Face-to-face: The ‘enemy’ that is Tehran

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Main image: The view over Tehran from the Tochal mountains to the north. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

See also (below) Washington pushes to the brink of war with Iran 

09 Jan 2019 |   | The Guardian

‘Tehran’s traffic jams have spawned a curious social phenomenon. The affluent car-driving youth of the northern districts have turned gridlock into a way of meeting members of the opposite sex.

Known as “dor-dor” (“turn-turn” in Farsi), separate groups of young men and women drive around, pulling up alongside each other in congested traffic so they can flirt and pass phone numbers through the window. The cars are either all-girl or all-boy to avoid censorship by the Islamic morality police. If the police do show up they can make a (slow) getaway.

This furtive car-cruising is just one of the signs of youthful rebellion against draconian moral codes, and an indication that the Iranian capital might be becoming gradually more relaxed. In Ab-o-Atash park, a teenage girl in skinny jeans and rollerblades allows her headscarf to drop briefly as she coasts past a group of gawping boys. Nearby, a tape of religious music is drowned out by the blaring hip-hop coming from the skatepark. Gaggles of families pose for selfies, while black-cloaked women shuffle past on their way to the mosque.

“We never had spaces like this when we were growing up here,” says a middle-aged woman visiting from Canada with her sister, where they have both lived for the past 20 years after moving from Iran. “Even a few years ago, a scene like this would have been unthinkable.”

These visions of tolerance and mutual co-existence are a far cry from most foreigners’ preconceived images of Tehran – a place where religious law still forbids women from riding bicycles. On the new Tabiat pedestrian bridge, whose futuristic tendrils wind their way across the valley, young couples sit arm-in-arm, while groups of girls saunter past, their headscarves pulled so far back they seem to defy gravity. “If we’d been seen out with a boy like this,” adds one of the sisters, “we would have been forced to marry them.”

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Taking a selfie on Tabiat pedestrian bridge. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian

This scene of apparent social freedom turns out to be precariously balanced. In 2011, a couple of years after the park opened, 10 people were arrested by the morality police after holding a water fight in the fountains. Two years ago, an extra 7,000 morality police were introduced in Tehran, specifically to monitor the strict hijab rules, targeting everything from loose-fitting headscarves and shortened trousers for women, to glamorous hairstyles and necklaces for men.

Given the capital’s population explosion the authorities face an uphill struggle. From the decks of Tabiat bridge, evening crowds – suspended above the bumper-to-bumper traffic of an eight-lane highway – admire the sunset through a thick haze of smog. Cranes stretch to the horizon, conjuring ever taller concrete towers which march incessantly into the surrounding hills.

Tehran’s population now numbers around 8.4 million people in the city proper, swelling to 14 million in the wider metropolitan region, making it the most populous city in western Asia. It is set to join the global ranks of megacities by 2035, according to forecasts from the UN, with its residents passing the 10 million mark in 2028.

But Tehran is a city on the brink. With some of the world’s highest levels of congestion, air pollution, water shortages, land subsidence and eye-watering costs of living, headscarves should be the least of the authorities’ worries.

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 The heavily polluted skyline of Tehran. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Institutionalised bribery

Stuck in traffic on one of Tehran’s interminable freeways, the city can feel like Los Angeles with minarets. The similarity is no coincidence: its modern urban structure was laid out by America’s own doyen of postwar sprawl, Victor Gruen. The godfather of the suburban shopping mall was hired by the Iranian government in 1966 to masterplan the future of the capital, and plotted a web of highways that would thread their way through the undulating topography, connecting a dispersed network of neighbourhoods separated by lush green valleys. The model was typical of American new towns – only adapted to the foothills of the Alborz mountains.

It was part of a wave of projects resulting from the American government’s deep engagement with the ruling Pahlavi dynasty. Come the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the masterplan embodied everything that the new regime stood against: it was the detestable legacy of the Shah writ large across the city. Attempts to make a new plan were rejected by the city, so a decision was made to go on with the Gruen scheme, while gleefully rejecting many of its key principles.

The idea of incremental five-year phasing was abandoned in favour expanding the city boundary to its ultimate limits in one go, enabling more land to be developed more quickly to cope with the sudden influx of people. Between 1976 and 1982 Tehran’s population mushroomed by 3 million as families flooded in from the countryside, many fleeing the perilous border regions during the Iran-Iraq war. Inward migration has continued, with internal migrants constituting as much as 88% of the rise in Tehran’s population over the past five years.

There has been a financial incentive behind the city’s expansion too. In the years following the revolution, the municipality realised that a handsome stream of income could be generated by allowing developers to breach the density limits set out in the masterplan in exchange for a substantial fee. Zoning laws were bent and construction permits issued. Revenues collected were then invested in major urban development projects, which in turn increased the value of real estate. The urban form of Tehran was built around a system of institutionalised bribery, which continues to this day.

“Anyone can pay a fine and build a high-rise,” says Masoud Taghavi, former editor of Iranian architecture magazine Hamshahri Memari. “There are some plans, but in most cases they’re being ignored. You see highways where they shouldn’t be, buildings where they shouldn’t be, shopping malls where they shouldn’t be.”

The practice of selling density has led to an identikit form of residential development, with plots simply filled to their limits and extruded to maximise the saleable floor area. Most are designed without terraces or balconies and with minimal open space around them.

The policy has also seen a proliferation of huge commercial buildings with little regard to their wider impact. As chairman of Tehran city council’s health and environment committee, Mohammad Haqqani, put it: “Tehran municipality is granting permits to almost all applicants wishing to construct commercial buildings like shopping malls and office buildings, without paying attention to the real needs of each district and the worsening traffic congestion in the sprawling capital.” Following a spate of high-end malls, a district in northern Tehran finally banned their construction last year. But it is too little too late.

A man walks past a mural in Tehran.
 A man walks past a mural in Tehran, part of the city’s beautification scheme. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty

Beautification is skin deep

Many point the finger at Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Iran’s former chief of police and several-time failed presidential candidate, who served as the mayor of Tehran from 2005 until 2017. He presided over a wealth of impressive-looking trophy projects which introduced a glossy image of modernity – but did little to tackle the city’s real problems.

The expansion of the Sadr expressway was one of his most publicised achievements, seeing a three-mile long double-decker concrete highway erected in the north-east of the city. Articles on the projectwere greeted with comments such as “Long live Tehran’s master builder, the humble accomplisher, Dr Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf,” and “May the eyes of the envious and extremist burst in jealousy.”

Those eyes are now watering at the vast expense and unintended consequences of the grand plan, which has had the effect of increasing traffic and further cementing car as king. Members of the Tehran city council conceded last year that adequate research was not conducted before construction began, and that the elevated highway has failed to achieve its main purpose.

“It is a disastrous project,” says architect and urbanist Ahmadreza Hakiminejad. “It was hailed as a way of reducing Tehran’s congestion, but it has had the opposite result. If you make more room for cars, you get more cars on the street. More cars means more congestion and more pollution.”

Congestion in central Tehran.
 Congestion in central Tehran. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

All schools in the capital were forced to close one day last year due to the dangerous levels of toxic particles in the air. Pollution causes an annual 20,000 deaths, according to deputy health minister Alireza Raeisi, a statistic that has even prompted the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to weigh in: it is now religiously forbidden to drive vehicles in such high levels of pollution without valid rationale.

Ghalibaf put his efforts into applying a thin layer of decoration across Tehran in an attempt to divert people’s attention from its day-to-day dysfunction. The Bureau of Beautification was established to oversee a campaign of murals, bollard paintings and curious sculptures. A stretch of Valiasr Street now has a sculpture garden along one side, where a number of dead trees have been adorned with artwork to disguise the fact they’re stricken due to lack of water. Bus stops have been decorated and novelty benches commissioned – but nothing has changed beneath the surface.

Hakiminejad says the beautification campaign and the Sadr expressway are just two of innumerable ill-conceived schemes conducted over the last decade, along with policies that have seen the trampling of the city’s little remaining green space. Over the past decade, around 4,000 hectares of Tehran’s former gardens have been destroyed by the so-called “garden tower” act, which allows people to build high-rises on garden land.

Families ride pedal boats in the artificial Chitgar Lake, to the north-west of Tehran.
 Families ride pedal boats in the artificial Chitgar Lake, to the north-west of Tehran. Critics say there are few facilities such as schools Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Other grand visions, like the satellite development around the artificial Chitgar Lake to the north-west of Tehran, have similarly backfired. The lake has been accused of diverting much-needed flows of water from the city, while the surrounding plots have been sold off in the usual fashion, spawning a grim forest of high-rise towers and malls. There are few of the facilities such as schools that a functioning new urban centre needs.

“It’s yet another ‘wow’ project, designed more as a tourist attraction than an extension of the city,” says Hakiminejad. “It’s going to end up being a vertical slum.”

