Middle East

US sanctions cause environmental crisis in Iran

Air, water pollution, desertification, land degradation, biodiversity loss are among pressing environmental challenges in Iran

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 20.12.2019
US sanctions cause environmental crisis in Iran


Decades of U.S. sanctions have badly hampered Iran's efforts to address environmental challenges that could alter the country's economic, social and political landscape.

Air and water pollution, desertification, land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss are among the pressing environmental challenges in Iran.

Although the impact of U.S. sanctions has been widely documented, very little has been said about the myriad challenges it poses to the already deteriorating environment in Islamic Republic.

Researchers at the Center for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London acknowledge that sanctions do not independently cause environmental degradation in a targeted nation, but the secondary impacts of sanctions can inadvertently act as “catalysts” that lead to environmental issues.

Shirin Hakim, a PhD scholar at Imperial College London studying the impact of sanctions on Iran’s environment, says sanctions have gone as far to target critical sectors of the country’s economy, such as the energy, shipping, automotive, aviation and financial sectors, which are crucial to sustainable development and human prosperity.

"As a consequence of sanctions, Iran has been effectively severed from the international banking system and many of its crucial assets have been frozen abroad,” Hakim told Anadolu Agency.

"Furthermore, sanctions on Iran have contributed to the devaluation of its local currency, increased rates of inflation, and a significant decline in foreign direct investments, as many international companies leading in sustainable development technologies and expertise fear entering Iran at the risk of penalties from the US."

Biodiversity loss

At a time when the Iranian capital has been covered in the thick blanket of smog, the focus has again shifted to the severe environmental challenges facing the country.

Tehran now figures among the top ten most polluted cities in the world. However, pollution is not the only impediment to sustainable development in Iran.

"Water scarcity has entered a critical phase, partially due to decades of isolation, mismanagement of local resources and the consequence of prolonged drought," Hakim says.

Iran’s agricultural sector, she maintains, depends on "outmoded technologies and knowledge", both of which impede the country’s ability to effectively manage its transforming landscape.

The alarmingly increasing level of pollution in Tehran, she says, is due to "poor-quality petroleum and heavy industrial activity", while dust and sandstorms have also contributed to it.

"Iran is in the midst of significant biodiversity loss, land degradation, water pollution and desertification,” Hakim warns.

Experts believe that environmental future in Iran can be protected and preserved by the collaboration of public and private sectors. However, the sanctions play the spoilsport.

"When a country is battling sanctions, often bare necessities such as the supply of food, medical care and sustaining the local economy become priorities, and issues such as the environment lose significance,” says Hakim.

"Consequentially, we see the percentage of national budget dedicated to environmental efforts in Iran has declined, which leaves less funding for the preservation of biodiversity.

"Operating with fewer economic resources makes it increasingly difficult for the government to not only hire, but also provide employees with necessary equipment and monitoring technologies to preserve biodiversity,” she says.

In 2014, funding for a more than $7.6 million grant for several multiyear projects developed by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), a subsidiary of the World Bank, was blocked as a consequence of the U.S. sanctions. This funding was meant to cover projects for conservation of biodiversity in Iran.

Urgent measures

With the Donald Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, addressing environmental issues has become more challenging, Hakim opines.

However, Iran must fully recognize the trade-offs between its economy and environment.

"Much can be done to safeguard the environment by increasing education and accountability amongst the general public, assigning greater

budgetary allocations to environmental efforts and promoting the efficient use of natural resources," the researcher says.

Hakim believes that addressing Iran’s spatial distribution issues so there is less strain placed on certain regions of the country and upholding enforcement of existing environmental regulations can also help the effort.

She opines that less attention is paid to the impact of sanctions on the environment, because the association is not direct and more difficult to identify than other impacts directly associated with economic crisis, such as unemployment.

"Nonetheless, as we live in a world where the use of economic coercion and trade wars is increasing and combating climate change has been recognized as an issue of shared global importance, I envision more attention will be paid to the impact of economic tools, such as sanctions, on sustainable development,” says Hakim.

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