Revitalizing the Land, De-Orientalizing the Nation: The Pahlavi State, Foreign Experts, and Attempts at Development in the Iranian Environment

By Amit Sadan
Submitted to Session P6527 (Environmental Histories of 20th Century Iran through Local, National, Colonial, and Trans-National Perspectives, 2021 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In this talk, which represents my ongoing dissertation research, I will ponder upon the intersection of environmental history and Iranian nationalism in the context of the Pahlavi state, very rarely discussed in the literature. In what ways interventions in the environment shaped, and were shaped by, nationalist discourse during the Pahlavi era? Were state projects such as railroad construction, swamp draining, land reclamation, forest conservation, dam construction, and natural disaster recovery, a direct result of nationalist world views, whose prominent banner was the conquest of nature? I will focus on two of the more environmentally-impactful undertakings, namely the construction of the Trans-Iranian Railway in the 1920s and 1930s, and the campaign to dam Iran’s major rivers (such as the Dez, Karaj, and Sefidrud) during the Post-War decades. Relying on the records of governments and private firms, memoirs and oral histories, daily newspapers, prose and poetry; I will argue for the centrality of an environmental narrative commonly used in Middle Eastern colonial settings, which compelled the Pahlavi state to transform its environment, considering this environmental transformation a key to restore the lost fertility, power and grandeur of pre-Islamic Iran. Foreign experts and diplomats involved in these undertakings, such as the engineers of the Danish-Swedish consortium Kampsax or the head of the American Development and Resources Corporation David Lilienthal, tended on the other hand to contemplate the extraction of Iran from a medieval, Oriental state, relating both to its natural and social landscape. Imposing Western development upon the diverse Iranian environment encountered grave challenges and consequences, which exposed the blind spots of the appealing narrative, as well as social tensions along national, cultural, and class lines.