Isfahan was defined by its geopolitical and strategic significance during much of the Cold War period. However, this role was not new for the city. The settlement’s original name Aspadana means “troop assembly point” connoting one of its original functions.
The municipality had historically endured periods of decline and manipulation due to political and economic expediency. After a period of decay following the glorious reign of Shah Abbas, Isfahan (along with other Iranian cities) re-entered the world economy in the nineteenth century.
Shah Abbas I was the most popular king of the seventeenth century Safavid dynasty. He moved the center of government to Isfahan, a city in decay, in 1597. During his reign, “European visitors variously estimate the population of Isfahan” as between 700,000 and 1,000,000.
The leading geopolitical factor influencing the reintegration was the confrontation between Russia and Great Britain in the half-century leading up to World War I. The conflict was known as “the Great Game.”
The British believed that a large-scale infusion of capital into Iran was the surest way to secure British control and, thus, to guard the gates of India.
The Russians, on the other hand, were concerned with cementing their dominance over the administration of northern Persia and expanding southward toward warm water ports in the Persian Gulf.
Constant interference from both meant that the continuing development of Isfahan (and other pre industrial Iranian cities) was subject to the activities and needs of these two imperialist rivals.
In fact, in 1907, the Anglo-Russian entente went so far as to divide Iran into three spheres, with northern and central Iran, including Tehran and Isfahan, in the Russian sphere. Southeast Iran was in the British zone. The territory in-between was neutral and included the area where Iranian oil was first discovered in 1908.
The Anglo-Russian entente settled the British and Russian differences in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Iran.
Tehran, Iran’s capital, was the most populous city at that time but urban life was also vibrant in Isfahan and Tabriz. Tabriz was Iran’s greatest emporium, the center of caravan routes to Turkey and the starting point of Iran’s first railway which ran toward Russia.
By the end of World War I, shortly before Reza Khan ascended the Peacock Throne, these three cities dominated the urban scene.
Under Reza’s tutelage, the political conditions which were to change the character of Isfahan were created.