Geopolitics

Five Reasons Why Iran Could Be Key To Defeating ISIS

At an anti-ISIS rally in Tehran last year.
At an anti-ISIS rally in Tehran last year.
Alidad Vassigh

Iranian foreign policy is still a major question mark, even as Western delegations stream through Tehran in the wake of a nuclear deal that promises an end to sanctions and international isolation. But there is no denying that Iran is a major regional power, which holds the real potential of becoming a working partner with the West on a number of fronts.

Most urgent, among the ways Tehran could move back into the geopolitical fold is in helping to crush the Islamic State (ISIS), and similar jihadist groups active in Syria, Iraq and beyond.

So how can Iran help?

1. REGIONAL (AND RELIABLE?) COUNTERWEIGHT

As a violent faction of the Sunni branch of Islam, ISIS abhors Iran, where Shia Muslims dominate. Iran and Iranians are thus a prime target for ISIS, and would be therefore a natural ally (if only of convenience) of its many other enemies. As a starting point, Iran has raised its voice to warn ISIS not to approach its borders. While none of the regional powers â€" even Sunni-dominated regimes â€" is safe from a group keen to carve itself a "caliphate" in the ruins of the Middle East, the West and Russia suspect that some are less than entirely determined to fight ISIS. In the political miasma that is the Middle East, the West thus sees Iran as fully and strategically committed to combat. It is of course a delicate diplomatic balance, as Sunni regimes look at any collaboration with Iran with great suspicion, and some may even see ISIS and other Sunni radical groups as a check on Tehran's ambitions.

The Jamkaran Mosque in the Iranian holy city of Qom â€" Photo: Fabien Khan

2. FRONTLINE FORCE

Iran has the military capabilities, manpower and geographic proximity to fight ISIS, and has already been engaged in operations that have pushed back the jihadists' advances in Iraq in particular. Indeed, its stated hostility to ISIS and groups like al-Qaeda or the al-Nusra Front may be more convincing than certain other regional states. The snag perhaps is that, like Russia, Iran is not just fighting terrorism but also bolstering its allies, notably Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the West wants ousted. As Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign affairs adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranian daily Sharg this week, Assad is Iran's "red line." So while it may help crush ISIS, its intention to keep meddling in Syria â€" not to mention Lebanon â€" may continue to fuel regional intrigue. Velayati made sure to add that Iran is now "the most powerful country participating in events in Syria."


3. LEAN ON ASSAD

For better or worse, Iran has the power to sway the Syrian regime. President Assad keeps looking less like a leader and more like a client of Russia and Iran, though one should never overlook his own ruthlessness and ferocity. The West might be interested to know whether or not Iran could force Assad from power: Could Assad survive without Iranian cash and arms and the Hezbollah militia, paid for by Iran? He might choose to rely entirely on Russia, another traditional ally of the Assads â€" both father and son. But Iran could ultimately apply the kind of pressure that would make the difference in paving the way for regime change in Damascus.

Syrian President Assad during his visit to Moscow in October â€" Photo: Kremlin

4. VIRTUOUS CIRCLE

Here's the dream scenario for those rare optimists that still exist: Eased back into the international fold, Iran could begin to see the many advantages of moderation. Once the Iranians bet on a policy of deradicalization, and move closer to the West, the Saudis might start talking to them. The two regional rivals maintain minimal diplomatic courtesies, but seemingly diverge on almost every issue that arises. Beyond the division between Shia and Sunni Islam â€" and who knows how important this really is in politics? â€" since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the two states have come to symbolize opposing ideologies. One is "revolutionary" and friendly with disruptive states; the other, a friend of capitalism and the West. Under the Shah, in the 1970s, the Persian Gulf monarchies entertained ties with Iran that were actually quite cordial. Their interests and inclinations were not far apart. But for at least a decade after 1979, Iran was suspected of backing all manner of subversive enterprises and dastardly deeds, broadly intended to ensure that its revolution â€" or any revolution â€" would happen in neighboring states and beyond. Iranian progression toward ideological moderation could open diplomatic doors, and that could be like pulling the rug from the radicals.


5. INTELLIGENCE SOURCE

Rapprochement with the West could produce intelligence sharing with Western powers, though that seems a taller order. In recent days Iran's "cyber police" declared it had detained over 50 people promoting ISIS and its ideas on the Internet, and its head said Iran duly collaborates in this domain with Interpol, the global network of police cooperation. Like reports of big drug hauls, it sounds like good news, even if the larger context remains opaque. For the West, Iran's role in fighting fanaticism is still mostly a hypothetical scenario, and a complicated one at that.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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