Iran's failure to tackle climate change cannot be blamed entirely on sanctions
The Paris climate agreement, despite all sorts of criticism it receives for its loopholes and flaws, is an unmistakable manifestation of collective determination on behalf of the world nations. It is a solid step towards addressing a crisis that is not only harming people around the world and jeopardising the inhabitability of the planet, but also creating a grim future for the posterity.
With its legally-binding provisions and quantifiable targets for how anthropogenic emissions should be phased out, the Paris Agreement is a call for global awakening on what the United Nations has termed the most immediate threat to human rights.
Out of the 193 United Nations member states, only four nations have not ratified the agreement, and the permutation of the holdouts is quite meaningful: Eritrea, Libya, Yemen and Iran. These are crisis-hit states under authoritarian rule that have come to terms with the inevitability of being pariah states.
For Iran, not being in the ranks of the Paris Agreement signatories has additional implications, while being the outcome of idiosyncratic driving factors. A major producer of petroleum and natural gas with industries heavily reliant on fossil fuels, Iran is now the 6th largest carbon polluter in the world, and as green energy plays second fiddle to a herculean investment on a nuclear enterprise, it appears unlikely its carbon footprint will get any better.
"Iran is now the 6th largest carbon polluter in the world, and as green energy plays second fiddle to a herculean investment on a nuclear enterprise, it appears unlikely its carbon footprint will get any better"
There are at least two plausible explanations for why Iran has not enrolled in the Paris climate accords. First, Iran doesn’t have any viable strategy to embrace renewable energies as the pivotal engine of its economic growth, nor does it currently have the infrastructure to decouple itself from fossil fuels and transition to an environmentally sustainable, green future.
So, committing to slash emissions while the leadership knows full well it cannot keep its word would be a fool’s errand, unless fundamental reform happens in the nation’s energy policies. In 2018, thermal power stations producing electricity in Iran consumed 6 billion litres of gasoline and 3.5 billion litres of fuel oil, both of which are major accomplices in urban pollution.
Only in the city of Tehran, these stations accounted for 12.1 percent of the atmospheric aerosol particles in 2017, making Iranian capital a notably polluted metropolis.
But beyond the technical considerations, there are ideological calculations persuading Iran to keep the Paris Agreement at arm’s length. No matter how quirky it might sound, the Iranian government harbours a visceral aversion to international integration, and any measure that spawns the country’s increased fusion with the world is a ground for suspicion.
The Islamic Republic, despite its ambitions to “export the revolution” worldwide, is bent on turning the country into a brand-new autarky and evolving it into what many observers have called an “Islamic North Korea,” characterised by chronic isolation and detachment from the outside world.
The path to that end is cobbling together a strong military, stifling civil society, cracking down on the free press and social media and advocating for an apocalyptic version of Islam mandating the clerical establishment to be the saviour of the Muslim world in a civilizational clash with the “debauched” West.
This explains why Iran has avoided being on the same wavelength with the international community on major issues, including human rights, civil liberties, freedom of the press, foreign policy, nuclear non-proliferation, and climate change.
Iran's hesitation on the Financial Action Task Force guidelines, refusal to join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, rejection of the United Nations Convention against Torture, and the establishment’s open disparagement of the United Nations 2030 Agenda go some way to explain this protectionist mentality.
"They seemed to be frank in believing, however misguidedly, that this agreement, like other international conventions, was designed to colonise Iran and 'independent' nations and chip away at their sovereignty"
When the moderate President Hassan Rouhani was in power, ideologues of the establishment continuously insisted that ratifying the Paris Agreement would result in the contraction of the economy, bring about the insolvency of industries and trigger massive unemployment, and on top of that give the unfaithful foreign powers access to Iran’s state secrets. These are the talking points they rehash in objecting to every global pact the Iranian government considers participating in.
They seemed to be frank in believing, however misguidedly, that this agreement, like other international conventions, was designed to colonise Iran and “independent” nations and chip away at their sovereignty.
Yet, there are indications that things are changing today. As the hardliners have purged the reformists from the government and dominated the administration, parliament, judiciary and armed forces, they are signalling that some of their positions, including an unfaltering opposition to the Paris Agreement, can be nixed.
At the November COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Ali Salajegheh, the new head of Iran's Department of Environment, said in his address that Iran in principle is not against ratifying the historic Paris Agreement.
On the sidelines of the conference, in an interview with BBC World, Salajegheh expanded that if sanctions on Iran are lifted and it is able to use its frozen assets and capitalise on foreign technology to expand renewable energy infrastructure, it will definitely consider becoming a party to the agreement.
The change in position by the ultra-conservative administration of President Ebrahim Raisi is telling in the fact that until last August, when he was inaugurated, the pundits campaigning for him were denigrating the Paris Agreement as an imperial pact plotted by superpowers to plunder the resources of Iran and its allies.
Call it hypocrisy or political expediency, they are now peddling a different narrative, that joining the treaty might be useful for Iran.
In Iran, despite the government continuously playing hardball and speaking tough, it is realistic to expect concessions and diplomatic gestures from it to address the concerns of the international community – of course not on every issue – but it is a matter of who can claim credit for such compromises, to be sold to the domestic audience as “revolutionary” achievements.
"Call it hypocrisy or political expediency, [Raisi supporters] are now peddling a different narrative, that joining the treaty might be useful for Iran"
When hardliners are merely external observers, they disgrace pro-reform administrations because empty talk is easy to market. But when they are in power, they see how running the day-to-day government affairs and engaging with so many international actors proves to be challenging, requiring pragmatism.
If the Raisi administration has incentives, including getting sanctions relief as part of a revived JCPOA, its propagandists will twist the discourse and start praising the benefits of the agreement, and Iran will probably join.
That the head of the environmental agency has raised this possibility in an interview with BBC World is quite curious. Granting interviews to BBC World was off-limits to the Rouhani administration officials.
Iranian hardliners, who refer to themselves as principlists, have a track record of dropping their principles. They are usually uncompromising, but to expect them to subscribe to “principles” on major policy issues, including climate change, is just idealistic.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari
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