For the third week in a row, Tehran residents were given an unanticipated public holiday last Wednesday and Thursday, but there wasn’t much to celebrate over the rare four-day weekend. Far from a religious or nationalistic occasion, the Iranian government granted the days off in an attempt to diminish the capital’s abnormally high levels of air pollution.
For two days, Tehran’s streets were unusually devoid of traffic jams. Buses sailed smoothly up and down Valiasr, the city’s main thoroughfare and the longest street in the Middle East. Still, a thick cloud of brown smog enveloped most of the city, and state television urged citizens to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. Many Tehran residents used the opportunity to get out of town for a few days, heading to the villages on the coast of the Caspian Sea.
Yet the move has risked isolating Iran even further from global commerce. The country’s working week – off work every Friday and the second half of Thursday – already clashes with much of the world’s. Add another day and a half, as Iranians have done for the past few weeks, and it becomes hard to see how they’re supposed to conduct business with the outside world.
But it’s clear that environmental disaster has already contributed to the country’s ongoing economic woes. Air pollution, according to World Bank statistics, has inflicted $3.3bn (€2.5bn) in losses on the Iranian economy this year.
To reduce vehicle emissions, drivers have already been restricted from key commercial zones of Tehran, with authorities only allowing them to drive in these areas on either odd or even days, depending on the last digit of their licence plate. Now those limitations apply to the entire city.
Officials are also considering an end to decades-old subsidies on petrol, which has kept prices at the pump improbably low, in the hope of tweaking one of the world’s least energy-conscious societies. “Consumers have to stop wasting materials,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently told reporters. “A lot can be eliminated from our consumption basket.”
Still, the moves will hurt, as many Iranians have turned to their vehicles as a source of income, offering impromptu taxi and delivery services. Wheels offered a survival plan in a country where unemployment is high, long-promised new jobs have yet to materialise, and motorbikes – the entry point to driving for many Iranians – are very cheap.
For the time being, though, diminished traffic has been a welcome relief. “It’s much better this week than at any time I can remember,” Massoud, a 42-year old taxi driver, said on Wednesday. “See how open the road is? I hope it will stay like this.” He may just get his wish.