Iran: From Nuclear to Water and Dust Diplomacy

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

In the post-nuclear deal era, Iran ought to devote considerable attention to the twin issues of transboundary water and dust issues, requiring skillful diplomacy.  The acidic combination of water shortage in some areas of Iran with the growing dust storms wreaking havoc on several provinces on a regular basis together form a major foreign policy challenge, in light of the fact that both issues concern relations with Iran's neighbors, e.g., Afghanistan and Iraq, and have both domestic and foreign sources.  

There are, of course, certain links between these two issues gripping Iran, which are both direct and indirect, such as the impact of desertification and drying up of some of Iran's lakes and rivers, deforestation, climate change, etc., yet as of this date a thorough and in-depth study of their interconnection is sadly missing. With respect to the water problem, according to some experts, the neglect and misuse of water supply networks as well as rising water demand fueled by economic growth and an expanding population are some of the root causes of this problem.  No doubt, some of Iran's own water and land management practices have worsened the environmental conditions exacerbating the dust storms that have impacted 23 of Iran's provinces, principally those in the south of the country.  Some of the dust storms originate in Iran and blow across the borders impacting Iran's neighbors, although neighbors such as Iraq are also to blame for their hazardous environmental practices that have triggered dust storms blowing into Iran's cities and rural areas, causing health problems and disrupting daily life.  According to studies done by the Iranian universities,  most of the dust storms originate in the deserts of Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

In turn, this calls for a new 'regionalization' of Iran's environmental policies that in the past have yielded certain results with respect to the Caspian Sea, e.g., the signing of an environmental protocol on the Caspian, which can be used as a reference point for similar initiatives vis-a-vis the dust storms.  Needless to say, this is not an easy task, given the sour relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the raging conflict in Syria, and Iraq's growing water problem as a result of Turkey's new dams diverting the waters from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Given the complexity of these two inter-related issues and the huge capital needed to redress them, Iran's dust and water diplomacy must be 'regionalist' through and through and, if need be, compete with the geopolitical and purely geostrategic considerations, although there is no tall wall among these issues and isolating them from one another is a definite political and diplomatic error.    For sure, Iran can no longer downplay the importance of these issues for the sake of geopolitical considerations, as has been the case for instance with Afghanistan, whose ambitious hydropower projects have resulted in a massive reduction of Iran's share of Hirmand river.  A new water-sharing agreement between Iran and Afghanistan is absolutely necessary, even though as of this date Kabul refuses to enter into any such agreement.  Pakistan too is severely water-stressed and is potentially interested in taking part in multilateral regional initiatives, perhaps under the rubric of ECO projects, given the shared membership in the regional organization, Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).  ECO's water resource development projects address the issue of water insecurity in the "ECO zone" and represent a lofty goal --  that depend on much greater allocation of resources as well as commitment for water-sahring among the members than seen so far.  Similar initiatives on dust storms are also needed on ECO's part.  Various international organizations can, of course, pitch in and contribute to the expansion of, e.g., feasibility studies, on both issues of water and dust insecurity.  

Within Iran, certain bureaucratic changes might be necessary, such as the creation of an inter-agency task force focused on these two issues of high concerns for the country's national security and future economic growth, which would then act as the fount of new policies. Both these are long-term problems that have the potential to exacerbate relations in the region and no quick-fix can solve them. Regional approaches to global warming and its potentially devastating effects on the (semi) arid regions of Iran are presently in the incipient stages and over time would need to be expanded considerably.  Iran's own water policy, featuring plans for several new desalination plants as well as new water channels, has to be infused with a huge amount of capital in order to be successful, otherwise the endemic water problems will grow over time, given the gloomy predictions of rising temperature, etc.  An apt initiative would be for Iran to select a "water Czar" above and beyond the present heads of the relevant ministries.  Such bold and timely actions complementing an energic water-dust diplomacy are unavoidable if Iran is serious about tackling what promises to be growing water-dust insecurity.

*More by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:
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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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