Reporting from Tehran — A series of earthquakes on Wednesday rattled southern Iran, injuring at least 19 people and damaging buildings amid a dispute over government plans to disperse offices to provincial cities because of the seismic threat to the capital.
Dozens of employees of the state-run Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization gathered outside parliament Monday and Tuesday to protest their transfer to cities such as Esfahan and Shiraz.
About 150 employees are scheduled for imminent transfer, and an additional 1,100 have been notified that they could also be moved.
Early Wednesday, an earthquake measured at magnitude 5.8 shook southern Iran, news media and seismology monitors reported, injuring at least 19 people.
According to the report of the seismography center at the University of Tehran's Institute of Geophysics, a temblor struck close to the Persian Gulf coast just after midnight and damaged some homes. The injured included residents of the town of Lamerd, news media reported. A local relief official told state media that 50% to 70% of the buildings there had been damaged.
A second earthquake or aftershock of magnitude 5.1 struck 12 minutes later, according to seismologists. The semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency reported that there had been 12 aftershocks.
Earthquakes are a major danger in Iran, especially in poorly constructed, overcrowded areas of some cities. In 2003, at least 30,000 people died when a temblor struck the historic city of Bam in southeastern Iran.
Although many countries try to scatter state-owned industries outside major cities for economic reasons, many Iranians are wary of any attempt to exploit the fear of earthquakes for political gain.
This year, an Iranian cleric made international headlines when he suggested that women who dress too revealingly cause earthquakes by evoking God's wrath.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sought to decongest Tehran, which lies on two active fault lines. He contends that reducing the population of the metropolitan area from 12 million to 5 million would reduce the risks associated with a devastating earthquake.
But many suspect that the hard-line president is also eager to reduce the power and population of the relatively liberal capital.
The government recently released a list of 163 state-run companies and organizations slated for transfer. So far, local news media have reported, 4,000 to 15,000 government workers have volunteered to be relocated, but not everyone is going willingly.
Protesters say the move would uproot their families and in some cases cost spouses their jobs in the private sector.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.