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Will thawing Iran's frozen assets help slow down climate change?

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, who heads the country’s Environmental Protection Organization, outlines her views on Iran's environmental challenges — and how to confront them.
Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Masoumeh Ebtekar delivers a speech during the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015.                  REUTERS/Stephane Mahe - RTX1WKDZ

Iran is facing a major water crisis, widespread drought, hazardous air pollution in its main cities, dust storms and drying up of lakes and aquifers. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, who heads the country’s Environmental Protection Organization, outlined her views on these challenges — and how to confront them.

Ebtekar was the first person who officially spoke about the negative impact of interferences with satellite TV signals on the health of Iranians. She believes that the environment was far from among the top priorities of the previous administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In this vein, Ebtekar argued that the revived focus on the environment following the election of President Hassan Rouhani has resulted in tangible efforts to combat Iran’s myriad environmental problems. She also said that one outcome of the latter has been successful engagement with international partners and enlistment of their assistance in confronting environmental degradation in Iran.

Asked about the potential impact of the anticipated lifting of sanctions, Ebtekar said, “European companies have shown a lot of interest in investing in areas such as renewable energy, waste management and recycling, water and air purification, energy efficiency,” emphasizing that “some of the damage done to the country’s environment was caused by unfair sanctions,” which she said resulted in “limited resources and delay in transitioning to green technology.” Of note, Ebtekar also argued that Iran’s environmental problems are partly caused by climate change. However, she added that mismanagement of water resources and problematic dam projects are part of the problem.

Lastly, Ebtekar emphasized that the international community must come together: “The environment is a global and borderless issue. It is necessary for countries to collaborate with each other, exchange information, experiences and research results regarding technology transfer and green trade.”

The full transcript of Al-Monitor’s exclusive interview with Vice President Ebtekar, conducted Nov. 24, follows:

Al-Monitor:  Your primary expertise is in the field of immunology, as you hold a Ph.D. in immunology. A few years ago, you warned about a coming tsunami of cancer cases and the unknown effects of [satellite TV] signal interferences. To what degree was this the result of your and your colleagues’ research as immunologists?

Ebtekar:  Today, the effects of pollutants on the immune system are considered an important subject of medical research. By interfering with the immune system and natural responses, pollutants can cause a variety of problems for humans. The issue that originally made me express my concern at the [Tehran] City Council was air pollution and the contaminated gasoline produced in petrochemical plants. High amounts of benzene, which the World Health Organization says can cause cancer, could easily enter the air through these types of gasoline. Unfortunately, measurements in Tehran in the [Iranian solar calendar] years 1389, 1390 and 1391 [March 21, 2010-March 20, 2013] show that the level of this dangerous combination in the air was very high. This was the main reason for my warning, and later, this matter was pursued by Dr. Rouhani’s administration. As the result of this follow-up, in [the Iranian month of] Dey of 1392 [Dec. 22, 2013-Jan. 20, 2014], the process of eliminating the gasoline produced by petrochemical plants commenced, and by Ordibehesht of 1393 [April 21, 2014-May 21, 2014], it was fully eliminated from the gasoline distribution, causing a decrease in the levels of benzene and aromatics in large cities.

Regarding the signal interferences: Because this issue had certain ambiguities associated with it and also because of its possible dangers, it was discussed by the [Tehran] City Council and necessary warnings were given.

Al-Monitor:  Now that you are part of the Rouhani administration, are you following up on your research regarding the signal interferences?

Ebtekar:  Yes, this issue is being pursued by the administration, but it falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.

Al-Monitor:  You have returned to the Environmental Protection Organization after an eight-year absence. What was your assessment of the organization’s condition upon your return?

Ebtekar:  When the [Rouhani] administration took office, it was faced with a lot of economic, social and environmental problems. Unfortunately, the environment was not given the necessary priority by the previous administration, and the former president paid minimum attention to it. This carelessness not only resulted in the High Council of the Environment being disbanded, but also radical budget cuts that weakened the Environmental Protection Organization. The absence of adequate oversight resulted in widespread land-grabbing in protected areas. Delays in enforcing laws and standards, dissolving interorganizational councils such as the Executive Committee for Reducing Air Pollution, not paying proper attention to key issues such as the wetlands and not allocating any budget for environmental education are examples of the problems that existed under the previous administration. However, attitudes have changed under this new administration. We have tried to solve these problems, and thankfully, due to the efforts of the [Environmental Protection] Organization's employees and the forest rangers, and with the aid of the judiciary, the executive branch, the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and media outlets, there have been a lot of noticeable developments, and we are hopeful that the conditions will change — although we are still facing a lot of problems.

Al-Monitor:  Are you equipped with the necessary means to overcome the environmental issues Iran is facing and to decrease environmental destruction?

Ebtekar:  To effectively confront environmental degradation and achieve sustainable development, we first and foremost need determination, will and a comprehensive national-level management mechanism. At the same time, we should increase awareness in society. International cooperation and bilateral cooperation with our neighbors is also very important.

Thankfully, during the past two years, under the leadership of the administration, these issues have been followed up on different levels. Last week, the overall environmental policy was communicated to the three branches of government by the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. The administration is paying special attention to the environment in its development plans. Important steps have been taken regarding issues such as air pollution reduction, reviving wetlands as well as increasing people’s awareness and enlisting their help — and we have enjoyed noticeable results. We are also negotiating, arranging or signing agreements, and in some cases actively cooperating with the United Nations, countries in the region and European countries.

Al-Monitor:  This administration has certain projects underway that are being criticized by environmental experts and your colleagues. Do you, as vice president and head of the Environmental Protection Organization, have the ability to stop these projects?

Ebtekar:  Environmental assessment is one of the most effective tools for controlling and managing development policies. Thankfully, through cooperation with the Management and Planning Organization and after a thorough review of the environmental assessment process, no major development project can now commence its implementation phase without first being carefully monitored. With respect to this approach, the Environmental Protection Organization has occasionally opposed certain development projects that posed a threat to the environment, such as certain roads, dams, as well as some major industrial and oil projects.

Al-Monitor:  In one instance, the director of the Environmental Assessment section of your organization took a stand against you regarding the Shafarud Dam, warning that the construction of this dam will result in destruction of a large part of the Hyrcanian forests. How do you deal with these issues?

Ebtekar:  We have yet to receive the final confirmation regarding the Shafarud Dam, although after several meetings, the size of the dam’s reservoir was decreased from 400 hectares [988 acres] to approximately 90 hectares [222 acres]. Nonetheless, the project has yet to receive the final confirmation. We believe that the Ministry of Energy and the consultant engineers should propose a plan that would help provide the necessary amount of drinking water without damaging the forest. Therefore, our organization is inviting all experts to offer technical and engineering advice on how to store and transfer water in forest areas without damaging the Hyrcanian forests.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think new environmental projects will be initiated since a portion of Iran’s frozen assets are scheduled to be released as a result of the July 14 nuclear agreement?

Ebtekar:  There have been a lot of negotiations with various delegations, and especially European ones, regarding green technology. European companies have shown a lot of interest in investing in areas such as renewable energy, waste management and recycling, water and air purification, energy efficiency, etc. In addition, the administration has activated a National Environmental Fund that is aiming to facilitate investment in the field of green technology. Also, the International Environment Exhibition, which is due to be held in the early part of the month of Esfand [Feb. 20, 2016-March 19, 2016] in Tehran, will provide a good opportunity for the presence of both national and international companies operating in the field of environmental technology.

Al-Monitor:  What types of new developments do you expect to see in your organization when the sanctions are lifted?

Ebtekar:  Some of the damage done to the country’s environment was caused by unfair sanctions. Limited resources and delay in transitioning to green technology were the result of sanctions. Other damage was the outcome of carelessness. The environment is a global and borderless issue. It is necessary for countries to collaborate with each other, exchange information, experiences and research results regarding technology transfer and green trade. We have made plans and taken steps in this direction. For example, we have collaborated with certain European countries and Japan, and we have conducted educational courses as well.

Al-Monitor: The shrinking of Lake Urmia is a matter that has the potential to create tension. How successful have the attempts to revive this lake really been? What has been done regarding this issue?

Ebtekar:  The first resolution of the first Cabinet meeting of the administration pertained to the revival of Lake Urmia. Subsequently, the relevant organizations started collaborating with the Lake Urmia Restoration Program. The Environmental Protection Organization has also formed a Center for Future Research and Planning and is planning to restore and protect lagoons, dredge watercourses and collaborate with relevant organizations in order to prevent the formation of dust source areas. Attracting a $2 million donation, enlisting the help of Japanese experts, training the farmers of 70 villages surrounding the lake and helping them improve their irrigation and cultivation techniques, encouraging rural women to participate and training them with the aim of benefiting from micro credit, and continuous monitoring of the condition of Lake Urmia are among the activities undertaken by the Environmental Protection Organization during the past two years. According to the Ministry of Energy, this year, for the first time in 18 years, Lake Urmia’s water level has not declined. Instead, the water level has been positive compared to last year.

During this time, we have been monitoring the withdrawal of water from the underground basin of Lake Urmia, and soon, all legal wells in the area will be equipped with smart meters so that we can have more control over water extraction. Also, the Ministry of Energy has been obliged to make sure that water release from dams located in the Lake Urmia basin is in tune with activities undertaken to revive this lake.

Al-Monitor:  During the past few years, certain cities in Iran — for example, Tehran and Ahvaz — have been listed among the most polluted in the world. What has been done in order to improve the air quality in these cities?

Ebtekar:  When the administration took office, we announced that the era of appeasement has ended. In accordance with the resolution passed by the administration in Ordibehesht 1393 [April 21, 2014-May 21, 2014], actions were taken in order to decrease air pollution in major cities, and the Ministries of Oil as well as Industry, Mines and Trade were commissioned with the task of regulating fuel and vehicle standards, respectively. For example, gasoline produced in petrochemical plants has been replaced with Euro-4 gasoline in major cities such as Tehran and Ahvaz. Moreover, after an eight-year delay, auto production lines are now complying with Euro-4 standards. Also, the country’s power plants used 33% less mazut [heavy fuel oil] in the year 1393 [March 21, 2014-March 20, 2015] compared to the year before. Diesel fuel consumption of 9.3 billion liters per year has decreased to 7.4 billion liters per year, which is a 20% reduction. Also, in the year 1393, natural gas consumption increased by 33%. These changes in fuel consumption at power plants have been steps toward a reduction in air pollution. Using liquid fuels such as mazut and diesel can increase air pollution; while in the year 1382 [March 21, 2003-March 19, 2004] these fuels only accounted for 17% of the fuels used by power plants, in the year 1392 [March 21, 2013-March 20, 2014], this figure had increased to 44%.

In Ahvaz, in addition to dust, oil pollution had intensified air pollution. Ahvaz Unit III, which undertakes heavy oil processing, had polluted the air in Ahvaz with a large amount of sulfur and other contaminants. This unit has since minimized its activities and the level of contaminants has decreased.

Air quality improvement has been noticeable in Tehran. Aside from the air pollution monitoring devices, which show us that the number of “healthy days” has increased and the number of “unhealthy days” has dropped, people have clearly noticed the change as well.

Al-Monitor:  You had previously mentioned that in order to improve the condition of the cities in Khuzestan province, cooperation with Iraq and Saudi Arabia is necessary. To what degree do you think the water crisis is related to the water development plans for the Karun River?

Ebtekar:  Unfortunately, during the past few decades, we have witnessed an increase in temperatures and a decrease in rainfall in certain areas of Iran. In 1393 [March 21, 2014-March 20, 2015], the level of rainfall in Khuzestan had dropped by almost 45% compared to the previous cycle, and an increase in temperatures had been reported. This issue has increased dust source areas and the amount of haze in the past few years. The management of the Karun River basin as well as the Zayandeh River basin should be based on environmental considerations. The Environmental Protection Organization should monitor water transfer as well as all development projects carefully.  Gotvand Dam has helped clarify the problems associated with dam construction and is an example of the type of problems we are currently faced with in the Karun River basin.

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