Turning the Tide: How U.S. Sanctions Could Affect Environmental Policy in Iran
Severe flooding battered Iran this week. First, heavy rainfall triggered floods in northern Iran from March 19-20. The disaster killed at least five people and affected more than 56,000 throughout Mazandaran and Golestan provinces. The Iran Meteorological Organization (IRMO) had previously warned that areas in western and southwestern parts of Iran may be vulnerable, and their predictions were proven true when more heavy rains caused flash flooding in Shiraz—killing at least seventeen people and injuring seventy-four on March 25.
As floodwaters in Iran’s north begin to recede, the tide of political fallout is just starting to rise. The Iranian President’s first deputy Eshaq Jahangiri traveled to Golestan to reassure its residents of the central government’s support, then promptly fired the province’s local governor, who was vacationing abroad at the time of the flooding and did not return until several days after the disaster. Though vacationing at the time of the flood, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered that relief efforts be sped up, and subsequently dispatched Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli to Golestan and Mazandaran. However, Iran’s flood problem does not only affect individual regions.
Flooding has significantly increased in Iran over the past several years, as have flood-related fatalities. Floods in Iran’s northwestern regions in April 2017 killed forty people. Thirty more were killed in the same area during floods in 2018. This week’s floods have now affected six of Iran’s thirty provinces.
Deforestation in northern Iran is at least partly to blame. Thirty-three percent of forest in Iran’s north has been destroyed, according to state-run media. Logging, both legal and illegal, civil projects, agricultural development, overgrazing, and wildfires are some of the biggest culprits. The issue has not yet become a mainstream debate in Iranian politics, but a group of ten local Ministers of Parliament officially accused President Rouhani of neglecting the issue in December.
Iran attempted to combat deforestation by implementing “breathing” project, an initiative that would allow forests to regenerate by spacing out the use of their resources. However, enforcing the limits has been a challenge. Part of the problem is a shortage of manpower to guard the forests. Organized illegal logging rings often sneak into forests at night to cut trees, and then smuggle them out of the country to sell. Levying effective penalties is also a struggle. The fine for cutting an oak tree, for example, is 4 million rials ($80), but each tree will sell for 20 million rials ($400). As a result, a logger will not even begin to lose money unless their ratio of failure to success exceeds 5:1.
As the risk posed by flooding becomes more economically acute, Iranians could be in for a policy change. Last week’s floods in Golestan and Mazandaran are estimated to have cost 16.5 trillion rials ($392 billion) in the agricultural sector alone. Extensive damage to roads could mean that productivity will decline long term. In light of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s agricultural trade, Iran is relying even more heavily than usual on domestic farming to feed its population. Iran’s Deputy Agriculture Minister reported earlier this month that 83 percent of the energy and calories needed for the country is provided domestically, and less than 15 percent of agricultural products and food stuff are imported.
Any threat to that 83 percent, such as costly flooding, now threatens Iran’s ability to withstand U.S. sanctions. As a result, natural disasters could be more readily viewed as a security issue. Though the international community is increasingly regarding problems like food security and natural disasters as security threats, it is difficult to prioritize these problems alongside traditional security issues such as terrorism, and international conflict. Iran now finds itself in a relatively unique position of being able to explicitly link an environmental problem to an ongoing political conflict, and change its environmental policy in the name of national security. Whether or not it will actually do so is difficult to predict, but no matter what, Iran’s response to increased flooding will have considerable impact on its dispute with the U.S.