, an expatriate Iranian environmentalist with a background in water management policy, “After the 1979 revolution, a large number of farmers chose to dig secret wells, extracting water by night and concealing the wells during the day. Many inspectors either consciously ignored the excessive use of water or were bribed to do so.” According to official statistics, there are 750,000 operational deep wells in Iran, 330,000 of which are illegal.
Agricultural mismanagement has heavily stressed the country’s water resources, portending a water-insecure future for Iran. The regime granted subsidies on both food production and consumption, driving farmers to grow lucrative, yet water-intensive crops such as wheat and rice that were ill-suited for Iran’s arid climate and also artificially drove up demand for these and other staple crops. It would have been cheaper and more sustainable for Iran to import foodstuffs such as cereal grains and beef, while instead focusing on growing crops suitable for arid climates such as rapeseed and canola.
Iran’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90% of the country’s water usage yet generates only 15% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Despite the push for food self-sufficiency since 1979, Iran still only domestically produces 66% of the food it consumes and must import the rest. Outmoded farming and water extraction methods, as well as poor agricultural decision-making, are largely to blame for these inefficiencies. Iran’s water efficiency rate sits at 30-35%, well below the global average of 75% efficiency.
Iran heavily subsidized electricity and diesel gas for farmers, who responded by wastefully turning and leaving on diesel pumps, even when their fields did not need irrigation. Iranian farmers largely rely on flood irrigation, which wastes approximately 65% of the water used, rather than more efficient methods such as drip irrigation or greenhouse farming. Iranian farmers frequently irrigate their crops during daylight hours, when evaporation is highest.
Iran’s agricultural mismanagement has gravely stressed the country’s water resources. The culture of excessive and often illegal, but officially ignored, over-extraction of groundwater has grave implications for Iran’s water future. Iran has extracted 70% of its groundwater, and the depletion of the water table has left much of the remaining groundwater brackish and unusable. 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% and nearly double the usage of the next closest country, Egypt.
According to a report put out by the Center for Naval Analyses authored by retired U.S. military officers, “since the 1979 revolution, the per capita quantity of Iran’s renewable water supplies has dropped by more than half, to a level commonly associated with the benchmark for water stress.” An Iranian environmental official noted in July 2018 that Iran’s renewable water resources have dwindled from 132 billion cubic meters 50 years ago to less than 100 billion cubic meters today, with over half of the depletion occurring in the last five years.
The over-construction of dams for irrigation and hydroelectricity generation has also been responsible for Iran’s deteriorating environment, as its revolutionary leadership has haphazardly sought to divert water to benefit favored constituencies irrespective of environmental impacts. Iran’s policy of reckless dam construction is borne largely out of a desire on the part of the Supreme Leader and his allies to placate Iran’s elite special military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
One of the most significant lasting consequences of the Iran-Iraq War was the empowerment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The war transformed the IRGC from a hastily organized militia into one of Iran’s most powerful institutions. The IRGC emerged from the crucible of the war as a formidable fighting force with considerable organizational and engineering prowess. Under orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the IRGC formed a civil construction and engineering arm after the war called Khatam al-Anbiya (Seal of the Prophets), which helped secure the IRGC’s entrenchment and continued relevance even in peacetime.
In 1989, following the war’s conclusion, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president and tasked with rebuilding the country. Rafsanjani encouraged Khatam al-Anbiya to partner with his government for the rebuilding of Iran. Khatam al-Anbiya’s move into civilian enterprises expanded its influence and economic portfolio as it took on lucrative post-war reconstruction projects. Fueled by Khatam al-Anbiya’s profits, the IRGC has taken on an outsized role in the militarization of Iran’s economy and the organization effectively operates as a state within a state, accountable only to Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Both Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani sought to build patronage links to the IRGC, and as a result, Khatam al-Anbiya began winning tenders and bids to build dams, expanding upon the legacy of showy dam construction inaugurated under the Shah. Another beneficiary of the boom in dam construction has been Mahab Ghodss, an engineering consulting firm that has supervised the construction of hundreds of Iranian dams. Mahab Ghodss is linked to Iran’s largest charitable holding foundation, Astan Quds Razavi. Astan Quds Razavi is a bastion of support for Iran’s hardline clerical establishment. The revenues generated by dam construction help Khamenei keep his core constituencies, the IRGC and hardline clerical establishment, satiated, incentivizing their continued loyalty to Khamenei.
Whereas 13 dams were constructed during the Shah’s reign, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary government that succeeded the Shah has built over 600 dams in its nearly four decades in power, massively accelerating the environmental deterioration that began under the Shah. Iran today, the world’s 18th most populous country and 18th largest nation in terms of land area, stands as the world’s third largest dam builder.
