An Iranian Project?: The Trans-Iranian Railway and Nation-Building in the Reza Shah Period

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University of Texas at Austin
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Mikiya Koyagi is a PhD student in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He completed his MA in Middle Eastern Studies at the same institution in 2006, with a thesis entitled "Creating Future Soldiers and Mothers: Gender and Physical Education in Modern Iran, 1921-1941." He is currently working on a project on the history of railways in Iran.

Historians of Iran have explored various aspects of nation-building for the last few decades. Thanks to their work, we now know more about the process of state expansion, particularly in the Reza Shah period, and the formation of “Iranian” society than we used to. Yet, one of the most significant projects of nation-building has not been studied adequately: the construction of the Trans-Iranian Railway. For the Pahlavi state, the Trans-Iranian Railway symbolized Iran’s independence from the yoke of semi-colonialism and the progress that the state wished to project onto itself. As such, it captured much attention from both the Iranian press and foreign observers. This megaproject of great practical and symbolic significance is the topic of the current paper.
As noted, very few works on this subject exist. Standard survey books often mention this project only in passing as an economically wasteful undertaking due to its route and worldwide motorization. Meanwhile, Persian works that discuss Iranian railways in detail tend to present an anti-imperial plot in which a period of Anglo-Russian rivalries of the nineteenth century is followed by a period of building the railway under Reza Shah. This period then ends with the occupation of 1941 and the use of the railway by the Allies during WWII. Although both points—the inefficiency of the project and imperial rivalries as the main obstacle for railway construction in Iran— are well taken, neither of them sufficiently considers the Trans-Iranian Railway in the broader project of nation-building, such as centralization, industrialization, pacification of the nomadic tribes, and acculturation of technological advancements originated in the West. These issues may seem unrelated, but they intersect when we pay closer attention to the broader discourse of nationalism in the Reza Shah period.
Using the Iranian press, Majles proceedings, governmental publications on railways, British documents, and memoirs by both Iranians and Westerners, this paper will analyze the symbolic role of the Trans-Iranian Railway. It will look at how the Pahlavi state presented the railway as a project aimed at Iranization (rather than Westernization) of society by Iranians in order to reclaim Iran’s lost status in the perceived hierarchy of civilizations. By studying the Iranianness of the project, the paper sheds light on such important issues as how modernity can be accommodated into a specific context of nationalism and how state expansion impacted society.

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