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Tehran: Paradox City 2


30 Jan 2011 20:14Comments


Part 1

[ feature ] Neoliberal turn

But the 1990s was also a decade of deepening economic disparity. Rafsanjani's "economic reconstruction" involved the liberalization of prices and the exchange rate, as well as the cutting of subsidies and privatization of state enterprises. In practice, the government ended up vacillating between neoliberal postures and populist concessions, but it did deregulate many prices -- for natural gas, petrol, phones, post, electricity, bus and taxi fares -- which in turn triggered an official inflation rate of 60 percent in 1994. With the price rises, popular discontent, especially in poor urban neighborhoods, reached new heights.

Sporadic protests in Tehran against increases in bus fares and the price of fuel issued in a three-day riot in the informal community of Islamshahr in April 1995, leaving one person dead and dozens injured; hundreds were arrested. In the meantime, slum clearances and demolition of unlawful constructions -- reportedly over 2,000 homes and businesses built without permits were torn down in the summer of 1992 alone -- caused intense resentment and unrest in Tehran and other cities, including Shiraz, Mashhad, Arak, and Khoramabad.

Consequently, the authorities were compelled to mix selective demolitions with de facto tolerance or even infrastructural upgrading of informal settlements. Those who were driven out of one spot often ended up settling without permits in different, usually more distant places. Thus Tehran's informal communities did not stop growing, but rather spread at an unprecedented rate, not within the city but just outside its administrative boundaries, as scores of nearby villages such as Bagherabad or Akbarabad in south Tehran were transformed into low-income urban settlements.

Factional rivalry within the government proved a further brake on Rafsanjani's liberalization agenda. The economy remained stagnant: the GNP per capita in 1996 was still 73 percent of the 1977 level. Nonetheless, the shape of the Iranian economy changed significantly during these years. The state sector if anything grew further, since privatization meant selling shares largely to parastatal revolutionary institutions such as the pasdaran. The government's administrative reforms were perhaps still more far-reaching. As part of this restructuring, many revolutionary institutions -- marked by their emphasis on Islamic commitment rather than expert knowledge -- were brought under the state bureaucracy. A growing class of professionals, many left over from the Shah's reign, were to take charge of managing the economy and the state administration. In this time of rationalization and gradual privatization, Tehran was left to finance itself. Karbaschi eliminated all state subsidies within four years; but, fearing a political backlash if he were to tax the city's residents, the mayor resorted to speculative capital, extracting fees and taxes from merchants and developers in exchange for exempting them from zoning regulations and protecting them from political pressure. Between 1990 and 1998, the municipality collected some $6 billion in revenues, which it mostly used to finance urban renewal. A good portion of this came from selling permits that violated zoning regulations -- such as commercial use of public lands or the sale of urban skyline, tarakom, which in principle is common property.

No newcomer to Tehran in the 1990s could fail to notice the rash of high-rise buildings, especially in the rich north, where the profit rate on real estate was much higher. These old-fashioned privileged neighborhoods, with their large villas and lush gardens, together with the quaint villages at the city's outer edge, were lost among luxury apartment complexes and their parking lots. These neighborhoods had already begun to lose their pre-revolutionary sociocultural uniformity when the nouveaux riches and the new Islamist elites -- top bureaucrats in the Revolutionary Guards or members of the judiciary -- brought more religious and traditional styles into these genteel areas. Once again, Tehran's north-south spatial divide reasserted itself, this time in the city's skyline: lavish white high-rises looked down upon the sprawling settlements of the southern agricultural lands, colonized not only by rural and provincial migrants but also by working- and middle-class Tehranis who could no longer afford to live within the city limits.

Other processes were reshaping the city during the 1990s. First, there was a growing informalization and fragmentation of labor, reinforced by economic liberalization. Between 1976 and 1996, the country's total private labor force increased by 37 percent, but the number of small enterprises tripled. While the number of private wage-earners rose by only 6.5 percent, that of self-employed workers in the informal sector increased by 190 percent.

These shifts gave a new form to working-class struggles for urban citizenship -- not so much struggles for better wages and conditions, as over collective consumption and life chances: housing, urban services, informal work. While these waged and unwaged workers were increasing the scale and number of informal settlements, speculative capital was reshaping the city's legal housing sector. In the meantime, women and the young sought to assert their presence, physically and symbolically. Indeed, Karbaschi's vision of a post-Islamist Tehran both reflected and reproduced the desires and demands of millions of inhabitants, who were rapidly becoming more urban, more literate, more individualistic in outlook.