Iran’s emphasis on dam building has been carried out in a reckless and corrupt manner. The combination of stakeholders in Iranian dam projects has created a perverse incentive structure whereby dams are commissioned regardless of utility or environmental impact. According to Nikahang Kowsar, Iran’s “construction boom was spurred by consulting firms, politicians, and parliamentary candidates who saw large infrastructure projects as a way to consolidate their political support. The bigger the dam, the longer they would hold office.”
In an in-person interview, Nikahang Kowsar explained the corrupt process by which Khatam Al-Anbiya imposes its will to force through construction projects. Khatam al-Anbiya provides a livelihood for 135,000 employees. The size of its labor force gives Khatam al-Anbiya political clout, which it has abused to secure backing for dam construction projects, as well as road building and energy field development. There is little to no accountability in the process. Khatam al-Anbiya insists that the people need a dam and it will be good for the environment. The regime has effectively neutered Iran’s primary environmental stakeholder, the DOE. The DOE often raises environmental concerns over dam projects but has little recourse through the judicial system to prevent Khatam al-Anbiya and the IRGC from carrying out massive projects. At times, the regime will commission an environmental study, but will then impose an arbitrary deadline. When the DOE fails to complete the study on time, Khatam al-Anbiya and its partners will simply construct the dam without the DOE’s approval.
In a phone interview, water expert Seth Siegel further elaborated on why the DOE has failed to gain traction in petitioning the government to uphold its environmental concerns. Even in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, which is the closest analogue to Iran’s DOE, does not have the unrestrained ability to regulate environmental policy. Industrial and defense/military priorities must be weighed against environmental concerns, generally leading to compromise which upholds basic standards of environmental compliance. In Iran, however, there is a complete mismatch between the government’s priorities and the wellbeing of the population at large. The government places its thumb on the scales to ensure that the financial interests of a handful of players close to Supreme Leader Khamenei in the leadership of the IRGC and hardline clerical establishment take precedence over environmental concerns. In a similar vein, the IRGC has been permitted to conduct military exercises in protected areas over the protestations of concerned environmental stakeholders, leading to the degradation of Iran’s biodiversity. Iran’s unfair and corrupt system has effectively legitimized the structural destruction of Iran’s natural environment by powerful constituencies such as Khatam al-Anbiya and Mahab Ghodss.
Iran’s harmful agricultural policies and reckless over-construction of dams have had deleterious environmental and ecological impacts around the country. The large number of unnecessary dams, coupled with the government’s deliberately permissive attitude toward the 330,000 illegal wells, has led to the depletion of over 300 of Iran’s 609 aquifers and blocked the rivers that historically replenished them.
The depletion of Iran’s aquifers has had severe follow-on effects. According to environmental experts Kaveh Madani, Amir AghaKouchak, and Ali Mirchi, Iran faces “drying lakes, rivers and wetlands, declining groundwater levels, land subsidence, water quality degradation, soil erosion, desertification and more frequent dust storms” stemming from drought conditions combined with the over-abstraction of water from aquifers.
Iran’s environmental mismanagement has particularly impacted Khuzestan province, which borders Iraq in Iran’s southwest and is primarily inhabited by Arab citizens. The regime has diverted much of Khuzestan’s water resources to favored populations in cities such as Qom, Isfahan, Yazd, and Kerman, leading to the depletion of Khuzestan’s wetlands and rivers. As a result of this drying out, formerly fertile farmland is becoming increasingly inhospitable to crops and desertification of the province is taking root. The lack of moisture is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of sand and dust storms in the province. Before the revolution, the province had one dam, but now has over 14. One such dam, the Gotvand, was built on salt beds despite prior research indicating that constructing a dam in the area would adversely affect the salt concentration of the Karun River which flows from the Gotvand dam. As a result, the salinity of the local water in the city of Abadan is equivalent to seawater, which has led to rationing of drinking water and forced factories and farms to shut down. Over 80,000 residents of Abadan have migrated away from the city just in the past year.
Another visible effect of Iran’s environmental crisis is the drying up of rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Lake Urmia in Iran’s northwest was once one of the world’s largest salt lakes, but during the Rafsanjani presidency, Iran constructed a number of dams that cut off the waterflow to the lake despite the warnings of environmentalists. The dams and prevalence of illegal wells has led to the shrinking of Lake Urmia to 5% of its previous volume and contributed to toxic dust storms due to the remaining salt residue. Similarly, Lake Bakhtegan, previously Iran’s second largest lake, has dried up and turned completely into a salt desert due to the regime’s excessive damming of the Kor River, which reduced water flow and increased the river’s salinity.
The Zayandeh Roud River previously flowed from Iran’s Zagros Mountains through the city of Isfahan before its terminus south of Tehran, serving as the main water source for a string of farming communities along its path. The river also fed the Gavkhouni wetlands, a 470-square kilometer swamp that was home to a large migratory bird population. Drought and political decisions to divert its water to water-intensive factories have largely dried up the Zayandeh Roud in recent years. Farming towns along the river have had to cease agricultural activities as a result, impacting the livelihoods of thousands of citizens. Formerly lush fields and wetlands have transformed into desiccated, salty fields, leading to increased sandstorms.
The depletion of Iran’s aquifers has also led to land subsidence, soil erosion, and the degradation of previously arable land. Land subsidence, when the ground sinks, occurs due to over-extraction from aquifers when, according to Nikahang Kowsar, “the weight of the earth and soil above causes the land to collapse. This destroys the land’s ability to hold water, turning the entire area into a desert.“ Major cities such as Tehran face increased risk of sinkholes and earthquakes due to land subsidence, imperiling critical infrastructure such as bridges and high-rise buildings. According to Issa Kalantari, a former Minister of Agriculture and current head of the DOE, Iran risks losing 70% of its farmland in the next 20-30 years due in large part to soil erosion, another effect of aquifer depletion.
Iran also faces widespread social upheaval due to its environmental mismanagement. Air pollution, dust storms, lack of potable water, and improper usage of wastewater to treat crops have all had deleterious public health impacts. Many farmers, herders, villagers, and rural citizens have lost their lands due to lack of water. The draining of aquifers and desertification have driven millions of farmers and villagers to take up residence in shantytowns and ghettoes on the margins of larger cities. In 2015, DOE head Issa Kalantari warned that water and environmental degradation may ultimately displace as many as 50 million of Iran’s current 83 million residents.
While climate change factors such as decreasing precipitation and declining snow storage on Iran’s mountain peaks have played a role, the Iranian regime’s policy missteps, mismanagement, corruption, and failure to adapt are primarily to blame for the country’s protracted environmental crisis. Numerous experts have advised Iran’s leadership on best practices to follow and issued warnings of the consequences to come, but the regime has ignored their protestations. The Stanford 2040 project, for instance, urged Iran to deemphasize its policy preferences for food self-sufficiency and population growth. There have been no encouraging signs that the regime seeks to discourage population growth however, as politicians dare not question one of Khamenei’s signature policies. Instead, Iran’s leadership has enacted a campaign to increase the population to 150 million by 2050 and sought to restrict access to family planning measures.
Experts have also suggested investing 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. However, the IRGC has resisted this approach since its leadership would be unable to profit as it does from dam construction.
Iran’s water issues are similar to those faced by the drought-plagued American southwest. The United States should offer the prospect of water cooperation and investment to incentivize Iran’s leadership to return to the negotiating table in order to work out a comprehensive treaty covering Iran’s illicit nuclear program as well as its hegemonic regional agenda and destabilizing ballistic missile pursuits. The Trump administration should target messaging directly to the Iranian people through platforms such as Voice of America – Persian News Network and Radio Farda letting them know that the government and people of the United States stand ready to help the Iranian nation contend with long-term drought conditions, adapting to climate change, and upgrading and helping maintain water infrastructure and governance.
Such a campaign would pose a stark choice to Iran’s leadership; it can either commit to governing in its peoples’ interest and ameliorating the impending environmental crisis or prioritize preserving and exporting the Islamic Revolution at the nation’s expense.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has found surprising success with targeted outreach to the Iranian public. In June 2018, Netanyahu released a video message to the Iranian people declaring Israel’s readiness to share its technological prowess and innovations in fields such as wastewater recycling and drip irrigation to help Iran overcome its water challenges. The video received hundreds of thousands of views in Iran and was widely covered in the state-controlled media. Over 100,000 Iranians joined the Israeli government’s Farsi Telegram channel immediately after the video was uploaded.
The regime was quick to cast aspersions on Netanyahu’s appeal. Iranian Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian responded, “The prime minister of this regime [Israel] or any other person who claims to have the ability to manage water resources is aware that Iran is among the countries whose several-thousand-year record of water management has been recognized, and we can be a source for other world regions in this regard and promote methods to cope with water shortage and optimum use of water.” His statement distorted the reality that Iran’s current revolutionary regime has erased Iran’s historical provenance of skilled water management and demonstrated that Iran’s leadership is unwilling to accept the outside technological skill and assistance it will need to overcome its destruction of the nation’s environment.