IRAN: As government uses earthquake fears to move residents out of Tehran, temblor injures 19

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Dozens of employees of Iran’s state-run Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts Industries and Tourism Organization gathered outside parliament this week to protest their forced transfer from Tehran to cities such as Esfahan and Shiraz as part of an effort to disperse government offices in the seismically active nation.

The controversy came as a fairly significant earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale shook the southern Iran early Wednesday morning, Iranian media and seismology monitors reported, injuring at least 19 people.

About 150 employees are scheduled for imminent transfer, while another 1,100 have been notified they could also be moved. But although many countries try to scatter state-owned industries outside the major cities for economic reasons, many Iranians are wary of any attempt to exploit the very real fear of earthquakes for political gain.

Earlier this year, an Iranian cleric made international headlines when he suggested that women who dress too revealingly cause earthquakes by invoking God’s wrath.


According to the report of seismography center at Tehran University’s Geophysics Institute, a tremor struck close to the Persian Gulf coast at 12:08 a.m. and damaged some homes. The injured included residents of the town of Lamerd, Iranian media reported, where a local relief official told state media that between 50% and 70% of buildings were damaged.

A second earthquake or aftershock measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale struck 12 minutes later, according to seismologists. The semi-official Iranian Students News Agency reported that a total of 12 aftershocks shook the area.

Earthquakes are considered a real danger in Iran, especially in poorly constructed, overcrowded areas of some cities. In 2003, at least 30,000 people died when a deadly earthquake struck the historic city of Bam in southeastern Iran.

More recently, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sought to decongest Tehran, arguing that it would reduce the risks associated with such a devastating earthquake.

Although the threat is especially real in Tehran, which lies on two active fault lines, many suspect the president is also eager to reduce the power and population of the relatively liberal capital, which is politically predisposed against him and his hard-line entourage.

The government recently released a list of 163 state-run companies and organizations slated for transfer. So far, local media have reported that between 4,000 and 15,000 government workers have volunteered to be relocated to provincial cities and towns, but not everyone is going willingly.

Protesters claim the move would uproot their families and in some cases cost spouses their jobs in the private sector, making the family dependent on a single breadwinner.

Moreover, many of the 163 companies to be transferred out of Tehran are merely the commercial and transport offices of factories that are already based outside the city, casting doubt on the logic behind moving them away from the country’s largest population center.

Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to make good on his stated goal of reducing the population of the metropolitan Tehran area from 12 million to just 5 million. Other proposals have included raising the salaries of university professors teaching in rural areas.

Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Meris Lutz in Beirut