Iran’s Ministry of Agricultural Jihad in Ilam Province, bordering Iraq, is planning to cultivate grapes on 600 hectares land previously contaminated with landmines.
Nearly three decades after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, landmines remain a major challenge to agricultural development along the border.
Five of Iran’s provinces bordering Iraq, covering 4.2 million hectares, are still contaminated with close to 16 million landmines. Ilam, with two major cities, Dehloran and Mehran, has a 430 kilometer common border with Iraq and an estimated 1.7 million hectares that are still dotted with landmines.
Ilam has a unique geography that displays all four seasons. While it’s green and spring-like in Dehloran, it is summer and hot just 100 kilometers away in Mehran. Heavy rain and snow across the mountainous part of the province make that area conducive for cultivation.
Most of the landmines date from the 1980-88 war with Iraq. However, Iran also continues to plant mines as a means of combatting smuggling and terrorism.
In June of this year, two farmer brothers were killed and one injured while riding a tractor in a rural area in Vazineh, in West Azerbaiijan province. The tractor hit an anti-tank mine. News about other civilians being killed and injured by landmines is now commonplace in the Iranian media.
After the Iran-Iraq war ended, a major operation was initiated to clean up the mines. In 2012, Kermanshah Province in western Iran was declared “free from landmines” and the ministries of Defense and Interior celebrated the occasion. However, in an embarrassing development, several people were killed and injured by landmines only a few days after the announcement. It turned out that the clean-up process was performed only to a depth of 30 centimeters, whereas according to Fatollah Hosseini, a parliament representative, “legally it has to be done at a depth of 80 centimeters” to be deemed clean. Currently, the government is considering a revision of the previously declared “clean area.”
Still, according to Ali Nejat-Soleimani, Director General for Security of Ilam Province, 80 centimeters depth will only be required for locations that are intended to host factories.
One of Iran’s major challenges in the landmine clean-up effort is the lack of maps showing where mines have been planted. Iraqis planted mines irregularly during the war and some mines shifted in their locations because of flooding. This makes the clean-up process much harder.
According to a 2007 study conducted by Janbazan Medical and Engineering Research Center and Sina Trauma and Surgery Research Center, since the end of Iran-Iraq war, 4000 people have been killed by landmines, 90 percent of them civilians and 10 percent mine clean up personnel.
Other studies suggest women are especially vulnerable to injury from landmines. Many male breadwinners were killed during the Iran-Iraq war, forcing woman to take up traditionally “male” jobs including farming and collecting water and firewood.
In an open letter, Hossein Ahmadi-Niaz, a lawyer for the victims of landmines, called on President Hassan Rouhani “to initiate a program for raising awareness about the danger of landmines, educating people on how to handle it, a thorough cleanup of the contaminated areas and empowering corresponding civil institutions.”
Iranian authorities also bear responsibility for planting mines as a tool to combat trafficking of smuggled goods and terrorism in the border regions. There is no warning about where these mines are located. Often, victims are so-called couriers who carry goods on their backs and who are among the poorest residents of Kurdish border regions. The families of these victims, who are labeled as “traffickers,” do not receive any state benefits. In contrast, if landmine cleanup personnel are killed, they are considered “martyrs” and if injured, “devotees,” whose families receive some financial support from the government.
Iran is not a signatory of the Ottawa Treaty that bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. So far, more than 160 countries in the world have signed and ratified the treaty, although not the United States or Egypt.
Iranian agriculture faces numerous other challenges, including drought and sand storms. Authorities in Mehran plan to plant trees to reduce the destructive extent of sand storms in the region.
It is ironic that some of Iran’s most productive farmland is contaminated with mines. Planting more mines is depriving the population from this wealth. To prevent trespassing and smuggling, it would make more sense for Iran to invest in modern, sophisticated detection equipment. Iran should also put more resources into acquiring advanced landmine clearing technology.
Fatemeh Aman is an expert on the Middle East and South Asia. She has worked as a journalist, media and political analyst, and has written widely in English and Persian on Iran, and South Asia. She is a frequent contributor to Jane’s publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst and Jane’s Intelligence Review, and appears often on Persian and English-speaking media outlets. She is the co-author of Atlantic Council’s report “Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability.”