During World War II, Isfahan was a small city of less than two hundred thousand residents largely overshadowed by Iran’s capital, Tehran, to the north.
A primate city seven times the size of Isfahan, the capital possessed most of Iran’s industrial capacity, serving also as the country’s economic, educational, and cultural center.
Despite societal differences, the two cities shared some characteristics in common. Both were dealing with social conflict in the form of class antagonisms as well as with ethnic rivalry exacerbated by the Allied wartime presence.
Neither Isfahan nor Tehran were occupied during wartime. Still, according to Nikki Keddie, real hardship ensued.
Allied troops spent large sums, which contributed to inflation. The disruption of supply was serious, and famine broke out in some areas. Speculation, hoarding, and black-market operations multiplied, often causing great suffering. The cost-of-living index issued by the Iranian National Bank rose from 100 in 1939 to 269 in 1942, 650 in 1943, and 757 in 1944. In some parts of the country the rise was even greater.
Urban dwellers suffered more than those living in rural areas. Moreover, the cities were divided between the haves and have-nots.
Abrahamian describes an explosive situation whereby
intense distress among the masses, combined with the steady enrichment of merchants and landowners, threatened the whole fabric of society.
Both American and British observers reported that
the discontent of the lower classes caused by the appalling lack of food, clothing, medicine, and education, could lead to a ‘violent revolution’ against the present ruling class.
Social class was difficult to pinpoint, however, as traditional classifications had been in flux over the course of the twentieth century. As Abrahamian notes — reporting on class conflicts, some members of the press
argued that there was a ruling feudal class of feudal landowners, influential courtiers, army officers, and high-ranking government officials. Others claimed that the toiling masses were exploited economically by an upper class formed of large landlords, comprador capitalists, wealthy civil servants, and nouveaux riches industrialists. Yet others saw a small hard-working middle class wedged between a rapacious upper class and a backward illiterate lower class. Some saw their society polarized into, on one side, the old and new aristocracy, the industrial and comprador bourgeoisie, the urban working class, the nomadic tribesmen, and the landless peasantry.
Aside from rampant class antagonism, the provinces were faced with the further problem of ethnic rivalry, especially relating to the tribes.
In Isfahan, the Bakhtiari tribe had long been powerful in economics and in politics. The tribe’s summer quarters were located nearby, and Bakhtiaris who chose permanent settlement frequently made their home in the city.
Linguistic minorities like the Turkic speaking Qasqai tribe also had a presence.
In addition, the city was home to many non-Muslims — Jews, Armenians, Zoroastrians, and Bahai’s.
All participated in the many parties, professional associations, and workers organizations which had become active in the years after Reza Shah’s abdication in 1941. Isfahan, especially, was known for the dynamism of its labor unions.