Tehran: An Introduction

By Aaron Wolf

Tehran began as a small town of little importance in Central Asia, but has eventually become one of most populous and significant metropolises in the region. As the capital of Persia (and later Iran) since 1786, Tehran has often mirrored the transformations undergone by the entire country, the surrounding region, and Islamic culture as a whole. The center of Iranian society, government, and education, Tehran is also unique as the largest city in the world with a majority Shia Muslim population. Despite Tehran’s major advancements since its humble beginnings, the city has also struggled with political unrest, income disparity, and patriarchal norms. Most recently, many of Tehran and Iran’s governmental shortcomings have been on display with high rates of infection and death from coronavirus, which have left the country as the hardest hit by the disease in the Middle East.

Tehran is physically located on the foothills of the Alborz mountain range, 70 miles from the Caspian Sea and 300 miles from the Iraqi border. The city’s population has increased dramatically over the past century from less than one million residents to 9.13 million in 2020, with the city’s municipal boundaries expanding substantially as well. Tehran is divided into 22 municipal districts, governed by the Islamic City Council. Many Iranians also live within the Greater Tehran area.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the city has been the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is ultimately ruled by the Supreme Leader of the nation, currently Ali Khamenei. The president of the republic, currently Hassan Rouhani, also wields significant power in the city, while the mayor, currently Pirouz Hanachi, oversees the city council. The major shift in governance in 1979 led to many societal changes in Tehran which will be discussed in the following reports, including greater emphasis on the importance of Islam in the city’s culture, diminishing rights for women, and new urban development plans, which have had mixed results.

These three reports on Tehran’s municipal history cover the impact of war on the city, the marginalization and migration of the urban poor, and the significance of public spaces on Tehran’s society and culture. In more specific terms, the first report discusses how 19th century international conflicts prompted urban planning and modernization in Tehran. It also focuses on the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which greatly affected the city’s growth and the social dynamics of its residents. The second report describes the North-South dichotomy of wealth in the city and the failures of urban policies aimed at alleviating the struggles of the urban poor both before and after the 1979 revolution. The urban poverty report also examines the expansion of informal settlements on the city’s fringes, which have constituted a huge share of the overall growth of the metropolitan region. Finally, the third report touches on the importance and shifting role of public spaces in Tehran’s history. This report discusses the city’s public squares, focusing on Baharestan Square, and demonstrates how they have been key to the city’s changing social and political character. The third report also details the emergence of gender-exclusive parks in the capital and their implications for women in Iranian society.

Major themes that surface throughout the three reports include the transition from a prioritization of the state in public affairs to a prioritization of Islam, the influence of the city’s physical environment, and the widespread impacts of urban sprawl and rapid growth over the past century. These three reports in combination tell the story of a complex metropolis continually shaped by major political events and societal movements.

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