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Air pollution in Iran has risen to crisis levels, putting the state under increasing pressure. Tehran, the largest city in West Asia with about 14 million inhabitants, enjoys less than 100 healthy days a year. This is particularly problematic for the economic heart of the country. Choking traffic, a lack of strong and low rainfall exacerbate the problem.
In 2012, the pollution resulted in nearly 4,500 premature deaths in Tehran and about 80,000 across the country. In 2013, the Health Ministry announced that up to 4,460 Tehran residents died due to air pollution, which is roughly 25 per cent of the total number of deaths in the city each year. The ministry also reported a rise in respiratory and heart diseases as well as an increase in a variety of pollution-related cancers.
According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), four out of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in Iran, with Ahwaz, in the south, topping the list. Out of 1,099 cities evaluated for overall air pollution, Tehran was ranked 82, a situation many pollution experts believe has deteriorated since the publication of WHO’s report in 2015. Tehran has roughly four times the concentration of polluting particles as smog-blighted Los Angeles.
There are many factors behind the problem. According to officials, cars produce 48 per cent of Tehran’s pollution and motorcycles 22 per cent. An adult living in Tehran spends around 250 hours per year in traffic. At the country level, around 5 billion hours are spent annually in congestion, costing the economy about $2 billion.
Each year, Tehran’s 5.5 million vehicles pump an estimated 5 million tonnes of CO2 and other poisonous gases into the air. Although the authorities have started banning the import of non-standardized gasoline, much more is needed to bring the situation under control. Before the nuclear deal in 2015, many Iranian citizens and government officials blamed the US-led sanctions that prevented the country from importing gasoline and the technology needed to effectively produce gas domestically. Indeed, the sanctions forced Iran to employ outdated equipment and produce toxic formulations of cheap petroleum.
However, there is an alternative view that suggests that the blame should be shared. Some experts argue that the sanctions took the lid off problems that had been building for decades: a population explosion, poor administration, lack of a long-term policy and, in some cases, corruption.
Although the air pollution in Tehran often makes headlines, there are deeper problems in other parts of the country. In February 2018, dust storms swept into Khuzestan province. Air pollution in Ahvaz, the provincial capital, which already struggles with pollutants emitted by the local petrochemical industry, reached 60 times above safe levels. On one day, 30 flights to and from Ahvaz were cancelled due to the thick dust. The local authorities stopped bus services and residents were advised to stay at home.
This region is populated by Arab minorities, which could add more complexity to the situation. Many of these minorities blame the discriminatory policies of the state for the current environmental crisis. This has resulted in local protests that have been stifled by the riot police and the Revolutionary Guards. In regions where there is a mix of religious or ethnic communities, environmental problems can easily become politicized. Problems such as political neglect and underinvestment in marginal provinces has tainted state-society relations for decades. In Khuzestan, which is facing some of the worst air pollution in the world, there is historic distrust between Arab minorities and the Persian-dominated central government.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has spoken publicly about air pollution and on his own website even has a section on Islamic rulings related to heavy pollution. President Hassan Rouhani has also publicly acknowledged the worsening situation. In January 2018, the Supreme Leader asked the government to allocate $150 million to fight heavy air pollution in the south, but given the scale of the problem, it may be too little, too late.
The ongoing debate about the state policy towards the country’s environmental problems grew heated when it became evident that Tehran’s former mayor, Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf, spent five times more money on religious programmes than the environment. This has angered civil society activists and fuelled factional politics and finger pointing.
It will be difficult to tackle air pollution without a united political front. As well as a comprehensive approach, there is also a desperate need for closer regional cooperation, which in the current political climate is unlikely. If the situation continues to deteriorate, air pollution will become one of the most pressing political and security issues facing the Islamic Republic.