“Israel must be wiped off the face of the map,” proclaimed Iran’s newly elected president, Muhmoud Ahmadinejad, a mere five months into his term. These comments have sparked an international outcry over this clumsy and antagonistic summary of Iranian policy concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. They have also highlighted internal division within the Islamic Republic itself; while President Ahmadinejad has encouraged street demonstrations by his followers to support his inflammatory speech, more conservative elements within the Islamic cleric community have taken the opportunity to criticize the government’s foreign, social, and economic policy.
Headlines such as these dominate worldwide perceptions of Iran. In the last decade, Iran has been associated with government instability, religious tensions and oppression, the global economy and world oil supply, terrorism, and ambitions for nuclear technology, all of which have tremendous implications not only for stability in an already volatile Middle East, but also for global security. Given this uncertain atmosphere surrounding very touchy issues, it is little surprise that Iran’s vast environmental issues have been generally ignored both by Iran’s own government and by international agents.
While Iran’s environmental problems are quite diverse, ranging from deforestation and desertification to over fishing to water contamination to oil and chemical spills in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, two issues, air pollution and seismic activity, are most significant and deeply concern Tehran, Iran’s heavily populated capital city. These two issues are certainly quite different in that air pollution can be solved to a large extent while the effects of seismic activity can only be mitigated, but both problems require immediate government attention. Thus far, they have received little domestic or international attention despite causing or threatening to cause widespread suffering and even death.
Additionally, the government’s inability to deal with these problems seems to violate the constitution of the Islamic Republic, which states that “in the Islamic Republic of Iran, protection of the environment, in which present and future generations should enjoy a transcendent social life, is regarded as a public duty. Therefore, economic and any other activity, which results in pollution or irremediable destruction of the environment, is prohibited” . Furthermore, the arguments made and conclusions drawn in this paper do not apply only to Tehran, although the city itself constitutes a large portion of Iran’s population. Tehran is a microcosm of environmental crises facing many other cities throughout the nation.
I will first identify two distinct trends that have contributed to the uncontrolled, massive urban growth that characterizes Tehran today, as well as government policies that have failed to effectively channel and accommodate this population influx. Such government failure has resulted in these two serious environmental issues that are compounded to various degrees by Tehran’s unfortunate geographic position and ignorance within both the government ranks and the public sphere. I will then examine the current political climate in Iran, characterized by modest public pressure for change, domestic and international relief efforts, and governmental disinterest in effective environmental policy.
The White Revolution and Land Reform
Tehran was once known as the city of plane trees, and traditional homes on narrow streets provided ample room for private and public gardens and abundant tree life, all very vital to the Persian psyche in such a hot, dry land . However, the city has undergone extraordinary development within the last century, morphing into a crowded
metropolis bursting with a population it can barely sustain. Much of this urban explosion has occurred within the last few decades as a result of two central trends that must be understood if Tehran’s current environmental issues are to be solved.
First of all, the burgeoning populations of Iran’s cities and of Tehran in particular are due to inefficient land reform policies that have plagued both the Shah’s government before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini’s post-revolutionary regime. The most significant land reform of the pre-revolutionary period took place during the Shah’s White Revolution and formed the backbone of the entire movement . His pre-revolutionary government favored industry over agriculture, a philosophy that inevitably clashed with the current system of ownership and production and forced basic shifts in the agricultural sector towards capitalism and industrialization . This expansion of the industrial sector alone was enough to effect some shift in employment opportunities away from the rural areas and to the cities, and other aspects of the land reform helped to encourage this trend.
First, the small number of large, absentee landlords who owned 70 percent of the arable land in Iran had to sell or lease the land through the state to the peasants who had worked on it. However, the program ignored the rural wage earners who constituted 40 percent of the cultivating peasants, leaving them without their livelihood and giving them the impetus to seek out new life in the cities .
Furthermore, those who were allowed to maintain their plots of land found them to be too tiny to be agriculturally productive or sustainable. The average amount of land given to the cultivating peasants was ten acres, but given Iran’s climate conditions and seasons, only five acres of that land could be productive in a given year while the remainder needed to lie fallow. At that time, however, an average peasant family of five people needed 8.5 acres of productive land to survive. Simply put, the program did not provide sufficient resources for survival to the peasants who remained on the land .
Furthermore, many of those who decided to endure this hardship were routinely ignored by the government which often worked to discourage peasants so they would give their land back to the government, enabling the creation of massive agricultural corporations . After only a few years of this reform, 78 percent of the peasants who had been appropriated land did not have enough to feed their families, 32 percent owned nothing at all, and hundreds of thousands more simply abandoned their homes, sold their land back to the wealthy land barons, and migrated to the cities .
Secondly, the Shah’s government pursued a policy of consolidating the most productive lands and leasing them to the many multinational corporations that were lining up to take advantage of Iran’s shift to capitalism. Land was purchased for a pittance from small, disgruntled farmers and then offered to foreign investors in attractive deals accompanied by various beneficial policies such as low interest loans, tax relief, cost-sharing of construction projects, subsidized equipment and fuel, and other remarkable concessions. These policies clearly favored powerful foreign investors over smaller farmers and resulted in wide disparities in land control in Iran.
Third, corruption and various exemptions took sizable quantities of land out of the reach of reform. Landholders with personal ties to the Shah were untouched while mechanized farms, orchards, and tea plantations (almost exclusively owned by the upper classes) were given a free pass .
Finally, the Shah’s pre-revolutionary government failed to bolster its reforms with subsidies or loans for much needed agricultural supplies such as equipment, seed, and fertilizer. The peasants, working plots of land that barely sustained their families, certainly could not produce enough to sell and so could purchase none of these necessary items. A decade into the reform efforts, two million peasant farms “operated” on fifty thousand tractors, actually decreasing agricultural productivity overall. Production could not keep track with population growth and despite the bold agricultural goals of the White Revolution, Iran was forced to import even more food than before.
Most importantly, the ineptitude of government policy drove many desperate rural dwellers to the cities and especially to Tehran, which was simply unable to effectively accommodate the population wave. Housing prices increased dramatically and dirty shanty-towns developed around the city .
Outside of land reform, the White Revolution’s attempts to improve education, health care, and reconstruction were directed primarily at urban areas . Iran’s urban population exploded from less than 30 percent in 1956 to more than 50 percent only twenty years later , with the population of cities growing from 25.8 million in 1966 to 33.7 million in 1976 . The municipal government of Tehran was ill-equipped to provide much needed sophisticated urban management due to corruption and a lack of accountability, of autonomy from the central government, of coordinated management of
urban offices, and a dearth of power for long-term planning. It simply did not have the legitimacy or the bureaucratic power to respond to Tehran’s rapid urbanization . These new urban residents had been promised a healthier, more prosperous life by the White Revolution and their dashed expectations effected widespread frustration and anger towards the Shah’s government.
Land Reform and Population Growth in the Islamic Republic
Facing these failures of the Shah’s government, the Islamic Republic, established in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution removed the Shah from power, sought to alleviate the struggles of the poor and oppressed and to create a system of equal justice. Article 3 of the Constitution states that the republic is responsible for “the planning of a correct and just economic system…in order to create prosperity, remove poverty, and abolish all forms of deprivation with respect to food, housing, work, and health care” . Accordingly, the leaders of the Republic proposed their own brand of land reform that gave priority to agriculture and supported the rural economy so as to prevent further urbanization and even perhaps reverse the trend .
One attempt at this goal was the Jihad-eh Sazandegi, or the Construction Crusade, which employed some of the republic’s most dedicated supporters and focused on improving agriculture, cattle breeding, rural water quality, development of rural industries, and health care through various and diverse construction projects such as roads, irrigation and drainage systems, clinics, schools, and homes . However, despite government efforts, the implementation of revolutionary ideals fell far short due to a generally incompetent government, preoccupation with a devastating war with Iraq
that lasted eight years and severely damaged Iran economically and socially , internal political disagreement among various factions, and a lack of foreign investment . Urban migration was barely influenced; a 1986 census indicates that urban growth rates in many cities actually increased . One official noted “diffusion of the decision making centers and contradictory policies have prevented planning for the establishment of rural industries to bear fruits. This confusion in practice will be detrimental to rural residents…the rural youth, confronted with seasonal unemployment, will be forced to migrate to cities” .
