Tag Archives: Iran

Rials into rails in Iran (part 1): the Tehran-Shiraz ‘Nour’ sleeper

Everywhere you go in Iran, it seems, Imam Khomeini is there. A portrait of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary Supreme Leader occupies rial banknotes, murals of his unsmiling face adorn the sides of buildings, and in hotels and public buildings his image hovers over you in the background. So too on approaching Tehran’s railway station, where having exited the Rahahan metro stop, Imam Khomeini (alongside current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) looms over the square and flanks the double doors that lead into the station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side unnervingly blank)

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side reassuringly blank)

After a couple of days in Tehran, I had arrived to take the 15-hour ‘Nour’ sleeper service from the hustle-and-bustle of Iran’s capital to its Shiraz, one of its historical capitals, in Iran’s southwest (see ticket booking details at the bottom of the post). Foreign travellers are required to check in at a passport counter to the left of the ticket checkpoint, where one’s visa and entry stamp are scrutinised and recorded – a privilege accorded to train travel, rather than the intercity coaches. A cursory mark is made on the ticket, and I am allowed to proceed through the checkpoint and its QR scanner. In the next hall a rather colourful mural in an otherwise functional environment exudes industrial might and power: wheels, tracks, locomotives, wrapped in the Iranian flag with Tehran’s iconic Azadi Tower as its backdrop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Industrial power.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Line 5 for the Shiraz-bound ‘Nour’.

A passage leads out to the gantry that runs above the tracks, and then it is down to the platforms where staff check, check and check again tickets. On the train, manufactured in 2011 by the Changchun Railway Vehicles Co. of China, I find my way to the compartment, and what follows is a revelation. This is no tired European CityNightLine couchette, but a compartment with wide seats, each with its own upholstered armrests. In this four-berth that I travel on, what would otherwise be the middle seat becomes a fold-down table that is laden with a range of packeted snacks and a teacup – my first encounter with what would be a recurring sight of snack packs during other train and bus trips in Iran.

A rather classy touch is the patterned carpet a la a Persian rug that lines the corridor and compartment floor, although the purple-and-cream design of the bedsheet and pillowcases, less so. All for the grand price of 845,000 Iranian rials (about €24). The frequency of passenger services leaves something to be desired – there is just the one overnight train from Tehran to Shiraz (although a new, ‘luxury’ train, the ‘Fadak’, now also plies this route on alternate days) – but there can be few complaints about their affordability (for the foreign visitor) and comfort.

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea...what else do you need?

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea…what else do you need?

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

At precisely 4.20pm, a whistle blew and the train began to slowly make its way out of Tehran. The main compartment windows of the train are lightly tinted (I suppose especially necessary for the bright glare of the desert sands), but it has the effect of turning what is already an orange-and-red colour palette of stunning landscape even oranger and redder. The carriage guard comes around with a flask of hot water to fill up the teacup, and soon I am sipping away on a cup of black tea as the desert and mountains zip by. My companions for this journey, taking up two of the other seats, leaving one unoccupied, were a young husband and wife on their way home to Shiraz, one of whom spoke enough English to have a decent conversation, and would serve as my de facto translator for the rest of the journey. Like a good many other Iranians I came across, they were somewhat mystified by the idea of solo travel in a foreign land (I must come back and visit again when I get married, I was often told).

A flatscreen TV in the compartment (together with built-in audio, as well as headphone ports) plays a movie about a mute boy who is bullied a little and tries to run away from his family. It is always a pleasant surprise when you can understand enough of a movie in a foreign language, simply through the gestures and physical movement – so much so that when this exact movie appeared a week later on a coach between Esfahan and Yazd, I happily watched all of it again.

Outside Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Two hours out of Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Dinner takes place in the restaurant car. I’m not offered a huge range of options: ‘chicken and rice’ or ‘chicken pieces and rice’, but I suspect that Farsi speakers can explore the full capabilities of the kitchen. In any case, the extravagantly sized grilled chicken leg that appears before me is plenty to fill me up, washed down with a cup of doogh, the sour-and-salty yoghurt drink that I rather came to enjoy. 125,000 rials (or about €3.60 later), it is getting late and nearly time for bed. Lying in the darkness, with only the universal sound of Candy Crush from one of my new friends’ phone softly beeping away, my ears are gently popping too as the train climbs into and across the Zagros mountain range that slices across Iran’s southwest.

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Dawn, near Shiraz.

Dawn, near Shiraz.

A little before 6.30am, knocks on the door from the guard serve as the wake-up call – just in time too, to greet the orange sky of the dawn that once again turns the desert grassland alight. And a few minutes after 7am, bang on schedule, the train grinds to a halt at the Shiraz railway terminus, completing its 900km+ journey from Tehran. This station is some distance out of the town, but a flood of yellow taxis await. My newfound friends give me a lift into the suburbs, where we part ways and I hop into a different taxi into the city centre proper. (I think a taxi from the railway station will be in the range of €13, or 450,000 rials). One of the clichés of travel can sometimes be about how friendly locals are to visitors, but I have never thought it to be true-er than in my two weeks in Iran. They generously offer to meet me later in the evening to show me around a little around their hometown, an offer which I am happy to take up – but that is a story for another time.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Disembarking at Shiraz.

