Unilateral US Sanctions and the Environment in Iran: A Wake-up Call for the Global Community


Sanctions became one of the most important foreign policy tools in the US at the end of the Cold War. In the post-Cold War era, sanctions were initially considered effective and morally acceptable as an alternative to military operations. Nevertheless, it was proved from the start that they affected societies in target countries far more adversely than military wars. In recent years, the unwanted outcomes of economic sanctions have been a subject of study in policymaking and academic circles. But such outcomes on the environment have been less discussed. Economic sanctions force the hand of target states to adopt aggressive, unsustainable development policies at the cost of swift environmental degradation. Despite increasing awareness about such humanitarian consequences, American policymakers continue to disregard the upshots of this foreign policy tool on the environment.

Over the past four decades, the United States has imposed steady unilateral economic sanctions on the IR of Iran. Iran has reacted to these with its policy of resistive economy; a strategy which may not prioritize environmental issues, because the most important task under sanctions is the survival and safety of people in a society. While much of Iran's environmental situation is due to climate change and environmental management, the role of unilateral US sanctions in exacerbating the situation and cannot be ignored. International sanctions have accelerated the environmental crisis in Iran by limiting access to green technologies, blocking international environmental aid, and increasing the unmethodical exploitation of natural resources. The argument of the author of the present article is that, regardless of whether economic sanctions against Iran have been successful in changing its behavior or affecting its economy, their consequences have extended to the environmental degradation of neighboring countries. Moreover, unilateral US sanctions have violated the right to benefit from a clean environment, sustainable development, and the general and specific principles of environmental law, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and the principle of cooperation.

The author argues that the unilateral US sanctions against Iran can be criticized on two principles: Firstly, given the destructive effects of the sanctions on the economy, this will prevent Iran from accessing modern, green technologies and deprive the country of environmental assistance by international institutions. Under such circumstances, the Islamic Republic will resort to survival strategies and eliminate environmental priorities from its list. This will accelerate the unmethodical exploitation of natural resources and destroy the environment. Secondly, unilateral economic sanctions are a clear violation of international environmental laws, such as sustainable development and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Given the significance of these two principles in the transition to sustainable development, the sanctions will only hinder the process. Last but not least, considering the cross-border movement of environmental challenges and the intertwined global ecosystem, the environmental degradation in Iran can eventually set the stage for the degradation of the global ecosystem. Therefore, any sanctions imposed can be considered a self-punishment for the imposers where the environment is concerned.


Sanctions and Unilateralism in US Foreign Policy

Overall, international sanctions refer to punitive actions taken against a state, group of states, or international organizations to prevent non-compliance with international law by the target state.[1] To fulfill their foreign policy goals, countries use arms sanctions, reduce or cut off foreign aid, limit imports-exports, block assets, increase tariffs, and cancel the trade status of the target state.

The UN Charter designates the UN Security Council as the highest institution responsible for keeping international peace and security. Chapter VII of the Charter gives exclusive power to the Security Council to impose economic sanctions in circumstances when international peace and security is endangered. This structure leads to the prevailing view by the international community that any economic sanctions imposed outside this framework are “unilateral” and illegal. Nevertheless, an estimated thirty countries, mainly in the Western developed world, challenge this situation and claim that unilateral sanctions are a legal tool to attain certain foreign policy goals.[2]

Professor Lillich points out that economic coercion, even in its harshest form, can only be used if it is in line with legal international procedures. He remarks that: The real issue is whether unilateral economic coercion by a state or group of states without international backing is legal. He concludes that continued economic coercion is only acceptable if it is a form of legitimate defense in compliance with the overall interests of the international community as declared in the provisions of the UN Charter or the decisions taken in the published documents based on this.[3] In practice, however, sanctions have been transformed into a tool to advance the interests of major powers. They use economic sanctions in line with their own political goals and disregard the general interests of the international community.

Today, the United States uses sanctions as leverage against its competitors or challengers more than any other country. Following the Cold War era and the elimination of the bipolar world, economic sanctions quickly became the preferred tool in US policy in the world. Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Cuba, and Somalia are some of the countries the US has sanctioned consistently under political pretexts.

Undoubtedly, economic sanctions were used as a foreign policy tool by the Trump administration more than any other time. Sanctions, and other coercive economic tools, have played a pivotal part in Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against US challengers, from China to Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. It is said that Trump imposed around three sanctions on a daily basis against his enemies. During his time in office, a collection of measures were taken against companies, individuals, and even tankers connected to Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela, and Russia.[4]

US sanctions as a tool or tactic have caused difficulties for the development of sanctioned countries, but failed to achieve optimal results. To the contrary, the US has simply endangered its own benefits. For instance, it has imposed sanctions on the IR of Iran since 1979, aiming to change its behavior or annihilate it in the international order. Even so, the sanctions failed in forcing the IR of Iran to surrender to the US. Russia is another such example. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the US, this country imposed over 60 rounds of sanctions against Russian state companies or organizations from 2013-2018. Even so, analysts show that Russia was able to adapt itself to these sanctions. It created its own currency and gold reserves at the height of sanctions to protect its economy, and maintained its national defense capabilities during difficult times. Cuba has also experienced the longest economic blockade in history. US policymakers were under the illusion that Castro’s government could be toppled with sanctions, until the unrealistic aspects of this notion finally came to light under Barack Obama, when the US was forced to accept the reality and renew its diplomatic ties with Cuba.[5]

Today, the illusion still persists that the US is able to use sanctions as a functional tool to advance its interests with the size of its global economy backed by the dollar as the world's top currency. But in fact, unilateral sanctions hurt US interests more than anything else. In 2009, the US Chamber of Commerce estimated that sanctions imposed on Cuba damaged the US economy by 1.2 billion dollars per year with the loss of exports, while Cuba has announced its loss at an estimated 685 million dollars per year. Hence, the blockade has cost the US around 4.155 billion dollars per year more than Cuba.[6]

Unilateral US sanctions during Trump’s tenure in office were not only directed at this country’s foes. They also targeted European allies. The US announced harsh sanctions against the Port of Sassnitz in Germany for building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Germany to Russia. This cost the US reputation dearly among its European allies. There was a time when measures taken by the US were based on its mutual interests with its allies. But the concept of mutual interests is gradually fading away in US strategy.

As the international situation becomes more complex and various political, social, and economic phenomena become intertwined, the effects of sanctions cannot be limited merely to the economy. With increasing international focus on protecting the environment and sustainable development, the destructive effects of sanctions on the environment and the global ecosystem must come under scrutiny. Although there is no direct correlation between environmental degradation and economic sanctions, the latter can accelerate such degradation, entailing local, regional, and global consequences.[7]

Environmental performance is affected by international sanctions for the following reasons:

1. First: Trade sanctions as the leading form of international sanctions, culminating in a steep drop in imports-exports.[8] Other measures, such as the suspension of international aid and the withdrawal of foreign investment also have a negative impact on the economic growth of countries.[9] Hence, economic sanctions have a negative impact on GDP. Under these circumstances, governments withdraw support for environmental policies.

2. Secondly: As companies will not have enough economic power to upgrade their equipment under sanctions and foreign investment will not be attracted due to the recession and declining GDP, the environment will be negatively impacted. As such, imposing international sanctions impact environmental performance through curtailing economic growth.

Today, Iran is facing increasing environmental challenges. While this is not merely due to international sanctions, their negative impact on its economic growth over the years has prevented Iran from pursuing the policy of sustainable development and protecting the environment.

Unilateral US sanctions imposed under the pretext of countering threats to global peace and security will be examined from the two viewpoints of the environment and international law next.


Iranian sanctions and the Degradation of Regional and Global Ecosystems

Environmental researchers believe that the harms of sanctions inflicted on the environment are not limited to the target country. Rather, the secondary impact of sanctions can act as an unwanted “Catalyst” in degrading the regional ecosystem.[10] In other words, the cross-border movement of myriad environmental issues causes the spread of these challenges across territorial boundaries. In the medium and long term, this can have damaging consequences for the regional and global ecosystems. For instance, the sanctions imposed on Iran in recent years have also affected Iraq. Although sanctions imposed by the US are aimed at constraining the IR of Iran, this has indirectly caused environmental insecurity and social and economic unrest in Iraq.

Iran has adopted the policy of resistive economy in order to counter international sanctions; as a result, the tendency to become self-sufficient in the production of staple foods, such as wheat, continued to grow last year. This, in turn, increased the number of dams built across the country. In addition to cultivating wheat, Iran has placed large dam constructions on the agenda of ruling governments over the past years in order to become increasingly self-sufficient in agricultural produce and entered a new era in this sector. The country's water industry has also set itself the great and sublime goal of creating self-sufficiency in this field. Under economic sanctions and a global downturn, Iran has been able to become one of three top countries in dam construction in the world. But this is only part of the facts. On the other side of the border in Iraq, the quality and quantity of the incoming flow of water into this country has been affected by upstream dam construction activities in Turkey. Experts believe that these activities have led to severe water shortages downstream, damaging agricultural land in Iraq and depriving Iraqis of vital water resources. Reduced volumes of water in the rivers have led to the fertile swamps and arable lands in the southeast of this country drying up. Large swathes of formerly arable land are quickly drying up, leading to rural poverty. Kolaseh dam in Sardasht has led to an 80% drop in the water levels of Lower Zab River which merges with the Tigris, thus creating a drinking water crisis in Qalat Dizah, Sulaymaniah.

According to experts, water levels have also dropped or completely dried up in 42 rivers and tributaries originating in Iran and flowing into Iraq.[11] This paves the way for extremist groups. Today, many have moved to populated urban centers from rural areas where opportunities grow few and far between, placing increasing pressure on urban infrastructures. In the southeastern Iraqi port of Basra, polluted and little drinking water placed unwanted burdens on the healthcare system of the country and prompted widespread, violent demonstrations in 2018.

Overall, it can be said that unilateral sanctions in recent years have led to the adoption of survival policies to confront the economic tensions resulting from these. In this situation, it is natural for policymakers in the country to pursue development programs without environmental concerns, because the sanctions have limited access to resources and forced them to find ways for self-sufficiency and self-reliance. In trying to achieve industrial and agricultural development under the circumstances, the country’s water resources have been over-exploited, destabilizing the environment; an issue which can entail serious consequences for regional and global security.

Unilateral US sanctions against Iran have also deprived this country from the financial support of international agencies, such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Other countries have also reduced their cooperation with Iran to a minimum in various sectors. For example, the issue of haze which has plagued many people in the region in recent years can only be managed with regional cooperation. The IR of Iran has been deprived of all regional and global financial support to fight this phenomenon as a result of sanctions. In the medium term, this can turn into an environmental disaster not only in Iran, but the entire region.


Sanctions and Violations of Environmental Rights

In addition to their long term impact on the global ecosystem, unilateral US sanctions against Iran clearly violate the standards set in international environmental law, because they violate the right to a clean environment and sustainable development. They also violate the general and specific principles of environmental law, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and the principle of cooperation.


Sustainable Development

Economic growth based on sustainable development, which is mainly focused on the environment and climate change, has recently been placed on the agenda of international politics, in particular the politics of developed countries. According to the definition of the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development is “A development that meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[12] This is a rather vague and general definition. The Johannesburg Declaration goes one step further by stating that the three pillars of sustainable development are economic development, environmental protection, and social development.

The unsolicited consequence of unilateral US sanctions, which are usually disregarded, can carry on for generations regardless of whether they are the result of this country’s planned performance. Target countries which are dragged into global isolation in the short term may resort to survival mechanisms in order to escape the consequences of sanctions. Governments in such societies may prioritize the welfare of their citizens and try to protect them from the damaging impact of economic sanctions in an existential security crisis situation by increasing domestic energy production or using unsustainable agricultural methods. For instance, sanctions on Iran have accelerated the development of water resources infrastructures to increase agricultural production and ensure food security, leading to a rapid decline in groundwater levels. Also, due to the deprivation of Iran from advanced technologies in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, pollution from these has increased significantly.[13]

Unilateral US sanctions prevent Iran from achieving a change in the pattern of development that enables it to pursue a responsible, sustainable climate policy, because transition to sustainable development requires economic development and increasing standards of living. The sanctions effectively block this process. Supporting environmental policies is already prone to economic stagnation, in particular high rates of unemployment. During sanctions and bad economic conditions, environmental issues are eliminated from the policymaking priorities of governments as this is considered an unacceptable deviation from more tangible issues, such as the livelihoods of individuals in society.

Unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran since the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution to date have entailed adverse economic, social, and environmental consequences for the country. US presidents, in particular Donald Trump, have claimed time and again that the maximum pressure campaign only targets the political establishment in Iran and not the people. But sanctions have targeted important sectors of the economy, such as energy, shipping, automotive industry, and aviation, all of which are very important for sustainable development. The extent of these sanctions in recent years have been so that they have prevented Iran from applying to international institutions for financial aid for environmental issues, such as GEF which is a subset of the World Bank. This can deprive Iran of a healthy environment which is the bedrock of sustainable development.

An empirical study on pollution levels in Iran in 2019 showed that the lifting of sanctions is important for sustainable development for a number of reasons, mainly pertaining to carbon dioxide emissions. Firstly, having an open economy means more income, leading to increased demands for a cleaner environment and stricter rules. This will also encourage businesses to follow a clean manufacturing process. Secondly, restrictions on the production and import of environmental technology force individuals and businesses to choose cheaper domestic products that are not environmentally friendly. For instance, following the short-lived lifting of sanction after the JCPOA until Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, the IR of Iran used sustainable methods to join international markets. During this timeline, new technologies became accessible and foreign investment increased. But after Trump withdrew from the agreement, sanctions targeting Iran’s oil industry created more air pollution and endangered Iranian lives. This is also linked to the sharp increase of cancer cases and respiratory diseases.


The Common but Differentiated Responsibility Principle (CBDR)

Unilateral US sanctions violate another internationally accepted principle for the environment, namely the common but differentiated responsibility principle. The concept of shared responsibility originates in the cohesive and interconnected nature of our planet and the rules governing its resources known as the “Common heritage of humanity.” The concept became important in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. Article 7 of the Rio Declaration (1992) declares that “States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”

There are a few points in Article 7 which refers to the concept of common but differentiated responsibility of governments: Firstly, the principle refers to the common responsibility of states to protect the environment. Secondly, it refers to the different contributions of developed and developing states to the degradation of the environment. Thirdly, it refers to the pressures northern countries place on the global environment without bearing their historical responsibility. And finally, the article refers to the potentials of northern countries in resolving global environmental issues with the financial and superior technologies they have at their disposal.

Stressing on the common but differentiated responsibility principle in various international documents and communities takes place at a time when the US has imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran’s energy sector under a range of security pretexts. These sanctions not only block any transactions between American real and legal personalities with Iran, they also ban any investment, buying and selling, transfer of oil technologies, mutual cooperation, etc, by other countries which may invest in the oil and gas industry and renewable energies of Iran.

