Until recently, Harith Hasan was a nonresident senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focused on Iraq, sectarianism, identity politics, religious actors, and state-society relations. His last paper for Carnegie, published in March, was titled Eden Denied: Environmental Decay, Illicit Activities, and Instability in Iraq’s Southern Border Area.” In mid-April, Diwan interviewed Hasan to discuss his paper and the broader implications of the issues it raised.

Michael Young: What is the main argument of your recent Carnegie paper, “Eden Denied: Environmental Decay, Illicit Activities, and Instability in Iraq’s Southern Border Area”?

Harith Hasan: Iraq’s Basra Governorate, located on the border with Iran, has endured environmental degradation that has had profound socioeconomic implications. Several factors have contributed to this situation, including climate change and an overall rise in global temperatures. However, human activity has also been acutely destructive. This includes the long dispute between Baghdad and Tehran over territory and water resources near the border, as well as a lack of coordination and a common transboundary approach to governance and water management. In addition, the degradation has been accelerated by the adoption of environmentally unsustainable policies aimed at development, particularly a shift toward oil production as the main source of income and the prime determinant of the region’s importance.

The ensuing decline in agriculture has led to rural migration, unemployment, and poverty, a concomitant flourishing of informal and illicit economies as well as the growth of violent groups. Iran’s dominant influence in Iraq has sustained this situation.

MY: How serious is the environmental degradation in Basra Governorate, and what are most visible signs of this?

HH: Very serious. To begin with, the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s had a devastating impact on the area. Most farmers who lived near the border deserted their lands and relocated to the outskirts of southern urban centers. The government’s attempts to securitize the area inflicted major damage to palm groves. Overall, around 80 percent of the palm groves surrounding the Shatt al-Arab waterway were ruined because of the conflict, water shortages, and the waterway’s rising salinity.

Following that, the draining of the Iraqi marshes in the early 1990s and dams built by Turkey have reduced the flow of fresh water into the area to historically unprecedented levels. This was further exacerbated by the dams built on, and the changes made to the hydraulic structures of, the Karun and Karkheh Rivers in Iran. These projects, on top of the pervasive drought and rising temperatures in the area that increased evaporation, led to a deterioration of the Shatt al-Arab’s water quality, especially as seawater began flowing into the waterway because of a reduction in its outward flow toward the sea.

In addition, the fallout from the oil industry has increased pollution of the Shatt al-Arab and river channels. A study in 2020 found that the byproducts of oil production were a major factor in the elevated levels of heavy metal contamination. The pollution provoked the illness and hospitalization of at least 118,000 locals in Basra in 2018, which led to violent protests by the population.

MY: You mention in your paper that economic decline and environmental degradation have led to the rise of criminal gangs and paramilitary groups. Can you outline the kinds of activities in which such groups have engaged, and how much of a risk does this pose to the Iraqi state?

HH: The most noticeable consequences of the multiple conflicts and environmental degradation in Basra Governorate have been the waning of agriculture, the massive dislocation of populations, rising unemployment and poverty, deepening social uncertainty, and violent competition over resources.

Many people migrated to urban centers in search of jobs in the public sector, the security forces, or services. Large numbers of volunteers from peasant families in Basra joined paramilitary groups, some of which have engaged in illicit activities. What can be called the “militiazation” of Iraqi society, especially in Basra and southern Iraq, cannot be detached from the broad processes of social dislocation, the breakdown of rural lifestyles, and the rise of oil rentierism. In the context of a weak state, militias and paramilitaries not only tried to fill the vacuum but also become economic enterprises using violence as a tool of extortion. As the governorate with Iraq’s largest oil supplies and the only port, and one that also borders Iran and Kuwait, Basra was ideal for those able and willing to exploit its sources of wealth. That is why, since 2003, it has become a place where paramilitary groups and militias have flourished. This has deepened its instability and has had consequences for border areas and crossborder relations.

As a consequence of the environmental deterioration, some tribal groups that collectively migrated from the marshlands and settled on the outskirts of the city of Basra and other districts have developed highly dubious means of securing revenues. Some of these tribes have engaged in armed conflict with other groups to control territory or gain access to water resources. They have even threatened oil companies in order to secure jobs or contracts for members of their tribe, a practice also embraced by powerful paramilitary groups. New modes of extortionist practices have been evolving, expanding the informal and illicit economy.

At the heart of the illegal activities carried out by armed groups has been smuggling. There are two types of smuggling activities, one conducted through the sole formal border crossing between Basra and Khuzestan, namely the Shalamcheh crossing, and the other through informal border points. The smuggling activities are diverse and can involve narcotics, weapons, counterfeit currency, livestock, motorcycles, medicines, and foreign currencies such as U.S. dollars. In particular, the narcotics trade from Iran to Iraq has intensified in the past few years. Official and unofficial reports indicate that the use of narcotics in Iraq has become so widespread that it is now considered a key security threat in Iraq.

MY: Can you deconstruct for us how Iran has used allied paramilitary groups in southern Iraq, and how this fits into Tehran’s wider regional agenda?

HH: Iran supported many armed groups that were deployed in the border area, whether as part of formal institutions, such as the Interior Ministry or the Popular Mobilization Units, or those established without the government’s permission. Strong Iranian influence over the groups created a situation that one Iraqi commentator described as “Iranian management of the two sides of the border.” The reality is more nuanced and complex, of course. However, to a large extent, Tehran has begun to view the border not as a boundary to be defended but as a passage through which it can export its military and economic power, as well as its ideology. This is confirmed by the way Iran has systematically sought to secure land access to the Mediterranean and expand the reach of the so-called “Resistance Axis” that it effectively leads.

This publication was produced with support from the X-Border Local Research Network, a program funded by UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.