The second trend, much simpler but no less important, was a “demographic deluge from within”  that greatly impacted the urbanization of Iran’s cities, further exacerbating the environmental implications of a booming population. With the Islamic Revolution came an exchange of the Shah’s authoritarian control for the religious extremism of Khomeini, resulting in Iran’s conflicts with and ostracization from both regional and global alliances. In response to his nation’s expulsion from the world community, “Khomeini chose to build his own”  and issued decrees encouraging his followers to multiply.
The resulting 6-year baby boom rapidly increased the population growth rate to 3.4 percent in 1986 and touched off a population explosion that more than doubled Iran’s population in less than 25 years. Additionally, it created a very young population. In 1991, half of Tehran’s citizens were younger than 22.3 years old , and more than 50 percent of the population in 2004 was under the age of 30 . Such a boom has placed significant stress on all aspects of Iranian society, as government leaders have struggled to address fertility rates and unemployment in order to meet the needs of a young population that demands a high quality of life. Most noticeably, the population boom has only exacerbated the spread of urbanization since the revolution.
The trends of poorly implemented, ineffective land reform and a booming population across recent decades have resulted in dramatic urban migration to and growth within the cities of Iran, and most notably in Tehran. The sheer volume and rapidity of urbanization overwhelmed an already weak local municipal government that has done little to mitigate the pressure put on the city’s infrastructure by a population of twelve million people squeezed into an urban habitat designed for five million at best.
Air Pollution and Energy Consumption in Tehran
A lack of central planning to accommodate this explosive growth has left Tehran facing two very serious environmental threats. First of all, air pollution has reached crisis levels, making Tehran one of the world’s most polluted cities and sparking outcry from the citizenry. About 1.5 million tons of pollutants are produced in Tehran each year  and the city is usually enveloped in a cloud of smog. Recent studies suggest that each resident inhales between seven and nine kilograms of dust per year . The extraordinary air pollution is partially a result of household fuels and industry in the south of the city , which accounts for 25 percent of Iran’s total industrial pollution of 495,000 tons of pollutants per year , but primary responsibility falls upon Tehran’s 2 million automobiles, which are responsible for 70 percent of Tehran’s pollution .
Out of every 100 families in the city of 12 million, more than 42 have cars and almost 95 percent use them for work and other trips , which places huge pressure on the poorly designed city road system. The resulting congestion, dangerous driving, and lack of parking only contribute to the pollution. Additionally, the cars themselves are not only great in number, but are also of extremely low quality. Until very recently, most of the cars on the road were over 20 years old, meaning they were very fuel inefficient, could not use lead-free gasoline, and lacked catalytic converters, all of which help decrease pollution .
Furthermore, public transportation is inefficient and unreliable. The city’s fleet of diesel busses are a constant source of complaint and consternation due to terrible service and environmental concerns ; municipal funds have been distributed inefficiently to construction projects that have added 300 kilometers of new roads but have done little to decrease congestion; a system requiring drivers to pay for city access on weekdays has done little; a 3-year old underground system carries hundreds of thousands of passengers every day but has failed to make a dent in congestion ; and a much anticipated railway system struggled through technological and budgetary difficulties and only managed to produce two routes . All in all, government efforts have been inefficient at best, and certainly not comprehensive enough to address the problem.
Tehran has been a major factor in Iran’s recent surges in both energy consumption and carbon emissions. From 1980 to 2000, Iran’s energy consumption increased from 1.6 quadrillion BTU to 4.7 quadrillion BTU , mostly due to the gasoline consumption of cars that burn 10 million liters of fuel a day . The fuel is also heavily subsidized by the government, which lowers the incentive for producers to make the cars more fuel efficient . Energy-related carbon emissions have also skyrocketed from 33.1 million metric tons emitted in 1980 to 80.8 million metric tons in 2000, making Iran accountable today for over 1.3 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.
