By James M. Dorsey
Iranian leaders are struggling, three months after anti-government protests swept the Islamic republic, to ensure that environmental issues that helped sparked a popular uprising in Syria in 2011 leading to a brutal civil war don’t threaten the clergy’s grip on power.
Like Syria, Iran has been confronting a drought that has affected much of the country for more than a decade with precipitation dropping to its lowest level in half a century. Environmental concerns have figured prominently in protests in recent years, often in regions populated by ethnic minorities like Azeris, and Iranian Arabs.
Unrest among ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of Iran’s population, takes on added significance with Iran fearing that Saudi Arabia’s activist crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s antipathy towards the Islamic republic bolstered by the appointment of a hardliner, John Bolton, as the president’s national security advisor.
Mr. Bolton has called for regime change in Iran, aligning himself with a controversial exile opposition group, while Prince Mohammed is believed to have tacitly endorsed thinking about stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities even if he has yet to decide whether to adopt subversion as a policy.
Iran has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia in the past year of supplying weapons and explosives to restive groups like the Baluch and the Kurds.
Yet, concern about environmental degradation and its potential political fallout goes beyond fear that it could facilitate interference by external powers. Demonstrators in the province of Isfahan last month clashed with security forces after they took to the streets to protest water shortages. The protest occurred some three months after Iran was wracked by weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
The protest was the latest in a series of expressions of discontent. Anger at plans in 2013 to divert water from Isfahan province sparked clashes with police. The Isfahan Chamber of Commerce reported a year later that the drying out of the Zayandeh Roud river basin had deprived some 2 million farmers or 40 percent of the local population in the Zayandeh-Roud basin of their income.
“Over 90% of (Iran’s) population and economic production are located in areas of high or very high water stress. This is two to three times the global average in percentage terms, and, in absolute numbers, it represents more people and more production at risk than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa,” Al-Monitor quoted Claudia Sadoff, director general of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, as saying.
A panel of retired US military officers noted in December that “since 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. Even more troubling, in large swaths of the country, demand for fresh water exceeds supply a third of the year. Fourteen years of drought have contributed to the problem, as has poor resource management, including inefficient irrigation techniques, decentralized water management, subsidies for water-intensive crops like wheat, and dam building. As a result, parts of the country are experiencing unrest related to water stress.”
By identifying water as one of the country’s foremost problems, the government recognized that mismanagement leading to acute water shortages risks becoming a symbol of its inability to efficiently deliver public goods and services.
The government has sought to tackle the issue by promoting reduced water consumption and water conservation, halting construction of dams, combatting evaporation by building underground water distribution networks, introducing water metres in agriculture, encouraging farmers to opt for less water-intensive crops, multiplying the number of treatment plants, and looking at desalination as a way of increasing supply.
With agriculture the main culprit in Iran’s inefficient use of water, Iranian officials fear that the crisis will accelerate migration from the countryside to urban centres incapable of catering to the migrants and, in turn, increase popular discontent.
A US study suggested in 2015 that decades of unsustainable agricultural policies in Syria; drought in the north-eastern agricultural heartland of the country; economic reforms that eliminated food and fuel subsidies; significant population growth; and failure to adopt policies that mitigate climate change exacerbated grievances about unemployment, corruption and inequality that exploded in 2011 in anti-government protests in Syria.
The Syrian government’s determination to crush the protest rather than engage with the protesters sparked the country’s devastating war, currently the world’s deadliest conflict<.
“We’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change, caused the uprising. What we are saying is that the long-term trend, of less rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor, because it made the drought so much more severe.” said Colin Kelley, one the study’s authors.
“The uprising has…to do with the government’s failure to respond to the drought, and with broader feelings of discontent in rural areas, and the growing gap between rich and poor, and urban and rural areas during the 2000s, than with the drought itself,” added Middle East water expert Francesca de Chatel.
Adopting a different emphasis, Ms. De Chatel argued that demonstrations in Syria, despite the drought, would not have erupted without the wave of protests that by then had already swept the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and subsequently toppled the leaders of Libya and Yemen.
She asserted further that the protest movement-turned-war in Syria would not “have persisted without input and support from organised groups in Syria who had been planning for this moment for years and certainly since before 2006 or the start of the drought.”
For Iranian leaders, the threat is real irrespective of the difference in emphasis between Mr. Kelly and Ms. De Chatel. Former Iranian agriculture minister Issa Kalantari warned in 2015 that left unresolved the water crisis would force 50 million Iranians to migrate in the next 25 years.
In other words, the environmental crisis that drives migration and unemployment and fuels discontent risks political upheaval. Similarly, multiple groups and external powers have for years contemplated regime change in Tehran.
The issues that were at the core of the initial protests in Syria in 2011 – unemployment, corruption and inequality – were at the heart of Iranian anti-government demonstrations in December and January.
Despite a renewed focus on the water crisis, the government’s Achilles Heel could prove to be the fact that its response has included shooting the messenger who bears the bad news as environmentalists increasingly find themselves in the firing line.
Authorities arrested in January Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian-Canadian nation who directed the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists. It asserted two weeks later that Mr. Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel.
Three more environmentalists were arrested a month later while Mr. Seyed-Emami’s wife was prevented from leaving Iran.
State TV subsequently reported that Mr. Seyed-Emami and his colleagues had told Iran’s enemies that the country could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of water shortages and needed to import food.
Said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst: “Public opinion has become sensitized to environmental issues. So the government may see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as problematic.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom