Myth vs. Fact: Geography of Iran

By AIC Research Fellow Andrew Lumsden


MYTH: Iran, like many other countries in the Middle East is primarily made up of arid, lifeless desert.

FACT: Iran’s geography is very different from those of surrounding nations. Compared with nearby Saudi Arabia (95% desert), Turkmenistan (80% desert) and Iraq (40% desert), only about 22% of its land area is desert. The majority of Iran’s territory consists of incredibly diverse landscapes, most of which teem with life. These include rangelands, forests, wetlands and even glaciers home to at least 8,000 different plant species, 293 species of bird, 219 species of reptile, 112 species of fish and nearly 300 other mammalian species.


The majority of Iran’s territory (52%) consists of rangelands, which are areas predominantly covered by grasses or shrubs not introduced by humans. Rangelands typically provide sustenance for grazing animals such as sheep and cattle, both wild and domesticated. Iran’s rangelands produce nearly 11 million tons of forage (livestock feed) each year and serve as the primary food source for some two-thirds of the country’s livestock.

Rangelands in Iran can be divided into two groups, the mountainous rangelands and the plains rangelands.

·         Mountainous Rangelands are located at high elevations such as mountains and hillsides. In these areas, summers are cool and grazing is typically done between early spring and late summer. These rangelands cover 23 million hectares and produce more than 6 million tons of animal feed each year. It is estimated that during the grazing seasons, Iran’s mountainous rangelands are capable of providing for some 54 million animals.

·         Plains Rangelands cover some 67 million hectares of flat lowlands and feature warm winters during which most grazing is done. These produce about 4.5 million tons of animal feed each year.

Iran’s rangelands are also home to over 7,000 plant species, including medicinal herbs such as cumin and galbanum. Exports of medicinal herbs, primarily to the European Union, Hong Kong and the Gulf states, netted Iran about US$440 million between 2016 and 2017. In all, it is estimated that the livelihoods of at least 3 million Iranian families, and as much as 6% of Iran’s GDP are directly dependent on the rangelands.


Iran’s Forests, Rangelands and Wetlands Organization (FRWO) defines forests as lands spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees exceeding 5 meters (16.4 feet) tall and more than 5% canopy cover. About 14 million hectares of land in Iran is classified as forest, this represents almost 9% of the country’s total land area. Forests in Iran are spread widely across the country, and are as different as the climates and regions in which they exist.

·         The Hyrcanian Forests, in Northern Iran, along the Caspian seacoast, cover about 1.9 million hectares and are home to as many as 150 tree species (36 of which can be found nowhere else on Earth), and several endangered species of leopards, bears, wolves, badgers and otters. The Hyrcanian region experiences a temperate Mediterranean-like climate and, about 550 to 2200 millimeters (22 to 87 inches) of rainfall per year.

·         The Zagrosian Forests dot Iran’s distinctive Zagros Mountain Range, which stretches from Turkish border in the Northwest, to the Pakistani border in the Southeast. Despite the region's relatively dry climate, which also features severe winters and scorching summers, Zagros forests sustain large populations oak, pistachio and almond trees, along with several species of bears, eagles. Furthermore, the endangered Persian fallow deer, a species thought to have been extinct until the 1950s, also resides with the Zargosian forests. 

·         The Arasbaran Forests are located in Northwestern Iran, near the Armerian and Azerbaijani borders. In addition to more than 1,000 distinctive plant species, the Arasbaran is home to 29% of Iran’s entire mammal population, 44% of its bird population, 32% of its amphibian, 9% of its fish and 20% of its reptiles.

·         The Irano-Turanian Forests are located in Central Iran and are believed to have existed for over 400 years. These forests are home to pistachio and almond trees, as well as various shrub and herbaceous species. Small populations of endangered cheetahs, leopards and gazelles also live in this region.

