State Department Report 7: Iran's Environmental Issues

State Department sealOn September 25, the State Department's Iran Action Group released a report detailing Iran’s support of terrorism, missile program, illicit financial activities, threat to maritime security, threat to cybersecurity, human rights abuses, and exploitation of the environment. “Today, the United States is publishing a full record of the Islamic Republic’s hostile behavior abroad and its repression at home beyond the continued threat of the nuclear program,” wrote Secretary of State Pompeo in the report’s introduction. “It is important for the world to understand the scope of the regime’s recklessness and malfeasance.” The following is the section on environmental issues. 


Chapter Seven: Environmental Exploitation and its Implications for Iran 


Corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels of the Iranian regime have produced years of environmental exploitation and degradation throughout the country. Compounded by drought and rising temperatures, the unwillingness of Iran’s leaders to confront the challenges before them is moving the country toward environmental crisis. Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian geologist currently living in exile, remarked, “when people lose their lands they lose everything, and that means they aren’t scared of anything. The water crisis is real and killing the country today. There are bad agricultural policies and bad water governance. It is like a time bomb.” 

Limited access to water and poor air quality are among the top concerns for many Iranians today. As they speak out in growing numbers about these hardships, the regime has responded with force to stifle dissent and obscure its own corrupt practices. As one prominent Iranian scholar said, “the people at the top are too incompetent and too corrupt to care.” As a result, the situation is continuing to deteriorate while the Iranian people call on their government to take action. 

The regime’s failure to address critical environmental issues like potentially irreversible depletion of its water resources and air pollution strikes at the heart of its inability to respond to the broader needs of its people. As it throws billions into misadventures abroad fueled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it neglects the most basic needs at home, including the ability of its people to drink clean water and breathe fresh air. When Iranian activists mobilize to address what is among the most fundamental issue in any society, they are harassed, arrested or die under suspicious circumstances. 


The Iranian people feel the pain of this regime’s environmental mismanagement in many ways, but limited access to water is among the most pronounced. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations, water shortages in Iran are so acute that agricultural livelihoods are no longer sustainable. The regime’s failure to implement sound water policies has led to aquifers being depleted at potentially irreversible rates. The continued mismanagement is underscored by inefficient irrigation techniques, decentralized water management, continued subsidies for water-intensive crops like wheat (not least thanks to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary goal of achieving wheat self-sufficiency) and excessive dam building.  Iran’s history of unsustainable water use and groundwater pumping has been worsened by a 14-year drought, which, according to the director of Iran’s Drought and Crisis Management Center, affects approximately 96 percent of the country. 

The Iranian government has identified water as one of the country’s foremost problems but has failed to respond appropriately. President Hassan Rouhani has said the Iranian government will address the people’s grievances and in 2015, Supreme Leader Khamenei called on the government to “manage climate change and environmental threats such as desertification, especially dust pollution [and] drought.” A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander noted in a public speech in late February that water would play a key role for Iran’s national and regional security. However, despite public proclamations, little has been done to address the problem. 

The current water crisis should come as no surprise. Former Iranian Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari warned in 2015 that, if left unresolved, the water crisis would force 50 million (of a total 80 million) Iranians to migrate in the next 25 years. Reports estimate that well over 16 million Iranians have already fled the countryside and are now living in shantytowns, up from 11 million in 2013. Hardships resulting from a lack of water are often worst in rural areas, where Iran’s large, historically marginalized and oppressed ethnic and religious minorities reside. 

Even if the regime developed a sustainable policy agenda for its water supply, it is unlikely that it would be implemented due to rampant corruption – just look at the Iranian regime’s policy on dam construction. Since 1979, Iran has built about 600 dams, an average of 20 per year. By comparison, before the revolution, Iran had seven ancient dams and 14 modern ones. While it is unclear how much has been spent on the dam projects, much of the money is thought to have lined the pockets of IRGC affiliates. Abadollah Abdollahi, commander of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the IRGC’s engineering arm, said in December 2017 that 62 dams, accounting for half of Iran’s damming capacity, were constructed by his firm. Thanks to poor planning and years of drought, many of the dams have been rendered useless. In many cases, the dams have actually contributed to further environmental damage and the loss of much-needed water from already marginalized communities who live on the social and economic peripheries.

Many Iranians point to Lake Urmia in northwest Iran as an example of the regime’s mismanagement as well as its inability to change course. Once among the largest lakes on earth, Lake Urmia has shrunk considerably. According to reports, the government began building numerous dams around the lake in the 1990s, slowly siphoning off its water supply. The benefactors of these projects were contractors from the IRGC, individuals close to the Ministry of Energy, and large agribusinesses, who all got rich as the lake drained. The National Geographic said Lake Urmia now looks more like a crime scene, its beautiful waters that were once immortalized in Persian poetry turned to salt, which fills Iran’s asphyxiating dust storms. 

Air pollution also remains a severe problem in Iran. In Iran’s capital, Tehran, schools were closed for days in February 2018 because the amount of hazardous particles in the air were over nine times higher than WHO recommended amounts. Some politicians have even proposed relocating the capital due to Tehran’s air pollution. In September 2018, Tehran Municipality’s Deputy Director of Transportation and Traffic, Mohsen Pour Seyed Aghaei, said that the city’s air pollution costs Iran over $2.6 billion a year. According to a 2016 World Bank report, Zabol, Bushehr, and Ahvaz are among the most polluted cities in the world. For much of the year, Ahvaz is blanketed with yellow smog and its residents suffer from respiratory and skin ailments. Sand and dust storms, which hit Khuzestan particularly hard, are also a problem, worsened by the drying of surface waters, compounding grievances among an already aggravated population. The cost of the regime’s harmful environmental practices are not borne by Iranians and their land alone – air pollution knows no borders. 


Taken together, poorly implemented environmental policies, rampant government corruption, and an ineffectual response from the regime have upended the lives and livelihoods of millions, leading to protests throughout the country. These protests have been based largely in towns around central Isfahan and western Khuzestan province. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a leading NGO, said that towns and villages around Isfahan have been hit so hard by drought and water diversion that many have emptied out. In 2013, anger at the government’s plans to divert water from Isfahan led to clashes with police. A year later, the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce  reported that the drying out of the Zayandeh Roud river basin had deprived around two million farmers of their income. In January 2018, protests by farmers in the town of Qahderijan, near Isfahan, turned violent as security forces opened fire on crowds and killed at least five people. In March 2018, dozens of Isfahani farmers physically turned their back to the Friday prayer leader, a peaceful and powerful repudiation of the Islamic Republic. 

Khuzestan, an oil-rich province with a large population of ethnic Arabs, has suffered from largescale desertification, industrial waste, and excessive dam projects, which many have said were built only to benefit IRGC contractors. Recently, large protests have broken out in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province. Slogans by protestors outside the municipal governor’s office in February 2018 included, “Ahvaz is our city, clean air is our right,” and “breath, breath, breath, the least of our demands in the world.” A constant grievance of the Ahvazis is that their water is being diverted to projects that line the pockets of agribusinesses associated with the regime. Hundreds of Ahvazis have taken to the streets to protest the regime’s exploitation of their land and water. Many have been arrested, with reports of protestors being killed by security forces.

In June 2018, protests in Khorramshahr, a city also in Khuzestan province, turned violent with at least one protester reportedly shot. Clashes with security forces followed weeks of water shortages, in which the local population had no access to clean water. According to reports, local water supplies were undrinkable due to high salinity and mud content, making hundreds sick. According to Mehr News Agency, Khorramshahr’s water was too dirty even for cooking or laundry. The people were forced to buy water from the black market or stand in line in the sweltering heat for water tankers to arrive. The protestors chanted at one point that government officials were “useless” and “robbed us in the name of religion.” One Iranian political commentator writing on social media summed up the frustration, writing, “For how long should the people of Khorramshahr and Abadan scream they have no water? Their datetree farms have been destroyed, their wetlands have dried up and dust has injured their throats. They live next to three fresh water rivers and yet they have to buy drinking water.” 


As Iranians have become increasingly aware of the scope of their country’s environmental problems, the regime has cracked down on organizations working to address them. In late January 2018, Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian university professor and director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), along with dozens more environmentalists, were arrested. Seyed-Emami, accused of being a spy for the United States and Israel, later died in custody under mysterious conditions, which Iranian authorities attributed to suicide. In May 2018, more than 40 environmentalists, rangers and their relatives, many affiliated with PWHF, were arrested as part of the regime’s crackdown. Most remain unjustly detained or have been killed, a warning to all who once worked in this relatively safe and non-politicized field.

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