Nature, Infrastructure, and the Political Geography of Twentieth-Century Iran

By Shima Houshyar
Submitted to Session P6527 (Environmental Histories of 20th Century Iran through Local, National, Colonial, and Trans-National Perspectives, 2021 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Following World War II, Iran underwent a rapid process of technological development and modernization, aimed at national regeneration and the integration of territories. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Iranian government employed foreign corporations and other international institutions, such as the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to carry out a program of regional rural development in southwestern Iran. These projects included building large hydroelectric dams, high-tension electrical transmission lines, modern roads and irrigation canals, and the modernization of agriculture through the use of chemical fertilizers and tractors. As planners, policymakers, and engineers attempted to remake nature and nation, they confronted multiple social and material obstacles. This paper examines the affordances of the natural environment in the unfolding of development and engineering projects in Iran. I argue that the biotic and abiotic elements of nature, such as water, soil, rocks, mud, and parasites actively shaped the ways that these infrastructures and development schemes were envisioned and executed, while also creating frictions and obstacles to these programs. At the same time, these large-scale engineering projects drew on and mobilized varied and contradictory understandings of nature as “beautiful/bountiful” or “dangerous/in danger” while inspiring literary, visual, and cultural productions that critically engaged with these new infrastructural developments and visions of a “pastoral past.”