Iran’s Struggle with Air Pollution

by Mehrnaz Samimi

Iran’s pollution, a decades-old issue, has steadily increased in recent years, claiming lives and damaging healthy lungs. Iran’s most recent official statistics concludes that, on average, one person dies of pollution-related causes in the capital, Tehran, every two hours. According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), four out of the 10 most-polluted cities of the world are in Iran, with Ahwaz, in southern Iran, sitting at the top of the list. Out of 1,099 world cities evaluated for overall air pollution, Tehran was ranked 82, a situation many pollution experts say has worsened since the publication of WHO’s report in early 2015.  

The topography of the Iran’s big cities—most significantly, mountainous Tehran—is only one of the roots of this morbid problem. The overwhelming number of vehicles, given the increasing rate of their importation and production over the past 10 years, has largely contributed to this. Loose inspection regulations mean that a lot of older, uninspected cars are pumping pollution into the air. The high rate of immigration from villages and smaller cities to major metropolitan areas—due to insufficient amenities and unemployment in the provinces, adds, literally and figuratively, more smoke to the pollution of Iran’s major cities. The import and use of under-refined or non-standard gasoline containing major air pollutants has only added to the problem.

According to officials, cars produce 48% of Tehran’s pollution and motorcycles 22%. Though the government has started prohibiting the import of non-standardized gasoline—the most recent case taking place on February 29—there is still a long road ahead in overcoming pollution in major Iranian cities, from Ahwaz (consistently ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world) to Karaj and Shiraz. Intense pollution, which becomes potentially morbid during the cold months, has caused schools, and at times, offices, to close multiple times over the winter, a trend in the past decade.

Despite vows of cooperation between Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum and its National Standard Organization, years of negligence and shortcomings in urban management and miscommunication between the two institutions have complicated the process of combatting pollution. Iran’s National Standard Organization has declared the quality of gasoline a “political issue” today and has emphasized the strategic value of imported gasoline. Starting in mid-February, due to concerns over the possibility of low-quality gasoline entering Iran from the north, the country has been importing gasoline solely through the south. Meanwhile, Tehran has announced that this spring, domestic oil refineries will provide cleaner fuel in 17 major Iranian cities.

In a tweet late last year, Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president and head of its Environmental Protection Organization, responded to my tweet of concern over Tehran’s pollution: “The air you breathe in Tehran is now better than 2012, you are no longer exposed to carcinogenic levels of benzene, aromatics.”

But many believe that this is simply not enough.

Ebtekar also mentioned Hassan Rouhani’s plans to make “a transition to a green economy” in the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris. In an interview over two years ago, Ebtekar told me “we lost eight years,” pointing out the irresponsible decisions and actions made under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

According to an Iranian environment expert who specializes in clean air and pollution in Tehran but who declined to be named in this article, Iranian citizens don’t put in as much effort as needed to combat pollution. He said, “Mismanagement is an undeniable problem in Iran’s major cities, specially in Tehran. But people don’t want to compromise, either. Many simply don’t trust the government and some take no responsibility for their own environment and expect the government to do everything.” Others believe, however, that the government’s expectations are not always reasonable. One such expectation, promoted through social media, was Ebtekar’s recent “18 degree challenge” for people to keep their homes at an average temperature of 18 degrees celsius (64.4 Fahrenheit) to fight pollution.

Sara, a resident of Karaj (one of Iran’s largest—and most polluted—cities), says that this is absolutely impractical. “Maybe that’s why it’s called a challenge,” she conceded. “But with two small children in the house, the last thing I want is the house to get cold. My kids bring a lot of germs from daycare. I can’t add the risk of their catching cold at home, too. If they do, either me or my husband has to take a day off work to stay home with them.”

Babak, a lung specialist in Tehran, tells me that he sees a large number of patients with pollution-caused symptoms every week, particularly during the cold months. He says, “Many of my patients struggle with serious health issues as a result of polluted air. This (the 18-degree challenge) is not a challenge for everyone, but I believe it could be helpful overall, even though it’s a very minor step. We should take steps as a people too, to help our own situation. I see patients regularly who are in worrisome conditions. This could be a small measure some could take, but many of my patients would rather walk around in a tee-shirt and shorts in their home, so they turn up the heat in the winter.”

Facing an increasingly dire issue, the Rouhani government is making efforts to find allies in the anti-pollution front, including China and France. In late January, Tehran and Beijing signed an agreement to cooperate in the implementation of anti-pollution measures. China also struggles with air pollution in its capital and its larger cities. Iranian officials believe that comparative methods could be implemented in both countries, and Iran could adapt some of Chinese measures, including firmer inspection regulations for both public and personal vehicles, paying subsidies for clean cars, and expanding production lines of hybrid and electric cars. Like Beijing, Tehran also hopes to increase the number of clean cars, though perhaps not according to the same accelerated time line as the Chinese.

During his recent visit to Paris, Rouhani reached an agreement with the French to resume cooperation in the fight against air pollution, a collaboration that first started 10 years ago and then halted during Ahmadinejad’s administration.

Air pollution poses a dire risk to Iranians today. The consequences can be measured in the numbers of pollution-related deaths, the number of school and work days lost to pollution, and additional health challenges experienced by children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung conditions. These are drastic times for Iran’s big cities, and the government must take drastic measures to make the air breathable for its inhabitants.

Photo: Air pollution in Tehran

Mehrnaz Samimi is an Iranian-American journalist, analyst, and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi

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  1. This is a disturbing report of an issue previously unknown to me. I wish Iran and its people well in taking on this challenge.

  2. I saw and felt the pollution while visiting Iran in Fall of 2015. Pollution in almost all cities was pretty bad but it was a lot worse in Tehran. I agree that the people in Iran don’t take any initiatives of their own to mitigate this bad situation partly because they have become conditionaed that the government has the responsibility of solving all of their problems for them. Unfortunately this is a double edge sword since the government loves to control every aspect of the people’s lives and people in return are telling the government “it must solve all the problems since everything is in its control”. If the government really means it and it wants to improve the pollution under control quickly, it should assist less fortunate people financially to purchase newer cars and trucks and compelled them to retire their very old and polluting vehicles! This should take care of almost 50% of the vehicles in the cities! But explain it to the people this is only a one time assistance to bring the pollution under control. Then the government should get out of the business of controlling people’s lives and focus on improving it’s oil refineries and ban the idea of using it’s petrochemical facilities for production of gasoline as it was done by Ahmadinejad. Having Benzene in the air is a very serious issue since benzene is a known carcinogen causing brain cancer!!!!

  3. The government ultimately is responsible. Just as it is in the west when matters like this are left to private industry or people to tend to or police themselves, the results are devastating. In California after years of high level pollution, it was laws implemented by progressives that reduced the pollution levels. Last week with a Republican take over of the Southern California’s air quality board, they voted during a closed-door meeting to forcefully roll back pollution regulations in favor of regulations backed by oil refineries and other polluters. Thanks to smarter people at the State level measures are being taken to counter this move. My point is that even in more educated first world countries implementing laws are the only way to combat pollution of any kind. Iran is suffering from lawlessness. This is an ailment in every department in all levels. Actually the higher up the less the laws apply. Iran needs serious laws that penalize car companies and drivers alike. emission control; tied to car registration is the only way to combat this. But when the connected and the Sepah are running all the heavy industry in Iran you can not change anything. Laws don’t apply to “agha zadeh” and Sepah is above the government. So what do ordinary people supposed to do when trying to make ends meet in a country where the connected, the clergy and the rank and file of Sepah are destroying the country with their greed for money and power. What is the little guy to do against so much oppression.?

  4. @ not with them,
    I’m not sure what you exactly mean by lawlessness in Iran? Unfortunately in China and Iran, seen it at first hand, there are more laws on paper than they have space for the files but no one including the government personnel follows or at least respects the laws of the land! I agree with you in many ways and corruption in government Is rampant in iran! Bottom line, the people feel that they have no input in the laws and therefore they have no sense of ownership in laws and of course the feeling of why should one even follow or obey the laws if one has nothing to do with the process of legislating them. The laws can no longer be enforced because of the upper echelon not following the laws and also because of not having enough enforcing resources to enforce the laws across the board as you mentioned.
    Disrespect for the laws are seen daily everywhere and it has caused a total separation between the people and their government! Disrespect has even extended itself to the people and towards each other which can be seen while driving, staying in line, walking without bumping, not fixing the cars when it can not even be seen because it spews a dark smoke while on the road and so on! Yes the government are the safe guards, protectors and the enforcers of the laws but the government can not do it all by itself!

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