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Iranrud: How Iran’s mega-dream helps hoodwink the masses

May 12, 2016
Firouz Farzani
4 min read
Iranrud: How Iran’s mega-dream helps hoodwink the masses
Iranrud: How Iran’s mega-dream helps hoodwink the masses



Iranrud: How Iran’s mega-dream helps hoodwink the masses


Iranrud may be the biggest development project you’ve never heard of.

It’s also an irresistible opportunity for Iran’s government — to waste money, ruin the environment and reinforce a despotic regime.

Literally, Iranrud means “Iran's river”. It’s a 2000-year-old idea to build a canal clear across the country, linking the Caspian Sea to the southern waters of the Gulf.

It was first proposed in the Achaemenid dynasty founded by Cyrus the Great in around 500 BC, but was too ambitious for the time.

Then, in the 20th Century, the Soviet Union got behind Iranrud for political reasons. Such a canal would have given Soviet ships access to the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic without having to pass through waterways (Suez, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles) controlled by NATO or US allies.

More recently, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the idea again and even initiated some preliminary digging near Semnan, on the edge of Iran’s central desert. Now President Rouhani has become Iranrud’s latest champion, and officials say that Russia may supply technical and financial help.

A quick Google search will show how controversial Iranrud is. Its environmental impact will be profound, it poses huge legal problems, and will cost a fortune. The preliminary estimate of $7 billion dollars mooted by Iranian officials is undoubtedly a wild underestimate.

So why do politicians love the idea?

For an answer, I turn to fiction and the short story “The Chinese Wall” by Franz Kafka.

In the story, an elderly man reflects on how the Great Wall of China was built in small sections as a way of keeping the masons motivated. Slowly his musings reveal that the whole vast project, which spans generations and employs legions of workers, is a scheme conceived by the leadership to indoctrinate the population and shore up the power structure. The bigger the project, the better it works as a tool of subjugation.

In Kafka’s story, the narrator describes how the Wall, with all those gaps in it, was useless as a defensive barrier. But so many people depended on its construction for work or social status that few questioned its purpose or efficiency. Anyone who did “had to conclude that the leadership wanted something impractical.”

But that was a dangerous line of thought. Better not to go there, says the narrator.

“...there must be a secret principle: Try ... to understand the orders of the leadership, but only up to a certain limit — then stop thinking about them.”

There’s an obvious parallel with Iranrud. Its supporters, which obviously include many politicians, claim it will generate jobs for generations of Iranians, and fabulous profits for the benefit of all. Once it’s underway no one will ask why it’s necessary and who will benefit.

I would argue the Iranian people have been hoodwinked already by an expensive mega-project that was foisted on us for political reasons, the nuclear industry, and the infrastructure for enriching uranium.  Like the Wall in Kafka’s story, it was sold to us on the grounds that it would guard our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In Kafka’s story, the Chinese leaders tell the people a wall is necessary to guard against an invasion from the “northern lands”. 

The narrator, in his old age, has realized that it’s just not true.

In an especially beautiful passage, he reflects, " .... we know nothing else about these northern lands. We have never seen them, and if we remain in our village, we never will see them. Even if the [inhabitants] charge straight at us and hunt us on their wild horses, the land is so huge it would not permit them to reach us, and they would lose themselves in empty air.”

Huge projects are like religious temples.  The more magnificent, the more people will heap praise upon those responsible for construction. That’s why, for the despots running Iran, small is not beautiful.

Now that Iranrud is once again being touted as a brilliant idea, its cheerleaders (mostly regime ideologues) are using history to give it legitimacy. 

"The idea of connecting the northern and southern shores of Iran for the first time appeared during the Qajar period, and also during the reign of Nasrudin Shah,” they’ll say.  “Then, during the 1970s an initial design was produced by local hydrological engineers. In 1979, further studies were temporarily suspended due to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, but the project was later revived...etc etc.” 

So what? 

But sadly, it doesn’t occur to most people to raise an eyebrow and ask why an old idea is necessarily a good one.

Unless Iranians get together – citizens, environmentalists, engineers, activists – to expose the pitfalls of Iranrud I’m afraid we’ll all find ourselves digging a giant hole it will be hard to get out of.



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