Iran, sanctions, and coronavirus

The United States has faced pressure to ease sanctions to help Iran manage its coronavirus outbreak. Ciruce Movahedi-Lankarani discusses how the sanctions have played into Iran’s energy development and complicated its management of the viral outbreak.

Power Plant in the South of Iran

Iran has been hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak, and the United States has faced pressure to ease sanctions to help the nation manage the pandemic. Penn Today spoke with Ciruce Movahedi-Lankarani, a doctoral candidate in Penn’s History Department, to get his take on the matter. Movahedi-Lankarani’s dissertation, “The Domain of Gas: Energy Technology and the Environment in Modern Iran,” focuses on the history of technology and natural gas in Iran. 

“Given that the world remains fixated on Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” says historian Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, who is Movahedi-Lankarani’s adviser, “this timely project shares new insights on the history of Iran’s technological developments in the 20th century, but does so within a humanistic framework. Ciruce’s dissertation offers a groundbreaking investigation of Iran’s use of energy resources and explains their indelible impact on the cultural landscape and natural environment of the country.”

After graduating this summer, Movahedi-Lankarani will take a position at the University of Southern California as holder of the Farhang Foundation Junior Chair in Iranian Studies.

In this Q&A, Movahedi-Lankarani discusses his research, how U.S. sanctions have played into Iran’s energy development, and how sanctions complicate the nation’s management of the viral outbreak. 

Person wearing glasses leans against red brick wall with arms folded, smiling a
Ciruce A. Movahedi-Lankarani is a doctoral candidate in Penn’s history department.

How did you become interested in the history of technology and natural gas in Iran? 

My broader interest is in how human societies are developed and how that is influenced by technology and environmental factors. I was originally trained as an engineer and that helped stimulate an interest in the ways that technology and engineering had shaped Iranian society. I remembered hearing family members talk about their lives in Iran and how important things like radios, televisions, and gas stoves were for their experiences.

I also thought about the high esteem fields rooted in science and technology are held in Iranian culture, and I realized this was a missing component to how the history of Iran has been told. As I explored the topic, I found that over the second half of the 20th century there was a big shift in Iranian energy use toward natural gas. That became my lens into studying these broad issues of sociotechnical change and the influence of environmental factors on Iranian history.

Has previous research touched on this topic?

When discussing Iran, people have long focused on the 1979 revolution, on what led up to it, and the consequences of it as sort of a rupture in Iranian history. The story that I’m telling is absolutely related to the issues of politics and revolution and even religion highlighted in those accounts, but it shows how intertwined they all are with technology and development. The monarchy that predated the revolution really emphasized material development and a sort of grand technological modernization. After the revolution, the Islamic Republic did much the same thing, just with a different and more populist tenor. There’s a lot of continuity.

Was there anything that surprised you or was unexpected as you delved into this topic?

I went into studying natural gas expecting to focus on the political question: How did it become intertwined with political legitimacy of both the monarchy and the Islamic Republic?

But one of the most surprising things was discovering, beginning in the 1960s and then continuing, just how important environmental issues were among Iranian policymakers. I was quite surprised that very influential Iranian policymakers, including the Shah himself, were very concerned about the state of air quality in urban areas.

This was happening at a time when they were already looking into pursuing natural gas as a source of energy. Large amounts were already being produced in Iran since it is often a byproduct of oil extraction. At the time, companies like British Petroleum were producing vast quantities of natural gas in Iran but weren’t doing anything with most of it, generally just burning it off. That was seen as a giant waste of resources by many Iranians, and they had already spent years trying to find a use for it.

Finding uses was difficult because Iran’s major cities were far away from the main region of oil and gas production in the country. Compared to oil, gas is more expensive to transport, since it is much more volatile. But there was a really strong push to find a way to use what was seen as the wasted natural wealth of Iran.

Still, people were concerned about deteriorating air quality and believed natural gas held the promise of alleviating that problem.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in cities like Tehran, due to increasing industry, automobile use, and population density, air pollution became a real problem.

At the same time, for some people developing natural gas represented a particular and better way to be modern. It was seen as a way to modernize but at the same time be superior to the European and North American nations they often looked to by producing a cleaner society using cleaner fuel.

There was a lot of work done in the 1970s in terms of building pipelines and distribution systems and converting industries to use gas energy, but after the chaos of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, these things were put on the back burner, only revving back up in the 1990s.

In many ways the push for gas was very successful, and now about three-fourths of the country’s energy is provided by gas. Despite beginning under the Shah, widespread gas availability became a core promise of the Islamic Republic, something it has largely succeeded in delivering. Despite this, Iran’s air quality is some of the worst in the world. In December, schools across Iran were closed on three separate occasions because air quality was so bad and some 1,500 people were hospitalized for respiratory issues related to poor air quality. It’s a very significant issue with complicated causes, everything from the quality of available fossil fuels to the topography of Iranian cities.

How does poor air quality come into play during the coronavirus outbreak that’s hit Iran particularly hard?

Air pollution is known to contribute to conditions like heart and pulmonary diseases, strokes, and lung cancer. One could speculate these significant comorbidities could make people much more vulnerable to poor outcomes from COVID-19.

These kinds of environmental contexts may be an important piece of understanding how SARS-CoV-2 affects people in uneven ways across the world, within countries, and even within cities.

Tehran is known for its very strong inequality in wealth but also in air quality. It sits in the foothills of a mountain range, and the wealthier you are typically the higher up you live and the cleaner the air is.

It would be very interesting to see whether people living in south Tehran, which tends to be poorer and where people live more densely, face worse outcomes with COVID-19 than wealthier Iranians who live in northern parts of the city.

Are U.S. sanctions hindering Iran from being able to fully respond to the crisis?

I think there’s two main ways that sanctions have made this fight additionally difficult for Iran.

Even though medical supplies are exempted from the sanctions placed on the country, the financial sanctions prohibit Iranian entities from paying for things using the American financial system. This has inhibited the ability of Iranian organizations to pay for and import the medicine and medical supplies they need. This is a long-standing issue that’s been made more acute by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indirectly, sanctions have worsened Iran’s environmental conditions. Part of the reason for poor urban air quality is the low quality of fuel used in Iranian automobiles. Though a new refinery has opened recently, for many years Iran lacked the ability to produce high-quality gasoline and diesel and was dependent on imports that were the target of sanctions.

Further, while Iran has been producing automobiles domestically for many decades, they tend to be pretty poor quality, with inefficient and dirty motors. As a result of a major effort undertaken by Iranian governments, many are dual-fuel cars, able to use gasoline or propane and butane. The downside is if they’re not maintained well the system can end up being more polluting than a traditional gasoline engine. Sanctions have indirectly contributed to these problems by making it much harder for Iranian companies to either gain access to more sophisticated technologies or to finance their own efforts to make improvements.

As long as Iran can’t get a handle on the coronavirus outbreak, it will continue to be a source of spread around the region and the world.

Iran and the U.S. might not have a lot of contact these days, but the U.S. is close to a number of countries that have significant and ongoing connections with Iran. We can’t pretend that by closing the border their problems won’t affect us and that the coronavirus outbreak will not continue to spread from Iran. It would be misguided to just leave them to deal with the problem on their own.