The Shah’s purchases from Bell Helicopter and Grumman produced two bottlenecks in the Isfahan area. The first related to an already stretched infrastructure. Neither communications nor transportation capabilities were sufficient to deal with the volume of imports or with the business and consumer demand generated by the arrival of the American community. More important, however, was the shortage of trained manpower at virtually every skill level. This issue impacted not only Isfahan but all of Iran as workers left their permanent place of residence and flowed into the city to satisfy the necessary labor requirements.
Competition for trained manpower emerged between the military and the civilian sectors, among the three services themselves, and even within a particular service. An associated problem involved the issue of wages and incentives for military personnel. Since the weapons purchases created a rapid expansion in the civilian as well as the defense sectors of the economy, the military had difficulty matching salary offers, an action needed to attract sufficient numbers of trained personnel. This, of course, managed to further drive up the costs of the projects.
(Interestingly, the US was concerned with similar issues. In 1975, the American Comptroller General stated in a report to Congress that the defense capability of the US had been endangered by the massive short-term assignment of military specialists to the planning and construction of the Iranian military apparatus.)
The Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) was particularly affected. The shah’s pride and joy, it had received the bulk of funds available for modernization. In fact, its inventory was among the most sophisticated in the world. Nevertheless, its effectiveness was increasingly jeopardized since the F-14 program skimmed off the best pilots and technicians from other projects. Moreover, technical manpower levels were expected to double, with a 1976 shortfall of 7,000 increasing to at least 10,000 in 1981, largely due to F-14 requirements.
It was estimated that by 1981, 6,500 personnel would be required to support the Tomcat alone. Of this number. about 2,650 would be technically trained. The Air Force, which had 76,000 personnel in 1976, was projected to increase its staff by over 50 % by 1981 in order to operate effectively.
The original F-14 implementation plan called for base construction, training, and aircraft delivery to coincide. Consequently, the 9 to 12 month delays in the construction of base support facilities at Isfahan’s Khatami Air Base were seen as symptomatic of other back-end problems. For example, the holdups in construction of on-site training facilities resulted in a backlog of 200 maintenance personnel awaiting training. In addition, the development of a functional logistics system was expected to require technical training for an additional 14,000 Iranians.
Even though the American Congress was fast becoming concerned about back-end problems, the regime was encouraged at evidence of population redistribution and industrial growth. Isfahan had been targeted as a growth pole in an attempt to correct the regional imbalance resulting from Tehran’s exploding population, and Iran’s Fourth Plan (1968-1972) explicitly describes goverment support for a policy of
military-led industrialization . . . [that] also desired to reduce Tehran’s dominance as an industrial center. This was seen as important from the standpoint of military objectives and of balanced development. Approximately sixty percent of Iran’s entire industrial production occurred in Tehran or the Central Province. Tehran attracted industries because it was the center of the government and infrastructure was there . . . . new military plants were [to be] located in several centers, of which Esfahan was to be the most important.
As the 1975 staff report validated:
Iran’s military programs are having a profound effect upon the socio-economic development of the country. Thousands of young Iranians are learning skills that have application in the economy as a whole. The creation of new bases . . . and the expansion of existing ones . . . are resulting in the development of basic infrastructure and the creation of new communities in sparsely populated regions of the country.
Regarding language competency, the Iranian government decided to use English rather than Farsi as the basic language for most skilled military operations.
As concerns infrastructure, basic needs (roads, water supply, electricity, ports, communications) along with demands created by new communities were expected to have socioeconomic effects far beyond the military requirements of the bases. In fact, it was hoped that the physical growth of the bases would act as a catalyst for further population redistribution and industrial growth.
Iran was optimistic that arms purchases and the establishment of an associated domestic arms industry geared towards ‘the supply of many of the highly complex weapons systems with locally manufactured spare parts’ would impel development through its modernizing, educative, training, and nation-building functions. Meanwhile, the back-end problems identified above meant that increasing numbers of American personnel and their dependents were arriving in Iran. Problems in obtaining skilled personnel also meant that contractor personnel would remain in-country longer.
According to Shahram Chubin:
Despite rapid training programs — 2,674 Iranian students were trained by the United States in FY 1975, the majority in communications, electronics, and maintenance — Iran’s reliance on foreign advisers and technicians will continue to grow if new weapons are to be absorbed as they are delivered.
Chubin also cites:
. . . parallels in the civilian sector, where an urgent need for improved health service has forced Iran to recruit doctors and nurses from abroad in large numbers and to use foreign contractors to construct hospitals, some on a turnkey basis.
For this (and other reasons) there was a large scale importation of foreign workers — Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and South Koreans — whose numbers were expected to reach 700,000 by 1980.
As Bell and Grumman engineers and skilled workers arrived in large numbers to meet the labor requirements that their projects demanded, they immediately became a distinctive presence in the Isfahan community. At once, the presence of large numbers of young single male civilians without adequate recreational outlets was linked to sociopolitical problems. Pressures were so severe that BHI set strict quotas ( about 10 %) for the number of single US males permitted to participate in their Iran program.
Also, in contrast to some accounts, American workers with their families did not live their lives in isolation. Most Americans in Isfahan did not have PX privileges, nor did they have Khomeini’s favorite — concessions. Instead, many Americans shopped on the local economy, and some lived in established neighborhoods. At least early on, American children played in vacant lots with Iranian children their age.
American workers did have housing provided for them and did send their children to separate schools. However, the cost of these services was included as income on W-2 forms. This led to some resentment in the American community, for while American workers were required to pay high prices for some of their “privileges,” they had no freedom of choice. They did what they were told to do or they went home.
Unlike the Russians involved in the steel mill operation, the Bell and Grumman communities weren’t low profile. Their presence visually transformed Isfahan demographics. So did that of the Iranian homofars (uniformed civil servants) who worked closely with the American specialists. This group would later play a key role in the final days of the revolution.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.