***

The iranrail.net website.

The iranrail.net website.

(Planning note: this ticket was booked through iranrail.net, which was a very straightforward process, with payment via PayPal. At time of booking and writing, TripAdvisor comments were somewhat mixed on their efficiency and delivery (there is also a clause, which is slightly unnerving to the traveller used to some modicum of certainty in making long-distance travel plans, in their t&c’s about defining ‘on time’ ticket delivery as anytime up to three hours before departure, failing which a refund is made). When I hadn’t received the pdf ticket after a week, I wrote to them via their website. Their response via SMS, however, was very quick in saying that there had been some issues with sending tickets to hotmail addresses, and once I provided a different email address I received the correct ticket within the hour. They do charge a €6 service fee, which seems entirely reasonable and I would have no reservations about making advance bookings through them, bearing in mind a little patience).

Part 2, a report of the Kashan-Tehran ‘Pardis’ fast train, as well as some notes on the Tehran Metro, will follow in a week. See a previous train trip report, 24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth International Express. All photos (except the Google Maps and iranrail.net screenshots) by Nick Chan.

Advertisements
Tagged , ,

Geneva’s Iran nuclear agreement and Warsaw’s climate outcome

“A recent set of international negotiations in a cold European city concluded with a landmark agreement, one that while far from comprehensive, represents a breakthrough in building trust among the different countries. If successfully implemented, it could pave the way for a broader, more far-reaching agreement in the near future that is able to bridge thornier, longstanding differences that have previously proved insurmountable, and make real progress on this issue of wider international concern.”

This was, of course, not the report coming out of the end of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 19th Conference of Parties meeting in Poland last month. But while hundreds were huddled in Warsaw for its late-running closing, this was the news from Geneva over the same weekend, where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) were successfully concluding a round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Excitement at the Geneva agreement has been striking in comparison with the despondency at the Warsaw conclusions. While the two issues at stake – climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation – may appear distant, some broad parallels may be apt in how a process towards an international agreement is built through monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) procedure.

Monitoring Iranian nuclear enrichment
The broad shape of the Geneva agreement is a commitment whereby Iran will limit its various uranium enrichment activities, and in exchange will receive ‘sanctions relief’ from Western countries. This is an interim agreement, to be implemented over the next six months as a prelude to further discussions on a comprehensive, permanent settlement. It comes on the heels of over a year of Israeli threats to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability – and many more years of international diplomacy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Iran insists have only peaceful intentions.

Stages of enrichment: Benjamin Netanyahu’s diagram of Israel’s red line in his 2012 UN General Assembly address. Photo: Reuters

The agreed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, however, are meaningful only in the context of assurances that these restrictions are being implemented and lived up to. A core element of the Geneva agreement, therefore, is an increased monitoring process by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors – daily access to Iran’s uranium enrichment plants, increased access to other nuclear-related facilities, and updated information about its heavy-water plant (a key part of the plutonium production process).

While the overall restrictions are themselves significant, it is in this monitoring and inspection process that success of the Geneva agreement (and any long-term agreement) rests. The P5+1 countries brokering the Geneva agreement (and their allies in the region) will need to be satisfied that the agreement is being implemented satisfactorily in order to move towards longer-term issues. Put in more general terms, this is little more than the core challenge of international cooperation (amid international anarchy etc.): how do you work towards realising joint gains amid uncertainty about others’ intentions and the possibility of being taken for a ride?

Thus, this IAEA process is intended to assure Western countries that Iran is indeed in compliance with the agreement by providing greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities. More extensive monitoring and inspection processes raise the likelihood, for Iran, of being caught conducting secret enrichment activities and thereby raises incentives to remain in compliance with the terms of the Geneva agreement. It agrees to bind itself – despite its professed ‘nuclear rights’ – as a means of demonstrating its credibility to its Western interlocutors. A term used frequently in arms control processes (but less familiar in environmental contexts) to describe the value of this stage of negotiation is as a “confidence-building measure”. As Brookings analyst Kenneth Pollack put it, the Geneva agreement is such a step towards reducing suspicions and demonstrate good faith, necessary towards a more comprehensive future deal:

“Neither side trusts the other, but both sides needed to see some tangible manifestation ahead of time, that the other would be willing to do what would be required in a final deal. We needed a demonstration of Iran’s willingness to halt its nuclear progress, give up much of what it has already accomplished, and submit to more comprehensive inspections. And Iran needed to see that the international community (read: the U.S.) would be willing to provide sanctions relief and allow Iran to retain some limited enrichment capacity, albeit with guarantees and safeguards that it would be solely for civilian purposes.”

