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Ancient Iranian City Angrily Faces Divided Future

A demonstration in the city of Kazeroon to protest the plan to divide the city was held on April 20, 2018.

The ancient Iranian city of Kazeroon has withstood the test of time, but it might not survive a controversial municipal plan to carve it up.

Founded along a Sasanian-era trade route in the 5th century, well before Islam came to Persia, the southwestern city's future is now tied to a controversial proposal that would partition parts of the city and merge them into a new town, cutting Kazeroon off from historic landmarks and redistributing scarce water supplies in the arid area.

The plan, proposed by a local lawmaker and endorsed by Tehran, enraged many of Kazeroon's 140,000 residents, who had staged peaceful protests in recent months to air their frustrations. Last week, that anger boiled over when demonstrations turned violent, deadly, and against the government.

Iranian authorities say at least two protesters have been killed, dozens wounded -- reportedly including police -- and scores arrested since May 16, when clashes broke out between riot police and angry demonstrators.

In an attempt to defuse the tense situation, authorities announced on May 17 they had put the plan on hold, but confrontations between protesters and police have continued as local officials become embroiled in a blame game over responsibly for the unrest.

Protests in Kazeroon were also held on May 19, 2018.
Protests in Kazeroon were also held on May 19, 2018.

The Iranian government, which was on the receiving end of the May 16 demonstration, has been anxious to avoid a repeat of nationwide protests that took place in December. That month, tens of thousands of people in more than 100 cities and towns rallied against economic hardship and demanded greater social and political freedoms. At least 25 people were killed in the weeks-long rallies.

A Divided City

Sporadic, largely peaceful, protests have been staged in Kazeroon since Hossein Rezazadeh, a member of parliament who represents the city, earlier this year proposed dividing some districts of the city and merging them into a new town. Under the proposal, two of the city’s districts -- Chinarshaheejan and Qaemeyyeh -- would be separated from Kazeroon, creating a new town named Koohchinar.

Protesters say the proposal would place Kazeroon’s two main historical sites, including the ancient town of Bishapur -- which was founded in the 3rd century and features a rare blend of Persian and Byzantine architecture -- within the boundaries of Koohchinar. It would also, they claim, unfairly divide scarce water resources between the two municipalities. The demarcation would also slash the budget for Kazeroon and government jobs in the city.

According to local media, Qaemeyyeh is Rezazadeh’s birthplace and he has personal motives in supporting the motion, which was endorsed by Tehran.

Descent Into Violence

State media reported on May 16 that protesters, allegedly responding to calls on social media to gather, set fire to a police station in Kazeroon.

Protesters told local media that they gathered in front of the police station to call for the release of relatives who had been arrested for participating in earlier protests. Protesters say the rally turned violent after police opened fire on the demonstrators.

The New York-based Center for Human Rights In Iran quoted local sources as saying that at least three people, not two as reported by Iranian authorities, were killed on May 16.

Videos on social media showed security forces firing tear gas at protesters. There were also photos of bodies and injured people. The authenticity of the images could not be verified by RFE/RL.

Protesters in Kazeroon also chanted antigovernment slogans. One video shows protesters in April turning the decades-old slogan “Death to America” on its head by chanting “Our enemy’s right here; they lie and say it’s America!”

In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, the Interior Ministry said any administrative changes in Kazeroon would take "people's concerns" into consideration and would address the existing plan's "deficiencies."

The ministry has also warned, however, that "whomever disturbs public peace and order will be firmly dealt with."

Protesters have demanded the plan be completely abandoned.

In the days since the May 16 protest, photos and video shared on social media have depicted a heavy presence of police and paramilitary forces across Kazeroon. Locals have complained that the city has lost access to the Internet.

Blame Game

The protests have ignited a bitter dispute between lawmaker Rezazadeh and Kazeroon’s Friday Prayer leader, mid-ranking cleric Mohammad Khorsand.

Khorsand fiercely opposes any changes to the boundaries of the city and initially supported the protesters.

Rezazadeh accused the local Friday Prayer leader of “provoking people to rebellion.” In remarks quoted by Iran's hard-line Tasnim news agency, he also denied that the proposed changes were his idea, insisting that "the plan to divide Kazeroon has been on the table for 25 years. The city’s former lawmakers repeatedly promised to implement the plan but never fulfilled it."

Meanwhile, Bahram Parseinejad, a reformist lawmaker representing Shiraz -- the capital of Fars Province, where Kazroon is located -- said the real cause behind the recent rallies is people’s dissatisfaction with the management of the country.

The people of Kazeroon, he was quoted as saying by BBC Persian, were using the controversial proposal as “an excuse” to “protest poverty, hardship, corruption, and unemployment.”

"Like many other Iranians across the country," he added, "citizens of Kazeroon are also trying to force authorities to listen to their concerns and demands."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.