Technopolitics and the Urbanization of Nature in Iran

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.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Mohammad Eskandari & Azam Khatam
York University & Clark University


Kaveh Ehsani
Depaul University


Room 26
Thu, 2016-08-04 08:45 - 10:15


by Mohammad Eskandari / Clark University

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.

by Mohammad Salari / Iranian Sociology Association

In pre-modern Iran, water rights played a significant role in determining the rent paid to the landlords. Irrigated agriculture relying on water sources in far-away mountains and valleys was nearly impossible. Control of distant water was only a wishful thinking reflected in the myths. In modern times, advanced technologies have changed this picture : Dams, canals, and deep wells bridge the distance between water source and water use and in the process transform the legal property and ownership structure. This new possibility has gradually transformed the legal and political foundations of hydraulic authority in Iran. The power to determine ownership of water has shifted from the downstream users to upstream users. The political boundaries of provinces in turn add to the complexity of this problem.
ZayandeRud is the only permanent river in the Iranian central plateau, originating in the Zagros Mountains, and draining into the Gavkhouni marsh after a 480 kilometers journey. It originates in the mountainous province of Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiari and travels through the flat fields of Esfahan province. The historical city of Esfahan and the regional settlements around it would not have been there without Zayanderud River. The oldest historical records indicate that all the people and cultivators living in the vicinity of the river used to have a right to its water, albeit within certain established rules. These old institutions of water rights are being transformed by the emergence of new local political players. Dam construction in the upstream was the first major catalyst in this regard. This dam allowed the upstream users to have access to the water of Zayanderud, the first impact of which is now becoming apparent by the drying of the marshlands. More water is now being diverted by upstream users for industrial and agricultural purposes, leaving little water for downstream cultivators around the marsh. With the support of local political and judiciary authorities, a massive network of pipelines is being built to divert more water for upstream gardens. These fast paced is resulting in the destruction of the river ecosystems along with Gavkhouni, soil collapse in watershed area, lack of water for cultivation for downstream agriculture, unemployment among downstream farmers, and a painful shift in economic gains, and a transformation of urban life that is leaving deep scars on urban dwellers, especially in Esfahan. This article tries to investigate this shift and its socio-economic consequences.

by Sarah Karimi / Raha-Shar Institute for Urban Research

In her long history of urbanity as the Capital of Iran, Tehran has gone through tremendous challenges to governmentalize her functions as the Capital and to develop to be a modern metropolis. Water sits at the heart of such challenges.
The first documented action to improve the city’s water supply is taken by Mirza Aqasi, the prime Minster of Mohammad Shah, who is assigned to maintain and develop the city’s Qanats (the underground water conduits) and to build a canal to bring Jajroud [River] water, running in the south-east of Tehran to the city. But the outcomes of these solutions did not last so far and Tehran’s water problem handed down to the next generation of citizens and authorities. During the 1st Pahlavi period, while the country experienced remarkable developments in different sector, Tehran’s water problem did not solved. In 1946 the government decided to equip Tehran with piped water but this decision took nine years to be implemented. So Tehran saw piped water only after some less important cities. This was due to contests among contractor, corruption and political issues in Tehran
This essay tries to tell the story of pipelining Tehran concerning its policies, bureaucratic aspects and the urban life. In this way the problem of production and circulation/ contribution of water and its engineering/ technical solutions will be analyzed. Then I will illustrate the odd circumstance of pipelining in Tehran. In the description of the history of pipelining Tehran, I draw a picture of different actors playing their roles in solving Tehran’s big environmental issue which is still disturbing.

I study how technocrats of the time perceive the public investment in the dam construction projects while the domestication of the piped water through water taps in each house, incorporate its costs into the household budget. My study draws on my studies on the social history of the city, the official documents at Energy Ministry Archives, as well as my interviews with old residents of the city.

by Hesam Salamat / University of Tehran

During the mid-1960s, automobiles turned from a luxury item only enjoyed by the well-to-do into a more or less necessary commodity of urban life. Since then, the northern cities of Iran adjacent to the Caspian Sea became a main tourist attraction. To many middle and upper middle class families, “the North” gradually became synonymous to “the Nature”, an outlet to temporarily escape the “civilized” urban life with its dreary and monotonous pace. This shift indicated the discovery, or rather, the invention of a new moment in urban life: leisure time. What made this shift possible was the emerging “organization of labor” – especially in the cities – with two characteristics: the growth of industrial and commercial petty bourgeoisie created by the relative economic boom; and the making of a new government employed, salaried middle class as a by-product of the growing state bureaucracy. This “organization of labor” had a deep impact on the everyday urban life.One could now speak of daily working hours, working days, as separate from weekends and “holidays” in need of planning to be “filled in” with activities. The entertainment industry gradually emerged as a response to this new need and “the North” became its mecca.The natural and local life of the North underwent a radical transformation as a result of the booming tourism. Real state capital took advantage of the privatization of the beach and forest to shift land use from agriculture to housing, “filling” the “empty” spaces with housing complexes for commercial use. At the same time, bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie filled the entire beach with shopping malls, covered with advertisement and brand names. The combined impact of these two processes is what I call “commodification of nature” by capital. The local ecology and lifestyle are radically transformed, turning the social space of “the North” into a de facto “consumption colony”. This essay endeavors to investigate the historical mechanisms, and the socio-economic consequences, of this process of “urbanization of nature”. Methodologically, it focuses on critique of political economy of this great transformation in post-revolutionary Iran.