These elements of the Geneva agreement – the importance of reporting and verification, and the larger process of building mutual confidence – are instructive in turning to the outcomes of the Warsaw climate conference.

Monitoring climate progress
While much of the headlines at COP19 and its aftermath focused on progress (and lack thereof) on loss and damage, finance, and the Durban Platform process towards the envisaged 2015 agreement, on two other issues agreement was more forthcoming: the climate regime’s MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) processes, and detailed rules on deforestation (REDD+), the latter being described as COP19’s “singular achievement”.

While I am not an expert in the details of either topics, both are crucial building blocks for the prospect of stronger commitments in the future. The MRV outcomes included agreement on the the ‘team of technical experts’ to carry out the ‘international consultation and analysis’ (ICA) process in developing countries; new guidelines for reviewing periodic reports (i.e. national communications, GHG inventories and biennial reports) by developed countries; and general guidelines for the domestic MRV of domestically supported actions in developing countries. These MRV provisions for developing countries are not insignificant (once upon a time, wariness at developing countries having to ‘report’ anything about their emissions to the international level led to the original Framework Convention on Climate Change’s reporting procedure being called ‘national communications’), and were first outlined back in 2010 at the Cancun COP. Agreement on their terms of operation is an important step forward and sets the stage for “2014 being a big year for MRV” with many of the first deadlines for these new procedures looming. Indeed, the rather uneven levels of commitments being taken (some states are Kyoto Protocol members, others are not; different countries use different frameworks of measurement, and so on) has highlighted the importance of MRV processes to ensure that different types of action are indeed “comparable” in the bigger global picture.

Monitoring, reporting and verification issues also loomed large on the REDD+ agenda and reached a package of related decisions (see fuller summaries of the COP19 REDD+ progress here and here). The question of how developing countries should be supported for reducing deforestation/forest degradation has centrally been about how progress is to be ‘MRVed’ in order for “results-based finance” to flow: how are safeguards for impacts on indigenous communities to be met; how are baselines against which progress is to be judged to be measured; how countries will report on and show that emission reductions from deforestation are genuine, and so on. The gestation of the REDD+ agenda has also been a long-winding one since its formal entry onto the UNFCCC agenda in 2005, and agreement on the important scientific minutiae of how to count progress on reducing deforestation/degradation is, to a certain extent, playing catch-up with action taking place outside of the UNFCCC sphere.

In both these areas the main concern is the same –  as it is with the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme: building a set of rules that can provide transparency about the action that governments are taking, in order to prevent backsliding and provide a basis for more far-reaching international cooperation. The same trade-offs exist in both the climate and nuclear domains, between intrusions on sovereignty and providing assurances to others about the sincerity of one’s actions and intentions – the hope being, of course, that this making this trade-off will help all to realise mutual benefits (respectively, more robust global climate action and a world less at risk of nuclear war).

But it is that phrase above, confidence-building measures, that may also help make sense of this area of progress in the climate negotiations. MRV processes are not in themselves going to do much to address climate change if the overall commitments are weak, and much of COP19’s conclusions were indeed weak. But without such MRV processes, countries are going to be much less willing to act jointly – and this applies as much to the MRV of ‘actions’ as it does to the MRV of ‘support’ (the triumvirate of finance, technology transfer and capacity building) to implement emission-reducing activities. Investing time and energy in designing and reviewing the MRV system is a key purpose of a genuinely ‘multilateral’ system, so that everyone can be sure about the rules that others are playing by. As confidence grows that others are indeed playing by the rules they signed up to, then both commitments and their verification can be deepened.

(For an excellent discussion of this deepening process has worked in arms control negotiations, and lessons for the climate process, see this 2012 World Resources Institute report).

Certainly, important gaps remain to be filled in the reporting framework for future climate action, and the COP19 MRV provisions are far from the whole picture. But my point here has been, amid the general pessimism at 2013’s climate change progress (Christiana Figueres excepted), to suggest reason for a little bit of cheer from the Warsaw conference. How to count carbon and measure actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are never going to be the headline outcomes from the international effort to address climate change. But like the parallel talks on nuclear non-proliferation, the details of MRV processes, and their role in edging parties in a stepwise fashion towards mutual ‘trust’ and confidence in each other, are essential to the prospect of any longer-term action.

(A final footnote: in the period between Warsaw/Geneva and writing this post, a new WTO agreement was concluded in Bali, a conclusion to the Doha Round launched back in 2001 and repeatedly stuttered in the ensuing decade. For some time now, the sluggishness of the UNFCCC process has been compared to this ‘dead’ WTO one. Without delving into any of its substance here, though, may there be other lessons for multilateral cooperation?)

Tagged , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: