This essay series examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacities whether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. More ...

The sphere of civil society has been steadily growing in Iran since the 19th century, but has continually gone through intermittent phases of expansion and contraction due to pressure from a centralizing state. The state has tended to limit the freedom of assembly and the sphere of independent social organizations. This is the result of a paradox in which the forces of institutional centralization and democratic decentralization have both been at work, in response to parallel urges for effectiveness and accountability. There has been an incessant force for constructing a strong state to keep the multi-ethnic country together and to modernize its institutions, alongside continuous democratic pressure to open up new spaces of freedom for association, action, and expression. While the latter has developed an overall capacity for civil society, the former has tended to limit this capacity, and so the process has been characterized by tensions and periodic setbacks.

In addition to political tension, a cultural tension has persisted between change and continuity, which is reflected in the friction between modernizers and conservatives. The two important points of change in the modern history of Iran are the two revolutions at the beginning and toward the end of the 20th century, the first dominated by a drive for modernization and the second by the drive to reinstate the broken links with the past.[1] In very broad terms, this tension reflects a second paradox, acknowledging the necessity of change alongside a desire to maintain a strong sense of continuous identity.[2] Depending on the circumstances, the civic associations that have been affiliated with continuity or change have either found space to grow or have been suppressed and limited in scope. These distinctions, it should be noted, are never sharply drawn, and many elements of modernization may be found among the traditionalists and vice versa.[3] Nevertheless, the two sets of tensions between centralization and democratization and between continuity and change have created a matrix of political and cultural complexity, in which a spectrum of circumstances have emerged through the various combinations of these dimensions.

Social associations such as guilds and charities have a long history in Iran, going back to the medieval period. The modern forms of social association, such as political parties and secret societies, started to develop in the late 19th century as part of a major drive for modernization, which culminated in the revolution of 1906 that limited the power of the monarchy through a constitution and introduced democratic institutions such as a parliament. With the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921, state infrastructure was modernized and centralized, which was aimed at dismantling the remnants of feudal factionalism and also suppressing modern social and political associations that could challenge the power of the state. The decade following the advent of the Second World War witnessed the flourishing of democratic movements. From the 1950s, however, the state re-established its tight control, which lasted until the revolution of 1979. Since then, periods of relative expansion and contraction of the civil society have followed one another, reflecting the changing circumstances and the tensions between conservative and reformist forces in the country.[4]

The oil-based economy has historically allowed the government to be the primary source of income in the national economy, and therefore able to keep a commanding role in society through the expansion of the state bureaucracy, creating the conditions of dependency for considerable parts of the population. The pressure for democratization, however, has gone hand in hand with the processes of modernization and urbanization, which have continued to unfold after the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979. The dramatic growth in the rate of urbanization, which rose from just above 30 percent in the mid-1950s to more than 70 percent today[5], has had an important effect on the structure of the population and its institutions. This has coincided with higher levels of education, higher levels of women’s participation in social and economic life, and the growing maturity of a predominantly young population, all contributing to the expansion of social capacities and the sophistication of social expectations.

For over a century, a series of civil society institutions have been developed to represent a number of professions, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers and architects; university student associations that have historically been very active; cultural interests such as the conservation of historical heritage, the Writers’ Club and the House of Cinema; environmental activists; human rights groups; special interests such as housing cooperatives; sports clubs; and many other forms of joint initiatives facilitated by a range of print media and now joined by digital and social media. The contribution of community-based organizations to the processes of urban governance, however, remains rather limited, owing to the hierarchical nature of power in the Tehran.[6]

Prior to the 1979 revolution, the suppression of civil society groups under the monarchy had left religious networks, which were integrated into the fabric of society, as the strongest form of institutionalized groups outside government influence, which facilitated their leadership role in the revolution that toppled the monarchy. With the 1979 revolution, the concept of democratic involvement was radically transformed. With millions of people participating, many of the institutions that emerged afterwards were inherently rooted in popular movements. However, as the revolutionary unity soon disintegrated, many such institutions became fully integrated into the state. Religious institutions, from popular militias to charitable organizations, endowment foundations, schools, seminaries and local mosques, which had historically been independent, became either an integral part of the state or institutionalized as quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (QUANGOs). Some of these institutions continue to provide important welfare support, such as running drug addiction rehabilitation centers or the provision of low-interest loans to low-income households. In some sections of society, the dividing line between the state and society became somewhat blurred. The religious and revolutionary nature of the Islamic Republic, however, meant that the secular and some of the traditional parts of society would be excluded from this sphere of integration. With the emergence of a reformist movement within the republic, the sphere of integration became even more narrowly defined.

After the end of the devastating war with Iraq, the 1990s witnessed a period of normalization and reform, which expanded the sphere of urban governance. Through a policy of economic liberalization, privatization of public assets and organizations gathered momentum and the number of stakeholders in governance arrangements multiplied. The relaxation of planning regulations led to the financial autonomy of the municipality, resulting in an explosive densification and upward growth in the capital city. While this met some of the urgent needs for new space, it also had some disastrous effects on the quality of life in many areas. The reform movement also stimulated political openness, and so the city councils were re-established and civic associations flourished.[7]

The reform movement introduced neighborhood councils, with the first neighborhood elections in Tehran taking place in 2000. In 371 neighborhoods of Tehran, the councils, entitled Support Councils (Shorayari), are considered to be a forum for public participation and a link between the local government and the community, helping the city council to identify key problems and the municipality to perform its main duties at the local level.[8] As such, they may be considered a decentralized extension of the municipal government, subject to rules and regulations that are devised by the city council. At the same time, their role is limited to a consultative one, and their contributions may not be properly acknowledged by various stakeholders in urban governance. The neighborhood councils, therefore, have played a role in the move towards the democratization of urban governance, but they have also suffered from the limited local awareness about their role, their ambiguous position in governance, their limited effectiveness in improving neighborhood conditions, and the danger of becoming an added layer of bureaucracy.[9]

Tehran municipality has also been experimenting with public participation in urban renewal, as large parts of the city have been identified to be in decline. The concept of participation (Mosharekat), however, is often limited to those who are property owners. They are often encouraged to assemble their small plots into a larger one to allow for a new apartment building to replace several poorly built houses. Although the renewal process establishes local offices to engage with the local residents, the process does not acknowledge renters or those without secure documents for their properties, who could then be driven out of the renewal areas.

