Into the fray: Water, not heavy water, is Iran’s desperate need

Iran faces unprecedented water shortage, so severe that much of the country could become uninhabitable and millions forced to emigrate.

Mudcrack (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Our main problem [the water crisis] that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran. It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable
– Isa Kalantari, Iran’s Agriculture Minister (1989-98) under Ayatollahs Rafsanjani’s and Khatami’s presidencies, cited in “Iran Becoming ‘Uninhabitable,” Al-Monitor, July 9, 2013
... if Iran doesn’t radically change its water usage, 50 million people – 70 percent of Iranians – will have no choice but to leave the country
– Thomas Friedman, “For the Mideast, It’s Still 1979,” The New York Times, July 29, 2015
Iran is headed for a water shortage of epic proportions, and little is being done to reverse a decades-long trend that has reduced the country’s water supply to crisis levels… scientists warn that the already arid country runs the risk of becoming a vast desert.
– Jason Rezaian, “Iran’s water crisis the product of decades of bad planning,” The Washington Post, July 2, 2014
A mere 10 days after publishing the Washington Post article, Jason Rezaian, the paper’s bureau chief in Tehran, was arrested at his home on unspecified charges. After almost 10 months of detention Iranian authorities indicted him on charges of “espionage” and “propaganda against the establishment.”
His trial, which began on May 26, is not open to the public (NYT, May 26), and is being presided over by a judge on a European Union blacklist for human rights abuses (The Atlantic, July 22), ended earlier this month (BBC, August 10). At the time of writing these lines Rezaian – who holds US citizenship – is awaiting the court’s verdict, which could impose up to 20 years in prison.
All this took place under the regime of the allegedly “pragmatic and progressive” rule of President Hassan Rouhani.
A stinging humiliation for the US – unless…
If I were a US taxpayer I would be seriously cheesed off at the Obama administration for making such hopelessly ineffective use of my hard-earned dollars.
After all, the US federal government has a staggering amount of resources at its disposal – $3 trillion-$3.5 trillion made available to it by the American working public each year. Yet with all this power in its hands, it conducted itself almost as a fawning supplicant in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program, which culminated in a stinging humiliation for Washington.
How else could one designate a deal which:
• Makes a mockery of previously unequivocally declared US objectives, such as to coerce Iran to “give up its nuclear program” (Barack Obama, October 2012), or induce Iran to “dismantle its nuclear program” (John Kerry, December 2013);
• Not only confers on Iran equal standing with the US in the Joint Commission, the body designated to oversee the implementation of the deal, but gives it effective veto power over most of its decisions, which “are to be made by consensus [e]xcept as stated otherwise”;
• Precludes US inspectors from verifying Iranian compliance;
• Permits Iran to self-test suspicious sites with its own personnel;
• Makes concessions to Iran on nonnuclear issues (such as missile technology and conventional arms) but demands no reciprocal concessions from Iran on nonnuclear issues (such as terrorism and human rights);
• Specifies verification procedures so cumbersome they could easily have been purposely devised to allow Iranian violations to go undetected; and
• Allows Iran to achieve all its objectives it set itself (albeit at a possibly reduced rate), and prevents the US from achieving any of its own – unless the US public has been gravely misled as to what the nature of those objectives were.
Obama: Iran understands they cannot fight us...
The disproportionate achievements of Iran and the capitulation of the US on virtually every point of principle, reflected in the far from exhaustive list above, are even more incongruous when one compares the fundamental parameters of the two nations.
The US GDP outstrips Iran’s by a factor of more than 40, its per capita GDP is 10 times higher, it has over four times the population of Iran, and is six times its size.
But perhaps the most significant comparison concerns military prowess.
This massive disparity was reflected in Barack Obama’s interview with the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman on April 5 – when the kind of concessions concluded in July were still unthinkable... or at least unmentionable.
In elaborating on his approach to Iran, Obama declared: “Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us...”
It seems that the US commander-in-chief was greatly understating the military imbalance between the US and Iran – one hopes not because he was greatly uninformed.
For most published estimates put the Iranian defense budget at between $14b. and $18b. – or 2% to 3% of the US defense budget, which Obama got roughly right.
In response to Friedman’s question: “Do you believe they [the Iranians] are undeterrable,” Obama retorted, “That is simply not the case.”
Alternative for Iran: ‘Economic stone-age’
Accordingly, with more than 40 times in resources devoted to military capabilities than Iran, the claim that the only alternative to the deal for the US is war rings decidedly hollow – if not manipulatively mendacious.
In light of Obama’s own recent assessment that Iran is not “undeterrable” and “understands they cannot fight us...,” how could it ring any other way? After all, the side that is really faced with “no other alternative” is not the US and its prosperous, powerful allies, but economically emaciated and drought-ravaged Iran.
Reflecting the desperate situation his country had descended into, the New York Times (July 23) reported that in a nation-wide television broadcast, “President Hassan Rouhani suggested... that the alternative [to the deal] was an economic ‘stone age.’” Corroborating this dour assessment, Isa Kalantari, former agriculture minister and currently a highly placed adviser to the government, lamented the daunting challenges facing Rouhani. When asked about the state of Iran’s economy in an interview shortly after Rouhani’s election as president in June 2013, he replied, “May God help Rouhani.”
