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An American Woman in Iran: The Environment

What surprises are in store for an American on her first visit to Iran?

September 22, 2005

What surprises are in store for an American on her first visit to Iran?

Where are you from?” asked a young man outside one of the many carpet stalls. He looked strong as if accustomed to hard work, but had a boyish face.

My mind raced. Where am I from today? Washington? North America? South of Canada? Europe, where I had a layover? The hotel down the street, where I had slept the previous night?

Sigh. “The U.S.,” I replied. “U.S.?” His face screwed up in puzzlement. “U.S., U.S.,” he repeated, brow furrowed, the wheels turning. “Aaa!” The light bulb turned on. “U.S. Aaaahh! United States of America!” His dark eyes now gleaming, looking like he would hug me, were it permitted. “Welcome to Iran!”

Such interactions were repeated many a time throughout my stay in Iran. Curious people, perhaps tipped off by my blue eyes or the awkward positioning of my headscarf, would approach me and ask, in English, where I was from.

After learning that I was from the United States, their responses varied from the inquisitive to the exuberant: “America! We love America!”

I came to travel to Iran after being contacted by an organization called Search for a Common Ground that works to emphasize commonalities among cultures and to prevent conflict.

Their U.S.-Iran program had sponsored a trip in 2002 for Lester Brown — the president of Earth Policy Institute, where I work as a researcher — to speak about the global environmental situation with university faculty and environmental organizations in Iran.

This year, they helped recommend participants for a May 2005 international conference organized by the Iranian Department of the Environment and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), on “Environment, Peace, and the Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures” in Tehran.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take part.

In the final weeks before my trip, dozens of women wearing headscarves who had previously blended into the crowds suddenly appeared all over Washington, D.C. I noticed them coming up the escalators from the Metro station near my home, handing me change at the market, walking through Dupont Circle talking animatedly and laughing.

I fought the urge to approach each one for a headscarf primer, realizing that the fact that I would temporarily be joining them in hijab would probably seem monumental only to me.

As the airplane neared its destination, the voice of the head flight attendant echoed over the loudspeaker. Instead of the usual warnings about storing away tray tables and putting seatbacks in their upright position, she announced, “We are nearing our destination in Tehran in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women are required to observe Islamic dress on leaving the plane.”

Much shuffling ensued as half of the passengers dug into their bags to pull out scarves and readied their manteaus or overcoats, which were to be worn over clothing whenever in public company. High-heeled sandals that were worn on the streets of Paris were traded in for more conservative closed shoes.

As we began our descent the glowing lights of sprawling Tehran commanded my attention. I was arriving.

The passengers all filed down the steps onto the tarmac, breathing in the warm and smoggy night air. We were ushered into the Tehran airport where the lines at immigration seemed to be moving fairly quickly.

When I reached the front of the line, however, I handed over my American passport to the chador-clad woman in the booth, who gave a barely audible sigh and signaled to someone up the stairs, motioned that I move aside — and preceded to call up the next person in line.

When I reached the front of the line, however, I handed over my American passport to the chador-clad woman in the booth, who gave a barely audible sigh and signaled to someone up the stairs, motioned that I move aside, and preceded to call up the next person in line.

Several minutes later, a gentleman came down and without a word of explanation briskly took my passport back upstairs.

One by one the rest of the passengers made their way through the line until I was the last one left. After what seemed like several eternities, but was likely only several minutes, the man returned.

He opened my passport, peered at the photo of me (sans headscarf), looked up at my face, and then asked for my father’s name. I silently questioned the relevance of his inquiry, but thought it best to answer directly. “Very well,” he said, and handed me back my entry documents. I think I saw him try to conceal a smile. “Welcome to Iran.”

I was the last one from the flight to go through to the airport lobby, so I didn’t have any trouble spotting a concerned Hamid Taravati, a colleague and board member of the Earth Policy Institute, who surprised me by meeting my flight.

Hamid and his wife, Farzaneh Bahar are modern day Renaissance people, both parents, physicians, environmentalists, and translators and publishers of Earth Policy Institute’s writings.

They had traveled to Tehran for the conference by train from their home in the eastern Iranian city of Mashad.

As Hamid drove us to the conference hotel getting passed at close range by speeding cars that ignored the white lanes painted on the asphalt, he commented on how lucky it was that I had arrived at night so that we could avoid the traffic.

I had to wonder if Iranians employed a different definition of traffic than the one I was used to, but I would find out soon enough what he meant.

For the meantime, I was content to arrive safely at the hotel (formerly a Hyatt, since renamed “Azadi,” meaning freedom), go up to my room with a view of the Alborz Mountains, climb into the huge bed, and fall asleep gazing up at the arrow on the ceiling pointing the way to Mecca.

The opening chords of the Iranian national anthem signaled the crowd to stand for the start of the conference. Next, a young man chanted verses from the Koran. This was followed by a brief photomontage, set to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” highlighting the natural and cultural wonders of Iran.

After the visual and aural treats, Dr. Massoumeh Ebtekar, vice president of Iran and head of the Department of the Environment, opened the meeting with a call for dialogue and understanding to achieve peace and sustainable development.

Dr. Ebtekar is Iran’s first female vice president, perhaps better known to those in the United States as the spokesperson for the hostage takers who commandeered the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

The idea for a “dialogue among civilizations” was born in September 1998 from a proposal by then-Iranian President Seyed Mohammed Khatami to the United Nations General Assembly that “hostility and confrontation” be replaced by “discourse and understanding.”

Thus, it was appropriate that Khatami greeted the participants representing more than 30 countries, dozens of Iranian students and environmentalists and ample news media at the 2005 conference with a call for mutual understanding among cultures to foster peace, cooperation and a healthy environment.

