Source: NY Times
Aug 3, 2023
Many Iranians Blame Creaky Power Grid and Gas Shortage for Sudden Holiday
The government in Tehran cited “unprecedented” heat when it ordered a two-day shutdown to protect health and conserve energy, but many residents were not buying it.
By Vivian Yee and Leily Nikounazar
When the government in Iran ordered the nation to shut down for two days starting on Wednesday to conserve energy and protect public health because of “unprecedented” broiling summer heat, Iranians and experts alike quickly discerned another, unspoken reason for the enforced holiday.Iran simply does not have enough natural gas, or a strong enough power grid, to keep all the lights on despite sitting on the second-largest reserves of natural gas in the world.
And, as skeptical residents pointed out, much of Iran experiences blistering heat every year, especially in the south, which has already endured debilitating temperatures this summer.“I don’t feel any temperature difference at all,” said a 42-year-old bookstore worker named Nima in Tehran, the capital. “This is not unprecedented at all.”
To be sure, temperatures were well above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) on Tuesday in over a dozen Iranian cities, and in Tehran, they were expected to reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly 39 degrees Celsius) in the coming days, Iran’s meteorological organization said.
The shutdown also comes as July was labeled the hottest month ever recorded on the planet, the kind of higher-than-usual temperature that scientists say is being fueled by climate change.But Iran’s electricity grid is overstretched, and to pump more of the gas sitting underground and repair the grid, the government needs foreign investment and technology, which have been blocked for years by Western sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear buildup.
Yet, Iran’s government, dominated by hard-liners, has resisted bowing to international pressure in return for sanctions relief, giving up the economic boost that doing so might bring even if it means Iranians continue to suffer.
Iran’s government is “between a rock and a hard place,” said Mahdi Ghodsi, an economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. It is unwilling to cave to the West and unable to address widespread public anger over inflation and collapsing services.
For Iran’s leadership, resistance at all costs is the point, analysts say.“It’s about survival,” Dr. Ghodsi added. “It’s not about progressing.” He listed other short-term and potentially shortsighted emergency measures the government is taking, such as printing money to plug budget holes, heedless of the extra inflation this would cause.
When it comes to electricity, Iran is regressing. Environmental experts in Iran say that to close the gap, the country has resorted to burning mazut, a low-quality fuel oil so polluting that residents complain of choking on white smoke.
The deteriorating economy, along with water and energy shortages, analysts and antigovernment Iranians warn, have contributed to an explosive anger among many Iranians toward their leaders. Many have long believed that the government is more interested in forcing women to cover their hair and boosting its political allies abroad than in making life livable.
Protests over the mandatory dress code, the economic crisis and other issues rocked Iran for months beginning in September.
A street scene in Tehran this winter, when Iranians struggled with power cuts amid January’s bitter cold. Credit...The New York Times
An English tutor in Tehran named Mana said she believed that the government was distracting Iranians with the compulsory veiling for women “because they’re incapable of meeting our expectations and handling our demands,” including managing energy. Like most other Iranians interviewed, she gave only her first name to avoid government reprisals.
A spokesman for the state-run electricity company denied that the shutdown had been prompted by a shortage, saying that the country’s power plants had enough capacity, according to an Iranian news website.And Ali Bahadori Jahromi, a government spokesman, said in a post on Twitter that ”given the unprecedented heat,” the cabinet “has agreed with the Health Ministry’s recommendation for a nationwide shutdown.”
But Mojgan Jamshidi, a Tehran-based environmental expert and journalist, noted that it made little sense to shut down the country for heat reasons when parts of it were far more bearable than others. Residents in Tehran said the roads to cooler areas farther north were clogged with traffic on Wednesday as people used the extra-long weekend to escape town.Iranian hard-liners had gloated after Europe lost access to Russian energy in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year, predicting that a “harsh winter” would force the West to offer Iran better terms in a renewed agreement to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
But Europe weathered the winter without turning to Iran, while Iranians struggled with power cuts amid January’s bitter cold. On social media, Iranians joked that it was they, thanks to their government, who were enduring Europe’s “harsh winter.”As Iran’s energy and power infrastructure has fallen into greater disrepair with each passing year, demand from residents, businesses and industries has soared. Generous fuel and electricity subsidies from the government have allowed Iranians to become accustomed to turning the heat way up in winter and air-conditioning on full blast in summer. Energy-intensive industries such as steel and cryptocurrency mining have also strained supplies.
Iran’s electricity grid is overstretched, and to upgrade it, the government needs foreign investment and technology, which have been blocked for years by Western sanctions.Credit...Solmaz Daryani for The New York Times
Iran spent $19 billion on natural gas subsidies last year, far more than any other country except Russia, which helps explain why Iran consumes the most natural gas in the Middle East.Yet, investment in its infrastructure has roughly halved over the past decade, leaving parts of the country’s grid more comparable to that of a developing or war-torn country than one that was once one of the world’s largest energy exporters..
Importing natural gas from Turkmenistan has not met demand, especially after Iran lagged on paying its bill in recent years, prompting Turkmenistan to shut off the flow at one point. As for tapping its own vast gas resources, Iran needs at least $160 billion in investment to keep gas and oil production at current levels, Iran’s oil minister has said.Any influx of investment was stopped short when President Donald J. Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran after he unilaterally pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.
The French and Chinese companies that Iran had brought in to expand production in its biggest natural gas field also quickly exited.That left an Iranian company, Petropars, to do the job. But without foreign investment and technical capabilities, the project had to be scaled back to a quarter of its originally planned capacity. Another part was canceled altogether. On other sections of the same field, Iran needs to invest more than $20 billion to prevent production from falling, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Iran has no more options on the table to solve its natural gas shortage,” said Umud Shokri, a Washington-based energy consultant and senior visiting fellow at George Mason University.Despite shortages at home, Iran sends vast quantities of natural gas to neighboring Iraq, where its energy exports help it wield deep influence in Iraqi political and economic affairs. Iran supplies between 35 percent and 40 percent of Iraq’s electricity, according to estimates.
Iran’s combination of outdated infrastructure and soaring demand has come at the cost of more frequent outages.
Iranians in the south have grown used to intermittent summertime power outages. What was unusual this week, they said, was the nationwide shutdown.But several Iranians interviewed on Wednesday said that they were going to workbecause their companies could not afford to give them the day off in a deteriorating economy. Many shops in Tehran remained open, they said, though the streets and public transportation were quieter.“We have to come to work,” said Nima, the bookstore worker, “even if stones are falling from the sky.”
Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin, Falih Hassan, Ehab al-Rikabi and Farnaz Fassihi.
Vivian Yee is the Cairo bureau chief, covering politics, society and culture in the Middle East and North Africa. She was previously based in Beirut, Lebanon, and in New York, where she wrote about New York City, New York politics and immigration. More about Vivian Yee