The most recent ecological mishap to beset Iran's busy port of Bandar Abbas came on July 15, when oil sludge containing oil byproducts seeped out of damaged containers belonging to a contractor for the state electricity provider Tavanir.
More than two months later, Iranian news agencies and the "Kayhan" and "Etemad" dailies reported that 79 dolphins washed ashore on September 25 near the smaller port of Jask.
The incidents have spawned a broader debate over pollution levels in the seas around Iran.
Oil? Sewage? Submarines?
Iranian environmentalist Ebrahim Kahrom told the daily "Etemad" that the Persian Gulf is 47 times more polluted than what he described as the "standard level." He suggested that "severe oil pollution" and the presence of oil slicks in Gulf waters might have killed the dolphins as well as six whales that reportedly also washed ashore near Bandar Abbas in the past month. Kahrom called the confluence of the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea as "the most polluted area of the southern seas."
Kahrom said the Bandar Abbas oil spill contaminated an 800-square-kilometer stretch of water. He also said the number of dead dolphins would have been lower if it were the result of general pollution and accumulated toxins. Kahrom speculated that the pod of dolphins might have surfaced in the middle of an oil slick.
A deputy head of the Environmental Protection Organization, Mohammad Baqer Nabavi, suggested that the dolphins died from gradual poisoning due to "chemical pollution" or oil. "Etemad" quoted him as speculating that they might simply have lost their way, moved too close to land, and become disoriented -- even suggesting that sonar emitted by U.S. submarines in the Persian Gulf might have been a factor. Nabavi admitted that pollution levels are high, and said environmental authorities are studying the impact of the July spill in Bandar Abbas. But he was skeptical that the spill killed the dolphins, and pointed out that dolphins could have swum away from the contamination.
The head of the Hormozegan environmental authority, Mehrdad Katal-Mohseni, reasoned that any of a number of problems might have caused the deaths -- including oil pollution, waste from the industrial activities at ports and jetties, sewage, or floating rubbish. He even added that the dolphins might have gotten caught in tuna nets.
Environmentalist Nargues Rohani blamed marine pollution, and said that factories and petrochemical plants have been spilling unprocessed waste and sewage into the Persian Gulf for years. She said residents don't eat locally caught fish, believing it to be contaminated. Rohani noted that "the locals are intimately familiar with the disasters that have come about from contaminations, but officials continue to say nothing about all these events." She also noted the destruction of local populations of corals and fishes, and warned that Iranians could expect more environmental disasters "if officials remain silent."
Whatever the causes of the recent marine-mammal deaths, comments suggest an awareness that the Persian Gulf is polluted -- whether the result of navigation, oil-related activities, or the presence of military fleets and submarines -- and that pollution is killing or poisoning wildlife, including fish presumably destined for human consumption.
The reaction of Iranian officials is notable, and arguably fits into a pattern among states with poor records of accountability. Reports on Persian Gulf pollution and threats to other natural areas suggest that local efforts provide the most effective response and that the environment is not a priority for the state generally. Environmental issues very rarely feature in the speeches of senior officials. Reports frequently suggest that low-level officials block potentially destructive projects or react to degradation at an initial and local stage, but do not always receive systematic backing from officials in Tehran. In Iran, when economic interests clash with the environment, money is given priority.
Fars News Agency last month noted what it described as a "seal of silence" by officials of Hormozegan Province after the July oil spill. The agency cited "an informed source" as saying that the Hormozegan governor had ordered all provincial officials -- including its environmental chief and the investigating court -- to "remain silent" on the subject. The source suggested that probes into the spill that were initiated after legal action by local environmental authorities would be dragged out, and that their lack of progress was related to the governor's instruction not to "exaggerate" the incident. The source claimed the governor thought too much negative publicity would make the Energy Ministry look bad.
Iranian officials and Iranians in general are very sensitive about the term "Persian Gulf" as the official and recognized name for the waterway separating Iran and the Arabian peninsula. They are upset when Arab states or journals do not cite it as such -- particularly when the term "Arab Gulf" is used. And yet a far smaller number of Iranians appear concerned that human activities could turn that object of national pride and diplomatic contention into a filthy pool of toxins.