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Environmental Issues in Iran

It is no secret that rising levels of carbon dioxide and atmospheric warming driven by industrial human activity has us headed towards a global climate crisis, if not amidst one already.1 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long warned that the ecological, economic, and social consequences of current industrial practices detrimental to the environment must change immediately if we hope to preserve the land available for habitation and the species living there, including us.2

Iran is no exception to these problems, and like anywhere else, it faces a unique set of challenges associated with changing climate which the Atlantic Council argues is reaching a “crisis point.”3 Recently, Iran has been subject to air and water pollution, deforestation and desertification, and loss of biodiversity, among other ecological issues.3,4 While aspects of these problems can certainly be attributed to global climate trends, ecologist David Laylin argues that it is also largely the result of mismanagement of the country’s natural resources.4 

Conservation efforts in Iran date back to the 1950s when, following World War II, some sportsmen became concerned for the modernized hunting activities occuring in the region. This led to the creation of the Game Council of Iran in 1957 under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, despite pushback from the public for regulation in this regard (largely because the wildlife was viewed as God-given).4 Eskander Firouz, a particularly wealthy hunter, was key to these movements through his work in implementing rich natural parks and species conservation systems (including one devoted to the Asiatic Cheetah, which was Bayani’s focus before her arrest). Such efforts continued with moderate-to-good success in the decades that followed, but management of natural resources deteriorated rapidly following the 1979 revolution.4 

The transition from the monarchy to the Islamist regime itself was damaging to conservation efforts in the country, as wars destroyed natural lands and pushed such issues off the agenda.5 During this time, the Department of the Environment (DOE) faced issues with inefficient water use and a lack of funding, due to domestic and international challenges putting priority in other governmental areas. Importantly, though, a lack of coordination between governmental agencies and academia worsened these issues and led to poor understanding of the growing climate crisis among the public.3, 4 For example, many wildlife-biology programs which taught conservation theory failed to provide education in its practical implementation, limiting the utility of such knowledge.4 

The result of this poor management has unfortunately been reflected in the deteriorating condition of the country’s natural resources and wildlife, which were once regarded as rich and plentiful. Poor sewage treatment, pesticide runoff, and oil spills have contributed to profound pollution of the country’s waterways, agricultural developments and increased demands have depleted the nation’s forests, and exploited water supplies have dwindled. These issues, coupled with the country’s growing population and loss of biodiversity, has brought Iran to a challenging position with regard to its environment.4,5

So, why have these issues not been addressed? 

Like any problem of this magnitude, the circumstances underlying it are complex. Distaste among the public and government alike for conservation movements in Iran can in part be understood through the prominence of US experts consulted by the DOE, given the countries’ tumultuous history.5 

It is also certainly due to fear on behalf of conservationists in the region, a trend for which Bayani’s case serves as a harrowing testament to its legitimacy. Many of the country’s wildlife biologists and conservationists have been imprisoned and/or tortured, often on false or fabricated charges. “Iran’s revolutionary guards and courts have effectively obliterated the civic space required for legitimate wildlife conservation,” according to Richard Pearhouse, head of crises and environment at Amnesty International.5 

Additionally, US sanctions on Iran have made it difficult for foreign participants to influence environmental efforts in the region.5, 6 Sanctions not only put pressure within Iran to divert funding to the more central components of its infrastructure, but also make it more difficult for leading companies in sustainability and conservation to do work in the region.6 Despite these challenges, there are many people both in and out of Iran working diligently to mitigate the climate crisis and to preserve the endangered species inhabiting the region. While these issues are undoubtedly complex, Kaveh Madani, an environmental scientist at Yale University, points out that the environment has potential to be a unifier,6 in which we can maybe take some solace on the issue.