Chitgar is one of a number of new satellite towns planned across the country in a bid to ease pressure on the capital. Last year the government announced it would build 11 new towns by 2041, a declaration that raised eyebrows given that most of the new towns built after the 1979 revolution remain grossly under-occupied. A total of 17 satellite towns were built on the periphery of Iran’s eight biggest cities in the 1980s and 90s, but most still stand as ghostly dormitories, their vacancy rates at 80%.

And all the time, people keep flocking to Tehran. The Iran Urban Economics Scientific Association estimates that the city’s population now exceeds its capacity by more than 70% – meaning it can only provide 2.3 million of its 8 million residents with decent living conditions. Without wholesale reform of the planning system, real investment in public transport, and an end to the cash-for-towers culture, that statistic stands little chance of improving.

Original Link: ‘Like LA with minarets’: how concrete and cars came to rule Tehran


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FILE PHOTO © AFP / Vano Shlamov

Washington pushes to the brink of war with Iran

19 June 2019 | Bill Van Auken | WSWS

The US confrontation with Iran has brought the world closer to the brink of a catastrophic global conflict than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

This week has seen the announcement that yet another 1,000 US troops are being sent to the Middle East in order to provide “force protection” against an alleged threat from Iran for the tens of thousands already deployed in the region, along with the report in the Israeli media that preparations are already being made to launch a “tactical assault” on an Iranian nuclear facility involving “massive” bombing.

The report from Israel, based upon diplomatic sources at the United Nations in New York, was initially produced by Maariv Online and then picked up by the Jerusalem Post.

The “military action would be an aerial bombardment of an Iranian facility linked to its nuclear program,” according to the diplomatic sources. One Western diplomat specified that “The bombing will be massive but will be limited to one target.”

It is striking that this ominous report has been virtually blacked out of the US media. No major newspaper or network or cable news outlet has bothered to inform the American public of an impending action with implications for the lives of millions.

The threat of war was underscored by a pair of statements from China and Russia pointing to the growing danger posed by the US escalation. Beijing warned that Washington’s “practice of extreme pressure” threatened to open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, meanwhile, told reporters in Moscow that the “unending and sustained US attempts to crank up political, psychological, economic and, yes, military pressure on Iran … cannot be assessed as anything but a conscious course to provoke war.”

Trump told reporters on the White House lawn Tuesday: “We are looking at Iran, we have a lot of things going with Iran. We are very prepared . We’ll see what happens… Regardless of what goes, we are very prepared.”

The imminent threat of a direct US military attack comes in the wake of a steady escalation of US aggression against Iran. Washington has publicly touted its campaign of “maximum pressure” against the nation of 83 million people, imposing a crushing sanctions regime that is unilateral and illegal after abrogating the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord to which Washington was a signatory, along with China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany.

For the Iranian people these sanctions—compounded by the capitalist austerity policies and privatizations pursued by the Iran’s bourgeois nationalist regime—have meant falling real wages, an inflation rate that is expected to top 50 percent this year, rising unemployment and shortages of medicines and other essentials that have resulted in death and suffering. This economic blockade has been imposed with the express aim of forcing a collapse of the economy and a disintegration of society designed to bring down the Iranian government and replace it with a puppet regime along the lines of the despotic US-backed dictatorship of the Shah, overthrown in the 1979 revolution. The US “maximum pressure” policy is tantamount to a state of war.

Under conditions of already extreme tensions created by this policy, the Trump administration has carried out a steady military escalation against Iran, sending a US aircraft carrier battle group, a bomber strike group led by nuclear-capable B-52s and 1,500 additional troops, before the latest deployment of another 1,000.

All of this has been carried out under the pretext that Iran is posing a threat of aggression against “US interests” in the Middle East, i.e., that they are defensive measures against a supposedly aggressive Iran.

What nonsense! US imperialism has steadily encircled Iran with a ring of steel while seeking to starve its people into submission. Since 2001, it has invaded Afghanistan, on Iran’s northeastern border and Iraq to its west. It has set up a string of air and naval bases facing Iran’s shores across the Persian Gulf and has maintained tens of thousands of US troops in the region.

The claims of Iranian aggression and the US posturing as the aggrieved party acting in self-defense is bound up with the search for a pretext for a US military assault. This has ranged from an errant missile that landed a third of a mile away from the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone to alleged threats from Iranian-backed militias in Syria to the murky events surrounding the damaging of tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which the Pentagon, with no credible proof, has attributed to Iran.

It appears, however, that the Trump administration has decided to make Iran’s threat to fall out of compliance with the nuclear accord that Washington itself ripped up its casus belli. When it comes to shameless hypocrisy, US imperialism has few real competitors.

Tehran announced Monday that it will exceed the cap imposed by the nuclear accord on its accumulation of low-enriched uranium in 10 days. The action is part of an attempt to prod the European powers still upholding the agreement—the UK, Germany and France—to make good on their promise to restore normal trade and investment relations, which have been disrupted by the US sanctions. Thus far, while paying lip service to the agreement and promising to implement a new exchange system to bypass the sanctions, the European powers have done little to challenge Washington’s economic blockade.

The feverish character of the US drive to war was expressed Tuesday in a highly unusual trip by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida for a meeting with the chief of CENTCOM, which oversees US military operations throughout the Middle East, and the commander of US Special Operations troops. CENTCOM’s Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie reportedly requested the deployment of another 20,000 US troops to the Iran battle zone but was overruled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff who feared that it could provoke a war. Like McKenzie, Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, the head of Special Operations Command, was recently placed in charge by the Trump administration.

After the meeting, Pompeo insisted that Trump “does not want war,” but then went on to spell out an aggressive policy that leads inexorably to just that.

While Pompeo was in Florida, it was announced in Washington that the acting secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, had resigned before his formal nomination could go to the Senate, allegedly over a nine-year-old domestic abuse allegation. Shanahan, a former top executive at Boeing, is to be replaced by Army Secretary Mark Esper, a former vice president of government relations at defense contractor Raytheon and chief of staff at the right-wing Heritage Foundation. What precise relation this shakeup has to the drive to war against Iran is as yet unknown, but the claim that it was the result of family issues strains credulity.

“Shanahan’s departure will increase uncertainty at the Pentagon at a moment of significant potential military risk,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who enjoys close ties to the US military-intelligence apparatus. “Allied jitters are likely to expand, too, with Monday’s announcement that the U.S. is sending 1,000 additional troops to the Persian Gulf,” he added.

Much has been made within the media about the apparent divisions within the Trump administration between the president, a supposed isolationist who eschews new Middle East wars, and the two point men on Iranian policy: his national security adviser, John Bolton, who has advocated for bombing Iran into regime change for decades, and Pompeo, the Christian fundamentalist warmonger, who insists that all of his work is dedicated to preparing for the “rapture.”

Whatever these divisions, the drive to war against Iran is deeply rooted in the crisis of American capitalism. For nearly three decades, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union by the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy, the US capitalist class, acting through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, has sought to offset its crises and the erosion of its domination of world markets through the use of military force.

The war of imperialist aggression against Iraq, followed by subsequent wars for regime change initiated by the Obama administration in Libya and Syria, have left US policy in the region in shambles. In both Iraq and Syria, where Washington sought to bring to power puppet regimes in preparation for war against Iran, Tehran has substantially increased its influence and status as a regional power, posing an obstacle to the US drive for hegemony over the oil-rich region.

At the same time, Iran constitutes a major source of energy imports for China as well as a key link in its planned One Belt, One Road strategy to deepen its integration with Eurasia.

The drive to war also has its source in the acute social crisis within the United States itself, where social inequality and the growth of strikes and social unrest pose a threat to the ruling financial oligarchy which seeks to direct these internal tensions outward in a new explosion of military violence.

The attempt by Washington to eliminate its regional rival and assert is hegemony over the Middle East in order to secure a stranglehold over China’s energy imports by means of a new war against Iran can yield only a far greater and potentially global catastrophe.

Without any attempt to make a case to the American people for war, Washington is preparing to launch a military assault on Iran, a country with three times the population of Iraq in 2003 and four times the land mass.

The American people face the prospect of a series of shocks. The bombing of an Iranian nuclear facility may be answered with an Iranian attack on a US warship as well as rocket attacks on US bases across the Persian Gulf with the possibility of thousands of American casualties overnight. A war with Iran will require an army of hundreds of thousands, necessitating the revival of the draft.

Moreover, because of its strategic position, a war against Iran will inevitably draw in the entire Middle East, while posing military confrontation with nuclear-armed China and Russia.

Within the working class there is hostility to war and a deep distrust in the lies of the government and the media that finds no expression within the existing political setup. The resurgence of the class struggle, however, provides a powerful foundation for the emergence of a new mass antiwar movement based on the independent political mobilization of the working class and the fight for socialism.

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James Porteous

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