Land Use

Iran Table of Contents

Desert, wasteland, and barren mountain ranges cover about half of Iran's total land area. Of the rest, in the 1980s about 11 percent was forested, about 8 percent was used for grazing or pastureland, and about 1.5 percent was made up of cities, villages, industrial centers, and related areas. The remainder included land that was cultivated either permanently or on a rotation, dry-farming basis (about 14 percent) and land that could be farmed with adequate irrigation (about 15 to 16 percent). Some observers considered the latter category as pastureland.

In most regions, the natural cover is insufficient to build up much organic soil content, and on the steeper mountain slopes much of the original earth cover has been washed away. Although roughly half of Iran is made up of the arid Central Plateau, some of the gentler slopes and the Gulf lowlands have relatively good soils but poor drainage. In the southeast, a high wind that blows incessantly from May to September is strong enough to carry sand particles with it. Vegetation can be destroyed, and the lighter soils of the region have been stripped away.

In mountain valleys and in areas where rivers descending from the mountains have formed extensive alluvial plains, much of the soil is of medium to heavy texture and is suited to a variety of agricultural uses when brought under irrigation. Northern soils are the richest and the best watered. The regions adjacent to Lake Urmia (also cited as Lake Urumiyeh and formerly known as Lake Rezaiyeh under the Pahlavis) and the Caspian Sea make up only about 25 percent of the country's area but produce 60 percent or more of its major crops.

The land reform program of 1962 affected agricultural lands and the production of crops. Implemented in three stages, the program redistributed agricultural lands to the peasantry, thereby lessening the power of the feudal landlords. By the time the program was declared complete in 1971, more than 90 percent of the farmers who held rights to cultivation had become owners of the land they farmed. The new owners, however, became disillusioned with the government and its policies as their real economic situation worsened by the late 1970s.

On average, the minimal landholding for subsistence farming in Iran is about seven hectares. If each of the 3.5 million sharecroppers and landowners in villages (as of 1981) were given an equal share of land (from the 16.6 million hectares of cropland), each family would be entitled to only 4.7 hectares, not enough land for subsistence farming. Even if there were sufficient arable land, many of the sharecroppers could not afford to buy more than four of the seven hectares needed for subsistence farming.

The basic rural landholding infrastructure did not change after the Revolution. A minority of landowners continued to profit by exploiting the labor of sharecroppers. Prior to the land reform program, feudal and absentee landlords, including religious leaders responsible for vaqf land, comprised the ruling elite. Over the years, vaqf landholdings grew considerably, providing many Iranian clergy with a degree of economic independence from the central government. Redistribution of the land resulted in power being transferred to farmers who acquired ten or more hectares of land and to the rural bourgeoisie. Uncertainty about the prospect of effective land reform under Khomeini contributed to a massive loss of farm labor--5 million people--between 1982 and 1986.

Emphasis on subsistence agriculture persisted because of the lack of capital allocated after the Revolution, perhaps because the regime's technocrats were from urban areas and therefore uninformed about agriculture, or because the bazaar class, which constituted a disproportionate share of the 1979 government, did not represent the interests of agriculture. Uncertainties about future landownership, as well as the war with Iraq, caused further disruption of agriculture. Ten percent of agricultural land fell into Iraqi hands between 1980 and 1982, although the territory was subsequently regained by Iran. The war stifled agricultural development by causing a loss of revenue and by draining the already shrinking agricultural labor pool through heavy conscription.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress