Cities in Custody: Urban Development as Spatial Proxy of Ideological Coloniality

By Nassim Mehran and Niloufar Vadiati

This is a repost with kind permission of the authors and BERLINER GAZETTE, in which the article was originally published on April 17, 2024.

The article is a contribution to the “Kin City” series of the Berliner Gazette. More information: https://berlinergazette.de/kin-city-urban-ecologies-and-internationalism-call-for-papers


Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Understanding the role of the urban development paradigm – and its particular ecological dimension – after the inception of the Islamic Republic (IR) is an important part of unpacking the enduring system of oppression in Iran. The IR has established a model of coloniality based on an interpretation of the Shiite political system. This framework relies on multiple modes of domination and exploitation that combines economic capitalism, resource extractivism, multilateral social repression, and militarization to operate within urban territories. In the following discussion, we will explore how different modes of urban development have been at the forefront of spatializing this colonial logic of IR. 

In the course of the 1979 revolution in Iran, when neither the workers nor the capitalist class had been able to establish and maintain their political “order” and institute a coherent socio-economic narrative (Vahabi, 2022), the Islamist forces seized control. By integrating themselves into the existing colonial regime and using populist tactics, they orchestrated significant social upheavals that led to the emergence of a state based on Shiite Islamic principles that claimed to be the counterforce to Western imperialism. 

The evolution of revolutionary change and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) facilitated the gradual consolidation of fractious ruling elites around a cohesive vision for a political-economic framework. The political system positions the figure of the Supreme Leader at the center of power and authority, overshadowing the power of the elected government. This structure has been economically enabled by the materialization of the notion of Anfal ideology, a mandate of accumulation, confiscation, and extraction. 

Appropriating all public commons 

In Islamic economics, Anfal means the Imam’s exclusive possession of all public commons. In the political framework of the Islamic Republic, this concept translates into the Supreme Leader’s ownership and sovereignty over public assets. Anfal grants the Supreme Leader control over a wide range of tangible and intangible resources, including natural, infrastructural, social, and political domains that are categorized as either “public property” or those that “have no specific owner” as defined by the state (Vahabi, 2023). This includes all public goods that provide direct and indirect financial benefits. Directly beneficial assets include a wide range of resources such as mountains, forests, grazing lands, wastelands, oceans, lakes, mines, oil and gas reserves, wildlife, and intangible cultural heritage, among others. Indirectly beneficial assets include development projects such as plazas, bridges, roads, streets, shopping and recreational complexes, and others.

Anfal exhibits patterns of control, exploitation, and domination identical to colonial systems that affect various aspects of life. Thus, the paradigms of “urban development” in Iran spatialize the IR coloniality. 

Development strategies of an ideology

The Anfal economic model has been embedded within development strategies through a complex interplay of various social, administrative, and spatial mechanisms, including (1) standardizing the procedure and implementation of Anfal laws and policies by forming a network of affiliated institutions and administrative protocols parallel to the elected government, including entities such as Bonyad Mostazafan, Setade-Framan-e Emam, Astan Qods Razavi, and others; (2) regulating the liberalization and privatization of public commons and resource extraction, while ensuring that they remain under the control of the Supreme Leader Office (SLO) and its network of allied institutions (primarily the military organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps); (3) imposing a deeply discriminatory social and spatial order and hierarchies based on gender, race, ethnicity, and class that continue to control societies.

The political agenda of privatization, coupled with the implementation of Islamist state ideology, has fostered the emergence of competition among various parastatal organizations, ranging from clerical authorities to military entities, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This has led to the emergence of a fat capitalist class without liberal capitalist methods of production (Harris, 2013). 

Amidst episodic Western sanctions targeting Iran’s financial services, energy sectors, and technologies, as well as recurrent widespread public uprisings against autocracy, theocracy, and the colonial nature of the regime, the “elected government” became increasingly reliant on the IRGC’s military apparatus to counter sanctions and securitize domestic national dynamics. Over time, as the elected civilian government’s legitimacy has been increasingly undermined and it has become internationally isolated, the IRGC’s influence has grown. Ultimately, this has transformed the IRGC from a previously economically and politically dependent entity into a fully autonomous organization with its own economic, political, and operational divisions. Gradually, a significant portion of key strategic economic activities (at least 60 percent of the economy), including the extraction of natural resources such as oil, mines, gas, and land, and development projects, have shifted to the authority of the IRGC and its parastatal organizations linked to the SLO.

While ongoing discussions debate whether Iran’s economy reflects neoliberal tendencies or is entrenched in a praetorian economic mode, both the IRGC and the SLO, along with their affiliated network of companies and financial institutions, are increasingly gaining significant multi sectoral economic and political dominance. This has led to an increasing militarization of Anfal-based development, securing the operational path for multiscale extractivism over nature, infrastructure, and human bodies.

The spatial practice of Anfal

Urban development in Iranian cities has been the spatialization of the colonial modalities of Anfal. In this article, we present two major urban development paradigms (among others) that the IR has employed in cities across Iran to extract resources, control bodies, and present its ideological glory.

Urban Infrastructure of extraction and exploitation

The urban infrastructure of extraction paradigm involves the development of urban outposts around major industries and oil, gas, and uranium extraction sites. The most tangible examples of resource and environmental extractivism have taken place in the provinces of Khuzestan and Bushehr, where there are substantial reserves of oil, gas, and uranium. The IR state’s dependence on revenues from the export of these raw materials made these regions strategically important both domestically and on the global stage, earning them the nickname “the state’s wallet.” Urban centers newly built or developed around these resources, such as Ahvaz for oil, Abadan for refineries, Mahshahr for petrochemical industries, and Asalouyeh for gas, play a vital role in the accumulation, extraction, and exploitation of natural resources and human labor.

Following the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC’s military organization established its engineering arm, the “Khatam Al-Anbia Construction Headquarters,” to spearhead the country’s “reconstruction” era. Over time, the IRGC’s dominance of the political and economic landscape led the Khatam Headquarters to become the primary contractor in strategic regions, monopolizing various urban and industrial development projects. These initiatives included the construction of numerous dams along the Karoon River, the main river in the area, as well as the development of intercity roads and highways, industrial and urban areas around extraction sites, and the establishment of (Tax) Free Economic Zones.

In this context, cities, regardless of their historical trajectories, have been transformed into infrastructures primarily designed to facilitate resource extraction and exploitation. The colonial hegemony of the IRGC over these areas has been achieved through two distinct mechanisms: (1) exercising power and control over urban society and the infrastructures of extraction, and (2) exercising authority in the sale of extracted raw materials, directing the revenues to strengthen the military base instead of proceeding as a public commodity and government budgetary support.

The adoption of this radical approach to resource extraction has triggered an acute climate crisis, culminating in the region being one of the most exemplary cases of extreme levels of heat and pollution on a global scale. At the same time, and in contrast, the development of extractivist urban infrastructure is unable to adequately meet the basic quality of life needs of the population. In addition, the IRGC, with the highest degree of securitization has suppressed all forms of social and spatial civil society and advocacy. This has perpetuated striking inequalities, resulting in a society in the region that is markedly discriminatory, marginalized, and impoverished. Such conditions are characterized by pronounced socio-economic disparities and systemic neglect of basic human needs in urban contexts, including health services, education, leisure, etc.

Urban representation of ideology

In contrast to the urban infrastructure of extraction paradigm, the urban representation of ideology seeks to portray Iran as the epicenter of political and religious power within the Islamic world, commonly referred to as Umm al-Qura (literally, Mother of Cities). Cities such as Mashhad and Qom, revered as bastions of religious importance, stand as focal points of spiritual devotion within Iran. Urban centers such as Tehran and Isfahan serve as hubs of political and administrative power, symbolizing the governance and influence wielded by the nation. Together, these cities represent the IR’s complex interplay between religiosity and political authority within Iran’s urban landscape, both nationally and internationally.

Here we consider the case of Mashahd as one of Iran’s major religious cities, where its urban development paradigm serves as a manifestation of the IR’s aspirations for earthly success and spiritual transcendence, epitomized by growth and grandeur. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the IR’s efforts to increase its geopolitical and ideological importance, Mashhad underwent a significant transformation (the current local population is approximately 3.4 million). It has been reconceptualized as a bastion of conservatism and religious orthodoxy, solidifying its position as a key urban stronghold. Central to its identity is the shrine of the 8th Imam of Twelver Shia Islam, a site of profound religious significance that further underscores Mashhad’s role as a spiritual epicenter within Iran and the broader Islamic world. At the same time, Mashhad’s urban economy became heavily dependent on the pilgrimage industry (hosting some 20 million pilgrims per year).

In this context, Anfal’s colonial practices were revealed through the centralization of the shrine as both a spiritual and economic spectacle within the city. This process of centralization involves not only the physical concentration of resources and attention around the shrine, but also the establishment of developmental values and ownership structures that revolve primarily around the shrine. Thus, the shrine becomes not only a religious focal point, but also a locus of economic activity and a symbol of power and control, perpetuating a system in which influence and resources are disproportionately allocated to those associated with it.

This has resulted in massive forced displacement of the local population, including residents and property owners. In this context, the administrative organization of the Imam Reza Shrine, Astan-e Quds Razavi (AQR), which can be identified as an endowment-based parastatal organization affiliated with the SLO in Mashhad, has owned Over 43 percent of the city’s land. This control extends beyond mere ownership to include significant authority and influence over various aspects of urban development, planning, and governance within this vast area. The AQR and its engineering arm, the IRGC, hold full legitimacy for development on holy land, not the city council. As a result, the AQR wields considerable power in shaping the socio-economic landscape of Mashhad, exerting its influence on everything from land use, housing and infrastructure projects to cultural and religious activities.

This unbridled development has created a wealthy capitalist and conservative class in Mashhad that can only sustain itself by maintaining an exclusive mechanism of legitimacy to assert sovereignty over Anfal (including all natural resources, urban pilgrimage infrastructure, and social and demographic structures).

The Bottom Line

The Islamic Republic’s urban development has become a proxy for shaping not only the economic structure, but also the coloniality of the ideological-political framework, with inter- and intra-scale systems of violence, exploitation, and inequalities perpetuated along ethnic, gender, and class lines in everyday life. It is worth noting that this paradigm of coloniality is not limited to cities within Iran’s borders, but also extends to urban areas in neighboring regions such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and possibly beyond. This extension of impact and influence beyond national borders indicates a regional dynamic in the replication of colonial-era urban development strategies.


About the Authors

Dr. phil. Nassim Mehran, an urban sociologist, is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Charité Universitätsmedizin in Berlin. Her research focuses on the urban infrastructure and spatial dimensions of care, health, migration, and structural inequalities in cities, with careful attention to ‘the context,’ ‘the local,’ and ‘the social.’ In addition, she explores the complexities of transdisciplinarity and participatory research and advocates for alternative practices, especially during times of crisis.

Niloufar Vadiati is a Research Fellow in Urban Studies at the Digital City Science Lab, HafenCity University Hamburg. Her research interests revolve around the phenomenon of “digitalization”, spatial and technological sovereignty, and prefigurative urbanism. She studied urban planning (BSc) at the University of Tehran and Spatial Planning (MSc) at the University College London (UCL). She worked on her PhD in the department of Economic Geography at HafenCity University Hamburg (HCU) from 2013-2018. Her recent post-doc research, “Grassroots Digital Urbanism: Reshaping Urban Space and Governance in Berlin”, has been funded by the German Research Association, DFG Walter Benjamin.


Citation: Nassim Mehran; Niloufar Vadiati, Cities in Custody: Urban Development as Spatial Proxy of Ideological Coloniality, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.05.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/11ncs




Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 7. Mai). Cities in Custody: Urban Development as Spatial Proxy of Ideological Coloniality. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11ncs

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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