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Ardabil Becomes a Province: Center-Periphery Relations in Iran

  • H. E. Chehabi (a1)


Amid all the attention that Iranian politics has received since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, local politics has been almost totally neglected. This neglect vitiates our understanding of contemporary Iran, as it is at the local level that state policies are carried out, contested, reshaped, resisted, or revised. Beginning with the centralizing state-building of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1926–41), Tehran increasingly dominated Iran's politics, commercial activities, and cultural life, and most of the country's Westernized elites lived in the capital. The 1979 revolution was to some extent a populist revolt against this Westernized elite, and among the new rulers those whose social and family roots are outside Tehran abound. Among the common people, “the experience of participation in mass political activity … undermined the feeling of political abjection,” while the new rulers have attempted, not always successfully, to lessen the gap not only between rich and poor, but also between rich and poor provinces. The new prominence of provincials in national life has gone hand in hand with a greater recognition of Iran's ethnic and linguistic diversity, while at the same time the sense of common participation in the revolution and the Iran–Iraq War has knitted people of different ethnic backgrounds more closely together.



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Author's note: I thank Abbas Amanat, Vodud Aqamalizadeh, Ali Banuazizi, Touraj Daryaee, Reza Jafari, Nikki R. Keddie, Afshin Matin-asgari, Nader Nezam-Mafi, Augustus Richard Norton, Said Saffari, S. Kazem Sajjadpour, Ali-Asghar Schirazi, A. Reza Sheikholeslami, Majid Tafreshi, and three anonymous reviewers for their help and suggestions. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Kavous S. Emami, but for whose passion for the outdoors I should not have embarked on the trip to Azerbaijan; to the administrators of the Islamic Azad University of Ardabil, who graciously hosted me in their city in the summer of 1993; and to St Antony's College, Oxford, which provided an ideal setting for research and writing.

1 On the importance of local politics, see Migdal, Joel S., “The State in Society: An Approach to Struggles of Domination,” in State Power and Social Force: Domination and Transformation in the Third World, ed. Migdal, Joel S., Kohli, Atul, and Shue, Vivienne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

2 For interesting studies on the capital city, see Téhéran: Capitale bicentenaire, ed. Adle, Chahryar and Hourcade, Bernard (Paris and Tehran: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 1992).

3 See Abrahamian, Ervand, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), chap. 1.

4 Ehsani, Kaveh, “Islam, Modernity, and National Identity,” Middle East Insight 11, 5 (0708 1995): 49.

5 Nowshirvani, Vahid F. and Clawson, Patrick, “The State and Social Equity in Postrevolutionary Iran,” in The Politics of Social Transformation in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, ed. Weiner, Myron and Banuazizi, Ali (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994).

6 Amirahmadi, Hooshang and Atash, Farhad, “Dynamics of Provincial Development and Disparity in Iran, 1956–1984,” Third World Planning Review 9 (1987); Amirahmadi, Hooshang, “The State and Territorial Social Justice in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 13 (1989); and Sharbatoghlie, Ahmad, Urbanization and Regional Disparities in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991), chap. 7.

7 See Ehsani, “Islam, Modernity, and National Identity”; and Hourcade, Bernard, “Ethnie, nation et cit adinité en Iran,” in Le Fait ethnique en Iran et en Afghanistan, ed. Digard, Jean-Pierre (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1988).

8 A recent edition of early Iranian recordings includes a short speech by this shah, in which his accent is noticeable.

9 See Atabaki, Touraj, Azerbaijan: Ethnicity and Autonomy in Iran after the Second World War (London: British Academic Press, 1993), 5361. It should be pointed out, however, that this repression was at no point as severe as it was at times in Turkey: the speaking of languages other than the official one was never outlawed in Iran, and the languages of the Christian minorities (Armenians and Chaldaeo-Assyrians) were even taught in their schools.

10 The notion of a nation as an imagined community is taken from Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

11 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Middle East Journal 34 (Spring 1980): 190.

12 This is reflected, for instance, in official textbooks, which now speak of the “ethnic groups” (aqvām) of Iran. See Nouchine Yavari-d'Hellencourt, “Ethnies et ethnicité dans les manuels scolaires iraniens,” in Le Fait ethnique. The corollary of this recognition is, as might be expected in a religiously defined state, that non-Muslims now face more institutionalized discrimination than before the revolution.

13 For a discussion of the Turkic element in Iran, see Bazin, Louis, “Les turcophones d'Iran: apercus ethno-linguistiques,” and Planhol, Xavier de, “Le fait turc en Iran: quelques jalons,” in Le Fait ethnique.

14 This view has antecedents in the Soviet period. See Nissman, D. B., The Soviet Union and Iranian Azerbaijan: The Use of Nationalism for Political Penetration (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1987). For a discussion of the different national trajectories of Azerbaijanis on both sides of the border, see Wimbush, S. Enders, “Divided Azerbaijan: Nation Building, Assimilation, and Mobilization Between Three States,” in Soviet Asian Ethnic Frontiers, ed. McCagg, William O. Jr., and Silver, Brian D. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979).

15 See Mackenzie, W. J. M., “Peripheries and Nationbuilding: The Case of Scotland,” in Mobilization, Center-Periphery Structures, and Nation-Building: A Volume in Commemoration of Stein Rokkan, ed. Torsvik, Per (Bergen: Universitets-forlaget, 1982), 158–60; and Juan Linz, “Peripheries within the Periphery?” in ibid., which discusses the Basque case.

16 Demorgny, G., Les réformes et I'enseignement administratif en Perse (Tehran: Pharos, 1913), 60–61, as quoted in Bouvat, L., “La réorganisation de l'administration persane,” Revue du Monde Musulman 22 (03 1913): 277–78. In today's Iran, twelve out of twenty-six provinces bear the name of their capital.

17 On this period in Ardabil's history, see Gronke, Monika, Derwische im Vorhof der Macht: Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte Nordwestirans im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1993).

18 On Ardabil under the Safavids, see Morton, A. H., “The Ardabil Shrine in the Reign of Shah Tahmasp I,” Iran 12 (1974); Medley, Margaret, “Islam, Chinese Porcelain and Ardabil,” Iran 13 (1975); and Fragner, Bert, “Ardabil zwischen Sultan und Schah. Zehn Urkunden Schah Tahmasp II,” Turcica 6 (1975).

19 Because of the Islamic Republic's antimonarchical ideology, however, Ardabilis cannot fully put this fact into the service of their local pride.

20 For the history of the city, see Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. “Ardabil,” and Bābā Ṣafari, Ardabil dar guzargāh-i tārīkh (Ardabil: Islamic Azad University Press, 1991). For a glimpse of Ardabil in late Qajar times, see Hahn, Staatsrat v., “Die Stadt Ardebil einst und jetzt,” Asien 10 (10 1910).

21 On the Ottoman nexus, see Pistor-Hatam, Anja, Iran und die Reformbewegung im osmanischen Reich: Persische Staatsmänner, Reisende und Oppositionelle unter dem Einftuβ der Tanzinxat (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 1992), and Les Iraniens d'Istanbul, ed. Zarcone, Thierry and Zarinbaf-Shahr, Fariba (Tehran: Institut Français de Recherches en Iran and Istanbul: Institut Français d'Études Anatoliennes, 1993).

22 Ritual fervor in Ardabil is attested to as early as 1634, when a diplomatic mission led by the Duke of Holstein observed it. See Olearius, Adam, Vermehrte Newe Beschreibung der Muscowitischen und Persischen Reyse, ed. Lohmeier, Dieter (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1971, reprint of 1656 edition), book 4, chap. 23, 454–58.

23 An excellent ethnography of Muharram ceremonies in Ardabil is Anʿāmzādih, Asadullāh, “Taʿziya va taʿziyakhāni dar shahristān-i Ardabīl” (B.A. thesis, Tehran University, Faculty of Social Sciences and Cooperatives, 1976).

24 See Ende, Werner, “The Flagellations of Muharram and the Shiʿite ʿUlamāʾ,” Der Islam 55 (1978).

25 Fischer, Michael M. J., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

26 On the history of administrative divisions in Iran, see Vadīʿī, Kāẓim, “Idāra va taqsīmāt-i kishvarī-IIrān,” Barrisīhā-i tārīkhī 4 (Summer 1969), and “Taqsīmāt-i kishvarī,” Dāyirat al-Maʿārif-i Fārsī (Tehran: Franklin, 1966).

27 Bakhash, Shaul, “Center-Periphery Relations in Nineteenth-Century Iran,” Iranian Studies 14 (Winter–Spring 1981): 31. See also Demorgny, G., Essai sur I'administration de la Perse (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1913), 4375.

28 This nomenclature is almost identical to that used in the Ottoman Empire. See Itzkowitz, Norman, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 4142.

29 Such as the Ardalans of Kurdistan, the Khozeimeh-Alams of the vilayat of Qaʾenat, part of the ayalat of Khorasan, and the Khazʿals of Muhammara. On these three provinces, see, respectively, Nikitine, B., “Les valis d'Ardelan,” Revue du Monde Musulman 49 (1922); Mojtahedzadeh, Piruz, “Saīr-i takāmulī-i marzhā-i khāvarī-i Īrān: Naqsh-i ḥukūmat-i Khuzaima dar Qāʾināt va Sīstān,” Rahāvard 9, 35 (Spring 1373/1994); and Ansari, Mostapha, “The History of Khuzistan: 1878–1925: A Study in Provincial Autonomy and Change” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1974).

30 For details, see Bakhash, “Center-Periphery Relations.”

31 Banani, Amin, The Modernization of Iran (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961), 60.

32 See Rémond, Bruno and Blanc, Jacques, Les Collectivités locales (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale de Sciences Politiques and Dalloz, 1989).

33 Today, the word ayālal denotes the states of federations, and vilāyat is colloquially used to refer to the area of one's origin outside the capital, much as the word province is used in France. Interestingly, in Turkey vilayet survived to our day as the term used for the basic territorial unit.

34 Wickwar, W. Hardy, “Pattern and Problems of Local Administration in the Middle East,” Middle East Journal 12 (Summer 1958): 250–51.

35 Gyselen, Rika, La Géographie administrative de I'Empire Sassanide (Paris: Groupe pour l'Etude de la Civilisation du Moyen Orient, 1989), 38. See also Morony, Michael G., “Continuity and Change in the Administrative Geography of Late Sasanian and Early Islamic al-ʿIrāq,” Iran 20 (1982). As a suffix meaning “place of,” istān has had a worldwide career—to wit, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and even South Africa's now defunct “bantustans.”

36 In addition, the borders were in many cases drawn without any respect for traditional linkages. For example, the desert city of Kashan, south of Tehran, was placed in the Second Province alongside Mazandaran, whereas Arak, also south of the capital, became an exclave of the First Province, essentially Gilan. Both Mazandaran and Gilan are Caspian provinces. The Jacobin logic of this is similar to that of a never-implemented French plan to divide France into départements, each shaped like a square with a side length of 72 kilometers. See Re'mond, and Blanc, , Collectivités, 72.

37 See Atabaki, , Azerbaijan. The text of the agreement is on pp. 185–89.

38 Although this may or may not have been the case, it bears repeating that the division of Azerbaijan predates the autonomist interlude and goes back to a time when autonomism was not an issue.

39 It is important to keep this in mind, given the temptation to interpret the creation of Ardabil Province as nothing but an attempt to divide and rule the Azerbaijanis.

40 For a case study illustrating this trend in the case of Khorasan, see Ḥusaīnpūr, Ghulāmrizā Sāqib, “Taqsīmāt-i kishvarī,” Taḥqīqāt-i jughrāfiyāʾī 3, 1 (Summer 1988). A similar movement can be observed in Turkey, where the number of provinces began to rise in early Ottoman times and continued after the advent of the republic.

41 Astara, on the Caspian sea and Iran's border town with Russia, is only 70 kilometers from Ardabil and has traditionally been its outlet to the sea. With Astara transferred to Gilan, the latter now encompasses all of Iran's northwestern coastal plain. The date for this transfer is given as 1960 in Dāyirat al- Maʿārif-i Fārsī (s.v. “Āstārā”) and as 1963 in the Encyclopaedia lranica (s.v. “Astara”). This disagreement is a typical example of the general confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the administrative status of lesser towns in Iran throughout the Pahlavi period.

42 Tamāshā-i zindigī, nos. 1–2 (Farvardīn-Urdībihisht 1372 [Spring 1993]): 26–27, 84 (hereafter TZ).

43 Ashtiani, Farrokh Zamani, Die Provinz Oslazarbayegan: Studie zu einem raumplanerischen Leitbild aus geographischer Sicht (Bern: Arbeitsgemeinschaft Geographica Bernensia, 1979), 98. This book is in both German and English.

44 For instance, when the rich Moghan Plain was developed for agribusiness in the 1970s, it was connected by a good road to Tabriz but not to Ardabil, to which it is closer.

45 Sharbatoghlie, , Urbanization and Regional Disparities, 124, 134.

46 The information is taken from the statistical yearbooks for the provinces of East Azerbaijan and Ardabil for the years 1993–1994. Although Iranian statistics are not necessarily trustworthy, they can be used for comparative purposes.

47 See Pir-ʿAbdulmalikī, Rizā, “Gilihhā va dilgīrīhā pāyān girift,” TZ, 100.

48 Rūznāmih-i rasmī jalasa-i ʿalanī-i majlis-i shūrā-i islamī, session 69, no. 13963, 14 01 1993, 31.

49 Majmūʿa-i qavānīn-i sāl-i 1362 (Tehran: Shirkat-i sahāmi-i rūznamih-i rasmi-i jumhūrī-i islāmī-I Irān, 1984), 170.

50 That the two cities where the Safavids began and ended should take such a prominent part in the war may or may not be a coincidence.

51 Personal communication from a former volunteer.

52 For a discussion of the uses of the Karbala paradigm in the Iran-Iraq War, see Ram, Haggay, Myth and Mobilization in Revolutionary Iran: The Use of the Friday Congregational Sermon (Washington, D.C.: American University Press, 1994), 206–22.

53 Bahār-i Āzarbāījān (hereafter BA), 23 09 1992, 8.

54 BA, 20 02 1993, 2; TZ, 41–47.

55 This list is given in this order in BA, 22 12 1992, 8.

56 It is a sign of the paucity of services in Ardabil that there is no printing press capable of producing the newspaper in the city. The paper is published in Tehran and sent to Ardabil. Articles are in Persian, but the penultimate page, reserved for poetry, contains Azerbaijani poems as well as Persian poems.

57 In a local history of Ardabil published in 1992, the author mentions that the shah and his consort were also received enthusiastically by the people of Ardabil as late as the summer of 1976; Ṣafārī, Bābā, Ardabīl, 3:146–48.

58 Hāshimī, Hāshimī, turā ba rūḥ-i Imām (or qasam ba rūḥ-i rahbar) Ardabīl ustān shavad.

59 TZ, 46.

60 Kaīhān, 5 10 1991, 2.

61 Quoted in BA, 23 10 1992, 8.

62 The text is reproduced in ibid., 21 April 1992, 8.

63 Ibid., 21 April 1992, 1,2.

64 On these elections, see Menashri, David, “The Domestic Power Struggle and the Fourth Iranian Majles Elections,” Orient 33, 3 (09 1992); and Sarabi, Farzin, “The Post-Khomeini Era in Iran: The Elections of the Fourth Islamic Majles,” Middle East Journal 48, 1 (Winter 1994).

65 It is difficult to say whether even within the limited choice offered citizens in Iranian elections these three were the top vote-getters. In an enigmatic article rife with allusions that are difficult to decipher, Bahār-i Āzarbāijān, 7 09 1992, 13, hinted at rigging.

66 BA, 22 05 1992, 1, 8.

67 BA, 6 06 1992, 2.

68 Private communication.

69 A founding father of the Islamic Republic and for many years head of Iran's judiciary, he had been eliminated from power in the course of the factional struggles that followed Khomeini's death in 1989.

70 A native of Meshginshahr, a city near Ardabil, he is the speaker of the Assembly of Experts that chooses Iran's top political-religious leader.

71 He had been chief of staff of the armed forces and Iran's highest-ranking officer. On General Zahirnezhad, see Les cahiers de I'Orient, 5 (1987): 250.

72 For details, see BA, 7 07 1992, 2; and ibid., 7 September 1992, 8.

73 ibid., 23 August 1992, 1.

74 Ibid., 23 July 1992, 1. This was confirmed by my local informants.

75 In Azerbaijani: Bīzah īrād adinīn, khānasī vīrān ulsūn.

76 BA, 23 07 1992, 1.

77 Ibid., 2.

78 Ibid., 7 August 1992, 8. Ardabil has one state and two private universities. See TZ, 38–41, 68.

79 BA, 23 09 1992, 8.

80 Ibid., 8 October 1992, 8.

81 Apparently Ayatollah Khamenei himself intervened to prevent the division of his home province, Khorasan; see the speech by Ali-Mohammad Gharibani during the debate around the first reading of the bill on provincehood: Rūznāma-i rasmī, 12 01 1993, 28. Another rumor I heard in Tehran was that the reason a second province in Khorasan was not created was that no agreement could be reached as to its capital.

82Ardabīil ustān uldi, rūḥ-i imām shād uldi”; “Khāminaʾi zindabād, Rafsanjānī pāyanda bād”; “Hāshimī Hāshimī, tashakkur tashakkur”; “Ardabīl ustān shuda, Irān gulistān shuda.” The first chant is in Azerbaijani; the others are in Persian.