In 1998, for example, carbon monoxide pollution in Tehran was more than 6 times the acceptable level set by the World Health Organization . It seems that the automobile industry may only be expanding as Tehran moves to lower import taxes on whole cars in order to fulfill the still booming demand and to decrease unemployment by opening up the market to foreign firms such as Citroen, Peugeot, and Daewoo . The influx of new foreign and technologically advanced cars might help replace some of the 1960’s Hillman Hunters that still crowd the streets of Iran, but it remains to be seen if this possible boon is offset by lax Iranian fuel efficiency standards and a numerical increase in vehicles on the road.
The government’s inability to combat this relentless and intense air pollution is an affront to both the Iranian Constitution and to basic standards of human rights, as the pollution has widespread social, medical, and economic implications. Due to pollution crises each year, thousands of schools are shut down for days at a time, depriving children of educational opportunities and inconveniencing parents who have no place to put their child during the unexpected days off . Thousands of residents routinely wear masks to protect themselves from the heavy smog that often blots out the morning sun, while the media issue frequent warnings asking residents to remain indoors whenever possible . “When you have lived there and accommodated the pollution for so long, sometimes it is possible to overlook it,” remembers Dr. Abbas Milani, a Hoover Fellow and director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. “But when I went back after several years, I remember returning home from work with a visible, thick layer of soot on my collar” .
The pollution has had tremendous medical and economic implications as well, and figures released by the government, which tend to under-represent the true extent of the problem, report that 4,600 people die each year in Tehran from pollution related illnesses . Levels of heart disease, asthma, and various respiratory and nervous system afflictions have risen dramatically  while less serious but still damaging ailments such as headaches, burning eyes, and nose and throat irritation affect untold numbers of Tehran’s citizens, all of which result in massive economic productivity loss each year and have severe implications for children, the elderly, and the sick .
Further exacerbating the problem is the unfortunate geography of Tehran. The city is scattered across a large highland interior and is surrounded by an outer rim of prominent mountain chains, creating a sort of bowl in which Tehran rests. The city butts up against both the Alburz and Zagrus mountain chains in the north and west, respectively, and stretches to the desert in the south, with Mount Damasand rising out of the Alburz mountains . The high altitudes of Tehran and the veritable wall of mountains enclosing it inhibit natural ventilation of the city. Over 70 percent of Tehran’s winds have speeds below 6 knots and do little good in clearing the smog from the city. While the other 30 percent of winds are strong enough, they blow from west and south where Tehran’s heavy industry rests, pushing the polluted air over the city and trapping it against the mountains. Only the winds from the north blow in the correct direction, and they accomplish very little .
The situation for Tehran is bleak, but air pollution, though serious, is not the only major environmental risk the city faces due to high rates of urbanization and inept government response. Iran is one of the most seismically dangerous countries in the world and is situated directly over the Himalayan-Alpied seismic belt. Indeed, in the last few decades alone, a few large earthquakes have resulted in extreme damage and loss of more than fifty thousand lives. Tehran, in particular, has historically been prone to severe earthquakes due to its proximity to several major fault lines, including the North Tehran thrust, Nosha, and North and South Rey. Recent studies indicate high seismic potential for the Tehran region .
This significant earthquake risk is compounded not only by the dense population of the city, but also by government irresponsibility concerning building code enforcement, both of which make Tehran especially prone to earthquake damage. As urbanization increased after the Islamic Revolution, building codes in Tehran were relaxed to enable a building boom to accommodate the population influx . Smaller, inward-looking courtyard buildings were converted into or replaced with much higher buildings, often with varying quality of building materials and construction methods . Additionally, the shanty towns swelled rapidly as increasing prices restricted housing for the poor. The dwellings of wood, plastic, and metal offer sparse, unstable living conditions that certainly could not resist a significant quake. Their collapse would cost many lives and leave thousands destitute .
