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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisSanctioning the Environment: Why US Foreign Policy has Failed Iran and Iraq

Sanctioning the Environment: Why US Foreign Policy has Failed Iran and Iraq

“Swimming is prohibited, danger of drowning”: written on the billboard near Hajiabad Dam located at South of Khuzestan Province bordered with Iraq. Source: Mojtaba Gorgi, Feb 2017, IRNA.

By Barney Bartlett, Shirin Hakim, Karen MaKuch


US foreign policy has long failed the environment along the Iran-Iraq border. American efforts to stabilize Iraq have countered its actions across the border in neighbouring Iran, which has centred around the use of coercive measures for decades. This polarization in US foreign policy has overlooked the environmental inextricability of the resource abundant Iran-Iraq border, inadvertently contributing to instability in the region. 

Whilst Iran and Iraq are home to unique historic and cultural contexts, the social, economic, and environmental realities of these neighbouring states are much the same. Both countries are facing ongoing issues with water scarcity, the mismanagement of local resources, climate change and increased political dissent amongst locals. Due to the inseparability of Iran and Iraq’s environmental security, the environmental ramifications of stringent US sanctions against Iran are spilling into and exacerbating existing challenges in Iraq.

The Biden administration now has an unprecedented opportunity to place climate policy at the forefront of American policymaking, both at home and abroad. This will necessitate a serious re-evaluation of US soft and hard policy tools that inadvertently undermine sustainable development. This is exemplified in this work through the examination of economic sanctions and their inadvertent environmental impacts, using Iran as an example.

Results discuss how US sanctions policy has long overlooked environmental concerns. Recommendations are intended to guide future US foreign policymakers on methods to mitigate the potentially deleterious impacts of sanctions in a target state, minimize confrontations and promote sustainable development on an international level.


Amongst the many tasks of the incoming Biden administration will be moving the United States towards an ambitious new climate agenda, a feat that will require a radical transformation of thinking and practices across all areas of American policymaking. To actualize global leadership in climate policy, it is integral that this transformation is not limited to domestic affairs, but that environmentally conscious policy decisions are integrated into how the US acts abroad through its foreign policy agenda. To do so will require not just engagement in diplomacy with a climate focus, but a total re-evaluation of America’s hard and soft foreign policy tools, namely economic sanctions.

In the post-Cold War era, economic sanctions emerged as the US foreign policy instrument of choice, often viewed as an effective alternative to conventional war. However, the impacts of these restrictive measures on the population of a target state have been compared to that of war, including but not restricted to, increased levels of poverty and significant declines in the GDP per capita of the target state. In recent years, this foreign policy tool has been met with increasing criticism for its unintended humanitarian impacts on target nations.

The unintended impacts of sanctions on the environment of a target state are clearly visible in the case of Iran, a nation that has been subject to incessant economic pressure – mainly by the US for over four decades. Today, Iran is struggling to manage domestic social and economic distress, partly provoked by the ramifications of prolonged sanctions on the state and battling an ever-worsening environmental crisis. Moreover, the early onset of the Covid-19 virus in Iran has strained its already fragile economy to a breaking point

Iranian policymakers have increasingly acknowledged the understudied association between economic sanctions and environmental decline, citing sanctions as an impediment to Iran’s pursuit of sustainable development and the safeguarding of its natural environment. Despite a growing awareness of the unintended humanitarian impacts of sanctions on targeted nations, US policymakers have consistently overlooked the secondary environmental consequences of this coercive tool in sanctioned states, demonstrating a serious failure in US sanctions policy. 

President-elect Biden has promised to redesign US policy on Iran, in particular, the punitive use of unilateral sanctions employed under Trump’s presidency. In doing so, the incoming administration has a unique opportunity to set a crucial precedent of placing global climate strategy at the forefront of American foreign policy. Biden’s recent appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate envoy, a newly established role, already illustrates the importance of climate change to this new administration. Kerry, who served as the chief architect of the Iran Nuclear Deal and signed the Paris Climate Accord on behalf of the US, may inspire the integration of climate diplomacy on multiple fronts in future US policymaking. 

Source: Secretary Kerry Introduces Vice President Biden at the 2016 Chief of Missions Conference

Following the implementation of the Iran Nuclear Deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under President Obama in 2016, it was anticipated that sanctions relief would allow Iran to engage in a much-needed exchange of knowledge, capital and technology. This would ultimately be to the benefit of the country’s environment, which has suffered from outdated and inefficient industrial and agricultural practices. But under the Trump administration, such prospects became more and more illusory, culminating with the United States unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA and embarking on the “Maximum Pressure” campaign against Iran in 2018. 

Ever since, Tehran has been subjected to arguably the most testing economic sanctions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, manifesting in severe economic, social and environmental tolls on the country, seemingly without prompting a desired change of behaviour from Tehran. Although the Trump administration has consistently claimed its “Maximum Pressure” campaign was “targeted at the regime, and not the people of Iran”, the reinstatement of sanctions under this administration targeted critical sectors of the country’s economy, such as the energy, shipping, automotive, aviation and financial sectors, which are all crucial to sustainable development. In fact, the ramifications of sanctions on Iran have even extended as far as impeding Iran’s ability to receive grants for environmental efforts from international funding institutions, such as the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), a subsidiary of the World Bank. Furthermore, sanctions have hindered Iran’s ability to acquire essential dual-use items, like relief choppers for disaster risk management

Iran and Iraq’s Environmental Security: Bound Together by Fate

Though much of the blame for Iran’s current environmental predicament must be attributed to endemic oversight and issues of mismanagement on the part of Iranian policymakers, it is undeniable that sanctions against the Islamic Republic have had damaging secondary consequences on the local environment, which has endangered not just Iran, but also neighbouring countries, namely Iraq. 

Despite the interconnectedness of the environment of the two nations, Iraq has been subject to a completely polarized form of US foreign policy from that of Iran. Since 2003, Washington has channelled billions of dollars into Iraq – providing $345 million in humanitarian aid alone in 2020 – to promote recovery and pursue economic and political stability. 

From a policy perspective, US objectives in Iraq are heavily contingent on its aims concerning Iran. Whilst the US is working to stabilize Iraq, its presence in the country also provides it with key leverage in negotiating with Iran. This is why disputes between the US and Iran escalate endemic tensions in Iraq, recurrently aggravating existing discord between Iraq’s fragmented political factions and leaders. The prioritization of US policy goals in Iran over Iraq has “resulted in a zero-sum game”, where the advancement of security and economy of both Iran and Iraq have become inextricable. Thus, as US sanctions on Iran continue to indirectly provoke environmental insecurity locally, the ecological and national security of Iraq could be equally compromised.

The land straddling the Iran-Iraq border is abundant in natural resource wealth. The area has been long prized for its vast oil and gas reserves, as well as home to the most fertile and valuable agricultural lands in both countries. In recent decades, local resources have been plundered by both nations with little regard for the environment – most notably the ecologically and biodiverse Mesopotamian Marshes, a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important ecoregion fragmented across both nations. As a result, this formerly revered “cradle of civilization” is now increasingly desolate and parched.  

On the Iranian side of the border lies the industrial province of Khuzestan, which has suffered badly from the country’s environmental troubles. Since the 1970s, an aggressive history of dam building married with a programme of river water transfers has significantly decreased river flows and the province’s formerly expansive fertile marshes and cultivable land are drying up. Heavy winds carry dust particles from these drying waterbeds that coalesce with emissions from heavy industrial activity in the province, creating some of the most polluted air in the world.1 The growing spectre of food, water and clean air insecurity is escalating tensions in a province that has historically chafed with Tehran, and in recent years, Khuzestan’s provincial capital of Ahvaz has witnessed protests of increasing regularity and severity. 

Across the border in Iraq, a very similar situation is at play, whereby the quality and quantity of water entering the country has been drastically impacted by Iranian activities upstream. Falling river flows are drying up the country’s fertile marshes and cultivable regions in the south-east. Vast areas of previously fertile land are fast becoming arid, increasing rural poverty, which has collectively created a suitable recruiting ground for extremist groups. As rural opportunities decline, many are migrating to over-populated cities, increasing tensions and placing pressure on the country’s already failing urban infrastructure. In the south-eastern city of Basra, water shortages and contaminated drinking water have created undue strains on the country’s crumbling healthcare system, triggering widespread violent protests in 2018. 

Decades of US sanctions against Iran, the legacy of the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, and ongoing conflicts in Iraq have hampered the ability of each nation to effectively address its respective environmental challenges, most prominently water scarcity. These factors, when compounded with transformations in local demographics, recurrent droughts, the mismanagement of regional resources, and the effects of climate change, have collectively left unforgiving impacts on the local environment

Iranian policymakers are largely to blame for the reckless pursuit of accelerated national development under such strict economic constraints. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that Iran had diminished autonomy in its decision making under the plight of coercive and restrictive sanctions. Prolonged economic sanctions on Iran limited the nation’s access to resources, compelling it to pursue a programme of self-sufficiency. In an attempt to pursue rapid industrial and agricultural development, Iranian policymakers overextended the nation’s finite domestic water resources, critically destabilizing the environment.

Meeting of Senior officials of the Environmental Protection Organization headed by Iranian Vice-President Eshagh Jahangiri (right) and Isa Kalantari (left), Iran’s Head of Department of Environment. Source: Office of Vice-President of Islamic Republic of Iran.

Though the environmental security of Iran might not strike American policymakers as of utmost importance, attention must be given to the fact that the inadvertent impacts of Iran’s environmental struggles range well beyond the nation’s national boundaries and have potentially grave implications for local and international security. This is especially important, as climate change is emerging in the policy realm as a security ‘threat multiplier’ – especially in developing states and conflict zones.

In recent years, it has become more apparent in both academic and policy communities that global linkages, socio-political change, human mobility, urbanization and climate change are interrelated realities that can no longer be viewed in silos. Namely, extreme climate events, such as droughts and floods, have the potential to significantly impact water resource management, agricultural yields, and critical infrastructure in vulnerable regions of the world, which can contribute to significant difficulties for communities living in such contexts. Whilst there is no direct causal link between environmental damage and economic sanctions, in the case of Iran, sanctions can be similarly viewed as a “catalyst” in promoting environmental degradation with local, regional and global implications. 

Accordingly, US efforts in Iran and Iraq appear to have been largely counterproductive upon examination of the myriad of environmental, social and political issues along the Iran-Iraq border. The pursuit of short-term power and political gains have superseded intermediate and long-term interests in sustaining some of the region’s most important ecological resources. Seeing as the environment is now increasingly viewed as a matter of shared responsibility on an international level, the US cannot continue to overlook the environmental footprint of its foreign policy. 

Though man-made borders divide the shared natural resources of Iran and Iraq, it goes without saying that the fate of the environmental securities of both nations is inseparable. The significant human and financial costs made by the US and its allies to stabilize the socio-political situation in Iraq are being carelessly undermined by American sanctions in neighbouring Iran, which has contributed to environmental strife now affecting both nations. 

A Roadmap for a More Sustainable and Secure Tomorrow

Moving forward, it is imperative that environmental considerations be placed at the forefront of US foreign policy to mitigate their unintended repercussions. When dealing with Iran, US policymakers must place heightened consideration on understanding the potential humanitarian and environmental costs of sanctions before implementing a new policy agenda. In the same vein, Iranian policymakers should be more cognizant of their decision-making under sanctions and seek to minimize the environmental costs of their actions, instead of lauding and prioritizing an economic path of resistance, which has come at the cost of irreparable natural resource strain. 

Further, financial mechanisms similar to the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for humanitarian trade with Iran called “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)” and special waivers issued by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) should be explored on environmental grounds. In doing so, legal pathways for the crucial exchange of clean technologies and know-how with sanctioned states can be established, to assist promote sustainable development in a targeted nation, even in light of stringent economic and political constraints.

Heightened US pressure under the Trump administration did not contribute to an amelioration of the key economic, environmental and security concerns of both Iran and Iraq. Therefore, the Biden administration should cautiously explore a different form of engagement with Iran, though gaining Iran’s trust after the US abandonment of the JCPOA will be arduous. Nonetheless, small and gradual sanctions concessions can play a monumental role in providing Iran with some desperately needed capital. If this sanctions relief is channeled appropriately into social venues and in combating coronavirus locally, this decision has the potential to both improve living conditions for the Iranian public and ease tensions along the Iran-Iraq border. 

In this forthcoming transitional period in US administrations, there is a key opportunity to address this overlooked failure in sanctions policy, which has created immense obstacles in bettering the environment of target states for far too long. By moving towards a more environmentally focussed foreign policy model when engaging Iran, the Biden presidency has the potential to contribute to, rather than erode further, the environmental security of Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, and the wider world. 

1 Ahwaz, Khuzestan’s capital city, earned the title as the most polluted city in the world in 2013 in the World Health Organization rankings.

Barney Bartlett holds a MA in South Asia and Global Security from King’s College London’s Department of War Studies where his research explored conflict and the environment.

Shirin Hakim is a PhD Researcher at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy examining the Impact of Economic Sanctions on the Environment in Iran.

Karen MaKuch is a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy specialising in environmental law and policy and international law.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor