Located in the Western tip of Iran’s Fars Province, Kazerun County has a distinct historic identity which was shaped in the pre-Islamic Sasanid period (224-651 AD). A national Iranian heritage emerged in the area and spread across modern day Iran under this empire. The Persians are the county’s main ethnic group, but other minorities live across Fars Province and Kazerun, including the semi-nomadic Qashqais, Lurs, Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Georgians and Circassians. Kazerun sits 860 meters above sea level between the mighty Zagros mountains and the warm waters of the Gulf, and it has seemed indivisible until recent times. Its identity, rooted in a strong ethnic and cultural heritage, is a source of pride for the county’s inhabitants whose prosperity has withered since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. But government plans announced last year to divide the county into smaller administrative townships has led to mass political protests.
The authorities blame protests on economic grievances, but that is one part of the story. The real problem started when the Office of Country Divisions said it would divide the county’s “Chenar Shahijan” and “Kuhmareh Nodan” districts. The residents of Kazerun, the largest city in the county, claimed the plan would dislocate the region’s natural geography and administrative units, subdivided into valleys and six main districts and six major cities. In April, Kazerun’s historic bazaar staged a shut down, considered a grand-scale act of civic defiance. Kazerunis joined bazaar merchants to demand the resignation of public officials who tried to silence their complaints. Schools and offices planned to close to participate in the protests. Backed by some 1,500 local protestors, the bazaar led a petition sent to Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani to ask that he represents Kazerun’s interests.
This led to the mass protests that erupted in April this year, triggered when Kazerun’s member of parliament (the Islamic Consultative Assembly – majles), Hosein Rezazadeh, confirmed rumors to establish a new county. Rezazadeh made the announcement via telegram, a popular application widely used in Iran until its recent ban, which quickly spread the message across the county. Since arriving in parliament, Rezazadeh had lobbied for a new county for which plans were drawn 25 years ago. This would mean diverting Kazerun’s limited land resources. No previous authority had touched the plan, but Rezazadeh was keen to deliver a promise made to his electoral constituents to have a new county. The promise won him a seat in the majles, as well as the ear of the central government. Tehran conformed without adequately assessing the situation on the ground. Despite the economic virtues of diverting state funds to a new and under developed county, it was unclear what other behind-the-scene interests may have driven Tehran to back Rezazadeh. Little is known about his prior political connections. But he was keen to blame the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Friday prayer designate for Kazerun, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khorsand, for igniting the protests through a smear campaign. Khorsand suggested that defense and security considerations had to be considered when fashioning new counties.
Kazerun is the most recent example of a trend to divide Iran up into numerous small counties. Social media coverage of the protests alerted Tehran of the dangers of its miscalculated move. On May 25, a group gathered in Rezazadeh’s birthplace “Ghaemiyeh,” considered a part of “Chenar Shahijan” district, at the city’s Friday prayers mausoleum, to demand Kazerun’s division into a new county. When officials froze plans to divide Kazerun to quieten the protests, “Chenar Shahijan” and “Kuhmareh Nodan” residents who wanted a new county called for demonstrations. On May 27, protestors used iron and rocks to block the main town square in “Ghaemiyeh,” and the roads in “Chenar Shahijan” which link the Fars Province to the provinces of Bushehr and Khuzestan. Bystanders said security forces opened new paths to let traffic through. More protests flared up again in “Kuhmareh Nodan.”
Although the protestors in Kazerun threatened to remove Rezazadeh from office, his draft plan was kept in place to silence protestors who wanted a new county. The plan proposed the name “Kuh Chenar” for the county, a mix of the two ancient names of the regional towns of “Kuhmareh Nodan,” and “Chenar Shijan.” The new county’s jurisdiction extended to the vicinity of the historic town of “Bishapur,” once the capital city of the Sasanid Empire, and the holy town of “Imamzadeh Seyyed Hosein.” This angered Kazerun, as the plan would first transform it into a city as a dependency of “Bishapur” which today houses some of Iran’s most ancient ruins. For centuries, “Bishapur” and its surrounding villages served as recreational centers for locals. Kazerunis have clung as fervently to their Islamic heritage and the Imamzadeh. Originally a Sunni dominated area before its forced conversion into Shiism under the Safavid Empire. Kazerun has long been recognized as a land that breeds Muslim theologians. The Prophet Mohammed’s disciple Salman-e Farsi, revered by both Sunnis and Shias, is believed to be from Kazerun.
Khorsand insists these towns, along with “Dasht Barm” and “Anarestan” will always remain part of Kazerun. But he is concerned that though “Bishapur” was to stay part of Kazerun, plans were underway to separate villages around the area from the county. The people in nearby “Chenar Shahijan” and “Pusan,” two underdeveloped towns that serve as linking routes between the three provinces of Fars, Khuzestan and Kahgholiyeh and BoyerAhmad, reject the idea. They support Rezazadeh’s bid to end what they call is Kazerun’s long-standing misallocation of resources and the discrimination against their towns.
Khorsand and Rezazadeh have advised the people to freeze protests and to seek legal channels to resolve their issues. Kazerunis have since questioned the logic since the revolution to carve up the region into smaller counties and townships is part of nation-wide plans to re-demarcate Iran’s 31 provinces. From 1906 until 1950, Iran was divided into 15 provinces when its first modern pattern of urban administration evolved from the remnants of a largely feudal and multiethnic society. Fars had a unique position as one of the largest new provinces in Iran, blessed with rich land resources, spectacular historic gardens, a vibrant literary community, and a reputation as the bedrock of Iran. It was in this area that the ancient Persian Empire spread starting around 550 BCE. So famous was the area that many ancient rulers called themselves the Kings of Fars, though they controlled a far larger territory.
With this history, Kazerun thought it was invincible, and it prided itself for raising some of Iran’s most famous poets and scientists. But the plan to create new provinces after the revolution affected Kazerun, triggered by population growth levels when the revolutionaries rebuked population control programs. They argued that Iran needed more people to build a powerful Islamic nation and challenge world imperialism. Despite expert warning to curb population growth, Iran’s religious leaders encouraged families to procreate. The government promised to give free housing and other subsidies to large families, and encouraged community living in land confiscated from Iran’s pre-revolutionary elites.
Delighted by some of these early promises, Kazerun was thrust into defending the revolution. According to Khorsand, it lost some 1,300 men during the revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988. In return, it was expected that the Jihad Construction Organization (jehad-e sazandeghi) set up to fight rural deprivation post revolution, to re-distribute wealth across Iran, and to build its infrastructure, would bring prosperity to Kazerun. Although the Organization was instrumental in generating services for rural areas and encouraging nation-wide literacy and health programs, little came to town or the county by way of sustainable government support. Despite generous financial resources, the Organizations work was experimental rather than scientific, and lacked understanding of the natural heritage of the area. The war reversed Iran’s economic growth, and small counties were hit hard. These days in Kazerun, poverty is widespread, unemployment is high, and draught has harmed the region’s agriculture.
Tehran failed to address the issues that impoverished Kazerun, despite the county’s relatively small population, recorded at 300,000 in a census gathered in 2006. Instead, it focused on building its support base by distributing wealth among an emerging revolutionary middle class. This kept the area in perpetual economic stagnation. Dependent on agriculture, the county suffered further from insufficient water, and poor industrialization plans. Its problems were compounded by chronic mismanagement at the local and state levels, despite numerous post-revolutionary organizations and cooperatives to help bring sustainable development to the region. With the rise in the number of low-income families and rural-urban migration, Kazerun’s road networks and infrastructure began deteriorating.
You do not need to look far to see how the county’s fortunes have changed. Kazerun’s single largest industrial factory which generated employment for 300 workers was shut down a decade ago, and it never reopened. Despite budget allocations to build a tunnel for the town, Kazerun hardly received a penny. Its roads are considered one of the most hazardous to drive on in Iran, and it has the highest rate of car accidents in Fars Province. But extra budget was assigned to fix the problem two years ago, no one could tell if and how it was spent to make the roads safer in Kazerun. The last governor of Fars Province refused to help. He did not visit Kazerun in his 11-month tenure, and only went to see the town when he was no longer governor. Sadegh Abedin, the former governor, promised to turn Kazerun into a major administrative hub, but it never happened. Other locations like Jahroum and Fasa were favored over Kazerun. Khorsand questions if in such a time of need carving up Kazerun into pieces should be the central government’s priority. He says it is not clear if the plans were made at the highest level of the state. He likes to blame Iran’s Interior Ministry and the Governorship of Fars Province for disrupting the region with grandiose plans to re-demarcate it. Khorsand adds, “One has to ask, why do they want people to stand up to each other and clash?”
He says the plan to divide Kazerun was illegal, and it did not acquire the legitimacy required to pull off such large-scale projects. The authorities did not consider local sensitivities involved, including the need to protect the region’s natural heritage and ensure the indivisibility of its historic and religious sites. Their actions stirred unrest in towns across the county, in a small provincial area where popular discontent is quick to show since Iran’s nation-wide anti-government protests last December. Yet the Interior Ministry insists that dividing counties, townships and provinces is part of an expert plan drawn by the government to re-demarcate the entire country. The government has done little to share and discuss these plans with local communities. This obvious disrespect has increased Kazerun’s grievances. Although the authorities blame the region’s economic problems for triggering protests, Khorsand says that the people are saddened as the plans to re-demarcate Iran are drawn at the highest decision-making levels, often involving security and defense organizations, without any input from the people whose lives the plans will affect.
There is no doubt that interest groups can influence decisions on how land across Iran is divided. But when plans go wrong, state security is charged with quashing provincial protests. Since the revolution, Iran has witnessed a series of these protests. Each time, the crackdown is severe. In 1993, the central town of Qazvin and areas surrounding it were turned into a province. Protests flared up when neighboring Zanjan laid claims over Qazvin. Cars carrying Zanjan license plates were stopped by crowds in Qazvin, and billboards promoting Zanjan were pulled down. When an early draft bill to turn Qazvin into a province was initially turned down, protests also exploded. Tehran’s Seyyed Al Shohada 10th Brigade was dispatched to the region to subdue the revolt, and several people were reportedly killed.
At the heart of these land division debates is how Iran’s polling districts are divided. Districts often include several townships. Candidates running for political office base their election staff in towns where they are likely to receive the highest votes. In return, they offer more state resources to the towns once they are elected to office. The problem does not end there. Frequently, state officials have a personal say in the matter of land division as well. For example, Abdulvahed Mousavi Lari, Iran’s Interior Minister under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, was tasked to push a bill through parliament to turn his hometown of Lar into a new province. The plan involved separating Larestan County from Fars Province, and this led to a public uproar. Lari was already infamous as an avid lobbyist for county divisions. He had previously tried to turn Bojnurd County in Northeastern Iran into a province. His exertions led to a revolt in neighboring Sabzevar where protestors collected railway lines to attack public buildings. Several people were killed when security forces crushed the revolt.
Bojnurd finally parted from the old Khorasan Province in Northeastern Iran. It is now the capital city of the new Northern Khorasan Province, one of three provinces split when the old Khorasan Province was carved up in 2004. Earlier plans aiming to divide Khorasan into five provinces failed because of popular revolts. The worst revolt came when people clashed in the towns of Neyshapur and Sabzevar. This forced authorities to divide the area into Northern and Southern Khorasan, and the center part into the Khorasan Razavi Province with Mashad as its capital city. The region’s problems persisted despite the carve-up, because subsequent governments took a position defending one local township against the other. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed office in 2005, he decided to support Shahrud’s bid to turn it into the capital city of Semnan Province. This triggered protests across Semnan. Anxious to quieten people, the government drew up plans to divide up roads and administrative offices equally in various towns across Semnan, as well as the financial resources.
Faced with these persistent problems at provincial levels, at some point the Islamic republic welcomed the idea of converting Iran into a federalized state system. This would allow most decisions to be made at local levels. The idea seemed popular enough for politicians to play with. During his run in the presidential elections in 2013, the former revolutionary guard commander Mohsen Rezai proposed dividing Iran into “economic” federal states to empower local communities to generate and sustain wealth. Since then, Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, the body responsible for strategizing about the country’s future and settling inter-governmental disputes, has studied plans to divide the country into five states. The plan was first discussed under Khatami’s presidency, when Lari announced that Iran could be divided into nine regions. But no government has dared yet to touch these plans for fear of igniting nation-wide protests.
Contrary to the spirit of the revolution which aimed to empower local communities, urban and land management plans are imposed from above. Kazerun’s fate was affected by top-down development plans to divide the Province of Fars, with limited citizenship involvement. Despite encouraging citizen participation in city-village councils in the late 1990s, Iran’s Second Development Plan (1995-2000) proposed the adoption of a centralized “Comprehensive Plan for Country Divisions” by no later than 2008. The plan allowed the government to strategize on how to distribute wealth and trigger economic growth in Iran’s new provinces and administrative counties, but it faced implementation complications. Although it was to be approved by Iran’s reformist government led by President Mohammad Khatami, it was never finalized. The delay led parliament to question the then Interior Minister Abdullah Nuri. In his defense, Nuri claimed that Zahra Ahmadipur, then the General Director of Country Divisions, would take the plan to parliament for approval. She failed in receiving approval for the plan.
