The Geopolitics of Iran in the Age of Climate Change

The recent Chinese brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia signalled a milestone in Middle Eastern politics. The two major powers of the region had drawn a line, at least temporarily, over a vicious proxy war (often fought tragically in Yemen), driven by a competition to become top dog in the region. Add to the mix an ancient religious animosity in the form of the Sunni – Shia split and the scene was set for conflict. For now hostility between the two states has waned, but it is far from over and tensions are sure to re-surface. 

Iran has a long and glorious history, tracing a linage to the ancient Achaemenid Empire, whose golden age long predates the rise of Rome. It largely escaped the attentions of the European colonial powers despite or perhaps because of its unique geography. Many countries are described as having a “strategic” position. But Iran truly lies at a crossroads between the Middle East, South Asia and China in the centre of Eurasia.

Despite its relatively underperforming economy, it plays an oversized role in regional politics thanks to its role as a thorn in the side of the US and Israel and its influence over other regional states such as Iraq. Russia has looked to Iran to supply drones for its war in Ukraine, while China sees a reliably anti-US friend with a useful supply of oil and gas.

Conflict with the US

For many years Iran has been defined by its opposition to the US. Undergoing many years of harsh sanctions designed to deter its development of nuclear weapons. The Obama era and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appeared to mark towards rapprochement between the two enemies. But the unexpected Trump administration reversed this, sending relations with Iran into deep freeze. Talks were unenthusiastically rekindled with the arrival of President Biden. But Iran’s lethal aid to Russia, rumours of (re)starting a nuclear weapons program and Teheran’s determination to be unmoved by foreign, especially western pressure has pushed the country towards Russia and China once again.

Iran can rely on its huge oil and gas reserves to cushion its economic malaise to an extent. But sanctions bite and non-western trade is no substitute for the supply of many goods. Iran’s alleged push for nuclear weapons is also anxiously watched by Tel Aviv. Israel sees a nuclear armed Iran as a major, perhaps existential threat. Rumours of explosions and attacks on Iranian facilities by Israeli forces have been floating around social media for months now.

Internal Strife

Despite its numerous geopolitical enemies, the Iranian Government faces a strong internal threat. The country’s vast, fast growing and young population are angry. The protests sparked by the killing of Masha Amini in 2022 were driven by a feeling of hopelessness, poverty, elite corruption, unemployment and a stagnating economy with little prospect of improvement. Last year the government managed to quell the protests, but not after they had spilled across the country in unpredictable fashion. The protests undermined the regime’s authority and placed the international spotlight on the country’s poor human rights record.

The current regime was built on the back of a violent revolution over 40 years ago, sparked by anger towards a corrupt state. The parallels with today must haunt Supreme Leader Ali Khameni and his government. But despite a long list of external and internal threats, Iran faces an even more implacable foe. A fast changing climate.

Climate Change in Iran

Climate change will push the country to the edge. Iran has always faced high temperatures, but now the heat records are falling rapidly. Extreme heat in 2022 pushed temperatures past 50 C making several Iranian cities virtually unliveable for days on end. Schools and offices closed and inhabitants were forced indoors to avoid the searing heat. Mortality rates for elderly soared and normal life ground to a halt as people focused on trying to stay cool.

Lake Urmia once the Middle East’s biggest has virtually disappeared as water demand plus climate change has pushing it to the brink. Other major water bodies such as Lake Bakhtegan in the south of the country Iran are also shrinking rapidly. No surprise then that Iran is undergoing a major water crisis – with supplies running dry in summer months in many cities. Paradoxically, floods are also a growing problem; a changing climate makes flash floods more frequent. 

This points to a bleak for the country as these extremes will only get worse. Climate change will create super-heated, unliveable cities in the summer. Crop yields will tumble as extreme heat and desertification make growing key crops such as wheat much harder. The combination of resource scarcity, furnace like cities and extreme weather events will impose a heavy human toll. In turn, social unrest is highly likely to increase, drought afflicted farmers, and overheated city dwellers already angry will vent their frustrations at an already unpopular government.

The Great Migration

The pressures of climate change will see massive internal and external migration. People leaving the countryside will put huge additional pressure on already overcrowded cities such as Tehran. While Iran may be a laggard, other countries are belated pushing ahead with net-zero plans. Moving away from oil and gas albeit slowly, threatens Iran’s main export – oil and gas. The country’s frozen, sanction hit economy makes it difficult to pivot to a new economic model. Iran’s ample sunshine makes it an ideal site for solar energy. But it is only slowly scaling up what could be a major industry.

Combating Climate Change

Iran has made little effort to combat climate change; it is the sixth biggest greenhouse gas emitter. The government has signed but so far failed so far to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement. Even neighbouring oil and gas giants Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others in the Middle East have announced on paper at least that they will become carbon neutral by mid-century.

The Iranian government could rightly point to sanctions as a block to reducing carbon reductions. A lack of access to renewable technology and finance has undoubtedly stymied growth of the sector. Iran’s vast oil and gas also offer little incentive to shift to renewables.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its disaffected populace and its conflict with the US and Israel are currently top of the government’s concerns. In the longer term unless Iran can transform its economy and prepare itself for climate change; it faces an unprecedented crisis. Iran is already facing severe social and political challenges and will claim it cannot afford to prepare for a climate change. However, the long term cost of inaction is far, far higher.

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