After a summer officially deemed the hottest ever recorded, the impact of climate change in Iran has become impossible to ignore. From an intense summertime drought to a government-mandated shutdown in August triggered by an “unprecedented” heatwave, with the heat index reaching 158 degrees Fahrenheit along the Persian Gulf coast, Iran’s dire environmental situation underscores the urgent need for international climate adaptation even in countries where the climate agenda falls short.
Iran has yet to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement, but efforts to address the impact of climate change have great potential to create opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation, building on the recent trend of regional de-escalation and the China-brokered March 2023 normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. Climate diplomacy represents an untapped opportunity for Iran to engage globally by incentivizing it to adopt the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in exchange for sanctions or debt relief. Such a move would help to build regional trust, advance the SDGs, and boost shared climate resilience. This is especially important as Iran ramps up its focus on South-South cooperation to develop alternative trade relationships and foster greater economic multipolarity.
The assumption that Iran will not engage in climate negotiation because it is not a national priority is erroneous; Iran has both the need and desire for improved climate resilience due to the toll that the impacts of global warming are taking on its economy and climate, exacerbated by its history of resource extraction.
Beyond contributing to climate change, oil extraction in the Persian Gulf — by both Iran and its Arab neighbors — has also had drastic and devastating effects on the local environment for generations, ranging from pollution caused by wartime oil burning to oil byproducts entering Gulf waters, affecting biodiversity, marine ecosystems, and human water access. Notably, the largest oil spill in history occurred in the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq’s military deliberately poured nearly 11 million barrels of oil into Gulf waters, with both short- and long-term implications for marine life and ecosystem health. In fact, over 70% of Gulf coral reefs are now considered “effectively lost.” Human health effects on local communities from oil extractivism are documented but largely ignored; according to a 2022 BBC report on Basra, Iraq, another region of severe oil extraction at the head of the Persian Gulf, “cancer here is so rife it is ‘like the flu,’” affecting victims as young as 11 years old.
In 2021, Iran’s representative to the U.N. Climate Change Conference (26th Conference of the Parties, COP26), Ali Salajegheh, announced that Iran would join the Paris Agreement if economic sanctions were lifted, explaining that their devastating impact hinders progress on climate action. Iran sees the sanctions as “economic terrorism that has blockaded [them]” and blames them for the country’s lack of climate engagement.
Now that two of the largest oil producers in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have established a rapprochement, a new avenue for climate cooperation has potentially emerged. This opportunity for positive climate engagement could jumpstart Iran’s regional integration and allow for accountability on shared priorities, such as climate mitigation, adaptation, and natural resource management.
By developing alternative trade relationships, Global South states have the opportunity to increase their sovereignty over their natural resources, leading to more equitable resource exchanges that are not subject to Western-influenced global economic policies. Encouraging the growth of South to South natural resource trade can aid developing states in growing their domestic economies and averting unsustainable resource exploitation by foreign actors.
With climate financing efforts increasing globally, as evidenced by the recent Summit for a New Global Financial Pact in Paris, critical stakeholders from traditionally exploited states remain steadfast in seeking to eliminate the “remnants of decades of colonialism, imperialism and exploitation by a handful of dominant countries,” which both historically and currently constrain the climate action and resource extraction capacities of those countries. As a step toward climate equity, the summit moved to allow World Bank debt payment pauses for states affected by the climate crisis. This measure realistically addresses key obstacles for Global South states in their ability to achieve the SDGs. To take this a step further, the U.S. can incentivize mainstreaming SDGs in Iran and other similarly marginalized Global South countries by offering debt or sanctions relief to foster pathways towards regional and global climate action.
As global warming intensifies and Iran tries to strengthen its position as a Global South leader, the international community has a short window of time in which to engage Tehran to commit to the SDGs and thereby limit its unabated and environmentally damaging resource extraction. Iranian-Saudi rapprochement presents one such opportunity for alternative regulation and monitoring of SDGs by regional powers. Certainly, Iran is a large carbon emitter, non-party to the Paris Agreement, and defier of both international human rights and environmental protection laws, but it also faces key economic obstacles that prevent it from pursuing progress on the SDGs, which the international community needs to recognize. However, it is not a one-way street. To build enough good will to encourage debt relief or the lifting of international sanctions, the Iranian leadership will need to adopt a new, less bellicose foreign policy approach, both toward the region and the U.S. Emphasizing climate diplomacy as an area of mutual interest and benefit with Iran can facilitate regional trust, the achievement of the SDGs, and shared climate resilience goals.
Maia Golzar Anderson focuses on the intersection of human rights and climate change, transnational and diasporic politics, and international law. She served as a Research Assistant for the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute in 2022-23, where she researched environmental adaptation and climate diplomacy.
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