By 2005, President Ahmadinejad, was able to win over lower-income voters who felt neglected by the previous government. But his populist policies, including cash handovers to the poor and provincial areas, bankrupted the state. Despite her failure, Ahmadipur returned to politics to lead Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization in President Hassan Rouhani’s government in 2016-2017. The Rouhani government has invited comments on a new draft bill on county divisions. The draft includes definitions, but no specific ideas on how county division lines will be drawn. This gives members of parliament a relatively free hand to lobby the government about issues linked to the division. Often, these members look at their own interests first. These days Kazerun’s representative, Rezazadeh, spends most of his time in Tehran rather than in his own hometown. Hojatoleslam Khorsand complains that he has not even tried to take part in Kazerun’s Friday prayers. Rezazadeh’s apparent disconnect with his constituency led to rumors that secret plans to divide Kazerun were underway. This triggered the latest protests in April. Khorsand blames it on Rezazadeh’s non-transparent behavior, and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting (IRIB) agency’s refusal to discuss the issue on national media.
To quieten protests, Ali Akbari who represents the capital town of Shiraz in Fars Province, confirmed that the idea of dividing Kazerun is shelved. But contradictory reports pointed that a plan to divide Kazerun had been discussed in Tehran in early spring. Bahram Parasinejad, another parliamentary member from Shiraz blamed ongoing protests on poor economic conditions and said the people in Kazerun were using county division plans (known as entesal) as an excuse to protest. Rouhani’s government insists that plans to divide Kazerun were never finalized. The IRIB even showed a speech by Vice President Eshaq Jahanghiri, filmed a month earlier, rejecting plans to divide Kazerun were underway. But that did not seem enough to quieten the crowds. So, Tehran called on Khorsand to restore the peace. Khorsand bluntly told the government that it had failed to communicate with the people clearly at the provincial level.
By the time the government had asked Khorsand to help, the protests in Kazerun had gone on for weeks before flaring into large-scale demonstrations in mid-May. In the third day into the May protests, sporadic demonstrations continued. Social media showed security officers roaming town on motorbikes and cars. The protests picked up Wednesday night, May 16. They turned violent when protestors attacked and set ablaze a local police station, after being fired on, to release locals, they believed were being held there. Protestors seemed emboldened by earlier clashes that had broken out over the division of Gerash in the Southern tip of Fars Province. By early Friday morning, reports surfaced that a bank was set on fire by protestors. After five days of protests starting at a gathering in Shohada Square in May, Kazerun remained under tight security control.
According to Khorsand, high unemployment rates led crowds into the streets. Although the initial number of protestors was around 15,000, that number doubled. Throughout, Khorsand says not even a single government official from Fars Province or Tehran turned up to talk to the crowd. He believes the protests were by and large peaceful, even when some 30,000 gathered in Shohada Square last week, chanting against the governorship of Fars Province and IRIB for its failure to cover the demonstrations. Social media reports suggest a heavy security crackdown has taken place. On May 19, the General Prosecutor of Fars Province Ali Al Ghasemi Mehr said in addition to two dead, 48 others were injured. At least a third person died after. Ali Zolghadri, the acting disciplinary force commander for Fars Province said the main leaders of the unrest were arrested. He added that 40 percent of those arrested had prior criminal records. The authorities insist they will not offer immunity to the people who set public buildings on fire or harmed human life.
The Kazerun’s protests seem to tie into the widespread tension across Iran since late last year when people called for overthrowing the Islamic republic. Emboldened by these events, the people of Kazerun have demanded that their Friday prayer leader should resign. They want the authorities from Fars Province and the Interior Ministry to come and resolve the dispute. Meanwhile, the police and security forces are trying to keep the calm. But lacking a principled approach to the issue of land and resource division, Kazerun could face further protests.
President Rouhani has defended protests as an inalienable right, and he is less inclined to authorize the use of force against protestors. But that will not be enough to appease the people who fault his government for being non-transparent, and for marginalizing the poor. This puts the President Rouhani in a tight spot. His previous attempts at transparency by unveiling this year’s budget stoked public anger last December. Some 20-30 percent of the budget was allocated to the promotion of revolutionary institutions, cutting back badly needed health, education and welfare programs. Rising living costs, and President Rouhani’s inability to deliver promised reforms leave little to be desired in smaller towns like Kazerun. While government efforts are focused on keeping Tehran and other major cities in relative prosperity, smaller townships are ignored. During the protests, the people in Kazerun complained of “choking under pressure.” They begged security forces to freeze the crackdown and to listen to the protestors’ demands for change. These forces have learned not to turn people against them, as that could lead to a major showdown between pro-government groups and Iran’s disenfranchised people. However almost a fifth of Iran’s annual budget is earmarked for defense and security, cutting off the prospect of real reform for the foreseeable future.