As soft political tools, economic sanctions serve to isolate a sanctioned state and play havoc with its economy in order to drive it to change course, views, and practices. In reaction to sanctions and in attempts to dodge their impact, the sanctioned state adopts a spectrum of survivalist, violent and unsustainable strategies that scale down the economic burden of sanctions, while at the same time accelerate environmental degradation.
These actions are equivalent to the wars which cause economic damages, slump the concentration of international capital flows, pull back foreign direct investment, foreign aid, and financial grants expanding poverty as well as causing a major decrease in GDP per capita through increasing inflation and unemployment.
Sanctions intensify the thirst for rapid growth to improve water-resource infrastructure, generate power, and secure food and energy for sanctioned countries. With vigorous domestic policies, countries want to resist sanctions to a degree, while overlooking the environmental implications.
In recent years, the potential humanitarian implications of economic sanctions have been the topic of much controversy, both in scholarly and policy-making circles which have consistently raised questions about the effects of economic sanctions on health, food and human rights as well as their impact on the environment.
The effect of international sanctions on the world is perhaps most evident in the case of Iran, a country that has been under intense economic strain – predominantly from the US. – for more than 40 years since 1979 in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Following the signing of Iran's nuclear (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) agreement by the Obama administration in 2015, it was anticipated that the consequent easing of sanctions would allow Iran to participate in the much-needed exchange of information, foreign direct investment and technology and also, to decrease the rate of environmental degradation through changes in the 'technique and composition effects'.
But the Trump administration not only pulled the US out from the JCPOA, but also urged its allies to pressure Iran. While the Trump administration has repeatedly argued that its 'maximum pressure' policy was against the Iranian regime, not the people of Iran, the reinstatement of sanctions targeted vital sectors of the country's economy, such as energy, transportation, aviation and finance, all of which are essential for sustainable development.
Facing such embargoes Iran, a land with the scarcity of water-resource, went on to make numerous dams causing many rivers to die. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed in 1971 in Iran, yet ironically the sanctions are coercing them into destroying their own wetlands.
Sanctions have made Iran's economic growth a natural resource‐dependent causing overuse of water and land. They have increased direct pressure on the environment through pollution and ecological damages. Asian cheetahs, Asian black bears, Goitered gazelles, and Persian wild asses are among the animals that have been forced to extinction by unavoidable man-made processes.
Iran has converted petrochemical factories into oil refineries. Reports say that Iran's home-grown petrol produces ten times the amount of pollutants present in imported gasoline and that the sulfur content of its domestically generated diesel is 800 times greater than that of the international standard.
In 2010, Iran imported 40% of its fuel for consumption. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on oil imports of Iran causing a decrease of 75% in their import. Iran was forced to come up with its own fuel processing and development process in 2010 which is today the primary reason behind its deadly air pollution.
The World Health Organisation has ranked four of Iran's cities among the top ten most polluted cities in the world. Ahwaz, the oil and mining city of Khuzestan, a province bordering Iraq, is the most contaminated city in the country, registering three times the concentration of toxins compared to Beijing. Yasouj, another manufacturing area, has a massive coal-fired power plant and is soon to be the site of a refinery.
Another affected country is Iran's neighbor Iraq. U.S. policies in Iran's neighbor have inadvertently triggered environmental and socio-economic deprivation in Iraq. Land on the Iran-Iraq borderline is abundant in mineral resources – it has long been valued for its extensive oil and gas deposits and is also very agriculturally fertile and desirable. In recent decades, both nations have plundered natural wealth in this region regardless of environmental impact. Most significantly, large portions of the bio - diverse Mesopotamian Marshes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in southern Iraq and southwestern Iran, have been partly destroyed to redevelop land for agricultural purposes or oil drilling.
Iran has not been immune from the impact of instability in its neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. Chaos in Afghanistan and the Hirmand (Helmand) River border dispute have led to the drying of Lake Hamun in eastern Iran, rendering cultivation difficult and precipitating dust storms that cause residents to flee.
Now time will tell whether newly elected president Joe Biden drops the punitive use of economic sanctions introduced by his predecessor. Hopefully as promised, he would join JCPOA and proceed towards cautious re-engagement with Iran which would enhance economic and security conditions in both Iran and Iraq while at the same time, help combat climate change.
Adnan Mehedi is a graduate of the Khulna University of Engineering and Technology, Khulna
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.