Isfahan was clearly influenced by Cold War forces, particularly during the years 1960 – 1978. As a close ally of the United States, the city’s post World War II urban development transpired in the Cold War context. Most decisions regarding the urban environment were independent ones. However, American involvement in two specific events — covert action in 1953 and the White Revolution of the early 1960s — combined with domestic and historic factors to create spillover effects which greatly affected the city’s urban fabric. Isfahan’s on-going transformation was then intensified by repercussions from a third event, the enunciation of the Nixon Doctrine.
American CIA intervention in the oil nationalization crisis of 1953 contributed to the downfall of Mosaddegh, bringing an end to Iran’s democratic interlude. De facto constitutional change altered Iran’s political reality, ensuring executive primacy over the legislature and assisting the shah in the consolidation of his authority. The action filtered down to politically active communities like many in Isfahan. It solidified the historical Iranian perception that the country’s political life was shaped by outsiders, and cemented the partnership between the shah and successive American administrations.
In 1960, US pressure was one of several factors that convinced the monarch to embark on a program of change known as the White Revolution. At this time, the extension of further support (which the shah desperately needed for survival) became conditional on political and economic reform. The program, basically following US dictates, contributed to the social and economic aspects of Isfahan’s transformation. Land reform, for example, proved to be an impetus to rural-urban migration, and many new industrialists emerged in its wake.
Urban change in Isfahan intensified for the rest of the 1960s. In addition, Soviet influences surfaced. In the context of the Soviet-American competition for influence, the shah asserted his autonomy by purchasing weapons from the USSR, and entering into an agreement for a turnkey steel complex, which included the construction of a ‘new town’ called Aryashahr on the outskirts of the city.
The relationship with the Soviets soon weakened, however, and, as the decade came to a close, American influence regained its primacy. The 1968 Nixon Doctrine set the stage for the coming decade and the years of most intrusive US influence by securing the shah’s position as regional policeman and facilitating his weapons procurement program.
By 1978 and the onset of the revolution, Isfahan had undergone a demographic transition as a consequence of US stimulated land reform and later weapons purchases. American defense manufacturers had established a physical presence in the city, and qualified Iranian workers had been diverted from the civilian to the military sector. Many had relocated from other cities in Iran to meet associated labor requirements. The city’s neighborhoods and consumer offerings had been modified to meet the needs of foreign workers and their families, and infrastructure construction was driven by the needs of Isfahan’s military-industrial complex.
The shah was perceived to be a pawn of the foreign establishment.
Public space and collective life were presumed to be shaped by outsiders as more Isfahanis sensed a loss of control over all aspects of their urban environment. While many foreigners believed that the shah had maximized his opportunities, his inability to integrate Iran more favorably into the global economy while, at the same time, satisfying Iran’s development requirements meant the downfall of his monarchy. It also signaled a failure of American grand strategy for, just as the USSR was establishing a presence in neighboring Afghanistan, the US lost its most staunch ally in the region. However, the new Islamic regime adopted a policy of nonalignment, mitigating the loss.
So far as Iran’s cities were concerned, the purported switch to a more “south – south” model of development resulted in mostly superficial change. Economists argue that the urban challenges that faced the shah’s regime have, if anything, become more serious and more problematic under the Islamic Republic.
Leading the list of these critical problems are controlling the recent demographic explosion; reversing the troubling rural migration; creating enough productive work for new entrants into the job market; reducing the acute shortage of urban housing and curbing real estate speculation; winning the race between the rising number of students and the number of new classrooms and teachers at all levels of education; and, finally, redressing the steady decline in the standard of living.
Importantly, though, conversations about the overbearing and insensitive foreign presence have been replaced years later by appreciation for the city’s refurbished parks and landscaping, a new beltway, and a recently constructed power-generating facility. While there are continuing anxieties over chronic unemployment and inflation, the city’s struggle with global and militaristic flows has been replaced by more domestic concerns. And as The New York Times reported
After 12 years of neglect since the Islamic revolution, Isfahan, Iran, a former Persian capital, has reclaimed its status as one of the Middle East’s most beautiful places.
Still, happenings since 1991 when the Times piece was published have not all been positive. The city is now at the center of the debate over Iran’s nuclear capabilities. While the US and Iran have entered into an agreement that resolves some of the major issues, we will have to wait and see if the agreement holds. Has Isfahan lost its innocence? Or will Americans be flooding its streets again, this time to wonder at the city’s marvelous Islamic heritage? It’s trite to say, but “only time will tell.”
Photograph by Ninara (Flickr)