Kalantari enumerated the ravages international sanctions had wrought: “Unfortunately, Rohani will inherit the country with empty warehouses, an empty treasury, empty ports, and an empty central bank.”
This is an unlikely portrait of a foe so formidable that it is able to impose virtually all its demands on the entire industrial world, led by the US as the only undisputed superpower on the planet, because, allegedly, the only alternative was war, which curiously, according to Obama, Iran knows it cannot wage.
Indeed, had the deal not be made, the only alternative was not war for the US and its allies, but rather as Rouhani well understood, an economic stone age for Iran.
And yet...
‘More dangerous than Israel and the US’
But Iran appears far more fragile than even the daunting economic statistics indicated.
According to Kalantari the gravest problem facing Iran is neither its ailing economy nor foreign pressure, but rather the chronic and critical shortage of water, a problem which he characterizes as “more dangerous than Israel, and the US, and political disputes....”
He sees the crisis as so severe that “If the situation is not corrected, in 30 years Iran, will be a ghost nation.”
Blaming negligence and carelessness, Kalantari warns in an English-language Iranian publication (the Financial Tribune, May 25) that “We are now dealing with the consequences of inaction,” and if current consumption trends continues, almost 70 percent of the population (50 million people), will have to “emigrate from Iran to survive... That is a disaster of epic proportions.”
Similar sentiments were expressed in the previously cited article by the currently incarcerated Washington Post correspondent, Jason Rezaian, who warned that “Iran is headed for a water shortage of epic proportions, and little is being done to reverse a decades-long trend that has reduced the country’s water supply to crisis levels...
Throughout Iran, landscapes are being transformed as scientists warn that the already arid country runs the risk of becoming a vast desert.”
‘…we’re making life for the future impossible’
Rezaian described how Iran’s sources of surface water were rapidly vanishing: “Lake Urmia, a salt lake in Iran’s northwest that once was the largest in the Middle East, has been depleted to just 5 percent of its former volume over only two decades. The Zayandeh River, which flowed through Iran’s heartland, is mostly a dry bed after being diverted and dammed to provide irrigation for farms.”
Citing a Europe-based Iranian physical climatologist, Rezaian writes that unsustainable practices are “making life for the future impossible.”
For many in Iran, the lack of water has already made life impossible.
Thus, the Financial Times published a graphic account (August 21, 2014) of the devastation that the water crisis is wreaking on millions across the country. Dramatically titled “Iran: Dried out,” it described how the drying up of the Zayandeh River has caused around 2 million people (40% of the region’s population), who depend on agriculture, to lose their livelihood. Quoting a water official who declined to be named, the paper informed its readers, “At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed.”
Meanwhile, thousands of villages around the country are forced to rely on water tankers for supplies, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily burden in factories around Tehran.
Could water have fueled the flames of revolt?
There have been repeated reports of growing public anger at the dearth of water.
For example Al-Monitor posted two accounts of such events: “Water Riot Breaks Out in Iran” (February 28, 2013) and “Drought triggers protests in Iran” (September 10, 2014).
The former reported that farmers in eastern Esfahan province clashed with police special forces sent to provide security for the repair of a water pipeline that was destroyed in a violent water dispute. Widespread violence, arson and even five deaths were reported after anger boiled over following months of complaints that had gone unheeded.
The latter described how thousands of residents of Isfahan and the smaller cities and villages nearby demonstrated, protesting the drying up of Zayanderood [Zayandeh River] and official inaction in dealing with the problem. The articles warns, “The water crisis of Zayanderood will have terrible consequences, including the destruction of the river’s ecosystem, loss of different life forms and destruction of wells and streams. It will also destroy agriculture around the river and will deeply affect the industrial sector as well.”
Interestingly, even strong supporters of the Iran nuclear deal seem to be keenly aware of how water shortages can undermine the stability of a regime.
Thus, in a 2014 interview for TV series Years of Living Dangerously with Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, Tom Friedman, referring to the dire water situation in Iran’s neighbor Syria, asked: “Can there really be a connection between a drought and a civil war?” Rice replied: ... Drought, floods, food shortages, water scarcity, all of these drive increased human insecurity, poverty and can contribute to conflict.
To which Friedman responded, approvingly: In other words, if a drought is bad enough it can help push an already stressed society to the breaking point.
Surely like Syria, Iran?
Water, not heavy water
Iran’s water problems are largely of its own making and dealing with them is going to require comprehensive nation-wide reforms that cut across centuries-old traditions and practices.
But as the Financial Times pointed out in its previously cited report, written just under a year prior to the deal cut by the Obama administration and Tehran: “... the reforms require money, and Iran’s economy is struggling under the weight of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.” Clearly then, with sanctions in place the desperately needed reforms were unlikely.
So next time some sycophantic Obama-phile tries to sell the threadbare line that “the only alternative to the shameful deal was war,” please do reject it with the disdain it richly deserves.
After all, with enhanced sanctions and a credible threat of military action, there is ample reason to believe that the regime in Tehran would have been compelled to abandon its quest for heavy water and seek ways to provide the Iranian people with what they really need: Water.
Martin Sherman ( is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (