A recent op-ed in the Washington Post has brought back into light the looming Iranian water crisis capable of displacing as many as 50 million people within 25 years or less. The elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) is mainly responsible for this crisis because of the exclusive control it is given over the extraction and use of Iran’s water supplies. In 2013, former Minister for Agriculture Issa Kalantari warned in an interview Iran could become ‘uninhabitable’ in 30 years, and in 2015 warned of mass migration due to a water crisis.
A water crisis will create a surge in Iranian migration to surrounding countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf States or even Yemen, something that Iran’s Sunni rival Saudi Arabia would resent. A recent paper by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues that over the next few decades the ‘Great Game’ to emerge in the Middle East will involve a Sunni pitch for hegemony, and the non-Sunni’s attempts to resist. Saudi Arabia, according to the paper, has a strong claim to Sunni hegemony, however, the movement of Shia Muslims from Iran to countries the Saudi’s would like to see with a docile Shia presence, will not have a stabilising effect. Sectarian tensions in Bahrain in 2011, Syria’s civil war and ongoing conflict in Yemen are reminders of the unrest Iran can cause for Riyadh’s plans in the Middle East. The Saudi’s are already having a hard enough time countering Iran’s proxies; Riyadh would not want Tehran to disseminate millions of its people throughout the Middle East’s battlegrounds for hegemony which only risks adding more military and humanitarian challenges to its hegemonic aspirations.
Mass migration will also badly damage Iran demographically. Iran is presently facing a ‘brain drain’ crisis. According to a report by the International Monetary Fund in 2009, Iran ranks as the most brain drained country out of 91 countries currently suffering from a brain drain, and 85 (where 100 is the worst) in the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index, an indication of how well countries use the talents and abilities of their people. Around 150,000 to 180,000 highly skilled people are leaving Iran annually, equating to an annual national loss of around US$50 million (some put it as high as US$150 million). Furthermore, Iran ranks in the top ten of countries where the majority of the country’s doctoral students studying in the US stay there. These kinds of losses are not likely to help better Iran’s ailing economy. Though the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani encourages hope for the social and economic progress made under his last presidency, hope that may encourage Iranian minds back to the homeland, it is certain a water crisis will contribute to the brain drain by firstly, encouraging Iranians abroad to stay there, and secondly, subtracting 50 million Iranians that would contribute to the economy.
A water crisis will further damage distrust many people still have, despite Rouhani’s re-election, for the regime in Tehran. The significance of Rouhani’s re-election was that it signalled to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his ilk that Iran’s people are determined to stand against the old, corrupt approach to policy making. Many Iranian’s are aware of the security apparatus’ monopoly on justice and power – a deep state if you will (and here) that ensures the divide between society and state remains. For many, Rouhani represents a rejection of this deep state. A water crisis could complicate this situation. The irresponsible mismanagement of water, a reminder of the regime’s corrupt inner workings, could embolden the citizenry and lead to possible strikes or protests against the government, similar to the 2009 Green Revolution. Of course, the powerful never resign peacefully, and sensing a challenge, the regime in Tehran may feel the need to lash out to ensure its survival, similar to how Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini acted near the end of his tenure as Supreme Leader, and harden its approach to policy making. A water crisis could potentially expedite society’s hunger for reform and open up new channels of expression, but it could also cement the Ayatollah’s hold on power.