The Anthropocene: Smog and Carcinogens – the Silent Aggressors of Iran

The Anthropocene: Planet Politics in the Epoch of Man

Anthropocene (n.): the new geological age defined by human impact on the planet. Increasingly, political stability is dependent upon environmental security. In 2013, island nations risk being wiped off the map by rising sea levels, cities choke under the weight of pollution and national tension is mounting over the allocation of energy resources. How are governments, corporations and individuals reacting to climate change, population growth, tension over water, arctic meltdown and energy challenges? In the Anthropocene column, FAR columnist Alexandra Ellis casts light upon the political challenges – and potential solutions – of the new environmental era.


In January, Tehran residents were given a regular reminder of their country’s pariah status—in their lungs.

Currently, Iran faces numerous exterior threats: isolation under international sanctions, the prospect of Israeli airstrikes on its nuclear facilities, and the weakening of Syria’s Assad, a key Iranian ally. Yet Iran’s greatest problems may be domestic.

Image courtesy of Sam Anvari, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Sam Anvari, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Tehran and other major Iranian cities came to a standstill for nearly a week in January due to elevated air pollution levels. Universities, banks, and government offices closed as high levels of lead and benzene-ridden haze blanketed the nation.

Iran has long faced high air pollution issues, with many of its largest cities – Tehran, Karaj, Arak, Tabriz and Isfahan – ranking high on the WHO’s ratings of the world’s most contaminated cities.  Rising Iranian oil wealth allowed for the domestic automotive industry, dominated by Iran Khodro and Saipa, to flourish in the mid-1990s. Though oil subsidies have recently been cut, driving is still encouraged by low fuel prices. Car ownership became one of the government’s favourite examples of rising living standards following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which sought to implement economic populism through nationalisation of the oil industry, among other policies. However, gridlocked streets and clouds of haze now represent a fundamental challenge to Iran’s day-to-day functioning. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the Islamic Republic’s leadership has placed Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who received a Ph.D in traffic management in 1997, in the position of president.

Iran’s environmental woes are also linked to a pitiful lack of regulation. A large portion of Iranian cars lack catalytic convertors, contributing to high levels of carbon monoxide. In many places, industrial runoff has contaminated drinking reservoirs. Those in the market for luxury food items may be disappointed that Iran has contributed to the oil spills and rising sewage levels in the Caspian sea that have led to spikes in the price of caviar.

The pollution problem, however, goes beyond industrialisation or a lack of environmental management. Increasingly, pollution in Iran is caused the government’s conscious political choice.

Though fervently denied by the Iranian government, the international sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic has contributed to the high levels of air pollution.

 Iran, though an oil exporter, used to refine a portion of its crude externally due to its own inadequate investment in oil infrastructure. When the United States passed an embargo on Iranian gasoline imports in 2010, Iranian government officials desperately ordered that at least five of the country’s petrochemical plants be converted to gasoline production in order to meet demand. Iran’s gasoline shortage was further exacerbated by the European Union’s similar ban passed in 2012. The petrochemical plants now produce its own special “emergency fuel” blend that is high in aromatics, which can cause serious respiratory and cardiac problems when released into the air by car engines.

Though Iran usually experiences periods of elevated air pollution the winter months when winds lull, it is clear that the government emergency fuel policy is perpetuating the problem. Tehran’s department of air quality control reported that the city experienced more than 300 “healthy days” in 2009, but fewer than 150 in 2011.[1]

Will the clouds of smog be a force potent enough to brew popular discontent against the regime?

The opposition Green Movement, which demanded Mr. Ahmadinejad’s removal from office after his re-election in 2009, which protesters believed to be fraudulent, was not considered ‘green’ in the environmental sense. Yet, emergency fuel and its consequential rise in pollution levels is just one illustration of an Iranian government policy that disregards the wellbeing of its people.

The Iranian regime has endured sanctions due to its nuclear ventures, undertaken in the name of international prestige. As a result, ordinary Iranians have endured notable currency devaluations, increased unemployment, and food and medicine shortages.

According to supporters of Western sanctions, crippling the backbone (and environmental standards) of the Iranian regime through embargos may induce popular revolt. The Green Movement was largely quelled due to government violence following the 2009 protests. However, dissatisfaction continues to manifest itself; most notably during the 2011 protests which demanded a serious reformation of the current political regime. (However, protesters’ momentum may be suppressed now that the main opposition leaders, Moussavi and Karroubi, have vanished, and are likely jailed or under strict house arrest.) According to figures like Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister, sanctions will stoke popular unrest leading to an Iranian-style Tahrir revolution. Sanctions advocates maintain that pollution, hunger and a loss of purchasing power will precipitate a ‘Persian Spring.’

Moreover, high pollution and other sanctions-related hardships may not act not as a catalyst for regime change, but rather as a humanitarian trauma that will further debilitate Iran’s formerly blossoming civil society. International sanctions against Iran could have the same effect as those against Iraq in the 1990s, which caused mass human suffering and starvation amongst the Iraqi population while tightening Saddam Hussein’s grip on power. The Green Movement’s leadership opposes the sanctions regime because it cripples the middle class, causing Iranians to focus upon their daily struggles instead of fighting for political freedoms. The sanctions may result not only in the breakdown of the Iranian economy, but also in the collapse of its population’s physical health.

Iran may even manage to circumvent the sanctions’ economic and environmental effects due to a shift towards natural gas. In seeming irony, Iran, an oil power attempting to go nuclear, is now turning to natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel, in an attempt to reduce the pollution problem and make up for its gasoline shortage. It is currently building pipelines in order to export natural gas to Iraq and Pakistan. The resulting profits may fortify the current Iranian regime to the detriment of any political opposition.

Overall, Iran’s pollution issue highlights the pertinence of links between environmental harms and political unrest. Recently, Chinese millionaire and environmental activist Chen Guangbiao began selling fresh air canisters in Beijing as a way to subtly advertise the need for better air pollution control. In Iran, as well as China, will the hazardous air lead to real political effect?

In Iran, this question may be answered during the June 2013 presidential elections. Though the Guardian Council is unlikely to vet any threatening opposition candidates, the Supreme Leadership continues approach the electoral period with trepidation. Luckily for Iran’s incumbent leadership, breezes usually pick up in the summer months, blunting the pollution’s weight and reducing the relevancy of one of many Iranian political grievances.