Engineering Water: Dams, Modularity, and State Power in Cold War Iran

16 Nov 2020

Engineering Water: Dams, Modularity, and State Power in Cold War Iran

By Shima Houshyar

November 16, 2020,-Modularity,-and-State-Power-in-Cold-War-Iran-41997

[This article is part of a roundtable on the relationship between engineering, technopolitics, and the environment in the Middle East and North Africa. Click here to read the introduction and access links to all entries in the roundtable.]

My research is concerned with the technopolitics of water infrastructures and the constitution and expansion of state power in Cold War Iran. I focus on projects of dam construction, rural development, and agricultural transformation in the province of Khuzestan from the 1950s through the 1970s. Khuzestan is widely known for its rich oil reserves. But it also contains one-third of Iran’s surface water resources, fed by five main rivers in northern Khuzestan. Iranian officials often consider it the “breadbasket” of the nation due to its large agricultural production.

One of Khuzestan’s major infrastructural projects during this time period was the Dez Dam, christened the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Dam at its inauguration ceremony. Built in 1962, it had an ultimate power generation capacity of 520,000 kilowatts and could irrigate at least 125,000 hectares of agricultural land in the Dezful area of northern Khuzestan. Standing at approximately 197 meters tall and spanning a dramatic gorge of limestone conglomerate over the Dez river, the thin arch concrete dam was the largest in the Middle East and sixth largest in the world at the time of its construction. The project also included several high-tension electrical transmission lines from Abadan to Ahvaz to Dezful, and the utilization of natural gas for industrial development such as steel, PVC, and other petrochemical products. In line with the expansion of agricultural development, a large sugarcane complex was established at Haft Tappeh, whose militant labourers’ work actions and strikes have recently been in the news over the last two years. Iran’s Plan Organization (a semi-autonomous government agency) financed the project from oil revenues and loans from the World Bank.

In response to this roundtable’s questions about engineering, I focus on the politics of Dez Dam’s irrigation canals in Khuzestan. I argue that the modularity of engineers’ and experts’ approach to nature and infrastructure in the mid-twentieth century enabled the re-assemblage of material and social relationships toward a more centralized form of state power in Iran. Such modular transformations, however, encountered social and material limits and frictions, as engineers wrestled with various ecological and social contexts. By modularity, I mean the ways in which technoscientific expertise in general, and engineering in particular, assert a constant reiterative re-assemblage of knowledge, physical matter, and social relations through a series of measurement techniques, surveillance devices, standardized models, and technical adjustments.

Engineering involves simplifying complex relations and translating them into a series of predictive formulas and standardized calculations that can be abstracted and implemented in different parts of the world. It derives its appeal and power through this ability to be transposed onto various physical, social, and political contexts. For example, Hannah Appel has shown how the modularity of offshore oil rig infrastructures is aimed at producing (supposedly) “frictionless” profits under capitalism around the world.[1] Attention to the modularity of engineering, whether aimed at more efficiency, profit-generation, or the consolidation of political power, can be extremely generative for drawing connections among infrastructure, the environment, and technopolitics.

A Tennessee Valley Authority for Iran

The modularity of engineers’ imaginaries and practices in Iran is partially the result of the travel of expertise through various state institutions and the (neo)colonial and imperial relations that persisted during a time of mass decolonization and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the third world. For American policymakers and the Shah’s regime, Iran was a strategic space for anti-communist activities and propaganda. Fears of a Cuban or Chinese-style rural revolution, pan-Arabism, and the threat of Iraq’s 1958 Revolution (Khuzestan shares a border with southern Iraq and has a sizable ethnic Arab population) loomed large in the imaginaries of officials and policymakers. Proponents of infrastructural schemes such as the Dez Dam, often presented them as “democratizing” projects that would improve living conditions for peasants and hence lessen the appeal of communist or pan-Arabist ideas. The modularity of engineering and its claims to a global rational and scientific language lent further credence to the notion that engineering was a “neutral” force for good in developing nations. In reality, however, development projects often helped to buttress state power and increase security and surveillance of rural populations.

In 1956, Iran’s Plan Organization gave a contract to the Development and Resources Corporation (DRC) for the regional development of Khuzestan. The DRC was founded by David Lilienthal and Gordon Clapp in 1955. Both had previously served as managing directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a program of vast rural electrification, flood control, and water resource development in the United States during the 1930s. The DRC combined government-led development experience with private business efficiency. In many ways, the DRC was a vehicle for US overseas development and modernization efforts during the Cold War. It planned and operated several projects from Colombia to Iran to Vietnam based on the TVA model. As Clapp wrote in an article for the Middle East Journal in 1957, the integrated regional development scheme based around river basins, perennial irrigation, flood control, and power generation was “A TVA for the Khuzestan Region.” In 1960, the DRC created the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority (KWPA) with vast powers over the rural and nomadic population of the region. The KWPA’s authority often extended beyond irrigation and electrification and encompassed issues of health, literacy, housing, and security.


Engineering is both made and enabled through the porous interstices of colonial relations, private and public capital, international organizations, state agencies, and the natural environment.


In order to carry out the project, the DRC had to negotiate a series of loans from the World Bank. According to the World Bank’s Technical Bureau, however, a dam was not necessary at all. The World Bank did not see the dam as cost-beneficial in a region rich in natural gas that could be used in thermal (fuel-burning) power plants. Irrigation could easily be provided by a series of inexpensive diesel pumps. Due to the World Bank’s initial lack of interest, the DRC shifted its engineering and planning focus toward perennial irrigation and agricultural productivity. The DRC argued that a dam was, in fact, necessary because it would enable flood control and save the Iranian government millions of dollars in damages every few years as a result of river flooding. The dam would also provide a significant flow of controlled water that would increase both the overall hectarage of irrigated agriculture and the crop yield per hectare, thereby increasing farmer incomes.[2] The DRC claimed that while irrigation works on their own were not particularly lucrative, the flood control and power generation potential of the dam justified the project from the view of cost-benefit analysis. As this narrative shows, technical engineering has to contend with the demands of international financial institutions. Engineering is both made and enabled through the porous interstices of colonial relations, private and public capital, international organizations, state agencies, and the natural environment.

The institutional connections of Cold War-era US foreign policy initiatives were instrumental in the production of engineering expertise. These include President Truman’s Point IV program for technical assistance to Third World countries (of which Iran was the first recipient in 1949), Ford Foundation, and the Near East Foundation. Iranian engineers were often educated in US and European universities and began their careers working for earlier Point IV initiatives. For example, Abdol-Reza Ansari, the first managing director of KWPA, had previously worked for Point IV in Iran under William E. Warne, the American Point IV director for Iran and a hydrological engineer. Prior to going to Iran, Warne had worked for the US Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Department of Interior. The DRC hired him in the late 1960s to consult on the siltation problems of the Dez Dam and watershed protection measures in Iran. Other American engineers who found their way to Iran through private enterprises, such as the DRC, had previously worked either for the TVA, non-governmental foundations, or US government-sponsored projects in other countries. For example, William L. Voorduin, another water engineer and head of engineering for DRC in Iran, had previously worked for the TVA and the Damodar Dam Valley project in India in the 1940s.

Due to these institutional connections, many engineers saw the physical and social environment of Khuzestan as akin to that of the US West. For example, a 1957 memo compared the social structures of Khuzestani Arab tribal life to Native American tribes. This memo was written by E. Reeseman “Sy” Fryer, who had been a managing agent for the Navajo Nation under the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. In Fryer’s colonial imagination, Arab Khuzestanis, just like the Navajo, were “resource primitives"[3]—that is, populations that either waste or do not use resources efficiently, and therefore require technopolitical interventions. DRC experts and Iranian officials often drew upon US-based settler-colonial discourses of inefficient or wasteful use of water resources by Indigenous populations to justify the construction of the Dez Dam and modern irrigation canals in Khuzestan.

When discussing the potential problems of river siltation during negotiations with the World Bank’s technical bureau, DRC experts based their calculation of silt carried by Khuzestan’s rivers on California’s rivers. These comparisons, however, proved difficult for DRC experts to sustain when faced with Khuzestan’s natural and social environments. By the late 1960s, the siltation of the dam’s reservoir had already become a cause for alarm for the Iranian government. The experts had to concede the Dez river’s rate of siltation was three times as much as those in the western United States. The problems of river siltation, the topography of the land, the texture and permeability of the soil, and the presence of certain diseases among the population (schistosomiasis and malaria, among others), all affected how engineers approached and conceptualized these development projects. 

