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 prospect of establishing direct popular elections for mayors has precipitated a heated debate in Iran, resulting in divisions within the conservative and reformist factions and even a reversal of their roles.[1] Nevertheless, in 2013 the Tehran Municipality, under the conservative mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf[2] submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Interior that would change the current system, in which mayors are chosen by popularly elected city councils. The proposal, which is in the process of being introduced as a bill to the Majlis (Parliament) under the title “Integrated Urban Management” (IUM) (or modeiriat-e yekparche-h shahri), has two main components: 1) it rescales the state by transferring several social, cultural and environmental functions from the central government to the municipal level; and 2) it calls for direct elections of mayors for cities with a population of over a million.[3]

The IUM has gained traction among Iranian policy experts, academics, and citizens because it is viewed as a “successful” model of urban “good governance” advocated by the World Bank. This approach is consistent with the consensus among prominent Iranian scholars of urban studies who, over the past decade, have repeatedly have called for decentralization.[4]

At the time of writing this article, the fate of the bill has not been decided. Yet, the debate surrounding the bill, and the forces that render urban governance as political, stem from the coupling of decentralization of governance with the arbitrary and despotic rule of mayors over urban matters. Indeed, recent municipal reforms in many developing countries illustrate the broader ambiguities of democratization of the state through the process of decentralization of decision-making and implementation of laws. The analysis of the Iranian case supports the finding that recent experiences with decentralization in non-democratic settings share extreme forms of commodification of cities under neoliberal urban governance.[5]

The process of decentralization in non-democratic settings has led to the reorientation of municipalities from merely managerial authorities to institutions that are both the field for, and the target of political struggles between elites and citizens.[6] Such localization of political life, especially in large cities such as Tehran, has the potential for making urban policy-making less opaque and bureaucratized as it has been under the Pahlavi Monarchy and the Islamic Republic. Yet, the overall outcome of such conflicting processes depends less on the precise laws on the books and more on the extent to which urban governance engages with Tehranis, who increasingly makes claims to the city as citizens and not just denizens or, even, “the electorate.”

State Spatiality and Urban Governance in Iran

Iran’s search for reforming urban governance and planning began in the late 1980s, following the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This coincided with an era when most states in the Global South were adopting development strategies that emphasized administrative decentralization and metropolitan areas as engines for national development.[7] However, these decentralizing efforts can only be understood through examining the concrete historical context in which they were enacted and the restructuring of the state along all geographic and institutional scales.[8] Specifically with respect to Iran, we must examine how municipalities were transformed from appendages of the central state to local authorities that mediate the political processes and broker relations between actors, including ministries, parastatal organizations, rival political factions, real estate interests, and citizens.

Debates over local governance and its relationship with the central government in Iran dates back to the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) when, through top-down initiatives, municipalities were created for the first time.[9] Reflecting the growing reach of the central authority, rather than local grassroots initiatives, the total number of municipalities across the country increased from only 16 in 1924 to 136 in 1940. Centralization of political power under the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) was accompanied by a state-led “scale-making project” situating municipalities as the lowest rung of the government’s bureaucratic hierarchy that concentrated authority at the central and provincial levels. 

The 1979 revolution was in part a reaction to centralized and authoritarian rule as well as a product of rapid urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s. Different segments of the urban population played an active role in opposing the Shah’s regime. The popular mobilization against the monarchy that began in 1977 emerged out of a chain of coordinated events and social organizations in support of revolutionary protest in multiple cities. Urban spaces, streets, and squares not only became the stage to manifest the popular will, but also the focus of energies to reclaim the public sphere and social and political rights of all Iranians, regardless of class, kinship, or gender.

