Climate change is slamming Iran especially hard, but to do anything about it, Tehran needs the sanctions to cease

David Rosenberg Dec. 28, 2021

Farmers protesting, demanding a dam be opened to relieve drought in Isfahan, November 2021
Farmers protesting, demanding a dam be opened to relieve drought in Isfahan, November 2021 Credit: Hamidreza Nikoomaram

We now know that sanctions haven’t forced Iran to come on hands and knees to the negotiating table begging to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement. Could the country’s environmental crisis, and the mounting threat of worse thanks to climate change, do the trick?

By any reasonable assessment, it should. That’s not because the ayatollahs who rule Iran are anything like tree-hugging environmentalists. It’s because the country’s worsening water shortage poses a severe short-term political risk; and climate change poses an even more severe risk for the long medium and term.

The question is whether those in power: 1) Fully recognize the depth of the problem they face, 2) If they do, think they can muddle through with a good cop/bad cop policy of apologizing for their (past) mistakes while violently breaking up protests and 3) Really believe it when they say that only by removing sanctions can they begin to address Iran’s environmental crises.

Before even trying to answer these questions (spoiler alert: the answer is I don’t really have one), let’s first look at the problems Iran faces.

Thirsty in Tehran

First and foremost, Iran has a problem with water. Decades of full-speed-ahead industrial development and the confidence that any water issues could be solved by technology, most notably damming rivers, have left Iran with a severe water deficit. It too, like so many nations, is pumping groundwater out of aquifers faster than rainfall can refill them.

The poster boy for this short-sighted policy is Lake Urmia, which was the sixth-largest saltwater lake on Earth before it shrunk by 90 percent due to damming and groundwater pumping. But the fact is that all across Iran the land is suffering from aridification, as expressed in desertification, severe dust storms, dried-up rivers and wetlands, and soil erosion.

Economic and environmental mismanagement certainly share the blame for this, but the fact is that Iran is feeling the impact of climate change at a fast and furious pace. And it’s only going to get worse: A recent model found that between 2025 and 2049, Iran is likely to experience more prolonged periods of extremely high temperature spikes, more extended periods of either drought or heavy rainfall, and a higher frequency of floods.

The water crisis isn’t just a technical problem. During 2021 this problem triggered at least two major protests, one that started over the summer in Khuzestan and spread to other provinces and a second last month in Isfahan. Both should be worrying to the Tehran leadership because they were led by small farmers who are traditionally apolitical and support the regime.

In contrast to their usual hardline attitude toward anti-government demonstrations by middle-class Iranians, the regime dealt relatively kindly with the protesters and even apologized for the lack of water. It shows how sensitive the ayatollahs are about who the protestors were. 

But that’s different from saying Iran’s leaders take the environmental crisis they face seriously.

Lake Urmia is drying up
Lake Urmia is drying up Credit: Getty Images

Who never showed up

Like many other world leaders, they say the right things at the right time. But actions, or more precisely the lack thereof, speak louder than words. Iran has never ratified the Paris climate accords and President Ebrahim Raisi failed to show up at this year’s Glasgow conference.

Iran has set very modest goals for renewable energy, which today account for just 1 percent of the total (ironically, most of this appears to be hydropower, at a time when there’s no water). Iran’s last pledge on green targets was made in 2015 and they were so modest that, even if they are adhered to, emissions in 2030 will be more than 400 percent higher than they were in 1990.

Taking serious steps to reverse the damage to the environment won’t be politically popular. Addressing the water shortage and climate change will inevitably involve painful choices in what is essentially a zero-sum game.

Reducing agricultural output, for instance, would help cut water consumption, but it would almost certainly lead to a mass migration of farmers to the cities, where there won’t necessarily be jobs for them (Iran’s official unemployment rate today is 9.6 percent and is probably much higher). That’s a recipe for anger and unrest. Iran subsidizes water and electricity, which encourages waste, but subsidy cuts for basics like that would inflame the public. The cut in the gas subsidy in November 2019 spurred protests that left hundreds dead.

In any case, the “resistance economy” Iran’s leaders aspire to flies in the face of good environmental policy. Resistance means producing more goods at home by building more factories and by making Iran food self-sufficient by growing more crops. The idea is to wean the economy off imports and foreign investment and make it sanctions-proof.

The problem is that more industrial production creates more greenhouse gases (as it is, Iran is the world’s sixth-largest emitter of C02 gases thanks to its big fossil fuel industry). Agriculture already uses 90 percent of Iran’s water and very inefficiently at that. The water crisis can’t be alleviated unless farm acreage is reduced.

If you take Iran’s leaders at their word, once sanctions are lifted, they do plan to commit to the fight against climate change. “For Iran to sign and commit, the first condition is for the oppressive sanctions to be lifted,” Ali Salajegheh, chief of Iran’s Environment Department, said at last month’s climate conference.

He has a point: Without Western technology and financing, Iran won’t be able to make the tech-heavy transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy, nor does it have the $70 billion it will need to pay the cost of meeting even its own modest greenhouse gas targets, much less addressing the water crisis.

The chances of Iran’s environmental crisis pushing it into a deal appear slim, but it’s possible that deep inside the corridors of power in Tehran they are giving it serious thought.

From the leadership’s perspective, the sanctions that Trump reimposed in 2018 had a silver lining in energizing the resistance economy and offering all kinds of new business opportunities for the Revolutionary Guards. It was a lose-win situation. True, the losers were ordinary Iranians, but they weren’t as important to the regime as the winners were.

The environment looks more like a lose-lose situation. The Iranian economy is in the doldrums and no one will benefit from aridification and climate change. The political unrest arising from worsening environmental conditions compounds the other threats the ayatollahs face from a discontented middle class and minorities, and leaves the regime even more friendless than it is now.

Sanctions weren’t enough, but the environment just might be enough to push Iran into a deal.