By Joel Brinkley
The world is watching the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. They began days after tens of thousands of Iranian demonstrators screamed "Death to America!" as they remonstrated outside the former United States embassy in Tehran.
That's what the world knows of Iran -- its nuclear program, the resultant economic sanctions and the nation's turbulent relations with the West. The Iranian government talks about little else. Neither does the Western news media.
In the background, however, a far more serious problem afflicts the nation that almost no one of influence in Tehran ever discusses in public. Iran is, quite literally, blowing away.
Lakes and ponds are drying up. Underground aquifers that supply most of the nation's potable water are emptying fast. More than two-thirds of the country's land is rapidly turning to desert; just 16 percent of it remains arable. And massive dust storms sweep across the country almost daily, afflicting 23 of the nation's 31 provinces -- making it hard to breathe and killing thousands of people a year.
As the Tehran Times put it, quoting Yousef Rashidi, director of Tehran's Air Quality Control Company, "dust storms severely affect the health of citizens." After all, massive dust storms now envelop Tehran every third day, on average, and at least 80,000 people die from strangling dust and other pollutants annually, the state's Health Ministry reported late last month.
And yet, the nation's leaders seem never to talk about this -- or do anything about it -- so fixated do they remain on their nuclear program and the American "devils."
Every once in a while, though, someone does speak out, as former Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari did in a recent Iranian newspaper article: "The main problem that threatens us" and is "more dangerous than Israel and America or political fighting" is that "the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. If the situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town." Couldn't that be an opening for the West? It's not as if Iran's truculent leaders aren't aware of the problem. They live in Tehran and can't help but see the dust storms blowing past their palace windows. Some days the situation is so bad that the city simply shuts down. No one goes to work; children stay home from school.
Already, about 35 percent of Tehran's children suffer from asthma or related allergies, Iran's Medical Sciences University reported. Childhood respiratory infections can cause it, and the government says 1,650 tons of dust and pollutants sweep through Tehran's air each year.
Iran has become one of the world's greatest environmental challenges. The U.N.'s World Health Organization says the state is home to three of the world's five most polluted cities, and Iran ranks 114th out of 132 nations in the American academic Environmental Performance Index.
Well, while the United States has its own serious environmental problems, the nation also has more expertise in this area than most any other state.
Iran presents a serious problem for the world. Every approach at direct negotiations has failed -- as the current effort may as well. Why not approach Iran from a different angle? Offer to help them find solutions for their environmental issues. If we can help them solve these serious and perhaps even fatal domestic problems, it will be a lot easier to work with them on the nuclear issue and other concerns -- like Iran's unremitting support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Hezbollah terror group.
That effort would certainly present an ambitious challenge, particularly since most Iranian government officials, in public statements, blame everyone but themselves. The dust storms originate in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they aver -- though some Iranian academic studies say otherwise. And last month Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar said the government is about to publish a report describing "the irreparable damage inflicted on Iran's environment caused by sanctions," the Iranian Government News reported.
At about the same time, however, Ebtekar, who is also the head of Iran's Environmental Protection Organization, said she plans to start a citizens' environmental movement across the country. And two weeks ago, the United Nations said it was willing to cooperate with Iran to prevent Lake Orumiyeh, formerly the largest lake in the Middle East, from drying up. Already 70 percent of its water has evaporated.
Why can't the United States piggyback on those efforts -- offer to help Iran address the environmental problems that threaten to destroy the state within a relatively short period of time?
President Obama, there's a challenge for you -- a chance to make a real difference.