Tehran’s losing battle with air pollution

Mount Damāvand is a potentially active volcano and the highest peak in Iran.

Article Highlights

  • Air pollution is a major problem in #Tehran; ineffective government efforts to rectify it remain a grievance. @mrubin1971

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  • At the time of the Islamic Revolution, Tehran had a population of 4.5 million people. Today, its population has doubled.

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  • Tehran’s topography makes a simple solution to air pollution more complicated. Pollution is trapped against the mountains.

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  • At current pollution levels, Tehranis are lucky to spot Mount Damavand twice a year.

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Editor's Note: FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch provides translated selections and analysis from a diverse range of foreign articles and other media that analysts and expert contributors believe will give military and security experts an added dimension to their critical thinking about the Operational Environment.

Source: Hava-ye Tehran Hamchinan Nasalam Ast” (“Tehran’s Air is Still Unhealthy,”) MehrNews.com. 27 May 2012.

Michael Rubin: Air pollution is a major problem in Tehran; ineffective government efforts to rectify it remain a grievance that transcends all segments of society, from religious to secular, rich to poor, and regime loyalists to oppositionists.

Tackling Tehran air pollution will be a Herculean task. At the time of the Islamic Revolution, Tehran was a city of approximate 4.5 million people; today, its population has doubled. Consider the greater metropolitan area, however, and the population approaches 14 million. Topography works against a simple solution. Tehran is much like Denver, gently rising from relatively flat plains before ending abruptly at a wall of mountains. Prevailing winds trap pollution against the mountains and air quality plummets. Electronic billboards in central Tehran report on pollutant levels, but Iranians remain suspicious that the government manipulates their readings in order to avoid mandatory furloughs of outdoor workers. Ordinary Iranians judge pollution by whether they can see Mount Damavand, an 18,406-ft peak 41 miles northeast of Tehran. Whereas two decades ago Tehranis would spot Damavand several times per week, at current pollution levels they are lucky to see the mountain twice a year.

On particularly bad days, when denial is impossible, the state-controlled press will discuss pollution levels. The story below places levels of particles smaller than 10 microns at between 72 and 129 micrograms per cubic meter; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for spikes to 150, but defines a safe level averaged across the year at 50. The reading of 2.5 micron particles was 87 micrograms per cubic meter; in comparison, the EPA sets an annual standard of 15 micrograms, allowing spikes only to 65.

The failure to combat pollution undercuts the regime’s already troubled relations with disabled veterans. As air quality declined, the government warned Iranians disabled in Iraqi chemical weapons attacks to stay indoors so that poor air quality did not exacerbate their health. While such precautions are sensible, they nonetheless antagonize a constituency which, on one hand, is lionized for its service to the revolutionary regimes while, on the other hand, complaining that the regime no longer compensates them for their sacrifice.

The regime’s decades-long inability to reduce Tehran air pollution also reflects the rise of Khatam al-Anbia, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ economic wing. Khatam al-Anbia stands above the law and so is neither subject to parliamentary regulation nor responsive to popular protest. The group has become especially active in vehicle manufacture and sales, and so resists basic regulation and pollution controls in order to both bolster its bottom line and avoid any precedent of subordination to Iran’s other power centers.

Ordinary Iranians have long since abandoned the ideological precepts of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution. They distrust regime statistics and its claims of economic progress. Rather, they consider metrics they can judge with their own eyes. So long as Tehran remains shrouded in a haze of debilitating pollution, they will dismiss any notion that their quality of life is improving.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Rubin


  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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