TEHRAN, Iran — Following the revelation of illegal construction on Iran’s vaunted Caspian Sea coast, Iranian media outlets and the public are once again focused on the issue of land-grabbing. This illegal practice ignites debate because of the reported involvement of a multitude of officials and state organizations.
On Aug. 16, the floor of the Majles was rocked by a verbal confrontation between two lawmakers who each accused the other of land-grabbing. According to reporters who saw the clash, Kamaladin Pirmoazzen — a member of parliament from Ardabil and the spokesman for the Environment Committee — got up from his seat, walked up to Safar Naeimi Raz, a Principlist parliament member from Astara, and roared, “You have destroyed our natural resources!” Later, Pirmoazzen told reporters who were waiting outside the building that Raz and a previous Ardabil parliament member had been facilitating illegal villa constructions in the Heyran Pass.
Three days earlier, on Aug. 13, the allegation had been the exact opposite. Then, Raz went on live Iranian state television and accused Pirmoazzen and some of his relatives of land-grabbing in the very same stretch of land.
The Heyran Pass is a summer resort located on the coast of the Caspian Sea, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the city of Astara. It has become a popular tourist destination for Iranians during the past decade.
The exchange of accusations between the two lawmakers quickly caught the attention of the Reformist newspapers, which started looking into the issue of land-grabbing in the area. The newspapers Shargh and Shahrvand published extensive reports that claimed illegal land sales in the Heyran Pass, with plots normally priced at 30 million rials ($1,001) per square meter sold for a fraction of the cost, at 1.5 million rials ($50) per square meter.
After the media picked up on the issue of illegal construction in the Heyran Pass, officials from both the judiciary and the administration of President Hassan Rouhani entered the fray.
The secretary of Iran’s Anti-Corruption Organization, Ahmad Palizdar, announced Sept. 3 that First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri has issued a special directive pertaining to the issue of land-grabbing in the Heyran Pass: “Due to his determination to follow up on this issue, he has ordered the three ministers of roads and urban development, interior and agriculture, as well as the head of the Housing Foundation and the governor of Gilan province to investigate and pursue this matter.” Palizdar added that the governor of Gilan province has ordered a halt to all construction in the Heyran Pass.
Prior to this, judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje'i had confirmed that there has been illegal construction in Heyran at a press conference. He said, “About 20 people have started construction without having the necessary permits.” He went on to warn that “we will stop illegal construction — no matter who the owner is."
Nonetheless, considering the high volume of land-grabbing cases in Iran, and the fact that so many officials and government organizations are involved in illegal construction across the country, there is little hope that legal action alone can put a halt to this practice. On Aug. 24, in an interview with Mehr News Agency, Mohammad Ali Pourmokhtar, who chairs the Article 90 Committee of the Majles, which deals with formal complaints against the three branches of government, said there is not enough supervision to prevent land-grabbing from taking place. He also said, “Unfortunately, there is no determination to fight the phenomenon of land-grabbing.”
His comments echoed remarks made by the incumbent judiciary spokesman back in March 2011. Then, Mohseni-Eje'i clearly stated that there are officials in government bodies such as the judiciary, municipalities, State Organization for Registration of Deeds and Properties, as well as the Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Management Organization that work hand in glove with speculators and land-grabbers. He said, “If we want to fight this phenomenon, we need to start with ourselves and the establishment.”
There are countless cases of land-grabbing in Iran. In an official statement May 31, Attorney General Ebrahim Raisi said that 18,000 land-grabbing cases are currently pending. The situation is so dire that even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has addressed this issue, including so-called mountain-grabbing and construction in high altitudes. At a speech in March, Khamenei called this problem “unfortunate and painful” and asked for legal measures to be taken in order to stop these illegal practices. He said, “Such actions should be considered a crime and people who have committed these crimes should be confronted. If officials in different organizations have failed to prevent these crimes, then they should be held responsible as well.”
However, reports in the press indicate that many of the organizations that are directly or indirectly under the supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader, such as the state Endowments and Charity Affairs Organization, whose chairman is appointed by Khamenei, are accused of land-grabbing themselves. In September 2014, Pourmokhtar publicly said, “The state Endowments and Charity Affairs Organization has become a major land-grabbing organization.” On another occasion, in March, the Majles passed a bill according to which public lands would be given to the paramilitary Basij, which answers to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to assist in the construction of new Basij bases.
Without a doubt, the most talked-about revelation about the involvement of government officials in illegal land-grabbing goes back to July 2012. Then, the website Bamdad Khabar published 12 confidential documents apparently showing that Mohammad Javad Larijani had taken part in land-grabbing in Varamin, a suburb of the capital Tehran. Of note, Larijani currently serves as the secretary of the Human Rights Council of the Iranian judiciary. In turn, the Iranian judiciary is headed by his brother Sadeq, while the Majles is headed by another brother, Ali.
In September 2012, a few months after the uproar about Mohammad Javad Larijani’s reported involvement in land-grabbing, Sadeq Larijani announced that if his brother was convicted, he would ensure that the sentence would be carried out. Three years later, no verdict has been issued against Mohammad Javad Larijani.
Instead, the trend has been that writers who have exposed cases of land-grabbing have been arrested and put on trial. In December 2010, Abdollah Shahbazi, historian and former head of the Political Studies and Research Institute, which belongs to the Ministry of Intelligence, was detained and sentenced to 17 months in prison. His crime? Publishing a book online titled “Land and Wealth Accumulation: The Creation of a New Oligarchy in Today’s Iran” in which former senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij officials are accused of land-grabbing.