Even today, the need for housing inspires corrupt business practices. Examples abound of government requests to add on extra floors to housing projects even when doing so endangers the integrity of the entire building. Companies that refuse are stripped of the contracts while less scrupulous builders take their place . Not only is Tehran at great risk for a significant earthquake, but the catastrophic consequences of such an event will be compounded by a lack of government integrity and preparation due to the rapid rates of urbanization. In fact, a recent team of seismologists conducted a scientific study of Tehran’s preparedness for such a quake and found little government policy in place to alleviate the suffering. They predicted 80 percent building failure and more than 700,000 dead .
Government Response and Future Challenges
The environmental situation is clearly grim, and the national and local governments have done comparatively little to effectively combat these pressing issues. High urban growth rates are not merely a thing of the past as Iran’s rates, already among the highest in the world, are predicted to rise to nearly 80 percent, an unprecedented number for a developing country . Such rapid population and urban growth, combined with increasing car usage and even more reliance on fossil fuels, will only make pollution worse.
The government under previous president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami did encourage some programs designed to decrease environmental damage, such as phasing out leaded gasoline , attempting a reverse migration initiative similar to attempts in the early years of the Islamic Republic to regenerate rural areas in order to stem the tide of urban growth , implementing a ten-year plan to combat pollution in Tehran , creating relief committees for those suffering from environmental damage , and various other initiatives. Khatami’s government at least promoted something of an environmental agenda, with a Deputy Vice President in charge of environmental issues who attended various United Nations Environmental Issues Council meetings and encouraged interaction between American and Iranian environmentalists .
However, these attempts have had limited success. For example, urban migration continues despite rural investment in local industries and agriculture. Officials admit that the national pollution-reduction plan requires 15-20 years to attain any noticeable results . Even more of a setback for Iran was this June’s election of President Ahmadinejad, a leader who views environmental issues as marginal at best. What this promises for Iran, especially after decades of government ineptitude and general disinterest, is far from a rosy future for the environment .
Modern Tehran provides a microcosm of Iran’s environmental challenges. Ill-conceived and poorly implemented land reform before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, combined with a population explosion in the years after the revolution, provoked migration to the cities and stunning urban growth rates. Tehran, like many other cities in Iran, was simply unable to manage its own urban development in response to such a quickly burgeoning population and missed vital opportunities for urban reform that might have mitigated Tehran’s current crises. Instead, poor central planning has left the overcrowded metropolis with a pollution problem that borders upon human rights abuse and an urban sprawl characterized by a frightening lack of structural safety, both of which jeopardize the lives of the city’s millions of residents.
Although environmental problems are slowly becoming political issues in Iran, the environment remains by and large a marginal issue and on the periphery of political discourse in a nation mostly uneducated about developing environmental crises.
Unfortunately for Iran and its citizens, however, nothing in Iran is accomplished without government, which is currently not interested in appropriating funds and effort to environmental issues. Such concerns have been traditionally thrown on the back burner and are particularly ignored now as Iran faces a litany of controversial issues central to regional and global trade, economics, and security .
If there is any good news for Iran, it is that numerous international organizations are beginning to offer more and more support of environmental causes. While NGO’s have not been particularly effective in Iran, especially regarding pollution and earthquake safety issues , institutions such as the World Bank have promised hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and approved programs to help Iran protect public health and the environment through improvement of water and air quality , housing conditions for poor and middle income neighborhoods, sanitation services, land management, and earthquake alleviation . Such offers of monetary and technical support and manpower can only help mobilize NGOs and the public sector.
Assistance by the international community is vital to helping Iran meet earthquake-proof standards, improve conditions of groups in vulnerable environmental situations, increase funding to housing, and increase support to civil groups engaged in human rights and community development projects in Iran. Ultimately, however, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran must take these issues seriously for any widespread solutions to occur. These crises can only turn into environmental disasters without sustained, organized government mobilization.