These struggles to define the spirit of the city deepened the factional rivalry within the state -- between populist and hard-line Islamists on the one hand, and free-market rationalizers and post-Islamist modernizers on the other. Real vested interests were at stake. The post-Islamist modernizers' control of Tehran had constricted the easy access of powerful forces such as the military and conservative clerics to the city's resources -- land, mosques, and other institutional structures -- as well as to patronage networks and the legal system. The municipality's Shahrvand department stores and support for the construction of malls, for instance, had challenged the economic and political power of the bazaar, long a bastion of support for the clerical regime, although it had itself already begun to be both modernized and differentiated.

Under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran became one of the most vibrant cities in the region, with a relatively free press and a lively political landscape, shaped by new social movements of youth, students, women, and the intelligentsia. This post-Islamist Tehran, with its relative pluralism and secular aura, seemed structurally hostile to the revolutionary virtues espoused by the hard-liners and their supporters among the war veterans, pasdaran and basijis. They were determined to fight back against this threat to their hegemony and their claim to valuable resources. "Islamist Tehran" needed to be restored.



Islamist forces focused their ire on the spread of "Western" behavior, ideas, and architecture. To reaffirm Tehran's Islamic identity, in 1995 they put forward a $100 million project for the "world's largest mosque." In 1996, the national Council of Public Culture and Ministry of Housing discussed a proposal to develop a vision of an "Islamic city," though nothing came of this. More concretely, the conservative judiciary put Karbaschi behind bars on corruption charges in 1998, the year after Khatami took office; indeed, some allege that Karbaschi's energetic support for Khatami was the cause of his downfall. A more strategic response came from Said Emami, the hardline deputy intelligence minister, who orchestrated the murders of dozens of secular intellectuals and politicians in the late 1990s. In the mid-1990s, Emani launched a systematic campaign against what he termed "cultural invasion" (tahajom farhangui), of which "de-Islamized" Tehran was an alarming feature. "For me," Emami proclaimed, "the key yardstick is not reconstruction, it is values." Emami died in prison, in somewhat murky circumstances, in 1999.

But the man who was to carry out the historic task of restoration was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mayor of Tehran before becoming president of the country in 2005. A close associate of hardliners in military and intelligence circles, Ahmadinejad gained his opportunity when popular disenchantment with Khatami's "reform" project enabled conservatives to win control of Tehran City Council in 2003; the 15-member council then chose Ahmadinejad as mayor in May 2003. Once in office, he began to reverse his predecessors' course -- altering Tehran's sociocultural landscape, creating neighborhood clienteles, and easing the access of his allies in the military and intelligence to the city's vast resources.

Revolutionary posters, placards, and murals returned to public spaces, and some 400 drinking fountains (saqqa-khaneh), newly built in the traditional style, spread throughout Tehran, each bearing images of neighborhood war victims. Ahmadinejad vowed to revitalize the memories of basiji and pasdaran martyrs by reburying their remains in dozens of the city's strategic locations. Tehran's celebrated cultural complexes were turned into tekyes, places for religious activities, or else starved of funding. A giant new mosque was erected just across from the City Theater (Teatr-e Shahr), to subdue this emblem of modernist culture that had remained from the high-society Tehran of the Shah. Anti-vice vigilantes extended their surveillance of nonconformist women and youth in the capital's streets.

To build a grassroots clientele, hefty handouts were channeled to local mosques, and to the religious chanters and Qu'ran reciters associated with them, as well as to the multiplying hey'ats, ad hoc religious gatherings. Reportedly some $400 million from the municipality's budget, originally assigned to road and other construction, went to mosques and hey'ats.

Funds were also dispensed to restore basij-controlled buildings, or to offer free food to fasting crowds during Ramadan. In his last year as mayor, when Ahmadinejad was encouraged by his basiji and Guard backers to run for president, Tehran's poor districts suddenly had their roads repaved, got more grants for schools, and saw a reduction in traffic jams. The funding for these and other populist measures -- for instance, loans of $1,200 each to some 12,000 newly married couples -- came from the Revolutionary Guards, by now an enormous military and intelligence body with extraordinary economic power, controlling air and sea ports, land, factories, commercial companies, universities, and hundreds of cultural institutions.

In return for its funding, the municipality awarded the Guards project contracts and legal favors, allowing them to violate planning codes or turning a blind eye to land grabs. The extent of cronyism, corruption, and expenses left unaccounted for during this period was quite unprecedented. Ahmadinejad's office never produced an itemized budget to show how the funds were dispensed; nor did it present any financial report to the City Council.

Ahmadinejad was certainly successful in increasing the influence of conservative forces in Tehran, and in building an ideological clientele among segments of the working classes. But the city's poor and middle classes remained vulnerable to escalating inflation, unemployment, and the rising cost of housing. Over 80 percent of the city's budget between 2004 and 2007 still depended on the poll tax and the sale of construction permits (avarez).

Under Ahmadinejad, and in response to earlier criticisms, permits were issued to smaller four-to-six-story buildings, even though this continued to violate city codes. Thus instead of only a few well-connected rich developers, many could now purchase permits to build multistory houses. Yet these homes remained far beyond the financial means of working-class families, thanks to a staggering rise in the price of real estate. The average price of homes in Tehran tripled during the 1990s, and Ahmadinejad's tenure saw a further three-fold increase.

In these conditions, speculative capital and the propertied classes thrived, while the working poor and the middle classes had to devote their "life-time effort" to securing a shelter. (This is according to Ahmadinejad himself, cited in Bahar, 23 Farvardin 1389. In 2008, over 25 percent of the unemployed -- 373,000 people -- were university graduates; see the Persian website Jaras, 12 Tir 1389).

During Ahmadinejad's mayoralty, Tehran municipality helped consolidate the rentier "regime class" on which the hardliners' rule rests. This class represents an ideological community comprising segments from both poor layers and rich, cemented by state largesse -- aid, selective subsidies, preferential payments, bribes, commissions, and the like. Many war veterans, basijis, working-class operators, and members of the vast religious sector -- drawn from mosques, shrines, seminaries, schools, or Islamist cultural associations -- thus share the regime's oil proceeds with rich cronies, contractors, and figures from the revolutionary institutions. When Ahmadinejad left the office of mayor to become president in 2005, he simply extended his vision to the national scale, now with much greater resources.

The City Council chose as his successor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former national police chief, and one of Ahmadinejad's defeated opponents in the presidential contest. Ghalibaf became an obstacle to Ahmadinejad's attempts to maintain his hold, as well as that of his allies, over the capital's resources. Describing himself as "pro-people, but not populist," and presenting himself as a religious moderate, but a tough, modernizing manager, Ghalibaf continued several of Karbaschi's unfinished projects: to revive the cultural complexes, build highways, complete the Tehran metro system, and finish the Milad (Communication) Tower project, which had lingered from the Shah's time. Religious or revolutionary symbolism was now downplayed: among the scores of new names given to Tehran streets, hardly any had these kinds of connotations. (See for example the resolutions of the Tehran City Council from February 20, 2010, available on the council's website.)

But the continuing encroachments of the government and the pasdaran into the municipality's prerogatives undermined the city's governing authorities. This trend was to intensify in the wake of the Green Movement.

June days

The 2009 election contest between Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi transformed the social and political face of Tehran. Enthusiasts of "reform," from the well-off to the middle and working classes -- many of whom had refused to vote in the previous poll in 2005 -- utilized the electoral schedule and a rift within the power elites to turn their years of quiet discontent into a spectacular open mobilization. Women and young people in particular turned energetically to grassroots activism, organizing mass street marches with a quasi-carnivalesque atmosphere. Tehran's streets, public parks, schools, and squares -- especially in the central areas and north of Revolution Street -- became the principal arenas of an animated and voluble campaign. But the outcome of the elections -- victory for Ahmadinejad, amid plentiful evidence of fraud -- dashed the hopes of many, inspiring a profound moral outrage that in turn fed into a broad-based protest movement of a kind unseen in the history of the Islamic Republic.

The Green Movement, a post-Islamist drive to reclaim citizenship within a broadly religious-ethical order, articulated a long-standing popular desire for a dignified life free from everyday surveillance, corruption, and arbitrary rule. For weeks after the result was announced on 13 June, street politics became its chief expression, before it was quelled by state violence. Days passed with the police and basij militias battling the protestors, while during the nights roof-top chants of "Allah-o Akbar" and "Death to the dictator" reverberated across the sky. Most of the Green demonstrations occurred in the center and center-north of Tehran -- a slight northward move from the 1979 pattern, which had included the center and center-south. As the city had expanded and the middle classes grown, the political geography had also shifted. The educated middle classes played a key role in the Green Movement, as they had done in the 1979 Revolution, while the marginal poor chose to stay away from the protest movement, waiting and watching -- exactly as they had done three decades earlier. But eyewitness accounts suggest that youth groups from the southern districts also joined in the Green demonstrations.

The monumental silent march of 15 June 2009, filling Revolution Street and converging on the Azadi Tower, prompted a radical change in Tehran's mode of governance. In an extraordinary security measure, the Revolutionary Guards took full control of the city for two months, from 15 June to 16 August, while tens of thousands of security and paramilitary agents were stationed in strategic streets and squares. Within a few weeks, 4,000 protestors had been arrested, at least 70 killed, the reformist media shut down, and free communication in the city virtually suspended; by the end of the year, the total number of detainees reached 10,000. (According to Sardar Fazli, a pasdaran commander, cited in "Eteraf-e Sardar-e Sepah beh Dastgiri-ye Dah-hezar Nafar dar Sal-e Gozashteh," Peyke Iran, 18 Aban 1388).

A virulent propaganda campaign in state-controlled media and Stalinist-type mass trials of opposition figures were the prelude to a more systematic surveillance of the city spaces. Scores of hidden cameras were placed on public thoroughfares, in colleges and dorms, while basij militias were busily monitoring "suspicious" activities. It was as if the city had gone astray, and the authorities felt an urge to put it in its place, to "convert" its sights and sounds. Public parks were ordered to set up prayer halls and mosques, and begin broadcasting the azan, the call to prayer. In May 2010, Tehran residents realized with astonishment that several statues of artists, writers, and historical figures such as Avicenna had mysteriously disappeared from the city's public parks and squares -- blatant thefts clearly carried out with cranes and heavy machinery, pointing to official approval for this attempt to disfigure the secular body of the city.

If ramped-up security was the regime's short-run solution to Tehran's recalcitrance, for the long run they opted for major social engineering. In April 2010, in an extraordinary resolution that went against existing legislation, the cabinet authorized the president and his deputy to take charge of Tehran, and indeed any city with a population over 5,000. Mayors were to follow the president's orders. These moves prepared the way for three structural changes, first announced by Ahmadinejad in a speech on 12 April, and then followed up by other officials and Friday Prayer leaders. Firstly, the authorities plan to downsize the capital -- to repatriate, according to Ahmadinejad, some five million Tehran residents to villages and provinces. Those who volunteer for relocation are to receive loans and assistance in securing land and housing.

The second strategy consists of increasing the population of the country from 70 million to 150 million, especially in rural areas, which currently provide just over 30 percent of the total, and are thought likely to remain loyal to the Islamist regime. Family planning and population control measures are to stop; just as in the 1980s, they are now presented as "conspiracies to keep the Shia population low."

The families of newly born children in the rural areas will receive $1,000 in cash, supplemented by payments of $95 per year until the child turns 18. Finally, the universities, of which there are currently 25 in Tehran, are to be restructured, "indigenized," "Islamized," and then transferred out of the capital.

It is too early to determine if these highly ambitious schemes -- which one official framed as "protective measures against an impending earthquake" -- will materialize. General Franco did relocate the Catalan Autonomous University to Barcelona's outskirts to avoid student uprisings; but the Shah's similar plan in 1978 to move the militant University of Aryamehr from Tehran to Isfahan failed, primarily because the students and faculty resisted. Whatever the outcome, the authorities' course of action indicates that they too see Tehran's post-Islamist urban order as subverting their religious-military mode of rule. To govern, they need to undo the city.

Contentious capital

Three decades into the Islamic revolution, Tehran remains a troubled and troubling city, wounded and yet defiant. It still retains the structural and architectural palimpsest of the Shah's time, but this is overlaid with a veneer of post-revolutionary ideology, some significant redevelopment, and the footprints of globalization. More dramatically, it has been transformed from below by population growth, immigration, and informal development. Most of these processes are not peculiar to Tehran, of course; they are a feature of many other mega-cities of the global south.

But Iran's capital has its own particularities. Today the city is certainly less cosmopolitan than its regional counterparts. Unlike Cairo, Istanbul, or Dubai, foreign tourism has almost vanished; Western communities have shrunk, religious minorities dwindled; Afghan refugees live mostly in rural areas. But Tehran has not escaped globalizing influences. In some sense the "West" is more present today, through the new media, goods, styles, and the three-million plus Iranians living abroad, than it was three decades ago. Economic liberalism, even though it is checked by occasional populist urges, is of course also part of this trend. But Tehran remains largely free of the kind of urban violence that has gripped many cities of the global south in neoliberal times. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Manila, or Managua, the vacuum left by the diminished presence of socialist organizations or the state among the poor has enabled gangs and drug lords, in consort with corrupt police, to patronize and control the slums. In Tehran, instead of social violence there is an extralegal political violence which semiofficial power structures direct against the citizens. Instead of the drug lords of Latin American cities, Tehran has the pasdaran and basij, who use state oil revenue to employ working-class youths for extralegal purposes such as breaking peaceful demonstrations, attacking opposition groups and street surveillance. (In the post-2009 election violence, some basij agents reportedly received motorbikes and others $400 for each operation.)

Most importantly, Tehran is unparalleled in its contentious politics -- in its dialectic between a religious-military mode of government and an unrelenting popular defiance. The Islamic revolution has failed to reshape and restructure Tehran in accordance with its ideology to the same depth or with the same intensity as the French Revolution did Paris and the Russian Revolution Moscow. Even today, Tehran looks more like Madrid or even Los Angeles than Qom, Riyadh, or Cairo. Of course, Tehran does project plenty of expressions of religious identity.

Religious posters, portraits, and prayer halls are a feature of government offices and public spaces; the Shia institutions of tekye, hey'at, and husseiniehe have been reinvented and are well funded; the azan blares from many mosques; women have to wear the hejab in public. But these largely official markers appear more as irritant impositions than as signs of a hegemonic religious order.

In truth, Tehran has resisted becoming a "religious city," in which religious-inspired architectural, visual, and auditory cues would inculcate the inhabitants with pious sensibilities. A recent survey showed that only 12 percent of young Iranians ever go to mosques, and 25 percent of Tehranis have never been to one. The standards of public piety and moral virtue are maintained primarily through coercion. For instance, the spring 2007 "public safety program" to fight what hardliners call a "cultural NATO" resulted in the public humiliation of one million citizens and the arrest of 40,000 by the police and basij militias in just four months. Of the detainees, 85 percent were youths aged 16-25. (The term "cultural NATO" was notably deployed by Payam Fazil-Nejad in a 2009 book attacking the reformist movement as part of a Western conspiracy.)

In June 2010, the government announced that it would dispatch 3,000 female religious "propagandists" (moballeq) to 3,000 girls' schools in Tehran to bring them into line. As if preaching were not enough, the judiciary soon afterwards decreed penalties of 75 lashes, up to 60 days jail, and a $50 fine for laxity with the hejab. Of course, many people uphold their own private forms of piety, but most tend to oppose state religion. The recent spread of Sufi-type and New Age religiosity among some well-to-do Tehranis largely reflects a reaction to, and subversion of, state Islamization. In a sense, it signifies a modernization of the religious sphere in today's Iran.

For under the Islamic Republic, Tehran -- and by extension the country as a whole -- has paradoxically grown more modern. This rather tortured modernity is expressed in high literacy rates, growing urban individuality, the decline of the mahalleh, the extension of a modern public sphere, trends towards apartment living, and the increasing autonomy and public visibility of women. These developments tend to subvert theocratic rule. Thus while the Islamist authorities impose the hejab on women, many respond by turning it into a symbol of fashion; the regime coerces young people into adherence to official Islam, but they turn religious rituals into opportunities for socializing; the government pushes people to watch only state television, but satellite dishes sprout from the rooftops like uncontrollable weeds. It is ironic but not surprising that this capital of "moral virtues" now houses 400,000 drug addicts, 200,000 prostitutes, and over 4.5 million victims of depression.

A mode of government that devotes so much attention to the corporeal disciplining of its citizens is bound to be susceptible to the undermining influence of their everyday actions and attitudes. It will have to undo this modern Tehran -- plural, contested, alive, changing -- or else rule by clubs, cameras, and checkpoints.

Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His latest books include "Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East" (Stanford University Press, 2010) and "Being Young and Muslim: Cultural Politics in the Global South and North" (Oxford University Press, 2010).

For the author's footnotes, please refer to the New Left Review, where this article originally appeared.

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