Iran has had many different capital cities over the years. In the ages between the reign of Hamadan (capital of the Median empire and one of the oldest cities in the world) and Tehran, the cities of Shush, Shiraz, Tisfoon, Semnan, Maru, Nishapur, Herat, Bokhara, Gorgan, Qazvin, Sari, Tabriz, Mashhad and Esfahan have all been the center of Iranian political life. They are scattered throughout the country, indeed some of them today lie outside Iran’s borders.
The current plan to move the political and administrative capital from Tehran has been met by opposition both by President Hassan Rouhani’s government and the speaker of parliament, Ali Ardeshir Larijani, who described it as both unconstitutional and expensive.
Those who oppose the plan have referred to the unsuccessful attempts of other countries to separate their economic and administrative capitals, such as Pakistan and Kazakhstan. They have also argued that although Turkey and Pakistan have moved their capitals away from the crowded cities of Karachi and Istanbul, they still attract a large flow of migrants and continue to face problems with transport, pollution and other issues that relocating the capital was supposed to alleviate.
Today, Tehran is home to 11 percent of Iran’s population and 20 percent of the economy, and its citizens contribute a third of Iran’s tax revenue. The city’s night-time population of 8.5 million people jumps to 12.5 million during the day. And every year, somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people move to or are sent to Tehran, whose infrastructure was only ever meant to cope with five million.
The relocation of the capital has been suggested several times over the past twenty years. During these two decades, as Tehran’s population has grown, so has the city’s notorious congestion and pollution. Consequently, the cost of remedying the problems caused by Tehran’s burdensome population crisis has also increased.
Other attempts to deal with these problems have hit snags. In the past decade, the rivalry between Tehran Mayor Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to plans to expand the Tehran metro—which might have helped to alleviate the problems of pollution and congestion—to slow to a crawl.
When he became president, Ahmadinejad, also formerly mayor of Tehran, endorsed a plan that would see five million people moved out of Tehran. The government even announced that it would move some of its ministries from the city, and incentivize government employees to leave Tehran.
Ahmadinejad set up a website which aimed to enroll 600,000 employees who wanted to move away from Tehran. But the plan drew wide criticism from experts, and ultimately fewer than 2,000 people signed up to the scheme.
This time it isn’t the traffic or the overcrowding that MPs are citing as reasons to relocate the capital—after all, these are problems in every big city. Instead, they are using the threat from earthquakes and the particularly high level of pollution in Tehran as reasons. In contrast, opponents of the scheme believe the solution lies in solving these problems rather than running away from them.
Nonetheless the problems are massive. For example, the chairman of the Tehran Health Commission, Rahmatullah Hafezi, claimed in a radio interview last year that pollution in Tehran costs the government 8 billion US dollars a year and affects the health of 250 residents a month.
Another reason put forward to relocate the capital is the threat from earthquakes. The city sits on top of two fault lines, and a powerful tremor along either would very quickly become a disaster.
While Seyed Mohammad Khatami was president, a team of Japanese seismologists was invited to carry out a study on the risk of an earthquake occurring in Tehran. The results were extremely concerning, revealing that the risk of a large earthquake was very high. Today the capital experiences about 20 small tremors every day. It is estimated that an earthquake above seven on the Richter scale on the Southern fault would destroy nearly half a million homes. It would be a tragedy not just for Tehran, but a blow to the entire nation.
Despite these concerns, the Vice-President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Majid Ansari, takes a rather different view on the plan. He argues that the country would need a budget far in excess of what is possible over the next 20 years in order to split the political and economic capitals. Ansari has also highlighted the lack of water in vast swathes of Iran, and has pointed out that the government still faces a huge challenge in guaranteeing the supply of water to some of the country’s large cities.
Semnan is the home province of two Iranian presidents (Ahmadinejad and Rouhani), and has in the past been suggested as the site for an alternative capital city. Its provincial capital, also called Semnan, has a population of less than 200,000 and is situated around 125 miles east of Tehran. But as Ansari said: “In the past this city was suggested as a possible capital, but the state today faces a drinking water shortage.”
Ansari also said that in addition to the institutions of government and parliament, Tehran was also home to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Before relocating the capital city, it would be necessary to see whether the Ayatollah agreed with the plan. However, supporters of the idea have ignored this caution and have given the project their unequivocal support.
While several MPs support the idea of moving the capital, this does not mean that they agree on anything beyond that. One journalist recently stated on his Facebook page that they would never agree on the details, as each one would want the city they represented to replace Tehran.
But if the water shortages, financial burden and the MPs themselves don’t manage to shoot down this idea, then at the very least the situation of present-day Iran is proof that the time is not right for the capital city to change.
The current government announced when it came to office that the previous president handed over a country with nothing in its coffers. Even under a heavily restricted budget, the state would only be able to deliver 300 of its projects this coming year. It should be noted that the majority of these projects are already more than 80 percent completed.
When the government announced that the budget for this year would only be able to cover this many projects, a number of MPs protested and resigned. They demanded that a third of the budget be reserved for their cities and provinces. However, they quickly realized that with government finances as they were, the state could not spend any more and they returned to parliament.
The financial crisis and economic sanctions have left no room for maneuver on issues as massive and as complicated as relocating the capital. This, coupled with the fact that MPs have already shown they are not committed to applying enough political pressure to truly scupper the government, should ultimately consign the idea to history—again.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.