By Nima Tamaddon, Washington (Source: Mianeh)
Two hundred years after Tehran became the seat of government; could the authorities really move the Iranian capital to some other city?
View of Tehran from Milad Tower
The idea of shifting the capital away from Tehran is not altogether new, and preliminary planning was done in the late 1980s and again in the early 1990s, but it was never taken seriously enough for further steps to be made. The authorities have reinvigorated it in recent months. What is less clear is where the new capital would go - there is no single obvious candidate.
Officials argue that Tehran is due for an earthquake of catastrophic proportions, that the city has insufficient space to expand outwards, or a combination of the two.
The risk of earthquakes is real enough. Last year, Iranian seismologists issued a warning that Tehran lies on almost 100 fault-lines and would not survive a major quake.
Some analysts believe the idea regained currency as a result of the 2003 quake that killed around 30,000 people and almost totally destroyed the town of Bam in southeast Iran.
One of the results of overcrowding in Tehran is that air quality is horrendous. The authorities regularly close schools and ask the frailer residents to remain indoors when pollution levels get too high.
Two years ago, the World Bank, which lent Tehran 20 million US dollars to clean up the air in 2003, said pollution in the city exceeded World Health Organisation recommendations by 40 to 340 per cent. Last year, the city's air quality control agency said pollution levels were the worst in 30 years.
The current plan began taking shape last November, after the seismologists issued their warning. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei formally voiced a proposal to move the capital, which was then approved by a powerful state institution, the Expediency Council headed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In April, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran himself, suggested that the city's population should be reduced from 13 to eight million by offering people financial incentives to relocate elsewhere.
"Tehran has 13 million inhabitants. If something happens, how are we going to manage the situation?" he asked. "So Tehran should be depopulated."
The Iranian government is offering those who resettle 200 square metres of land and a low-interest loan of around 10,000 dollars.
President Ahmadinejad's staff has ordered three ministries to work on reducing the population of students in Tehran by relocating them to other cities.
The metropolis of Tehran houses about 10 million people.
There is little sign of Tehran residents rushing to take up the resettlement offer. "They would need to offer more incentives, including decent jobs, to encourage us to leave Tehran," said Amir, a student in the capital.
Many believe the real reason for shifting the capital has nothing to do with earthquakes or the environment, but to make social control easier. Iranian society has become polarised since the disputed election of June 2009.
"It's true that life in Tehran has been getting worse and less bearable by the day," said a local journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, referring to the pollution, housing shortage and traffic congestion. "But I have my doubts about their true intentions in moving the capital, given the secretive and oppressive nature of the system."
Two months ago, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said the reasons for moving the capital included "security and crisis management as well as demographic and environmental issues".
Shifteh, an Iranian blogger, said the minister's remarks revealed that "all this is about security, not potential earthquakes, Tehran's out-of-control population, or the environment".
Iran would not be the first country to relocate its capital city to defuse possible unrest. In 2005, the military junta in Burma rushed through a change from the coastal city of Rangoon (Yangon) to Naypyidaw, a new city in a more defensible location far inland.
Min Zin, a Berkeley-based Burmese scholar, explains that officially, "The move to relocate the capital was to ensure more effective administration of nation-building activities." But in reality, he said, "The junta was scared of populated cities, because they are traditionally hotbeds for anti-government mass uprisings."
Three years ago, an Indian journalist who visited the new capital, described it as "vast and empty" and "the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative 'color revolution' - not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography".
Hooman Majd, a New York-based Iranian writer and author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ", does not believe the plan to shift the capital is connected to political unrest in Iran, not least because it will take so long that.
"Every Iranian official understands that even if the plans are approved and finalised, it will take years to accomplish this goal," he says. "No one in Iran's current leadership will even be alive when it is completed, if that happens at all."
Majd, who travels regularly to Tehran and has served as interpreter at the United Nations for Ahmadinejad and his predecessor as president, Mohammad Khatami, believes official statements about the over-populated and overburdened city should be taken at face value.
The 2010 Haitian earthquake, Majd says, focused minds on the risks facing Tehran. "As evidenced in Haiti, a central government effectively ceases to exist if the kind of devastation that hit Port-au-Prince would hit Tehran," he said.
If the plan gets off the ground, the question is where the new capital should be. Semnan, Arak, Qom, Qazvin and Shahroud have all been cited as suitable options.
Veteran seismologist Bahram Akasheh believes the best location lies between Qom and Delijan, near Isfahan. This area, he says, had not suffered an earthquake in 2,000 years.
Akasheh has been arguing since 1974 that capital should be moved far from the fault-lines at the foot of the Alborz Mountains.
Once a location is decided on and a final decision taken, the question is whether the government has the capacity to carry out this complex task.
According to one Dubai-based Iranian journalist, the Tehran government is "incapable of planning anything and doing it right".
Majd disagrees, saying parts of the administration, at least, are capable.
"I would say the Iranian government has shown itself to be very capable at times - say with the nuclear programme, or in the work achieved by Tehran\'s mayor - and highly dysfunctional at others," he said. "So any plan would depend on which side of the system shows up to execute it."
About the author: Nima Tamaddon is an Iranian broadcast journalist based in Washington.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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