After the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, radical leaders of and participants in the revolution aired demands for local self-governance.[10] According to the new constitution (Articles 100-106), councils were to be formed in all governmental work centers, cities, and villages and would enjoy extensive legislative and supervisory powers. However, in the context of revolutionary turmoil and war with Iraq, the ambition of local self-rule was left unfulfilled.[11]

Post-revolution institution-building also marginalized the existing state bureaucracies and administration, including municipalities, through the creation of many new governmental and quasi-governmental “revolutionary organizations” (see below). These new governing bodies had parallel authority to deal with such sensitive matters as urban poverty, social housing and welfare programs.[12] The social welfare net was dominated by the central government and run via sectoral divisions: the distribution of basic commodities was administered by the Ministry of Commerce, the Literacy Movement was managed by the Ministry of Education, and new health centers were overseen by the Ministry of Health. As such citizens continued to view the municipality as public service providers, which were under the auspices of the central government’s ministries and organizations. Local governments’ tasks were limited to addressing physical needs (e.g. garbage collection) or disciplining citizens who ignored constructions codes or curtailing informal commercial activities.

The Islamic Republic’s Economic Agenda and the Rescaling of the State

The post-Iran-Iraq War era precipitated a realignment of the political forces in the Islamic Republic around an agenda for reconstruction and “development.” This agenda had a strong reformist bent aimed at “rationalizing” the state by bringing various revolutionary bodies under greater state control and in many ways subduing their revolutionary character and functions. As part of the post-war reconstruction effort, the government rescaled the state by prioritizing the growth of Tehran and a few select economic poles (e.g., free trade zones) as the engine of Iran’s non-oil export economy and relied on ambitious renewal projects in the capital, such as investment in the underground subway system, new international airport and the Navab Highway megaproject.  

The budget deficits caused by the eight-year war with Iraq and the dramatic decline of oil revenue after 1985 was followed by the approval of the “Municipal Fiscal Self-Rule Act” that targeted expenditures of all large cities in the name of austerity. This policy cut the national budget allocation for large municipalities in a span of four years (1988-1991). The objective was to save the central government outlays for social welfare, however, it became a challenge for municipalities that had few tools to raise their own revenue.[13]

The person tasked with leading the Tehran municipality through this era of reconstruction and fiscal austerity was a bold former seminarian and civil engineer, who was well-connected to the founding generation of the Islamic Republic, Gholamhossein Karbaschi (1989-1998). Karbaschi sought to refashion Tehran into a “modern” city[14]—one comprised of automobile-centered lives, new parks and cultural centers, and a combination of municipally run chain stores and subcontracts doled out to private firms. The language of social justice and attending to the needs of the downtrodden was marginalized and replaced by objectives for enhancing efficiency, local capacity-building, and development based on neoliberalism.

As a first step to empower the Tehran Municipality, centralized urban planning at the national level was ignored and supervisory power of the municipality was enhanced. Karbaschi restructured various commissions involved in urban affairs to render them responsive only to his office.[15]

He created his own action plan for the renewal of Tehran, which entailed an uneasy cohabitation of 20th century modernist thinking with public investments in mega highways, parks, and cultural centers and a neoliberal belief in the superiority of market mechanisms in regulating urban land uses, densities and service investments. Many of these projects were contracted out to his allies. However, there remained the questions of how the municipality was going to extract the resources necessary for local government and maintaining this relative autonomy from central authorities.

The Political Economy of a Vertical City

Under Karbaschi the construction sector emerged as a critical economic engine for Tehran’s economic growth.[16] In the absence of a tourist industry, which for instance was critical for similar sized regional cities Istanbul and Cairo’s urban renewal in the 1990s and 2000s, and the decline of the industrial sector due to a combination of local and international as well as structural and contingent factors, Tehran has relied increasingly on the construction sector as the principal motor for the urban economy and construction fees as the main source of municipal revenues. [17]  

Parastatal foundations, such as the bonyads and affiliates of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), were the main beneficiaries of this new wave of construction. Construction was also a financial asset for the municipality—one that exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities and fashioned a new coalition for urban growth.[18]Construction fees were based on redefining property ownership rights in highly uneven ways. Construction and redevelopment permits were issued through a system that enabled owners to purchase “extra density” based on categorizing property according to the size of the parcel of land. Larger plots of land were entitled to construction density (floor area) that was three or four times greater than smaller plots.[19] Plots smaller than 100 square meters were deprived of reconstruction permits except in cases where neighboring owners merged their plots to exceed the minimum. This zoning regime, and the opportunities for corruption that it created, embedded the housing market with profound inequalities based on ownership, while generating revenue for the municipality and its staff. These policies generated an almost continuous rise in housing prices, especially within the luxury condo market, and similarly drove up rents across city.[20] In addition, the deregulation of the zoning laws allowed for the intensification and verticalization of construction as well as the conversion of previously banned green spaces and public lands into commercial land uses.

Those individuals who subsequently served as mayors and city councilors of Tehran continued the policy of selling “extra density” for construction permits as the only way to meet the financial needs of the local government. Neither the reformist nor the conservative governments dared revise the policy, given the potential backlash from powerful real estate interests and the dependency of the municipality on these fees. 

While the landscape and skyline of Tehran were being remade, political struggles at the national level did not end. Conservative forces in the Majles, the judiciary, the security apparatus, and the media targeted Karbaschi even before the Reformist, Mohammad Khatami, was elected in a surprise landside victory in 1997. Ayatollah Abolqasem Khaz’ali, a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, began chastising Karbaschi for lax cultural policy and introducing immorality to the city. Ultimately and ironically, it was the board of Imam Sadeq University, an institution dedicated to educating the post-revolutionary bureaucratic class, who invested in the construction of a number of shopping malls in Tehran that took Karbaschi to court and alleged that the municipality was charging irregular fees related to “extra density” for construction activities.[21]  In 1998 more than one hundred municipal employees were charged with misuse of public funds, arrested and jailed for one year. Karbaschi himself, the main target of conservative ire, was charged with embezzlement of public funds and imprisoned.  

Elections for Mayors as a Solution?

Despite five years of market-oriented reforms, Iran suffered from an inflation rate of 50 percent per annum, endemic problems of underemployment, and a continued dependence on oil revenue in the mid-1990s. Protests and riots in the poor neighborhoods of large cities like Tehran and Mashhad broke out when municipalities increased their efforts to demolish illegal and informal developments. Widespread social discontent generated factional conflicts over Rafsanjani’s model of development and the rise of new reformist forces through the 1997 presidential election. Within two years Khatami fulfilled one of his campaign promises and held elections for new city councils. Reformist politicians and democratic voices in Iran imagined that these local councils would have a democratizing influence by creating a space for citizen participation in the decentralization process of the previous decade and make the municipality more responsive and accountable to popularly-elected councilors. However, such promise has not been realized as conservatives have won three out of four city councils elections in Tehran since 1998. The conservative majority in the councils showed more interest in working closely with mayors, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2003-2005), than engaging with neighborhoods, local businesses, professional organizations and civil society activists. This intimacy was a byproduct of the city council electing the mayor with a simple majority from among its 15 members. 

Since 2003 those in the minority serving on the Tehran City Council have been oriented towards the reformist camp and have had little direct power. This is in part because the City Council can only impeach the mayor if it has two-thirds of the vote; therefore, Mahmoud Ahmadinajad (2003-2005) and M.B. Qalibaf (2005-present) have been secure in their office. Additionally, even the smallest criticism by councilors has elicited harsh responses and prosecution by the Tehran municipality. However, the formation of a reformist faction, albeit a minority, in Tehran’s City Council has introduced a degree of transparency into municipal affairs and publicized municipal failures. The councilors’ questions and the disclosure of undocumented or unlicensed spending is a prime example of such initiatives.

It is in this context in which both members of the central government and the Tehran municipality are raising elections for mayors as a solution to the numerous socioeconomic problems facing the city and the municipality’s lack of popular legitimacy. This comes at a time when political dynamics seem to be taking a new turn. With the presidential victory of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, a more reform-oriented technocratic team has come to power. This is reflected in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning and its attempt to reestablish its supervisory powers over urban development.[22]

A space has opened for urban and environmental NGOs, including Bahamestan (Urban Community), Yekshahr (One City), Nafas (Breath) and Jameiyat Daneshjooi Imam Ali (Imam Ali Student Group) and others, to more vigorously debate and question policies related to planning, protections of parks, destruction of historic buildings, and consequences of speculation and violations of land codes. These groups are composed of students and experts in the field of urban studies and engineering as well as more overtly political activists associated with the reformist movement and intellectual currents in Tehran and beyond. These NGOs and activists have all opposed the Integrated Urban Management bill because they fear that the bill will weaken the powers of city councils that previously elected and monitored mayors, and because the bill undermines the responsibilities of government to protection the public lands, social welfare, natural resources, and heritage sites. These civil society groups have actively contributed in publicizing these alleged risks of the proposed reforms.[23]

An exemplary case of this sort of concern is the changes made to land-use in the Ekbatan community in west-central Tehran—a major housing complex designed and built by a French firm in the 1970s, mainly to provide affordable housing to the hard pressed middle classes, which currently houses roughly 70,000 people. Without consulting the residents, the municipality approved a plan to build a mall on undeveloped lands and a public Quranic reading room on a small common green space. In response, however, residents challenged this policy via their representatives in a neighborhood organization established in 1997 under the Reformist city council, arguing that their collective ownership rights to the public green spaces were being violated. With the support of the deputy minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning, the residents organized protests inside the complex and in front of the district municipality. They subsequently wrote a letter outlining the violations that gathered 25,000 signatures which they submitted to the Tehran city council in May 2015.  Their demands garnered different reactions from the municipal deputies and councilors and construction was temporarily stopped. Ultimately, however, the project was continued and completed. Although the residents of Ekbatan did not succeed in overturning the construction project, this was a striking example of a community mobilizing to use legal institutions to challenge the municipality’s management of the city.

The case of Ekbatan is one of the many new initiatives by Tehran residents that make claims against the unilateral policies of municipalities, commodification of urban space, and environmental degradation in Tehran and other large urban areas. On the one hand, factional conflicts among the elites nurture such activism by inciting dissent and creating opportunities for social resistance. On the other, these protests are neither motivated, nor shaped exclusively by factional conflicts among political personalities. In fact, the opposite is more accurate: factional politics is often animated by local struggles over the city. At present, a new form of claim-making might be emerging via a discourse of “the right to the city.” This new wave of civic resistance formulates its demands in a rights-based language and looks to supervise state power, rather than relying on that power to achieve its claims. As such, this new wave is distinct from Reformist politicians, who are concerned with engineering new paths to power via municipal offices. These urban activists argue against the direct election of mayors because they fear that more powerful local executives will make the city less, not more responsive. Thus, the Integrated Urban Management Bill, if it ever makes it to the Majlis, may redefine the office of the mayor of Tehran and even carve out space for it vis-à-vis the central government and the city councils, but it will have to confront a new obstacle in the form of voters who are also citizens.

[1] See for example, remarks by Amir Khojasteh, a conservative parliamentarian, in Hamshari For an opposing view, see the position of Mehdi Chamran, a conservative member of the Tehran City Council, reported in “Supporters and Opponents of Integrated Urban Management in One Look,” Mehr News Agency,

[2] A former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian Police Forces, Qalibaf has been in office since 2005.

[3] Supporters of the reform argue that the 15-year experiment with city councils has failed because council members have lacked experience and have been easily corruptible. See, for example, Esmail Doosti, “Direct Election of the Mayor,” Etemad, 18 Bahman 1393 (February 7, 2015)

[4] See for example, Gholamreza Kazemian, “Integrated Urban Management Relies on Mutual Trust,” Vijeh Nameh Nahad-e Tehran 3 (2008), pp. 44-46; Mozafar Sarafi, “Integrated Urban Management Serves Local Communities,” Vijeh Nameh Nahad-e Tehran, 3 (2008), pp.12-14; Ali Askari and Gholamreza Kazemian, “Management of Metropolis: An Analysis of Tehran Metropolitan Region, Modeiriyat Shahri 18 (2006): 6-21; and Sahar Afshar, “A Panel on Urban Governance with Athari, Kazemian, Barakpoor and Mehdizadeh,” Jostarhaye Shahrsazi 19-20 (2007), pp. 8-17. 

[5] Neil Brenner, New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Roger Keil, “Globalization Makes States: Perspectives of Local Governance in the Age of the World City,” Review of International Political Economy, 5:4 (1998), pp. 616-646; and Andrew Kirby, Power/Resistance: Local Politics and the Chaotic State (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

[6] Azam Khatam, “Tehran Urban Reforms between Two Revolutions, Developmentalism, Worlding Urbanism and Neoliberalism.” PhD dissertation, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, December 2015.

[7] James Manor, The Political Economy of Democratic Decentralization (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1999).

[8] Roger Keil, “Globalization Makes States: Perspectives of Local Governance in the Age of the World City,” Review of International Political Economy, 5:4 (1998), p. 623.

[9] Kaveh Bayat, “The Military Municipality 1921-25,” Ganjineh, 4 (1990), p. 1368.

[10] Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 91.

[11] Hooshang Amirahmadi, Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990); and Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

[12] Arang Keshavarzian, “Contestation without Democracy: Elite Fragmentation in Iran,” in Marsha Pripstein Posusney and Michelle Penner Angrist (eds.), Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Regimes and Resistance (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005), pp. 63-88.

[13] Prior to the revolution the central government contributed 55 percent of the municipalities’ Budgets. By the mid-2000s, despite massive population increases and rural to urban migration, this share dropped to ten percent. See interview with Ali Nozarpour, Etemad Newspaper 10/10 1386 (January 1, 2001).

[14] Gholamhossein Karbaschi, “The Emergence of Third Generation of Chain Stores. An Interview by Mohammad Taheri,” Shahravand Emrooz, 59 (1387/2008), p. 80.

[15] Mohammad Mehdi Moeini, “Do We Have a Successor for Supervisory Council on Development of Tehran?” (aya jaigozini bara-ye shora-yr nezarat bar gostaresh shah tehran darim?), Shahrnegar, 36 (1385/2006), pp. 34-36.

[16] Kamal Athari, “Economic Studies of Tehran Metropolital Plan” (Motaleat eqtesadi tarh majmoeh shahri Tehran), Markaz-e Motaleat va Tahqiqat Memari va Shahrsazi Iran

[17] According to the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning 75 percent of Tehran’s municipal budget (US$6-7 billion in 2014 and 2015) came from “extra density” fees. See Tasnim Azar 1393/December 2014.

[18] Kaveh Ehsani, “Survival through Dispossession: Privatization of Public Goods in the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009), pp. 26-33.

[19] Azam Khatam, “La renovation urbaine en Iran: De L’interventionnise d’Etat au mercantilisme,” in Mina Saiedi-Shahrouz (ed.), Le Teheran des quartiers popularizes, transformation urbaine et societe civile en Republique Islamique (Paris: Karthala, 2013).

[20] Azam Khatam, “Tehran Urban Reforms between Two Revolutions, Developmentalism, Worlding Urbanism and Neoliberalism.” PhD dissertation, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, December 2015, p. 197.

[21] Morteza Alviri, “The First Mayor Elected by Tehran’s City Council, Report to City Council.” Unpublished document. 1381/2002.

[22] Pirooz Hanachi, “Interview,” in Guiti Etemad (ed.), Assessment of Navab Project and its Consequences (Tehran: Azarakhsh Press, 1393/2014).

[23] Kamal Athari, “A Bill to Form Instant State-Cities” (layeh-ei baraye Tashkil dowlat-shahr haye mosta’jal), Yekshahr (June 2015),

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