Amid gas shortages and blackouts, a harsh winter is fueling discontent in Iran

Left: Outraged Iranians gather outside a local Red Crescent to ask for heaters after a gas outage in their city. Right: An entire city in darkness after a power outage in Iran.
Left: Outraged Iranians gather outside a local Red Crescent to ask for heaters after a gas outage in their city. Right: An entire city in darkness after a power outage in Iran. © Observers

For weeks, Iran has been hit by cold weather. In a country where most households rely on natural gas for heating and hot water, gas shortages in many regions have paralysed the population, leaving people in sub-zero temperatures. In some regions, schools and public facilities have even been closed. The gas shortage itself has led to widespread power outages in several cities, an increase in air pollution and even more protests, on top of the anti-regime protests that have been wracking Iran since September 2022. 

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Iran has the largest known reserves of natural gas in the world after Russia, but Tehran is unable to supply enough energy for domestic consumption. The Iranian regime rejoiced at the idea of a "harsh winter in Europe" that emerged after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

For months, Iranian authorities hoped that European governments would have no choice but to negotiate with Tehran to exchange Russian gas for Iranian gas to avoid their citizens freezing in their homes. But when winter arrived, it was in fact Iranians who were left out in the cold

When Iran was hit by a cold snap in January 2023, the authorities initially had to close schools and many public facilities because there was no gas to heat them. Javad Owji, Iran's petroleum minister, said on January 15, "The closure of schools, universities and government offices in Tehran has helped us a lot, we could save up to 2.5 million cubic metres of gas per day."

But it wasn’t enough. Neighbourhoods and entire towns went without gas – and thus, without heating – while temperatures reached up to 20 or even 30 degrees below zero. Cities like Amol, Sabzevar, Neyshabur, Gorgan and many others had no more gas.

These gas outages not only led to outrage on social media, but also to a new wave of protests in some cities in Iran. Torbat-e-Jam was one of the cities where the gas outages led to public outrage and widespread protests.

Angry Iranians protest a gas outage in Torbat-e-Jam on January 15.

‘Iran's old and underdeveloped gas industry is not even able to use the country's natural resources to meet its own needs’

Reza Gheibi is an Iranian economic journalist based in Turkey:

Iran is a country that still burns its natural gas produced from oil wells and is unable to collect it due to its outdated technology and machinery. According to a World Bank ranking, Iran ranks third in the world in this area [Editor’s note: known as oil flaring, or routine flaring], wasting more than $5 billion worth of gas every year in the exploitation of oil wells.

For decades, the Islamic Republic has not invested enough in its oil and gas industry, failing to develop it but also to sustain it. To improve the situation, Tehran needs a lot of money and advanced technologies, and there is none of that in Iran. It needs foreign companies to invest in this sector in Iran, but foreign companies do not risk their money in a country like Iran, where investments are risky and there are many international sanctions. Iran's old and underdeveloped gas industry is not even able to use the country's natural resources to meet its own needs.

But the gas shortage has had other effects: people are resorting to electricity to heat their homes and offices, putting even more pressure on the country's power grid, which itself is mainly fed by power plants that burn natural gas. 

Iranian households consume more than 700 million cubic metres of natural gas per day, while production is 850 million cubic metres. This means that power plants and many other industries that consume gas are without power. Production in many factories is at a standstill because they have no gas. 

When factories stop working, there are fewer products on the market, and that means prices will continue to rise. The horizon is also gloomier. Since, on the one hand, there is no money to maintain and modernise the systems and, on the other hand, consumption is increasing, the gas and energy shortages will not only continue, but will worsen over time. To change this situation, Iran needs more than 80 billion euros, according to estimates by Iranian officials.

As a result, most cities are experiencing several widespread power cuts each week. To avoid general blackouts, the Iranian authorities took more drastic measures: in many cities, including the capital Tehran, city lights were switched off at night, including lights on many streets and highways.

Power outage in the Ashtehard industrial area. The whole area was plunged into darkness and many businesses had to stop working.
In Tehran, the lights on the highways were switched off. Some accidents occurred in the darkness on January 11.

 ‘The city has become strange and dark, and I feel unsafe’

Simin (not her real name) is an Iranian who lives in Tehran:

In the last three days we have had our electricity cut off twice for several hours. And each time, they told us by text message that the power was off because of a technical problem. But my main problem is that in many neighbourhoods the street and highway lights are switched off at night. In this way, the burden of lighting the public spaces has also fallen on citizens. The only source of light in these dark streets are the lights of the houses or shops. I do not go outside often, but every time I do, I am shocked to see the city in darkness. The city has become strange and dark, and I feel unsafe.

Darkened streets, alleys and highways are not only visible from the inside. Satellite images over Iran taken on cloudless nights show the difference. 

Satellite images of Tehran, Isfahan and other regions in central Iran taken on summer nights in 2022 are brighter than the same regions in January 2023.

The photo on the right was taken on January 19, 2023 and the photo on the left was taken on October 18, 2022. The photo in January shows fewer lights in Tehran and Isfahan and in many other regions of Iran in winter.
The photo on the right was taken on January 19, 2023 and the photo on the left was taken on October 18, 2022. The photo in January shows fewer lights in Tehran and Isfahan and in many other regions of Iran in winter. © Observers / NASA

‘Fewer women dare to go out in the streets’

Simin continued:

There are fewer and fewer people on the streets, in cafés or restaurants. After months of protests, the streets seem deserted, especially by the women who have been the engine of the protests for the last four months. We used to go without headscarves on the main streets to have people around us so that if the morality police gave us trouble, we would be defended by other people. Now that the main streets are in darkness, fewer women dare to go out in the streets.