Opinion

Climate Change-driven Flooding Has Become Trump’s Ally in His War on Iran

The extensive flooding in Iran shows that climate change is real and wreaks real economic havoc, too, even if Trump doesn't believe in it. And, it’s going to grow worse

Military vehicles rescue people after flash flooding around the northern city of Aq Qala in Golestan province, Iran, Monday, March 25, 2019.
Mohsen Esmaeilzadeh,AP

Donald Trump doesn’t believe in climate change, but he can thank his lucky stars that he’s wrong.

Just as the United States readies to tighten the sanctions screws a little more, Iran has been hit by extreme rain, causing serious flooding. The cost has already reached hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s claimed scores of lives and has displaced tens of thousands people and the rains are still falling.

Iran floods: Homes and people swept away - BBC NewsBBC, YouTube

Iran doesn’t have the financial or material resources to deal with the flooding, partly due to American sanctions and partly due to the usual incompetence that characterizes Iranian governance.

The short-term fallout of the massive floods is probably manageable. But the danger that the inundation represents for Iran’s leaders in the medium and longer term is not.

The economic damage from lost agricultural production could be huge, and it's coming at a time when the economy can’t sustain yet another blow. Last year Iran’s economy contracted by 1.5%, as Trump’s sanctions kicked in. This year the International Monetary Fund estimates it will decline another 3.6%

Meanwhile, inflation is running high into the double digits and Iran’s budget deficit was double its target in the latest reporting period.

No question about it, the Trump sanctions are having their effect. Whether they will bring Tehran back to the nuclear negotiating table or lead to regime change is anyone’s guess, but they certainly have put Iran’s leaders in a difficult and unsustainable position. Their situation is far direr than when they cracked under the pressure of the Obama sanctions in 2012-15 and reached a deal on nukes.

But what the economic pressure might not suffice to achieve, the floods could well do.

The regime is blaming U.S. sanctions for its failure to provide flood relief. But incompetence and mismanagement are playing a role, too, and that’s what Iranians on the ground are seeing.

It’s not that official  incompetence and mismanagement are something new for them, but given all the others woes the ordinary Iranian is suffering, the floods could eliminate the last remaining shred of confidence they have in the regime.

Political upheaval is often sparked by such things, most notably Czar Nicholas II’s repeated failures in leading Russian troops in World War I.

While the political fallout could still be contained this time around, climate change spells more natural disaster and more risk for the regime.

Extreme drought and flooding in Iran

With its mostly arid climate, Iran is unusually vulnerable, and it has a poor history of environmental management to boot. It has already been experiencing extreme weather, with increasingly severe droughts in some places and unusually heavy rain in others.

Lake Urmia, once the largest in the Middle East, is shrinking and may disappear within the decade. Meanwhile, Iran suffered six major floods in the three years before the current deluge.

Urmia Lake which has ran out of water due to ecological catastrophe
Getty Images

The worst is yet to come. One forecast, published by an international team in Scientific Reports which came out in February, said average temperatures in Iran in the decades ahead could increase as much as 2.75 degrees Celsius, causing and more extreme weather.

“Our study of future climate in Iran depicts a grim picture concerning more frequent extreme wet and dry periods, more extended periods of extremely hot temperatures, and higher frequency of floods across the country. Combination of these events, especially in the three Desert climate zones, may create an uninhabitable living condition,” the authors predict. [sic]

How this will all play out politically and economically in Iran involves high speculation. Some scholars say that the extended drought in Syria, most probably caused by climate change, during the years 2006-10 was a critical factor in sparking the civil war. It cut sharply into harvests, created widespread agricultural unemployment and caused mass migration to cities, most notably Daraa, the seedbed of the revolution.

Others are less certain about the links between climate and revolution in Syria, or even about the fact of a drought at all. But even researchers who dismiss the direct impact of climate concede that it was a factor that combined with government mismanagement and other economic pressures that led to a war that took perhaps half a million lives, displaced 15 million people and shattered Syria’s economy.

An outcome like that Iran would be Mike Pompeo’s wet dream, but even less apocalyptic scenarios would leave the regime in Tehran in an extremely precarious situation.

In the short run, the pressure from a flagging economy and serial natural disasters would undermine Tehran’s ability to finance its proxies in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen and help prop up the Assad regime in Syria. There are already signs that the process has begun.

Aerial view of flooding in Khuzestan province, Iran, April 5, 2019
Tasnim News Agency/Reuters

In the longer run, it is difficult to imagine how Iran’s “resistance economy,” which aims to counter sanctions by becoming more self-reliant and by defying the sanctions wherever possible, will be able to cope.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps like the idea of resistance, which means more business for their corporate empire and less pesky foreign competition.

But faced with the binary choice of a) the regime at risk of being toppled or b) returning to the negotiating table, they will almost certainly choose the latter, just as they did the last time around under less arduous circumstances. The only question is whether the Trump team will agree to sit at the table with them or hold out for a).