Skip the War, Save the Environment

In the past few months, President Trump has withdrawn from the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran, re-imposed sanctions, and threatened to bomb Iran on Twitter. But while many have written on the military, humanitarian and economic impact of war with Iran, not much has been said on how it will impact the environment. A look into America’s past wars offers disturbing insights into what the disastrous environmental impact of war with Iran could have.

The first threat to the environment is oil. During the Persian Gulf War, oil refineries were the target of constant bombings and over 700 oil wells were destroyed in Kuwait alone. Over the years, the equivalent of 60 million barrels of oil polluted the soil, driving air toxicity to hazardous levels. In Baghdad, air pollution reached 705% of pre-war levels. Given that Iran’s oil reserves exceed those of Iraq and Kuwait, the potential fallout of an Iranian war could be even greater.

Burnings and bombings are symptomatic of modern warfare. Both release hazardous compounds in the air, and are a primary contributor to the increased frequency of wildfires in the region. During the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban became notorious for its “scorched-earth” tactics, meaning that they burned anything potentially useful to the enemy. As a result, the nation lost a substantial percentage of its forests to combustion––a disruption in the ecosystem that, on top of worsening air quality, led to the deaths of countless endangered animals.

Iran already suffers from severe environmental stressors and a war could be the breaking point. The region’s air is dense with pollutants, especially in cities. The country faces severe drought and an ongoing water shortage, with Lake Urmia, the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, having shrunk 90% since the 1970s. Instead of cracking down on these issues, the Iranian government’s response has been to jail and exile its scientists––both local and foreign––for “spying”, among other bizarre accusations. It is nothing short of naive to believe that during wartime, when these respective crises are escalated, there will be any significant allocation of government resources into the environment rather than the war effort. If a war takes place in Iran, the government will either be apathetic to the cause, or could collapse entirely as happened in Iraq.

Already, continued international isolation and conflict with the U.S. has exacerbated the situation. In 2010, when Obama’s international sanctions coalition was at its height, Iran was no longer able to import refined oil. As a result, the nation needed to refine its own oil quickly and cheaply to keep up with the rising demand. Carbon emissions skyrocketed, causing immense damage to the environment.

Climate change is a global issue––war never stays confined to one space, and always outlives its time. In Syria, six million Syrians have fled the country since the beginning of the war, entering other nations in a way that isn’t sustainable to their respective societal infrastructures and provoking right-wing backlash. A war in Iran, exacerbating pollution and water shortages, will likely also produce an exodus of refugees. Given that Iran is over four times more populated than Syria, a refugee crisis of similar proportions would put further strains on political systems and humanitarian resources.

War is already a horror, but when factoring in the environmental devastation, there is one more reason for policymakers in Washington and Tehran to avoid it.

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Arvin Hariri
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