Iraq’s Basra Governorate, on the border with Iran, has endured environmental degradation due to conflict and a reduction of water flows into the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The ensuing decline in agriculture has led to rural migration, unemployment, poverty, a flourishing of informal and illicit economies, and the growth of violent groups. Iran’s dominant influence in Iraq has sustained this situation. Unless these problems are addressed, instability in Basra will increase and will have long-term consequences for Iraq and the Middle East.


  • The Basra border zone is facing a crisis caused by a reduction in water supplies, pollution, and climate change. This has devastated agriculture, which was once the region’s principal economic activity.
  • Iraq and Iran have failed to adopt a transboundary approach to environmental degradation. Instead, their disputes over water, their development choices aimed at increasing oil revenues, and their war during the 1980s have made matters worse.
  • The decline of agriculture due to environmental devastation has transformed social conditions in Basra.
  • Instability in Basra Governorate has been driven by rural migration, unemployment, poverty, expansion of the informal and illicit economies, and the spread of violent tribal and paramilitary groups.
  • This situation has been sustained by an uneven relationship between Iran and Iraq, in which border relations favor Iran. These relations are being defined by Tehran’s drive for supremacy, mainly manifested in its ties with Iraqi nonstate and parastate armed groups.


  • Iraq and Iran must collaborate to address the common challenges in the border zone and reprioritize socioeconomic and environmental needs over other considerations. Such collaboration could begin with working on a common policy to address water shortages and climate change.
  • Illicit trade and smuggling, especially of narcotics, have become a key threat to stability in Iraq and require serious action by both Iraq and Iran. This requires a change in Tehran’s support for nonstate or parastate actors in Iraq who have benefited from illicit trade and have contested Baghdad’s sovereignty over its border.
  • Beyond reconsidering its support for Iraqi armed groups, Tehran’s view of its border with Iraq as a passage through which it can export its military and economic power, as well as its ideology, is likely to lead to an increasingly contentious relationship with Iraq over border issues.
  • Iraq and Iran would benefit from agreeing to a new definition of security in their border zone. National security needs to be reconceptualized to include human security and environmental sustainability.