Perched on the foothills of the Alborz Mountains and home to 9.5 million residents, Tehran is the bustling capital of Iran, carrying the mantle of the largest city in Western Asia and the second most populous city in the Middle East. Its cultural and historical attractions draw thousands of visitors every year, and because of its comparatively rapid development and strong local economy, it remains the primary destination for internal migration in Iran.
The diversity of opportunities Tehran offers—and its higher levels of welfare, relative to many of Iran’s poorer provinces—have catapulted it to the position of a coveted metropolis for those who wish to earn competitive wages and stay afloat in Iran’s hyperinflationary economy. The nation’s asymmetric economic growth means that the bulk of its financial, infrastructural, educational, and health resources are concentrated in Tehran, while many of smaller cities and peripheral provinces continue to be underprivileged.
However, even as Tehran remains a sprawling industrial hub in a country hobbled by stagnation and a disastrous economic war with the rest of the world, the kaleidoscope of challenges that have long beset the capital appear to be irreversible. The root cause of the city’s mounting problems is a flawed administration that does not regard improving the city’s welfare as its primary purpose. When compared to Iran’s other municipal regions, Tehran stands out as a glimmering success story; when compared to foreign capitals and other megacities in the region, it stands out as a letdown.
The Unsustainable Capital
Within Iran—already ranked by the Swiss-based IQAir as the world’s 21st most polluted country—Tehran has the worst air quality, with airborne particulate matter exceeding the World Health Organization’s recommended safe levels by a factor of 10. Tehran’s entrenched pollution dilemma, precipitated by the omnipresence of substandard cars and environmentally irresponsible factories, has been neglected for years by the city’s government, leading to cascading environmental and health issues. The 2022 Global Liveability Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked Tehran 163rd out of 172 major cities worldwide on measures of stability, healthcare provision, culture, environment, educational facilities, and infrastructure. Only nine cities in the world performed worse than Tehran, including the capitals of several nations currently embroiled in civil war.
Perhaps Tehran’s most striking feature is its stark inequality. Although the main commercial districts and downtown neighborhoods of the capital brim with a wealth of spacious malls, upscale apartments, expensive restaurants, and modern skyscrapers, the suburbs are riddled with extreme poverty, and the cost of living is becoming so unaffordable that even the middle class is acutely disenfranchised by international standards.
Researchers from the University of Tehran found in 2020 that there were slums in all of Tehran’s 22 districts. Many of these areas are extremely poorly developed, and labor laws are egregiously violated; child labor is endemic, and wages run as low as 20 million rials ($37) per month. According to official figures, nearly 4 million people live in informal settlements and impoverished areas in the province of Tehran, the lion’s share of whom live in Tehran itself. Sanitary conditions in these areas are deplorable, and access to water and heating for their residents is intermittent.
Despite the Islamic Republic’s ongoing war on drugs—characterized by the execution of dozens of drug offenders and smugglers every year—rampant addiction has long blemished the face of Iran’s largest city. Tehran’s police chief said in 2021 that there were 400,000 addicts in the capital, of whom 20,000 were homeless or itinerant. Last year, the municipality announced the number of homeless addicts had reached 25,000, another problem to which the city’s administration has had no effective response.
It should come as a little surprise that crime is endemic in these areas. With law enforcement and other government authorities continuing to fixate on policing women’s clothing in public—and subduing the unending cycles of public unrest—few resources are left to contend with the actual crimes that are making communities unsafe. Tehran is ranked the 13th most dangerous city in Asia, and its denizens have long suffered from frequent petty crimes—especially carjacking and pickpocketing, which are rarely punished due to a lack of enforcement.
Finally, a confluence of poorly-regulated architectural prototypes, inadequate parks and green spaces, and sparse investment in urban monuments and aesthetics has turned the city into a sprawling concrete jungle. To the people of Tehran, the sights have become unattractive, and greenery is practically nonexistent, particularly when compared to the scenery in Iran’s lush northern provinces in the Caspian Sea region. Even as cities elsewhere in the Middle East are increasingly embracing AI-powered architecture, smart transportation, eco-sustainability, and green solutions, Tehran has remained anchored firmly where it is.
The current mayor of Tehran, Alireza Zakani, has overseen the city’s troubles in one form or another for more than two decades. Known as a firebrand politician loyal to the country’s dominant hardliner camp, he was a four-time member of parliament from the Tehran constituency between 2004 and 2021. After two failed bids for Iran’s presidency, he was cleared by the country’s Guardian Council in 2021, but withdrew in favor of fellow hardliner Ebrahim Raisi; his selection as mayor was widely interpreted as a quid pro quo for his timely allegiance.
While Zakani’s ultra-reactionary bona fides were well-established at the time of his appointment, his qualifications for the position were murkier. A former chief of the student branch of the Basij militia, he studied nuclear medicine and taught at the University of Tehran prior to entering politics. As part of a ministerial bylaw on the criteria of selecting civil authorities, mayors are required to have an education relevant to urban administration, including civil engineering, geography, law, or political science—a rule that was supposed to apply to Zakani given his academic background. After Zakani was proposed as the prospective mayor in 2021, a national debate ensued over his qualifications, but the hardline-dominated Tehran City Council persuaded the Interior Ministry to greenlight his appointment in what many observers believe was a violation of the law. For their part, Zakani’s supporters criticized the law, characterizing it as unfair and discriminatory and highlighting his qualifications as a longtime member of parliament.
The merits of that rule can be debated. What is clear, though, is that under Zakani’s leadership, Tehran has become steadily more divided—and restive as a result. Instead of investing in infrastructure projects and improving the residents’ quality of life, Zakani’s municipality has poured money into politically-charged propaganda. His team has put up billboards and advertisements across the capital promoting the compulsory hijab—less than a year after Mahsa Amini’s killing at the hands of Iran’s morality police for wearing one loosely. Predictably, the popular reaction to this campaign has been overwhelmingly negative. If Iran were a democracy, perhaps Zakani might care.
During the height of the nationwide protests that started last September after Amini’s killing, billboards sprung up next to the premises of the British embassy and elsewhere in the town, denigrating the “deceptiveness” of the British government and alleging that London had funded and organized the anti-government demonstrations. Zakani’s most recent posters feature caricatures mocking the protesters who claim they have been shot in the eye by the security forces during the protests, accusing them of lying. A second recent initiative by the city government has been the construction of barriers inside train cars separating men and women, which the mayor claimed had been implemented after many women had contacted his office requesting them. True to form, this change was accompanied by the induction of civilian guards at the entrance to metro stations, preventing women without headscarves from entering.
The conundrums of Tehran—and of Zakani’s leadership—are in many ways a microcosm for the problems of Iran. Within the capital, the city administration has ignored development and innovation in favor of ideological purity. And by extension, to confront simmering public discontent, the clerical establishment has flexed its muscles at its own citizenry to dictate the state’s values, often in ways that backfire and further complicate the existing fault lines. One theme remains consistent: rather than responding to the varied needs of the community, the leadership has built an agenda of ideological grandstanding and sloganeering at the expense of public safety and well-being.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.