This picture taken on July 7, 2019 shows a view of Mount Damavand, Iran's highest peak, in the country's northern Mazandaran province. Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP

Awqaf, Iran’s powerful religious endowments agency, answerable only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and operating a portfolio generating nearly one-quarter billion US dollars annually, is facing intense scrutiny this week following reports it has seized a slice of the iconic Mount Damavand.

“Investigations reveal that the Awqaf has secured an endowment deed for one out of 11 registered parcels of Mount Damavand, from the foothills to the summit,” reported Hamshahri, one of Iran’s most reputable national newspapers.

The deed for the tranche of the nation’s most famous mountain was secured through a ruling by the Supreme Court, and without input from the national Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization, the July 26 report said.

The parcel, it added, is now “mortmain property” under perpetual, inalienable ownership by Iran’s Endowments and Charity Affairs Organization, or Awqaf.

In the wake of the explosive report, the religious endowments agency accused Hamshahri of seeking to “disturb the public opinion”. But in implicit recognition the ruling had occurred, the deputy head of Iran’s State Organization for Registration of Deeds and Properties assured the public that “most” of the lands in question were subsequently reallocated to the government. There are, however, two remaining plots out of the one-eleventh fraction of the mountain that are still claimed by Awqaf.

Reza Aflatouni, the director-general of the legal office of Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization, told the newspaper Shargh that in addition to those two plots that have not been returned to the government, there are two other parcels that remain Awqaf assets, making it clear that the status of the mountain remains contested.

Conservation activists say the seizure, if completed, fits a pattern of the powerful religious body confiscating natural resources to exploit for new revenue streams.

Pattern of seizure

The Awqaf operates on a budget of around 54 billion rials (US$2.7 million) but brings in close to 10 trillion rials (US$250 million) annually through its stewardship of thousands of Shiite pilgrimage sites, namely sacred shrines.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, these sites drew 1.8 million tourists yearly from Iraq alone, and thousands of others from the Gulf, Pakistan and beyond, providing a lifeline of hard currency amid the Trump administration’s ratcheting maximum pressure campaign.

While the Awqaf is known for running religious sites, it also controls more than 1.5 million endowments nationwide, including lucrative mines, and is increasingly notorious for controversial, and even illegal acquisition of natural resources.

“The Awqaf has not officially announced what it will do to the lands in case its ownership is finalized, but experience has shown that the motive behind such expropriations is making profits,” said Azam Bahrami, an Iranian environmental activist based in Turin.

“This equals mining, constructing buildings, or other environmentally destructive projects,” she told Asia Times.

In 2014, Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh, an outspoken member of parliament from Rasht, accused the organization of being involved in major land-grabbing cases, going so far as to challenge the head of the organization to a public debate.

“Violations in this organization include the allocation of some endowed mines to contracting companies without running tenders, and paying the supervision fees of the incumbent director of the organization for a long period of time in advance, and it is not clear where these generosities come from,” Jafarzadeh said.

Two years earlier, Mohammad Ali Pourmokhtar, a senior MP from Hamedan, said the Awqaf had turned into a “major land-grabber” which leases lands and natural resources and issues permits for construction on such properties illegally.

He slammed the conduct of the state body, saying it “abuses the name of the Supreme Leader” under whose auspices it operates.

In February of last year, three executives of the Awqaf and Charity Affairs Organization of Shemiranat County were arrested on charges of land-grabbing.

Half-baked development

According to media reports, the Awqaf appears to be basing its purported claim to a parcel of Mount Damavand on a Pahlavi-era deed, in which a local aristocrat declared 2,500 hectares of the region’s highlands as an “inalienable charitable endowment.”

Despite questions over the validity of the initial deed, the modern Awqaf has used the bequeathment to charge local ranchers fees to graze their animals on the area.

Residents now fear that the Damavand highlands, like many pastures which have been confiscated across the country in recent years, will also be seized for building luxury villas and hotels, and emptied of trees and greenery.

“Already the lower parts of Mount Damavand have been ravaged by unregulated and perhaps illegal mining, grazing, and half-baked development … even those considered national lands owned by the government,” said Siavash Ardalan, a senior BBC Persian journalist covering the environment and climate change.

“When these areas go under the control of state-linked religious institutions, the matter becomes even worse,” he told Asia Times.

Conservation activist Bahrami stresses that this trend is “not new.”

Today, she notes parts of the Zagros forests in Lorestan Province have been fragmented into sections and sold off. Thousands of hectares of country lands, particularly in religiously conservative cities, are now occupied by malls and hotels.

But the potential development of Mount Damavand, a heritage symbol printed on the backside of the 10,000-rial banknote, marks a new stage. The mountain figures prominently in Persian poetry and literature, enjoys its own calendar day, and is up for UNESCO recognition.

Hardliners in control

The Awqaf is not entitled to expropriate or seize natural resources, such as seashores, forests and lands that do not have a known owner, or what Islamic law collectively identifies as al-anfal.

“A national natural site enjoys the most supreme level of protection and, based on law, there is no possibility to transfer or exploit it,” said Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice president of Iran for Women and Family Affairs in President Hassan Rouhani’s government.

Any seizure of Mount Damavand would thus be unconstitutional, she warned. Ebtekar led Iran’s Department of Environment when Mount Damavand was registered as a national heritage site in 2002, and placed under the department’s stewardship.

The terse reaction by a high-profile Rouhani administration official should not come as a surprise, says the BBC’s Ardalan.

“The government would like to have possession of the country’s natural resources and heritage, so it has an interest in joining the public outrage over the possession of these areas by an unaccountable but rich and powerful religious organization,” he said.

Mohammad Hassan Asfari, an MP from Arak, echoed the condemnation.

“Mount Damavand belongs to the entire Iranian nation. No one can endow or bequeath it,” he said, adding: “The Parliament will certainly follow up.”

But with ultra-conservatives and hardliners in firm control of parliament, and Rouhani seen as a lame duck in the run-up to 2021 elections, the Awqaf will face little pressure to back down.