The Persian acronym SAMAN (Sazmanhaye Mardom Nahad) stands for the word NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). A new legal framework devised in the mid-2000s was developed for their operation. They are placed under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Interior, which is also in charge of the municipalities. NGOs need permission from the Ministry of Interior to operate, but members of civic associations complain that this has limited their scope and the process of registration is ambiguous and time-consuming, rather than supportive and facilitating. This has triggered an atmosphere of mistrust between the two sides, especially after the controversies surrounding the presidential elections.

The independent nature of civic associations has frequently brought them face-to-face with the government. The government, in turn, has been skeptical of their intentions and determined to curb their activities. During the reform period of President Mohammad Khatami, city and neighborhood councils were re-established and a major campaign for strengthening civil society was launched. In contrast, during the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and following the mass protests of the Green Movement surrounding his re-election, many civil society organizations were accused of siding with the opposition, receiving support from Western governments, and acting as a fifth column introducing western liberalism into the Islamic Republic in the hope of subverting it from within. As a result, many groups were disbanded and activists imprisoned. With the change of administration, however, a new period of relative openness has brought fresh opportunities for civic associations. The new attitude by some civic associations is to engage with government agencies and other stakeholders, working positively towards addressing acute problems and for the improvement of social life rather than presenting a negative agenda and appearing merely as a critic of the state. Two examples of such associations may be mentioned.

Bahamestan, which means the land of being together, is “a non-profit organization that advocates citizens' right to the city, especially for those groups and interests that are marginalized.”[10] It is based in Tehran with the motto of ‘The city is my right’, campaigning for various issues in the city. Its aims are raising citizens’ awareness about their rights and opportunities for public participation, empowering vulnerable groups in urban development processes, representing the marginalized groups through negotiating with the decision makers, and mobilizing social capital in support of its causes. The network’s approach is to engage with activists, academics, journalists, members of the public, and public authorities to address any given problem. Its latest public event was entitled, ‘Tehran is the home of Afghans too’, drawing attention to the plight of the large number of Afghan refugees who have lived in the city for a generation. The key participants in this event were an activist, a journalist, and representatives from the city council and the Ministry of Interior. Previous events had addressed violence against women, pedestrian rights in the city, street traders, and changes in the mayoral elections.

Another network, Yekshahr, which means ‘one city’, campaigns for the improvement of the urban environment for everyone.[11] It aims to provide a platform for civil society groups to share their experiences and discuss ways of improving the legal arrangements and living conditions in the city. Its key themes of interest are problems concerning children, the disabled, the elderly, slum dwellers, women, immigrants, the unemployed, as well as “the trees, birds, rivers and sky.” The network is not focused on a particular city and it seems to be interested in such issues across the country, although a strong emphasis on Tehran is visible.

The impact of civic associations on urban governance may be limited as they do not possess an official capacity in a highly bureaucratic and centralized system, and have in the past been suspected of advocating a liberal political agenda. Their key impacts, however, would be in democratizing the urban agenda by helping to develop social capacities that may contribute to the richness and sophistication of the social fabric; raising the level of public awareness and engagement; improving some aspects of social life and environment; opening up the spaces of expression and association; supporting the vulnerable parts of society; and offering opportunities to mobilize the goodwill resources of a young and energetic population. As such, the sphere of civic association and engagement, and its impact on urban governance, has been growing and is likely to grow further, despite the strong hierarchical pressures and frequent setbacks.

[1] Ali Madanipour, Tehran: The making of a metropolis (Chichester: Wiley, 1998).

[2] Ali Madanipour, “The Identity of the City,” in City Project and Public Space, ed. Silvia Serreli (Dodrecht: Springer, 2013), 49-63.

[3] Ali Madanipour, “Modernization and Everyday Life: Urban and rural change in Iran,” in Iran Encountering Globalization, ed. A. Mohammadi (London: Routledge-Curzon, 2003), 137-148.

[4] Ali Madanipour, Tehran: The making of a metropolis (Chichester: Wiley, 1998).

[5] Iran Statistical Centre. (2015). Statistical Pocketbook of the Islamic Republic of Iran 1392 (Iranian Year), (March 2013-March 2014 No. 30). Tehran, Iran: Management and Planning Organization, Iran Statistical Centre.

[6] Ali Madanipour, “Urban Planning and Development in Tehran,” Cities 23, no. 6 (2006): 433-38.

[7] Ali Madanipour, “Sustainable Development, Urban Form, and Megacity Governance and Planning in Tehran,” in Megacities: Urban form, governance, and sustainability, eds. André Sorensen and Junichiro Okata (Tokyo: Springer, 2011), 67-92.

[8] Setade Hamahangi, “Tarikhcheye Shorayari (History of support council),”

[9] Zahed Shafiei, “Contested Understanding of Urban Governance: A case study of Tehran, Iran”(PhD thesis, Newcastle University, 2011).



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