·         The Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman Forests are located on Iran’s southern coastline. Despite water temperatures averaging 97°F, air temperatures of 113°F, and less than eight inches of rain per year, this region sustains 10 forests populated by mangrove trees which have adapted to the treacherous conditions and serve as nursing grounds for fish and a defense against shoreline erosion and storm surges.


Wetlands are areas in which water completely covers or reaches near the surface of the soil. Wetlands make up about 2% of Iran’s territory and they are host to large populations of migratory birds who live there during the winters or use them as resting points while en route to Africa or India.

Fertile wetlands have sustained farming and fishing communities across Iran for generations, and Iran was a leading voice in favor of an international commitment to wetlands conservation during the 1970s. In 1971, Iran hosted the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (also called the Ramsar Convention after the ceremony’s location). This convention formally defines wetlands and establishes a framework for countries should manage wetlands within their borders and work collaboratively on wetlands research. 

Under the Ramsar Convention, signatory states are required to designate “Wetlands of International Importance,” also called “Ramsar sites.” These are wetlands within countries deemed critical to humanity and of utmost importance for preservation, generally due to the presence of endangered species or exceptional biodiversity. Iran has designated 24 of its estimated 105 wetlands as of “international importance.” The most prominent of these include the:

·         Lake Urmia Wetlands, located near Iran’s borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. They are the largest of Iran’s Ramsar sites, covering an area of 483,000 hectares and sustaining over 200 species of birds, including flamingos and pelicans. Lake Urmia is highly saline, and thus cannot house any significant population of fish, however, the wetlands are crucial to the more than 10 million Iranians who live near them, for agricultural, industrial and energy needs. 

·         Shadegan Marshes, located on Iran’s Persian Gulf coast, near the Iraqi border, these are the second largest of Iran’s Ramsar sites and cover 400,000 hectares. These wetlands serve as breeding grounds for at least 149 species of birds (including 13 endangered species), and are home to significant populations of jackals, boars, sheep and water buffalo. Two villages and three cities lie within or near the wetlands, sustaining a population of well over 400,000 people, many of whose livelihoods rely heavily on the marshes. Local fishermen rely heavily on the wetlands, which house over 70 species of fish, while farmers use the region’s fertile banks to support livestock and date trees.


Glaciers are perennial, land-based bodies of slowly moving ice, and their presence in Iran has long mystified scientists and observers. Though various estimates have been presented over the decades, a 2009 study incorporating aerial and satellite imagery concluded that Iran has 27 square kilometers of glacier in total. While this represents a mere one-one-thousandth of Iran’s land area, glaciers serve a critical role in the country’s survival and growth. They are the source of 60% of the water used in agricultural and industrial production.

Glaciers in Iran exist in small, scattered deposits on mountains across the country, generally at heights of between 3,500 and 5,000 meters (~11,000 and 16,000 feet) above sea level. These deposits are grouped into five ‘glacial regions’ generally named for the area’s highest peaks. These regions include the:

·         Takht­­–e–Soleiman Region, located in the Alborz Mountain Range in Northwestern Iran, near the Azerbaijani border. This region is home to 28% of Iran’s glaciers, including the Northern Glacier (previously called the Sarchal), which is the largest in the country. In addition to covering an area of 2.27 km2, the Northern Glacier also features sheets of ice between 50 and 80 meters (164 and 262 feet) thick.

·         Sabalan Region, named for its highest peak, Mt. Sabalan, an inactive volcano, this region is also located in Iran’s Alborz Mountain Range, to the north of Takht–e–Soleiman. It is home to five glaciers, which cover an area totaling 4.27 km2. In contrast to the clean, exposed ice seen in many other glaciers around the world, Sabalan glaciers tend to have a thick, continuous “debris cover” of sand, gravel and rock. Hot summers in the region and can result in considerable melting, and Salaban glaciers are responsible for three rivers in Northern Iran. However, the glaciers are typically refreshed by extremely cold, snow-heavy winters.

·         Damavand Region, named for Mt. Damavand, an inactive volcano, this region is located about 43 miles north of Tehran, near the Caspian coast. Though the region is home to several ice fields, only about five qualify as glaciers, as they do not disappear during the hot, dry summers. Damavand glaciers cover an area of 3.4 km2, and feature uncovered ice measuring up to 20 meters (65 feet) thick.

·         Oshtorankuh Region, located in Lorestan Province about 200 miles east of the Iraqi border, this region is home to about ten small glaciers, covering a total area of 4.8 km2. Glaciers in this region generally exist only on the north and northeast-facing slopes of mountains because heavy winds from the south and intense sunlight prevent snow accumulation on south-facing. Oshtorankuh glaciers provide much of the drinking water for surrounding urban areas and are the primary sources of the Ab-mishan, Alvand Valley and Mirzayi rivers.

·         Zardkuh Region, located in Southwestern Iran and part of the Zagros Mountain range, this region is home to about ten glaciers covering an area of 7.1 km2. Zardkuh glaciers are responsible for the Koohrang and Bazoft rivers, which join downstream to form the Karun, Iran’s most voluminous and only navigable river. The Karun river in the primary source of drinking water for the 2.2 million residents of the southwestern border province of Khuzestan.


Myth to Fact?

Although the idea that Iran is primarily a desert land is categorically untrue, it is unfortunately a falsehood which is slowly but steadily on its way to becoming a reality. Unsustainable and damaging agricultural and industrial practices, coupled with global climate change are dramatically degrading Iran’s environment, turning once vibrant landscapes into barren desert. This process is called desertification and scientists estimate that an additional 1% of Iran’s territory succumbs to it every year.

Desertification in Iran is being driven largely by four major anthropogenic factors:

·         Overgrazing-

Iran’s population has more than doubled since the 1979 revolution, while the number of Iranians living in rural areas has halved over this period. This means that over the past three decades, demand for food has been on the rise while producers are in shorter supply. These trends have resulted in excessive grazing, which has been identified as a major cause of the rapid erosion and desertification of Iran’s rangelands.

To meet demands, farmers have been grazing more animals than ever on the rangelands and grazing outside of the traditional grazing seasons. In some areas, grazing exceeds the rangelands’ carrying capacities by two or three times. Overgrazing strips the rangelands of their vegetation and denies them ample time to recover. This causes soil to become loose and exposed, after which it can be eroded by wind and rain. In July 2018, Ali Moridi, an official with the Iranian Department of Environment reported because of overgrazing, soil erosion is occurring across Iran at an annual rate of 16 tons per hectare, three to four times the global average. Furthermore, warned Moridi, if current trends continue, Iran will “undoubtedly” lose all of its rangelands “within the next few years.”

·         Deforestation-

Deforestation’s impact on Iran’s environment is similar to that of overgrazing. Removal of vegetation leaves soil vulnerable to erosion, and the land to eventual desertification. An estimated nine million hectares of Iranian forest have disappeared since 1942, this has been attributed to years of unsustainable logging (legal and illegal), construction and unregulated agricultural expansion. In 2015, Esmail Kahrom, an official with Iran’s Department of Environment, warned that if deforestation is not quickly curtailed “Iran will have no forests [within the] next 75 to 100 years.”

·         Water Overexploitation

Decades of unsustainable practices such as the establishment of high water consuming cash crop plantations near wetlands, the deliberate drainage of wetlands for oil exploration and the rerouting of rivers to supply growing cities have left Iran’s crucial wetlands in a precarious state and has opened the door further to nationwide desertification. 44% of Iran’s wetlands have already dried up entirely and one-third of its Ramsar sites are described as being in “critical condition.” Lake Urmia and its wetlands, for example, have shrunk by nearly 90% since the 1970s. When wetlands evaporate, they leave behind a bed of exposed salt and sand which are then lifted into the air by winds causing dust storms. These dust storms destroy crops and deposit salt on fertile lands up to dozens of miles away, paving the way for more environmental degradation and desertification in the future.

