Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi give a press conference. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty
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Leader: Iran comes in from the cold

For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran.

In an age when the problems in the Middle East look as intractable as ever, Iran’s agreement to curb its nuclear programme – and so abandon attempts to gain a nuclear weapon – is to be welcomed. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, described the deal agreed in Vienna with six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) as representing “a new chapter of hope”.

Indeed, it does. Iran has shown an interest in nuclear technology since 1957, when the pre-revolution regime received assistance from the US Atoms for Peace programme. Since 1984, when West German intelligence announced that Iran could build a bomb in two years using uranium from Pakistan, fears that the post-revolution Iran would obtain nuclear weapons have persisted. The threat has intensified since the existence of two nuclear sites under construction was revealed in 2002, the year in which George W Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil” along with North Korea and Iraq.

Ever since, the west has attempted to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Finally, progress has been made. After the latest round of negotiations, lasting two years, Iran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 96 per cent and its overall enrichment capacity by two-thirds and, most significantly, accept an unprecedented amount of international control over its nuclear programme. Not only will this lower the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but it should herald a new era of co-operation with the west. Ultimately, the world should become a slightly safer place.

None of this is to suggest that the deal is perfect. Iran is allowed to challenge requests for access from UN weapons inspectors, which would then be discussed at an arbitration board comprising representatives from Iran and the six powers. To Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, this is one reason why the deal amounts to “a historic mistake for the world”.

It is also true that the agreement will do nothing to alleviate the cold war between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran. And the extra funds that are freed up to Iran, as a result of sanctions by the west being lifted, could yet be channelled into extra sponsorship for its client Shia militant group Hezbollah and, Israel fears, into proxy wars around the Middle East. Such concerns are understandable. For all the ­progress, establishing trust between Iran and the west remains a process fraught with difficulty. Building relations with Iran must be done in tandem with assiduously monitoring developments in the country.

Yet everyone should laud the courage shown by the representatives of all seven countries involved in the negotiations – especially Barack Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani – in attempting to forge a new course. The sanctions imposed had a deleterious effect on the lives of Iranians but not the country’s nuclear ambitions. For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran, with attendant benefits for the rest of the Middle East, including in the struggle against Isis. If the Vienna agreement proves durable, it will be regarded as the most significant of the foreign policy achievements of the Obama presidency.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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