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. The Shah prioritized conservation, despite popular resistance due to the prevailing ethos that wildlife were God-given resources to be exploited without regulation. In response to over-hunting and over-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 financial backing of a wealthy businessman.
A decade later, parliament expanded the Game 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 department’s strict enforcement allowed wildlife populations to increase rapidly.
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 prioritized economic considerations over environmental 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 unsuitable 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 the Shah advocated was the introduction and subsequent over-reliance on modern, expensive Western agricultural equipment, such as tractors and deep wells with motor pumps, that harmed the local environment. The Shah 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 simultaneously co-opting the peasantry by increasing their reliance on the state. 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 overplowed 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 BCE and are a sustainable, non-ecologically 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 respective sizes of their farms. Skilled managers, known as mirabs, were responsible for ensuring fair distribution and 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 of them. 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 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 almost 85 million. The regime has implemented policies that encouraged and facilitated this population boom and, consequently, the country’s attendant wide-scale modernization, paying scant regard to the resulting deleterious ecological effects and strains on natural resources.
Iran has many environmental stakeholders, both within the government at the DOE and the energy and agriculture ministries, and in the private sector and academia, who are aware of environmental best practices. However, due to corruption and mismanagement, the regime 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 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s leadership was consumed first with consolidating the revolution, and then with the brutal Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Iran’s precarious domestic stability and regional position were the regime’s highest priority, and environmental concerns fell by the wayside. The government has severely underfunded the DOE, 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 his position in 2013.
Still, Rouhani’s expert bureaucrats faced a losing battle when it came to challenging the supremacy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and were largely ineffectual at implementing changes that would set the country on a more sustainable path. Rouhani fell largely out of favor with Supreme Leader Khamenei during his second presidential term, further imperiling needed environmental reforms. During the Rouhani administration, the regime continued to act in favor of protecting the IRGC’s short-term profit motives and provided an inequitable distribution of water and other resources to industry and other favored constituencies, leading Iran further down the road toward environmental calamity.
In recent years, Supreme Leader Khamenei has embarked on a project to cement his legacy and ensure Iran’s domination by fellow hardliners for years to come by filling the ranks of the Islamic Republic’s bureaucracy with a younger cohort of committed ideologues who also had technocratic expertise. Since the August 2021 accession to the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi, the shakeup of the bureaucracy has kicked into overdrive. Raisi has named Ali Salajegheh as the new vice president for the environment. Salajegheh is an academic who has a doctoral degree in water resources engineering and previous experience as deputy agriculture minister and managing director of the Forests, Rangelands, and Watershed Management Organization during the Ahmadinejad administration. While the new class of bureaucrats may be aware of environmental best practices, their ideological commitments raise questions over the degree of IRGC influence moving forward. Furthermore, environmental activists argue that the DOE does not have the authority or resources to implement these practices. Stakeholders whose primary commitment is to environmental concerns risk being shut out from the conversation, if not violently suppressed.
In early 2022, controversy has already erupted over a petrochemical plant’s construction in Miankhaleh. It is slated to be constructed next to a nature reserve, which has sparked outrage from activists. The Raisi administration has reportedly come out against the project and the judiciary issued an order to halt the construction. But the governor of Mazandaran Province; the Friday Prayer imam, who is appointed by the supreme leader; and the speaker of parliament, who has deep ties to the IRGC as a former commander, have all expressed support for the project and its development is continuing despite the suspension order. The fate of this project will be a test of environmental policy under the Raisi administration.
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, labeling 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 percent of the country’s water usage, yet generates only 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Despite the push for food self-sufficiency since 1979, Iran still only domestically produces 66 percent 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 percent, well below the global average of 75% percent.
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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 authored by retired U.S. military officers and put out by the Center for Naval Analyses, “[S]ince 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 in 2018, 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 Ali Khamenei and his allies to placate Iran’s elite special military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
One of the most significant lasting consequences of the Iran–Iraq War was the empowerment of the IRGC. The war transformed the group 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 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 the Supreme Leader.
Both Khamenei and 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, a bastion of support for Iran’s hardline clerical establishment. The revenues generated by dam construction help the Supreme Leader keep his core constituencies, the IRGC and hardline clerical establishment, satiated, incentivizing their continued loyalty to Khamenei.
While 13 dams were constructed during the Shah’s reign, the Islamic revolutionary government has built over 600 dams in its four decades in power, massively accelerating the environmental deterioration that began under the Shah. Iran today, 18th in the world in population and land area, is the world’s third largest dam builder.
Iran’s dam building has been carried out with recklessness and corruption. 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 interview with UANI, Kowsar explained the corrupt process by which Khatam Al-Anbiya forces 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 or 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 department 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 then impose an arbitrary deadline for completion. 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 an interview with UANI, water expert Seth Siegel further elaborated on why the DOE has failed to gain traction in petitioning the government to incorporate its environmental concerns into public policy. Even in the U.S., the EPA, the closest analogue to the DOE, cannot regulate environmental policy without restraint. However, Industrial and defense/military priorities must be weighed against environmental factors, generally leading to compromises 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. The regime places its thumb on the scales to ensure that the financial interests of a handful of leading IRGC officials and clerics close to Supreme Leader Khamenei trump environmental concerns. Similarly, the IRGC has been permitted to conduct military exercises in environmentally protected areas over the protests of concerned stakeholders, leading to the degradation of Iran’s biodiversity. The Islamic Republic’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.
The government’s harmful agricultural policies and reckless over-construction of dams have harmed Iran’s environment and ecosystem. 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. 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-removal of water from aquifers.
Iran’s environmental mismanagement has particularly hurt Khuzestan province, which borders Iraq to 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. Consequently, formerly fertile farmland is becoming increasingly inhospitable to crops, and provincial desertification 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; now it 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 and residents to leave. According to a June 2018 news report, over 80,000 residents of Abadan migrated 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 (1989–1997), Iran constructed a number of dams that cut off the waterflow to the lake, despite the warnings of environmentalists. According to one estimate, over 50 large dams have been constructed in the Lake Urmia catchment area. The dams and prevalence of illegal wells has led to the shrinking of Lake Urmia to five percent of its previous volume and contributed to toxic dust storms due to the remaining salt residue. The airborne salt threatens surrounding farmlands, livestock, livelihoods, and the health of the area’s inhabitants. 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 infrastructures such as bridges and high-rise buildings. According to Issa Kalantari, a former agriculture minister and current head of the DOE, Iran risks losing 70% of its farmland in the next 20-30 years due largely to soil erosion, another effect of aquifer depletion. According to Dr. Abbasali Nobakht, the head of the Natural Resources and Watershed Management Organization, Iran will face water stress by 2025 and water scarcity by 2040.
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 has 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. In 2021, approximately 41,000 people were displaced from their homes due to drought, sand, and dust storms, floods, natural disasters, and land degradation. Climate migration is most pronounced in Khuzestan, Lorestan, Isfahan, Hamedan, Kerman, Yazd, and Sistan and Baluchistan.
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. One scientific report describes human activity as the chief cause of droughts in Iran, specifically “aggressive, short-sighted, and unsustainable land and water management.” 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.
The structure of Iran’s government institutions has worsened the environmental crisis, particularly when it comes to water management. Reaching back to the Ahmadinejad era, competition among provinces for access to water resources intensified, as water management boundaries were delineated along provincial boundaries rather than watershed boundaries. To make matters worse, regional offices of the DOE were subordinated to provincial governors rather than DOE leadership, hindering centralized policy coordination.
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 work out a comprehensive treaty covering Iran’s illicit nuclear program, as well as its hegemonic regional agenda and destabilizing ballistic missile pursuits. The Biden administration should target messaging directly to the Iranian people through platforms such as Voice of America–Persian News Network and Radio Farda, letting Iranians know that the government and people of the U.S. 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; commit to governing in its people’s interest and ameliorating the impending environmental crisis, or prioritize preserving and exporting the Islamic Revolution at the nation’s expense.
Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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. Then 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 revolutionary regime has erased the country’s historical provenance of skilled water management and is unwilling to accept the outside technological skill and assistance it will need to overcome its destruction of the nation’s environment.
Eye on Iran is a news summary from United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a section 501(c)(3) organization. Eye on Iran is available to subscribers on a daily basis or weekly basis.
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