What’s it like to live on the margins of a metropolis in Iran today? Those who do are confronted with some of the most serious crises facing the country today, with social, economic, political and security repercussions. Various groups and organizations have reported on and collected data about the predicaments of margin-dwelling in Iran but, despite the significance of the subject, the reliable statistics needed for in-depth political, social and economic analyses, either do not exist or have not been made public.
This is the first in a series of reports on living on the margins in Iran. With the series, IranWire will aim to use available statistics and data, as incomprehensive of some of it might be, to arrive at a more accurate picture of the phenomenon of living on the margins in Iran and the crises emerging from it.
“A street in the heart of the shantytown, a street in a town of poverty and decay. A street that is narrower than an alleyway and smaller than a backyard. The life of this street and others in the shantytown are at the mercy of the wind. A strong wind could topple the shacks and then nothing would remain of the alley, of the street and of the backyards of slum-dwellers. Everything is growing from the heaps of garbage, but garbage kills hygiene. They wash things, they cook and they eat in a teeny-weeny space. They wash their teacups with mud. Children taste bits of food left by others … Tehran shantytowns are the product of the growth of dependent capitalism following the 1963 American reforms [the shah’s “
But in the 38 years since that report, the plight of Tehran’s slum dwellers has not eased — although the difference is that, at the time, people blamed the shah’s “dependent capitalism” for the shantytowns, whereas today the blame is likely to fall on the mismanagement and bad policies of the Islamic Republic over the last four decades.
Before the Islamic Revolution
Life on the margins is a feature of modern Iran as much as urban living is, and has been a phenomenon since the birth of the modern Iranian city.
According to the first-ever census of Tehran, conducted more than 150 years ago in 1867 during the reign of the Qajar king Nasseredin Shah (who reigned from 1848 to 1896), more than 10 percent of the population of the Iranian capital — around 17,000 —lived outside city gates [Persian PDF]. The first shacks inside the capital started appearing in 1922 but it was only from the 1960s on that shantytowns turned into a serious feature of Tehran’s landscape.
“Tehran Is Iran’s Capital” [video], a documentary made by the Iranian movie director and documentary filmmaker Kamran Shirdel in 1966, is a poignant and painful narrative of the wretched life of Tehran’s margin-dwellers. Even 50 years on, it brings out an emotional response.
Before the Islamic Revolution, margin-dwelling was a result of migration from rural to urban areas and the changing social and economic structures of the country. Studies show that in the 1970s, 91 percent of margin-dwellers were migrants who had come from the countryside to live in cities. By 1980, there were more than 4,500 shanties in Tehran, host to more than 10,450 households.
Revolution and War with Iraq
The explosion of margin-dwelling was precipitated by first the 1979 revolution and then the 1980-1988 war.
In revolutionary propaganda, the term “margin-dwelling” actually had positive connotations. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, praised slum dwellers as strong and upright people who were superior to those who lived in palaces. Early after the revolution, poverty and living in slums was considered a badge of honor and this, in turn, encouraged more migration from rural Iran to urban areas.
But the affairs of the state were now in the hands of people who were neither experienced nor knowledgeable about the issues of urbanization. Only a few months after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the creation
It has been almost 40 years since that winter and the legacy of that high-flying rhetoric has been nothing but an explosive increase in the population of “the oppressed” and the influx of hundreds of thousands of unfortunate villagers who were drawn to the margins of the cities in the vain hope that they would prosper. Add to this the people who were displaced by the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war [Persian link] and had no choice but to leave their homes in western Iran and seek shelter in Tehran and other cities away from the war zone.
The 1996 census, conducted eight years after the war, found that one-fifth of Tehran’s population lived in shantytowns and shabby housing.
After the War
The end of the war was the beginning of a new phase of margin-dwelling in Iran. Although the Iranian politicians of the 1990s had personally witnessed the consequences of high-handed changes to the structure of the Iranian society in the 1950s and the 1960s under the shah, they ignored the lessons of history and decided to open up the closed economy of Iran in the manner that they saw fit.
Extensive privatization started under the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) who liked to call his administration the “Government of Reconstruction.” Some of the disastrous consequences of the way privatization was implemented took time to unfold, but the 50 percent inflation had an almost immediate impact [Persian link]. Inflation, of course, affected everybody but it made life in villages and small towns especially hard — so much so that the migrants could justify living in wretched conditions on the margins of big cities.
But the hard lives of migrants was not the only consequence of this influx from rural to urban areas. The first tremors of a growing discontent after the 1979 revolution made themselves felt in the 1990s on the margins of megacities. In 1992, for instance, bloody riots broke out in the holy city of Mashhad [Persian link]. The rioters occupied a number of police stations, several banks, the municipality building and other government offices. The riots were put down after only two days. Several people were killed, hundreds were rounded up and four of the rioters were hanged.