Klaus Toepfer, deputy director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), brought a message from Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, reminding us of how people around the world are all dependent on the environment.

Environmental problems, such as those recently documented in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, only block progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals that deal with poverty, hunger, primary education, gender equality, mother and child mortality, as well as the environment.

Mr. Toepfer went on to remind us of Wangari Maathai, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was the founder of the Kenyan Green Belt Movement that planted 30 million trees across Kenya, and did so by employing thousands of women and offering them education, family planning and empowerment.

The choice by the Nobel Committee reflects the importance of the three pillars of sustainable development — peace, environment and social justice — which would be examined in more detail in the conference sessions that followed.

Toepfer’s remarks were aptly supported by a short but poignant United Nations Environmental Programme film, which began by asking the audience to take a deep breath and hold it for ten seconds.

In that time, the film explained, some 42 people were born, 40 of whom live in developing countries. Three children died from preventable causes like malaria, pneumonia, measles and malnutrition — of the three children who died, two were babies.

One person died from AIDS, two became HIV positive, four died from hunger-related causes, two died from drinking bad water.

Approximately 3,716 tons of fuel were consumed, 2,000 tons of carbon were added to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, four acres of rainforest were destroyed.

Roughly 119 tons of hazardous waste was added to the environment, $4,100 of damage was done to the global economy from polluted coastal waters and an unknown amount of biological diversity was lost.

Soon after this, we had a chance to catch our breath over tea and pastries before we heard from several other conference participants.

Oli Brown, representative from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, discussed how if you were to ask both ecologists and political scientists to make lists of countries most at risk, their choices could end up looking remarkably similar. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Iraq and Somalia would be listed as the top candidates.

Brown cautioned that though environmental problems can exacerbate tensions, they are rarely the sole causes of conflict. Other contributing factors include ideology, ethnicity and power politics.

Protection of shared environmental resources can help lead to political cooperation and peace — a theme that was echoed in many of the presentations over the two days of working sessions.

Pekka Haavisto brought news from UNEP’s post-conflict assessment units that have worked in the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Liberia and Iraq.

He distinguished between the direct environmental impacts of conflict — which may include depleted uranium, bomb waste and land mines — and the less obvious indirect environmental impacts of conflict, such as corruption, refugees, sanctions, collapse of management, military exploitation and the use of marginal land.

The United Nation’s Environment Programme found that Iraq is suffering from contamination from military weapons’ production.

Hayder Mohammed Abdul-Hameed, a scholar from the University of Baghdad, also presented findings about the effects of depleted uranium on human health — underscoring Haavisto’s earlier remarks.

Studies have linked a dramatic rise in infertility, miscarriages, leukemia, skin cancers and respiratory diseases among the people of Iraq with depleted uranium contamination from the 1991 Gulf War as well as from the most recent conflict.

He went on to describe that in addition to the pollution of water and land, military tanks had removed the desert’s top stabilizing layer of sand, contributing to sand storms even in the city of Baghdad. Clearly, the environment can be a silent casualty of war.

Said Mahmoudi, professor of International law at Stockholm University, presented a historical perspective of the relevance of law with regards to environmental damage during and after conflict.

He traced back to the 1899 and 1907 International Peace Conferences in The Hague, noting that most laws on the books that govern war were inadequate to protect the environment.

In addition, he related how oftentimes the force used in conflict is not proportionate to the objective. He cited the first Gulf War as an example, where the massive numbers of bombs and ammunition brought in by U.S. forces left a legacy of damage to health and the environment.

Next, Antonio Marquina, director of the Research Unit on Security and International Cooperation (UNISCI) in Spain, listed a number of vital state security challenges, including abrupt climate change, ozone depletion, natural disasters, weakened states (not just failed states) and water availability.

With climate change, agriculture in Northern and Southern Europe is particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, water scarcity will also worsen, for with a 2 to 2.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, more than two billion people will be added to the group suffering from water stress.

Geoffrey Dabelko from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., approached environment and conflict from the other side by illustrating how the environment can be used as a tool for conflict prevention, as a lifeline in times of conflict, as an essential part of peace agreements and as an important ingredient for post-conflict solutions.

He referred to Aaron Wolf’s analysis of some 1,700 state-to-state interactions regarding water, using the cases of Palestine-Israel and India-Pakistan as specific examples.

In a time when many scholars see water wars as imminent, it is important to remember that sharing water resources does not inevitably lead to conflict, but that such cooperation is always a requisite for sustained peace.

In addition to bringing together people from various geographical locations, the Tehran conference also hosted a special panel on dialogue among civilizations that convened representatives from diverse religious communities.

Though not often seen in Iran, the Jewish representatives in their black hats, beards and forelocks did not look terribly different from the conservative Islamic mullahs. The discussants drew from environmental references in sacred texts and historical traditions to share commonalities.

Ebtekar and Dr. Kamal Kharrazi, minister of Foreign Affairs for Iran, both participated in the final session of the conference. I had the chance to present them with copies of the Earth Policy Institute books “Outgrowing the Earth” and “Plan B.”

Dr. Ebtekar mentioned that she was glad to receive the latest books as she had found the institute’s first book, “Eco-Economy,” to be useful.

Farzaneh and I handed out books in exchange for business cards to delegates from a number of countries, including Australia, Colombia, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Poland, Switzerland and the United States.

As I handed Plan B to the representative from Tanzania, he mentioned that he was glad to receive another copy as he had given his original to the president of his country, President Benjamin William Mkapa, noting at the time that “Plan B” could stand for “Plan Benjamin,” were he to decide to apply its ideas to his country!

All told, the recommendations and the conclusions of this conference were submitted to the United Nations Secretary-General in September 2005 at the start of the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

They will be part of the Five-Year Review of the Millennium Summit that had led to the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals.