In the late 1960s when the concept of "development" and "economic take-off" was all the rage in academic and media circles, many experts insisted that the so-called "developing nations" needed to showcase at least part of their territory as a model for progress and an inspiration for modernization.
Being one of those so-called "developing nations" Iran, under the Shah, chose its southwestern province Khuzestan as that showcase.
The choice wasn't difficult. For, Khuzestan was a resource-rich province and already dotted with some of the modern infrastructures that other provinces had to wait a decade or more to acquire. Thanks to the oil industry, Khuzestan was the first province to have a modern electricity generating system and piped water in most of its cities, at least 20 years before the capital Tehran did. The province was also the hub of Iran's sole railway network, the famous Trans-Iranian which connected it to the Caspian Sea via Tehran.
Because the oil industry offered a large number of comparatively well-paid jobs, the province attracted migrants from all over Iran; in fact, apart from Tehran, it was the only part of Iran that served as magnet for young rural Iranians looking for a better life in urban centers.
Thanks to its abundant water resources and fertile plains, Khuzestan was also something of a breadbasket for the rest of the country.
The province was the home of Iran's only navigable river, the mighty Karun, but also embraced other rivers: Karkeh, Jarrahi, Dez, Shush, Ramhormoz, Godar-Lander, Bahmanshir and Khersan among others. No other part of Iran had so many rivers and so much water.
At the time, the world's largest oil refinery, that of Abadan, was located in Khuzestan, which for decades remained the biggest single regional producer of oil in the world.
Before Iran's Islamic Revolution, the world's largest oil refinery, that of Abadan (pictured), was located in Khuzestan, which for decades remained the biggest single regional producer of oil in the world. (Image source: National Iranian Oil Company/Wikimedia Commons)
The province also boosted one of the biggest ports of the greater Indian ocean region, at Khorramshahr, an ancient city that had once been the capital of the Khorramites, or Red-Shirt nationalist rebels led by Babak Khorrami. (Because of the red-Shirts, the port city was later known as Muhammarah in Islamic era.)
Khuzestan also had a special status as far as history and culture were concerned. The most important archaeological digs in Western Asia were located there with relics of Chogha-Zanbil, a reminder of the glory that the Elamite Empire been in its time, and of Shusha, the first capital of the Achaemenid Empire, the bas-relief of the Sassanid king Shahpour in Dezful and the remains of 2000-year-old churches in Izeh.
In the 1960s a campaign using the slogan "Go South, Young Man!" encouraged young Iranians to seek their future in Khuzestan, which faced an acute shortage of labor. Their mass arrival transformed the province's traditional agriculture and by the mid-1970s Khuzestan boasted some of the most modern farms in the Middle East.
By the late 1960s Khuzestan was also chosen as the nation's future hub for water and energy. David E Lilienthal, the man who had led the largest public sector enterprise in the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority, was hired to prepare a report. As a cub reporter for the English-language daily Kayhan International, I was assigned to cover his trip and report on his recommendations. In part of the trip we also had as companion of travel The Washington Post's Alfred Friendly, who worked on a series about the developing world's most promising regions from Punjab in India to Porto-Allegre in Brazil and passing by our own Khuzestan.
The idea was to transform Khuzestan into the center of a grand nuclear energy industry that the Shah had launched initially on a modest scale.
Thanks to abundant energy and water resources, Khuzestan quickly attracted other industries besides oil, including iron and steel, petrochemicals, and food processing. The province was also Iran's number-one destination for stay-at-home tourists, especially in winter.
The trip was a delight for me, as Khuzestan was my home province and its capital Ahvaz my place of birth. It was a joy to travel in a province full of optimism and geared to a better future thanks to a population that was younger than the average in Iran and certainly as diverse as imaginable then. Even in smaller towns one could run into people who had come from all over Iran, recognizable thanks to their accents, providing a sharp contrast with other parts of the country where parochialism was the norm.
If I say that for me, in those days, Khuzestan was something of a paradise on earth, you might regard me as a case of affliction by intense nostalgia. You may be right. But that's how many Iranians at the time felt about a province that they regarded as the jewel in the crown of their nationhood.
At the time no one could imagine that the dreams we all had for our beloved Khuzestan would become a nightmare. But it has, thanks to four decades of misrule, incompetence, corruption and sheer brutality by the Khomeinist regime.
Because of lack of investment and a breakdown in maintenance services, many of Khuzestan's oilfields are either producing below capacity or have been phased out of production altogether. Some fields, once among the biggest in the world, are now scripted into total production as minor players. Today, Khuzestan produces less than 20 per cent of the oil it did in 1977. Most of the province's rivers, including the might Karun, are already dead or in the process of dying, as victims of ill-thought hydroelectric projects and rampant pollution.
Khorramshahr is now a ghost town with just 60 per cent of the population it had 40 years ago.
Khuzestan has become a net importer of food and a massive exporter of population to other parts of Iran. By some estimates, the province also has the lowest birthrate and in the country.
Last week, the government declared the province to be in "total crisis" with large numbers of people facing death caused by pollution, lack of water and power, and epidemics caused by lack of public hygiene structures.
Unable to cope with the "emergency situation," the committee charged with managing "the crisis declared the province closed for three days a week as temperatures rose to 50 Celsius.
"Khuzestan is shut down," said Kiyamarth Haji-Zadeh, the man in charge of "the crisis" in Ahvaz. "To ration electricity, reduce water consumption, to avoid unfortunate incidents, all economic units, offices, schools, banks and other institutions except fire brigades, police and emergency wards of hospitals will be closed on Wednesdays."
This means a four-day working week for those Khuzestanis who still have a job.
When he seized power, Khomeini said in a notorious speech that the Shah had offered Iranians paradise in this world to deprive them of paradise in the next world, boasting that his Islamic Republic will provide both.
Naturally, we don't know about the next world; but in this world the ayatollah turned a corner of paradise that was Khuzestan into a veritable hell.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.