·         Climate Change

Experts project that the Middle East will be hit particularly hard by global climate change. According to Iran’s National Climate Change Office, depending on whether global carbon emissions increase, decrease or remain, by the year 2100, average temperatures in Iran will rise by between 1ºC and 7.7ºC. Perhaps more alarmingly, annual precipitation, which in Iran is already about one-fourth the global average, is expected to decrease by between 11% and 80% by 2100.

Iran’s environment is already being transformed by climate change. Like their polar counterparts, its glaciers have been experiencing significant retreat over the years. While the exact extent of this decline in Iran is unclear, the presence of discolored terrain and slightly lower mountain peaks observed in glacial regions indicates that once present glaciers have recently disappeared. This melting is devastating nearby communities. In 2015, abnormal melting of Takht–e–Soleiman glaciers caused severe flooding in Tonekabon County in Mazandaran Province on Iran’s north coast. The floods, directly attributed to global warming by government officials, destroyed or damaged US$300,000 worth of infrastructure, as well as forests and rangelands. Local experts fear that as temperatures rise, such floods could become commonplace during the summer months.

Rising temperatures and plummeting rainfall is also prolonging droughts and speeding up the drying of lakes, rivers and wetlands, which in turn accelerates desertification.

Fighting the Desert

The dire situation of the country’s environment has not escaped the notice of Iranian leaders. In 2010, Tehran, in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme, expanded the Carbon Sequestration Project (CSP), an initiative began as a small pilot project in 2003 aimed at combatting deforestation and soil erosion. Citing the successful re-greening of over 15,000 hectares of previously degraded land, the CSP was expanded to an additional 17 provinces. Local communities were engaged to restore forests by planting new trees, herbs and shrubs, as well as terracing deforested land to prevent erosion and enhance irrigation. As of 2016, more than 1,500 additional hectares of forest and rangeland have been rehabilitated, including 300 hectares of the Hyrcanian forests.

Also, with the aid of an annual $1 million grant from Japan, Iran has over the past five years been working to restore Lake Urmia and the surrounding wetlands. Tehran’s initiatives which include releasing water from dams and promoting sustainable irrigation practices in the farming communities, have bred some success. In March 2017, the UNDP representative in Iran reported that while “not nearly enough” progress has been made, “life has returned to the dying [Urmia wetlands], the effort to restore what had been broken is succeeding.”

Iran has also signed the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and promised to reduce carbon emissions by 12% and spend $5 billion on conservation. An action plan is also underway to strengthen cooperation among the many government agencies responsible for conservation, provide provincial authorities with sufficient conservation funds and engage vulnerable communities in the conservation and anti-desertification efforts.

Iran is going to have to fight hard to preserve its remarkable environmental diversity against the march of the desert. However, as the small successes it has achieved in regreening forests and rangelands, restoring wetlands and mainstreaming sustainable agricultural practices show, the challenge, though substantial, is not insurmountable.

Meanwhile, two major negative developments have slowed progress in helping revive Iran’s environment. First is the politicization of environmental activism. As a result, tens of Iran’s environmental activists have been arrested, jailed and even murdered. Government has charged these activists with spying for foreign countries. Funding from certain countries for these activists are suspected. While certain foreign nations might have attempted to abuse such activities, suppression of environmentalists is an act inconsistent with Iran’s national interest.

The second negative impact on efforts to revive Iran’s decaying environment is corruption. Unfortunately, much of the funds allocated for environmental upgrading are diverted by officials and others in charge to private uses, leaving essential projects cash-hungry. This trend in recent years, when more degrading of environment has ben taking place, and more funds were needed to stop and revers the trend, has become even more pronounced. It is imperative that this corruption is stopped immediately and perpetrators are punished.