Ahmadinejad and After
A new round of margin-dwelling started in the 2000s. On the one hand, Iranian politics witnessed significant changes and, on the other hand, the first signs of climate change and environmental crisis appeared. If earlier the growth of margin-dwelling was caused by social, economic and political factors, now climate change was added to these factors.
Climate change started forcing villagers, left with no other options, to leave everything behind and seek refuge in the margins of the cities. Thousands more Iranian villages were emptied out and since big cities were filled to capacity, it was now the turn of smaller cities and towns to shelter the migrants. For big cities like Tehran, Mashhad and Tabriz, margin-dwelling was not something new, but in the last 10 years small towns like Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman — where 63 percent of the population live on the margins — have held the record for new margin-dwelling [Persian link].
And, besides everything else, beginning in 2009, Iran’s economy started a steep descent. Following on from the ill-conceived project by Hadi Khosroshahi early after the revolution, Ahmadinejad’s Mehr Housingproject became the second official campaign that in practice promoted further margin-dwelling. It proved to be one of the most destructivegovernment interventions in the history of housing in Iran [Persian link]. Whereas before the Mehr Housing project people used to build their own shacks in the desolate outskirts of the cities, now it was the government that, on their behalf, took over the job. And the result was a costly disaster.
Side by side with environmental degradation and disastrous government policies, sanctions and the ever-present threat of war made the situation even worse.
On the Verge of the Future
A new century in the Iranian calendar, the 14th century, will start on the first day of spring 2021. And yet Iran is looking to a future filled with crises of every kind. One such crisis is the scope of margin-dwelling and the worn-out and inefficient fabric of the cities. According to a 2014 study by the Iranian Parliament Research Center [Persian link], the area of worn-out urban land in Iran is more than 76,000 hectares. But the area of inefficient urban fabric is even bigger, covering around 141,000 hectares. According to Houshang Ashayeri, Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development, around 20 million, or one-fourth of Iranians, live in such areas [Persian link].
This means that, besides all other environmental and non-environmental threats and crises, one Iranian in four lives in a miserable shelter in an equally miserable environment.
What is it like to live on the margins of a metropolis in Iran today? Those who do are confronted with some of the most serious crises facing the country today, with social, economic, political and security repercussions. Various groups and organizations have reported on and collected data about the predicaments of margin-dwelling in Iran but, despite the significance of the subject, the reliable statistics needed for in-depth political, social and economic analyses either do not exist or have not been made public.
This is the second in a series of reports on living on the margins in Iran, introducing the province of Razavi Province in the northeast of the country. Another article in the series will look in-depth at margin-dwelling in the county's biggest city, Mashhad, as well as other cities in the province. IranWire will aim to use available statistics and data, as incomprehensive of some of it might be, to arrive at an accurate picture of the phenomenon of living on the margins in Iran and the crises emerging from it.
Mashhad: Iran’s Fire Alarm
The phenomenon of margin-dwelling in Razavi Khorasan province and its capital Mashhad is more visible than in any other place in Iran. Not only do the statistics point to the painful conditions of those who live in the margins of cities in this province, history shows that signs of any social and political crises in Iran tend to appear in this region first.
Mashhad is a like a fire alarm for developing crises in Iran. From the 1992 riots to the nationwide protests that started in late December 2017, unrest and major events — be they social, political or economic — usually unfold first in Mashhad and Razavi Khorasan before spreading to other parts of Iran.
The unbridled construction boom in the late 2000s started in Mashhad, and so did the first signs of the slump a few years later. Razavi Khorasan is both the capital of troubled big financial institutions and the record-holder for the number of divorces and abandoned children. The holy city of Mashhad, nicknamed “capital of the shadow government”, is also home to Astan Quds Razavi, the largest religious endowment in Iran. Sermons by Ahmad Alamolhoda, Mashhad’s Friday Prayers Leader, play a more important role in shaping political crises that the sermons delivered at Tehran’s Friday prayers.
Margin-dwelling and the concentration of economic and political entities is what makes this city, and Razavi Khorasan by extension, an early indicator of crises in Iran.
Introducing Razavi Khorasan
Razavi Khorasan Province (Source: Google Maps)
Razavi Khorasan is the most populated Iranian province after Tehran. According to the 2016 census, the population of the province was 6.5 million, half of whom live in Mashhad. Between 2011 and 2016, the population of Razavi Khorasan grew by 7.3 percent, one percent higher than the average population growth in Iran during those five years. In the same period the population of Mashhad grew even faster — by 9.2 percent, 2.5 percent more than Tehran and 1.8 percent higher than the population growth in major metropolitan areas.
The population density of Razavi Khorasan is 54 per square km while the population density in Mashhad is 8,700 per square km — comparable to cities like Rio de Janeiro, Yokohama and Madrid. In Nishapur, the province’s second largest city, the population density is at least 1,000 per square km.
