In an odd and unprecedented ruling Iran's Supreme Court has handed over the ownership of part of the country's highest mountain, Mount Damavand, to an organization that operates under the direct supervision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Hamshahri newspaper in Tehran reported on Sunday July 26 that an official title deed has been issued to Iran's Endowments Organization for one eleventh (1/11th) of Mount Damavand and the slopes leading to the summit.
The "endowment" title deed gives 18,000 hectares (45,000 acres) of highlands to the organization which is part of Iran's Culture Ministry, but its chief is directly appointed by Khamenei and is the administrative body in charge of shrines and holy sites and appoints clerics in charge of endowments it acquires.
The Endowments Organization on Sunday afternoon denied the issuance of such a title deed and explained what has been donated is a pasture at the foot of the mountain, not part of the summit. But it is not clear who endowed such a large area and if the land already belonged to the state and simply deeded to organization that clerics control.
Based on traditions and rules of the religious canon Shariah, endowments are "bequeathed for pious use" such as habitations for the poor and books for the use of learned men and women.
Traditionally, many schools, water reservoirs, gardens, farmlands and other public facilities are part of the "endowments" bequeathed to be used for the good of the public.
The ruling by the Iranian Supreme Court has been met with objections by environmentalists and members of the public. Mohammad Rajab Ali Pisheh, an official at the Natural Resources Office of Mazandaran Province told Hamshahri that the ruling has been issued without consulting the Forests and Pastures Organization.
Meanwhile, the former chief of Iran's Environment Protection Organization, Massoumeh Ebtekar has said in a tweet that what has been done is "against the Constitutional Law."
She said that the summit of Mount Damavand has been put under the protection of the Environment Protection Organization in 2002 and that based on the law, "the summit may not be delegated or exploited as real estate."
The 5,610-meter high (18,400 feet) Damavand is Iran's highest mountain and a potential volcano registered as a national monument. It is located north of Tehran and has a majestic look. The mountain has a symbolic value for Iranians as the scene of some of the events of the country's national epic Shahnameh, the Book of Kings.
Earlier, in a similar case, the Iranian Supreme Court had ruled out a complaint by the Natural Resources Office and handed over the title of 5,600 hectares of forest lands in the White Forest region to be utilized by the Endowments Organization.
Some Iranians on social media have said that the land has been given to the Friday Prayer Imam of Sari in Mazandaran Province to be used for development and building villas.
The director General of Natural Resources Office in Mazandaran has called on Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi to intervene in the matter and avert the decision. The Judiciary has still not reacted to the appeal.
The Iranian official news agency IRNA run by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has characterized the development as an elaborate act of "forest grabbing" and called the ruling unexpected.
Members of the public including journalists and political activists have angrily reacted to the decision.
A Twitter post by by Radio Farda analyst Morad Vaisi said Mount Damavand was like a mother to all Iranians and exclaimed can one sell his own mother?
Sahand Iranmehr, another journalist wrote that the Supreme Court has cut Mount Damavand into 11 pieces like a cake and has transferred the title of one part to an organization while the other ten segments are part of the country's natural resources.
Other users expressed concerns that companies linked to the new "owner" might seriously damage the environment while trying to exploit rich mineral resources in the area.
The report in Hamshahri said that what has been donated to the Endowments organization is part of national lands and donating it legalizes land grabbing.
Reports in recent years have estimated the annual income of 1,800,000 endowments under the organization's control as more than 10 trillion rials or around $240 milion. According to Iranian media, the organization's officials have never released a transparent report about its financial status and transactions. Almost all large organizations with business activities under the supervision of clerics and the Supreme Leader are never audited in a transparent fashion.