83 BA, 23 10 1992, 8.

84 For text, see ibid., 7 November 1992, 4.

85 Ibid., 22 November 1992, 2.

86 Ibid., 8 December 1992, 8.

87 Ibid., 22 December 1992, 1. See also TZ, 4850.

88 Rūznāmih-i rasmī, 12 01 1993, 2132.

89 He confused the word miānī with miānīn.

90 Rūznāmih-i rasmī: jalasa-i ʿalanī-i majlis-i shūrā-i islāmī, session 98, no. 14052, 11 04 1993.

91 See Sajjadpour, Seyed Kazem, “Iran, the Caucasus, the Central Asia,” in The New Geopolitics of Central Asia and its Borderlands, ed. Banuazizi, Ali and Weiner, Myron (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

92 At this point, death threats had been received by the Armenians of Tabriz, but the situation was defused when the Armenian religious leadership in Tehran issued a statement in support of the Iranian government and condemned the ongoing Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan.

93 However, on 29 July 1993 the imam jumʿa of Ardabil, Ayatollah Moravvej, was named Khamenei's representative in that city: BA, 7 08 1993, 3.

94 Risālat, 1 08 1994, 5, and ibid., 4 August 1994, 6.

95 The Iranian press did not report on the riots, except for a series of articles titled “From Los Angeles to Qazvin” by Abbas Abdi, editor in chief of Salām, in which he criticized the government for encouraging more coverage of the riots in Los Angeles than on the issue of Qazvin. See Salām, 131608 1994.

96 Ibid., 6 August 1994,2.

97 See Risālat, 12 06 1994, 4; ibid., 13 June 1994, 2.

98 Ibid., 18 June 1994, 2.

99 ibid., 4 August 1994, 6. Qama-zanī is still practiced in Ardabil, but in more private settings. In May 1996, tourists went from Tehran to watch the ritual.

100 On the other hand, one cannot be sure, as in politics we cannot set up experiments. Perhaps the mobilization and organization of Ardabilis might have yielded the desired result even without the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

101 On the day that provincehood for Qazvin was debated in parliament, the deputy for Bukan, a Kurdish city in West Azerbaijan, called on the government to increase Kurdish programming on radio and television, to keep its promise to found an academy for Kurdish language and culture, and, for good measure, to make Bukan and surrounding areas a province. See Risālat, 4 07 1994, 6.

102 When the provincehood of Ardabil was celebrated in Tehran, the deputy for Meshginshahr, a cleric, was the only one to speak in Azerbaijani. He also wrote an Azeri poem for the occasion: BA, 21 01 1993, 7.

103 Bell, David A., “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei: Language, Religion, and the Origins of French Revolutionary Nationalism,” American Historical Review 100 (12 1995).

104 Farma, Amir Farman, “A Comparative Study of Counter-Revolutionary Mass Movements during the French, Mexican, and Russian Revolutions with Contemporary Application” (Unpublished D.Phil, diss., Oxford University, 1990).

105 Turner, Bryan S., “Religion and State-Formation: A Commentary on Recent Debates,” Journal of Historical Sociology 1 (09 1988): 330.

106 For a glimpse of official anti-Persian attitudes in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, see Nissman, David, “The Origin and Development of the Literature of ‘Longing’ in Azerbaijan,” Journal of Turkish Studies 8 (1984).

107 In Great Britain, for instance, the end of World War I brought advances for the trade-union movement as well as for women's suffrage. See Marwick, Arthur, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 1965), chaps. 2, 3.

108 A prime example of this is the veterans' sanatorium constructed in Ardabil on the initiative of a wheelchair-bound veteran who had been injured during the liberation of Khorramshahr, and who personally lobbied city, provincial, and state officials for funds: TZ, 6667.

109 For the case of Iran, see Rouleau, Eric, “La République islamique d'Iran confrontée à la société civile,” Le Monde Diplomatique, 06 1995, 67.

110 See, for instance, Eisenstadt, S. N., “The Jacobin Component of Fundamentalist Movements,” Contention 5 (Spring 1996): 159.

111 See, for instance, Singerman, Diane, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters in Cairo (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).

112 This is discussed in Chehabi, H. E., “The Political Regime of the Islamic Republic in Comparative Perspective,” in The Middle East in a New World Order: The Imperative of a Holistic Approach, ed. Baktiari, Bahman, Harrop, Scott, and Milani, Mohsen (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, forthcoming).


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