But the population of Mashhad itself is not evenly distributed. In some parts of the city, like District 12, the population density is less than 2,000 per square km, while in areas such as District 4 the density reaches to almost 20,000 per square km — around 5,000 more than the average density in Tehran, which is 15,000 per square km.
The economy of Razavi Khorasan and particularly that of Mashhad also has a special place within the overall Iranian economy. According to the Statistical Center of Iran, for the years between 2011 and 2015, the province’s share of gross national product (GNP) was 5.5 percent, which places it fourth after Tehran, Khuzestan and Isfahan. But if one takes petroleum out of the equation, the province’s share goes up to six percent and places it third, before Khuzestan.
The financial and business organizations owned by Astan Quds Razavi are based in Mashhad. No reliable data about this group of companies is available, but what is known for certain is that the holding conglomerate is made up of close to 40 business entities, which are active in a wide variety of areas — from car manufacturing, textiles, carpet weaving, mining, oil and gas to financial services, construction, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, animal husbandry and their associated industries.
What is more, all these companies are tax-exempt because they belong to a religious endowment. This exemption means that they are at least 25 percent — the percentage of corporate tax normal businesses pay — ahead of their competitors in both public and private sectors.
According its official website, the Razavi Economic Organization, established in 1998, it is active “in the form of more than 70 companies and institutions” with “more than 12,000 people” who work “directly and indirectly in companies and the subsidiary companies affiliated with this organization.”
To get a general idea of the financial weight of Astan Quds Razavi, it is useful to point out that in early 2017, the government of the Islamic Republic owed the organization about 3.45 trillion tomans, close to $808 million. The number is almost equal to the amount the government budget expects to receive this year from the whole province of Razavi Khorasan.
Tourism and Pilgrimage
The holy city of Mashhad is the most popular city in Iran for tourism. According to statistics published by Iran’s Planning and Budget Organization, in spring 2016, with more than 13 million visitors spending at least one night in the city, Mashhad had the highest number of domestic tourists. It also stands well above other Iranian cities in terms of the number of foreign tourists and pilgrims.
According to 2016 statistics from Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, close to 530,000 tourists flew into Iran via Mashhad’s airport, second only to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, with 970,000 tourists. The number of people using the Mashhad airport is almost eight times more than the number of people using Shiraz airport, the third busiest air travel hub in Iran.
Based on statistics published by Mashhad Municipality, during the Iranian calendar year 1394 (March 21, 2015 to March 20, 2016), more than 1.22 million foreign pilgrims visited Mashhad. This is close to one fourth of the total number of foreign tourists who visited Iran in that year.
The Religious Standing
Among Shias Muslims’ “Fourteen Infallibles,” only the eighth imam, Imam Reza, is buried in Iran, and he is buried in Mashhad. After Mecca, Mashhad is the second biggest magnet for Shia pilgrims and its economic, political and social conditions are shaped by this religious identity.
According to the 2011 census, around 99.5 percent of Razavi Khorasan’s population are Muslims. However, it is not clear how many of them are from non-Shi’ite Muslim minorities. Based on unofficial estimates, more than 700,000 Sunnis live in the province.
This has worried some Shia religious authorities, especially hardliners such as Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi. “I have warned the authorities that if they cannot find a way to counter…the Wahhabis’ attempts to change the population fabric today, we may well reach a point where we will not be able to do anything about it,” he was quoted as saying about the increase in Razavi Khorasan’s Sunni population. “Recently the Wahhabis have [been very active] inside Iran and the sources of these activities are foreign countries. They also carry out their projects inside Iran very fast. Iran is currently the center of Shi’ism and that is why they want to fight Iran. One of their main aims is to change the fabric of the population and increase the number of Sunnis. In this regard, they have been busy buying land, homes and commercial real estate from the Shias. Pressuring the Shias to migrate from certain areas to change the population ratio in terms of religion are among the other actions taken by the Wahhabis.”
Political and Security Status
Politically, Mashhad is the most important city in Iran after the capital, Tehran. In recent years, however, Mashhad has practically turned into the capital for the Iranian hardliners’ “shadow government.” But in Mashhad, hardliner politics has not remained confined to the political arena, and has put its deep marks on the city’s economy, culture and society. This, in turn, has led to a brittle security situation compared to other parts of Iran. Government officials have officially warned that terrorism is a real threat in Mashhad.
These religious and economic factors have turned Mashhad into a magnet for migrants. Between 2006 and 2011, more than 190,000 Iranians migrated to Mashhad. In 2006, the population of Mashhad stood at over 2.427 million but, according to the 2011 census, this number jumped to 2.766 million, an increase of 339,000. If one breaks down this last number into migrants and those who were born in the city, we can see that during this five-year period more than 55 percent of the population increase was due to migration.
A later article in this series will report in more depth on margin-dwelling in Mashhad and in a number of other cities in Razavi Khorasan.