Persia is a vast, desolate country. Its area of 630,000 square miles, about half the size of India, supports a population of only twenty million (India four hundred million; France nearly fifty million). The relief and climate, though varied, is for the most part unremittingly hostile. A table of land utilization suggests the aridity and hopelessness of the terrain:

The country is divided into a number of small populous regions where melting snow from nearby mountains has made irrigation and cultivation possible, isolated from each other by bleak, razor-like mountain ranges, often running parallel to each other; while the whole of the centre of the country is an inhospitable desert. This central plateau, itself from four to six thousand feet above sea level, is enclosed by ridges whose peaks surpass fifteen thousand feet. Communications, blocked by both deserts and mountains, are severely restricted, hampering the economic and political integration of the country. Regionalism is accentuated by ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. Even the large cities, built on the traditional caravan roads, are susceptible to military pressure from local tribal khans, who effectively control the surrounding countryside.

The centres of economic activity are located on the northern and south-western peripheries. In the north the Caspian littoral, a narrow alluvial strip between the Elburz mountains and the sea, is the country’s richest agricultural area, growing rice, tea, tobacco, wheat, cotton, sugar and olives. Fisheries also flourish, especially for caviare, and pastures are rich enough to support horses. In Azerbaijan, on the plains beneath Tabriz, are huertas which produce melons, grapes, tobacco and wheat. These two regions have the greatest population density.footnote1

In the south-west the province of Khuzistan, geographically an extension eastward of the Mesopatamian plain, is dominated by oil-fields in the north. The oil-bearing limestone of the Zagros range, on the verge of the plain, is worked principally in Kirkuk, Iraq, and Masjed-i-Sulaiman, Persia. The only considerable river in Persia, the Karun, runs through Khuzistan. It is a confluent of the Tigris-Euphrates and the three rivers join to run through a single channel, the Shatt al-Arab, into the Gulf. On the Karun are two principal ports, Khorramshahr (general) and Abadan (oil), accessible only through the Shatt al-Arab. A third port, Bandar Mashur (oil), is at the head of the Gulf.

The remainder of the country, apart from isolated pockets, is a desolate tract, roamed by nomads and settled by villagers who scrape a precarious living in scattered oases. The capital, Teheran, is situated in the southern foothills of the Elburz, on the margin of the desert. It grew as a commercial centre, one of the several cities on the flank of the desert which control the skirting caravan road; it gained exceptional prominence with the strategic need of the Qajars for a northerly capital, to replace Shiraz, seat of the previous ousted Zand dynasty. The other cities of Persia, though increasing in size, are diminishing in function. Their character is still defined by a traditional cultural and religious past, and they are quite unfitted both in situation and plan for a modern economic role.footnote2

Persia is still an overwhelmingly rural society; over 70% of the population ‘lives’ off the land. Yet agricultural output is limited by exploitative social structures, ancient techniques and the natural poverty of much of the country. The primary obstacle to agriculture in Persia is drought. It is estimated that two-thirds of the cultivated land is irrigated by the qanat system, the remaining third by river water. The qanat, similar to the foggara system of the Sahara, is an underground water channel which carries water collected in the hills down to villages in the arid plain. A series of deep wells are dug, perhaps thirty yards apart, and the pits are linked by tunnels, up to a hundred feet beneath the ground. The construction and maintenance of the qanats is extremely skilled work; the most expert qanat builders come from a few families of Yezd, a city on the southern margin of the central plateau. These families now prefer to enrich themselves in ways more convenient than burrowing about bent double under the desert. The whole qanat system throughout Persia is fast falling into disrepair and neither the funds nor the skill to prevent this can presently be found.

The decadence of such traditional skills as qanat building has not been matched by any stride forward in the use of modern techniques and machinery. Poor soil, grey and saline, is not properly fertilized. Animal dung, instead of being used as manure, is dried and stored for winter fuel. Stinking fish is the apogee of fertilizer technology in Persia; much of the Persian Gulf fishery is for untasty stolephorus fish—catches are hauled on to the shore and left to rot. There is a shortage of anti-pest sprays, particularly anti-locust, which is hard to forgive—such sprays are petrochemicals, imported from British refinery plants. Mechanization scarcely exists (an estimated 5,000 tractors). Most peasants do not invert the furrow-slice with a plough-blade, but merely scratch the top soil with a nail. Cereals and livestock are of wretched quality.