It is clear that US sanctions have deprived Iran of the support of global financial institutions such as the GEF so that, according to the head of Iran’s Department of Environment in 2015, the GEF only paid 4.2 million dollars out of the 30 million dollars allocated to environmental projects in Iran. Around 26 million dollars were suspended by GEF-5 due to sanctions despite the fact that the projects were approved.[14] This is in clear violation of the legal principle of international cooperation and the common but differentiated responsibility principle in international environmental law. While the US portrays itself as a supporter of human society and security in the new world order, it deprives Iran of international help and receiving global facilities and blocks its imports of environmental technology and knowledge, thus committing a type of economic terrorism and crimes against humanity. More than anything else, these sanctions affect the health of society and its individuals. Therefore, the US government's deviation from international environmental law can be seen as a clear example of a crime against humanity.



Regardless of whether they are smart and targeted or not, sanctions are always an indiscriminate collective punishment for civilians. Discussions on sanctions often focus on their political and economic consequences. Past experience with countries such as Venezuela, Iran, and Russia has shown that US sanctions have caused great harm to the global ecosystem without changing the behavior of the target states. Sanctions may bring the sanctioning country close to its goal of economic pressure in the short term, but as environmental issues are interconnected as a set and able to cross borders, they prevent the sanctioning country from achieving its goals in the medium and long term.

The United States, which has always targeted Iran with its sanctions since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, has not only failed to achieve its goals, but it has also led to growing skepticism in the international community. It must be noted that US sanctions have not forced Iran to change its behavior. Rather, they have increasingly led to resistance by Iran within the general framework of its policy of self-reliance and resistive economy. But this is only part of the story. Given the interconnected nature of environmental issues, US sanctions also have negative consequences for the regional and global ecosystems. Without due concern for its unilateral policies, this country has totally disregarded the implications of the medium and long-term environmental security at the regional and global levels. As environmental protection is now increasingly seen as a shared responsibility at the international level, the international community cannot continue to ignore the environmental implications of unilateral US foreign policy. If it remains indifferent towards the environmental consequences of US sanctions, unable to move towards a just and environmentally sound system of governance, an environmental disaster can be forecast not only in the countries targeted by sanctions, but also at the regional and global levels.



[1]. D Lacy and E M Niou, “A theory of economic sanctions and issue linkage: The roles of preferences, information, and threats,” The Journal of Politics, 66 (1), 2004: 25-42.

[2]. Idriss Jazairy, “Unilateral Economic Sanctions, International Law, and Human Rights,” Ethics & International Affairs 33 (3), 2019.

[3]. Niloofar Nemati, Legitimacy of Sanctions in International Law with Emphasis on Unilateral Sanctions Against Iran, Master’s Thesis, Payam-e Noor University, Tehran Branch, Faculty of Law and Political Science, Department of International Law, 2010.

[4]. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-09/trump-set-record-sanctions-use-that-biden-is-likely-to-maintain

[5]. Pepper M, “The Costs of the Embargo,” The Dollars and Sense of Bank Consolidation, 2009. Available at:


[6]. Pepper, Ibid.

[7]. K Madani, A Agha-Kouchak and A Mirchi, A. “Iran’s socio-economic drought: Challenges of a water-bankrupt nation,” Iranian studies 49(6), 2016:1006.

[8]. G C Hufbauer, J J Schott and K A Elliott, Economic sanctions reconsidered: History and current policy 1, Peterson Institute, 2009.

[9]. M Euenkirch and F Neumeier, “The impact of UN and US economic sanctions on GDP growth,” European Journal of Political Economy 40, 2015: 110 -125.

[10]. Shirin Hakim and Barney Bartlet, “Economic sanctions are triggering environmental damage,” 2020. Available at:


[11]. F Omran, “Iran dam construction reduces Iraq water supply,” 2019. Available at: https://diyaruna.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_di/features/2019/03/14/feature-03

[12]. B R Keeble, “The Brundtland report: ‘Our common future ’,” Medicine and war 4 (1), 1988: 17-25.

[13]. K Madani, “Have International Sanctions Impacted Iran’s Environment?”, World 2 (2), 2021: 239.

[14]. https://bit.ly/3mE4HQh