A core component of development theory and practice is the assumption that nature can be improved upon. The chaotic nature of “Nature” is apparent in its unpredictable behavior, its occasional devastating outbursts, and perceived injustices in distribution of such vital resources as water. The assumption is that all these “imperfections” can be corrected and eliminated through application of expert knowledges. This assumption has been widely shared by ‘experts’, policy makers, public intellectuals, and the general public, and in turn has led into the empowerment of certain social and political groups. It has also informed development policies that have led into active interventions of a particular kind in nature. These interventions are primarily urban, as the site of production of these expert knowledges; the location where policies are discussed, contested, and eventually made; and the political economy that sustains them and makes them viable are primarily urban. So are many of the agents and domains involved in them, e.g., the mass media, the entertainment industry, the tourist trade, businesses, NGOs, and most importantly, the state. In other words, the technopolitics that animates the development machinery is primarily urban. The unpredicted and unintended consequences of these interventions in recent years have resulted in a proliferation of alternative imaginaries that question the very basic assumptions of developmentalist state, exemplified in an escalation of environmental protests throughout Iran. Based on extensive field work by a diverse group of researchers, this panel aims to gain insights into the experiences of urbanization of the nature as it is conceived, perceived and practiced by different social agents in Iran.
This essay examines the political economy of dam construction in Iran in the post Iran-Iraq War period. Fascination with large dams is not something new, or limited to Iran. Dez Dam project, inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority, formed the backbone of Iran’s development plans in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The period after the end of Iran-Iraq war witnessed a resurgence of interest in large dams at a time that the global consensus around the benefits of dams was being seriously contested. While Presidents Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) ran on completely different political platforms (under the banners of economic reconstruction, political reform, and social justice respectively), they all shared the same hydraulic dream and took pride in advancing Iran’s march towards it through construction of dams on every river and stream in the country. The large permanent edifice of dams often serves multiple purposes, e.g. flood control, irrigation, and hydropower. Yet these hydraulic interventions are mostly justified as a way of maximizing the use of Iran’s erratic water resources and modernizing its agriculture. The leading idea here is to prevent ‘a single drop of water going into waste’. The end result is a total re-organization of Iran’s hydraulic landscape at multiple scales and a radical transformation of its environment with lasting impacts. While many critics of dams argue that the enduring pursuit of dams reflects the dominance of outdated modes of development, I will argue that one way to make sense of it is to look at the political and economic function of these mega-projects, namely the way they help reconstitute political and economic power relations. These mega-projects are embedded in the technopolitics of modern state, empower certain technocrats, who in turn mobilize national resources towards particular sub-contractors. All these groups form a ‘network of interests’ that create what I call ‘a perpetual project generating machine’ in the context of a rentier develpopmentalist state.