Frictions of Power

Engineering is always met with social, material, political, and environmental frictions and has to be re-adapted and re-made. This re-making is itself a feature of the modularity of engineering. The social and material “frictions"[4] that engineers encounter in specific localities affect the transformation of those places and engender political consequences. Attending to these material limits and frictions is informative for a decolonial view of engineering. That is, it is important to understand not just the perspective of planners, engineers, bureaucratic, and state officials but also the views of what is generally considered a “subaltern” category: peasant farmers and nomads, in addition to non-human and inorganic forces. Decolonizing engineering reveals that “objects” of engineering and development are also engaged in various manners of engineering.

Dam-building and irrigation techniques are not just the domain of those educated and trained as engineers. When the DRC planned modern irrigation canals as part of the Dez Dam project, for example, they had to contend with extant systems of water distribution and land property relationships in Iran. Agriculture was based on a landlord-peasant (malik-ra’yati) relationship prior to the institution of Land Reform in 1962. Peasant farmers were paid in a share of the crop, while landowners were responsible for the provision of water through ancient irrigation canals or underground water channels (qanats). Every year, landowners would hire additional labour from the villages to clean and maintain these canals, which was an expensive endeavor. In order to control and divert the flow of water, farmers in Khuzestan would build brush-and-stone dams or weirs by placing several layers of cone-shaped “baskets” filled with stone in layers across canals.

A decolonial view of engineering allows us to place the work of the DRC and other experts in perspective, as one (albeit hegemonic) mode of organizing the relationship between humans and their environment. Although Khuzestan’s “native” irrigation canals formed the map upon which the DRC could construct its modern, concrete-lined canals, DRC engineers dismissed them as thoroughly inadequate, inefficient, dirty, and unstable. Farmers sometimes used mud from the sides of old irrigation canals to reinforce their houses, which were made of mud and straw (kahgil). Sometimes water from the irrigation canals would overflow onto roads, making travel or access more difficult. The engineers saw this as an illogical and wasteful use of resources and further blamed the use of mud to repair houses as a cause of the spread of diseases like schistosomiasis.[5]

The Dez Dam and its modern irrigation canals consolidated power in a regional governmental authority that would control the flow of water, supposedly managing it in an efficient and productive manner. The farmers, however, came to experience the flow of water as more restricted. In some cases, the modern irrigation canals completely cut across older canals and thereby disrupted smaller villages’ access to water. The general topography of many farmers’ lands was not automatically conducive to allow for proper drainage and use of water after the availability of controlled flow through new irrigation canals. The frictions between the modular imaginaries of the engineers and the materiality of the environment meant that many agricultural fields were not as “productive” or “efficient” as the engineers had imagined them to be. While overall agricultural productivity did increase, yields per hectare were much lower than anticipated and proved to be disappointing. Ultimately, the project had both intended and unanticipated consequences. Many smaller villagers disappeared, as farmers moved to larger villages and urban centers or were resettled into newly-built, organized settlements (shahraks).

The Dez Dam and its irrigation networks are technopolitical artifacts. They shift control and power from certain actors and invest them in others. By shoring up the power of the Iranian state, the Dez Dam project created and mediated new sites of power and authority. Political and economic institutions allow for the mobility of expertise across borders, while engineering’s modular approach to the natural world, and technology enables its reproduction and transposition across different contexts. The recalcitrance of material objects and environments and the complexity of rural social relations in Khuzestan, however, constantly pushed against formal engineering and its standardized models, methods, and measurements. Studying technical engineering, modular planning, and the formation of expertise can thus illuminate the multi-scalar politics of environment, infrastructure, and political power.


[1] Hannah Appel, “Offshore Work: Oil, Modularity, and the How of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea,” American Ethnologist 39, no. 4 (2012): 692-709.

[2] Series 3: Khuzestan Development Program (Iran), Development and Resources Corporation Records, MC014, Public Policy Papers, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[3] Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[4] Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[5] Series 3: Khuzestan Development Program (Iran); Development and Resources Corporation Records, MC014, Public Policy Papers, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.