Iran's Mehra Mer Project Constructed A New City, But The Buildings Remain Incomplete

Just 30 miles east of the Iranian capital of Tehran lies the city of Pardis. Its name is Persian for “paradise” – but in reality the desert wasteland is anything but. In fact, with dozens of ghostly towers dotting the desolate landscape, the seemingly abandoned location is nothing short of a surreal dream – or should that be nightmare?

And Pardis’ overwhelming emptiness stands in marked contrast to Tehran itself. The Iranian metropolis is home to almost nine million people, you see, while the sprawling Greater Tehran region boasts a whopping 15 million inhabitants. Overall, then, Tehran not only boasts the largest population of any city in Iran, but also in all of Western Asia.

Furthermore – and like the rest of Iran – Tehran has gone through many transformations over the centuries. It has been a prominent city since Classical times, in fact, and has managed to withstand subsequent assaults by Mongol, Turkic and Arab forces. Notably, Tehran was also temporarily detached from the rest of Iran as a result of the country’s wars with Russia.

Then Tehran finally became Iran’s capital in 1907. And following major construction programs during the early 20th century, the city has experienced a large-scale influx of people from the rest of the country – making it the behemoth that it is today. Yet the metropolis’ heaving population has created its own distinct problems.

In particular, Tehran is faced with two major environmental issues. The first of these is down to the fact that the city is located in the proximity of multiple fault lines – thus leaving it susceptible to earthquakes. Secondly, Tehran has dangerously high levels of air pollution; it’s among the globe’s most polluted metropolises, in fact.

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And Tehran’s high pollution levels create all kinds of difficulties. For example, the city is often shrouded in a veil of smog that can bring on breathing problems and lead to pulmonary disorders. In fact, a 2006 report estimated that air pollution causes more than 25 Tehran residents to lose their lives each day. But even despite this health crisis, improving the city’s air quality has proved somewhat of a challenge.

There’s been problems pinpointing the exact causes of Tehran’s air pollution, for one. While some calculations suggest that 80 percent of contamination of the air is caused by cars and the rest by industry, other figures claim by contrast that motorcycles are the culprits behind one-third or so of the pollution.

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It doesn’t help, either, that the majority of Iran’s industry is situated near to the city. Tehran’s traffic congestion is also mainly made up of older cars that put out a lot of emissions. And global sanctions imposed upon Iran have led to the government producing low-grade gasoline, which in turn creates a large number of pollutants.

Adding further to Tehran’s pollution woes is the city’s geography. To the north of the metropolis lie the imposing Alborz mountains, which block the flow of winds and consequently keep any toxic air in the city. The lack of humidity also means that Tehran is extremely sunny, and UV radiation tends to react with toxins to increase ozone levels.

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Understandably, then, Tehran’s pollution levels have caused headaches for successive Iranian governments. As far back as 1979, officials imposed traffic restrictions in the center of the city, while taxis and buses have also been advised to switch from petrol to natural gas. In addition, the Iranian government has attempted to increase the public’s understanding of pollution and the problems that bad air quality can cause.

But despite efforts to tackle Tehran’s pollution problem, in 2017 the Arabic news channel Al Arabiya stated that air contamination in the city had reached even more worrying heights. In 2018 the Air Pollution Monitoring Center also confirmed that Tehran’s index was an extremely unhealthy 161.

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One of the ways in which the Iranian government has sought to address the pollution in Tehran, however, is by lowering the city’s population. Officials have thus tried to encourage millions of Tehran’s residents to relocate elsewhere in the country by rolling out financial incentives. And in 2010 the authorities stated that they would be choosing a new capital for the nation, too.

In order to entice people out of Tehran, though, there would of course need to be sufficient housing away from the city. And after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president in 2005, he duly made construction one of his main focuses. With the help of money from Iran’s oil trade, he vowed to create a fund equating to more than $1 billion to assist young Iranians in finding employment and purchasing their own properties.

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The scheme, known as the “Reza’s Compassion Fund,” was intended to tackle the rising cost of urban housing. This crisis was in turn increasing the age at which Iranians married. And given Ahmadinejad’s desire for his people to wed earlier and reproduce more, it posed something of a problem for the president.

So, even though Ahmadinejad’s proposal was blocked by the Iranian assembly in 2006, the leader himself ultimately forced the legislation through. The resulting program would go on to be known as the Mehr housing scheme, and its aim was to address Iran’s shortages by constructing about two million homes in just half a decade.

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The scheme got underway in 2007, and one of the areas chosen for development was a place called Pardis, which lies around 30 miles east of Tehran. Before construction of the planned new city got underway, Pardis had been just a village at the foot of Mount Damavand; if all went smoothly, though, it would soon have room to house 200,000 inhabitants.

Yes, the plan was to bring new communities to Pardis as well as the other places in which the Mehr scheme was being rolled out. These towns were to have all the amenities inhabitants could wish for, including schools, hospitals, green spaces, mosques and public transportation. In short, as its name means in Persian, Pardis was intended to become a paradise of sorts.

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However, as of 2019 Pardis has never come close to fulfilling its potential – not least because the Mehr scheme was somewhat ill-conceived. In order to encourage construction projects, building companies were given free land under the condition that they built low-cost homes. Those interested in purchasing the properties could then apply for 99-year mortgages, which the government itself would assure.

The program proved popular among wannabe homeowners, too, and by January 2011 Iran’s banks had arranged loans amounting to in excess of $10 billion. So, to keep up with demand, the government ordered the construction of 17 new planned cities that would contain well over one million new homes in total.

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However, property developers were also offered loans to enable them to begin construction for the Mehr housing scheme. At first, the government hoped that helping to boost production in this way would balance out the supply and demand problem in Iran’s housing market. In order to fund the projects, though, the central bank was simply ordered to print more banknotes – a move that in turn contributed to rising inflation levels.

And as inflation continued to grow in Iran, it meant that participating in Mehr projects was no longer financially viable for building firms. Many of them then made the decision to shelve their developments in the middle of construction – leaving a number of planned new cities with insufficient amenities.

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Pardis was certainly abandoned in a state of disarray; as of 2019, certain parts of the area remain virtual ghost towns. These sites also have dystopian-sounding place names such as “Phase 11,” and they all now serve as a haunting reminder of the Mehr housing project’s failure.

Had the scheme gone to plan, Pardis would have become a thriving city of 200,000 people. Instead, many of its residential towers stand empty, cutting lonely figures against a sparse desert background. The absence of cars, parks, schools and, well, just about any sign of life makes the place appear even creepier.

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Yes, while the project – known as Mehra Mer – may officially still be “under construction,” there’s no evidence of any progress being made. And by the looks of things, it’s been this way since at least 2014, when an article by Marketa Hulpachova for The Guardian described the area’s “lonely, towering steel skeletons.”

Back then, the Mehra Mer venture was in varying degrees of completion. Closer to the center of Pardis were Phases One to Three. And here, some advances appear to have been made; there was a market in the vicinity, for instance. However, further out of town, Phase 11 had been abandoned before construction began in earnest – leaving just a series of craters behind.

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Even driving into Pardis proved to be an eerie experience. Many roads leading into the city ended abruptly at dead ends or outside land belonging to the defense ministry. Other routes, meanwhile, wound up at abandoned steel structures that developers had simply left to stagnate in the desert sun.

Back in 2014, moreover, Pardis had had a varied demographic make-up. As well as underprivileged Afghans, there were families who’d relocated from the poorer areas of the capital and other nearby settlements. The largest part of the population was formed, though, by middle-class commuters, who had seemingly been attracted by the opportunity to buy their own properties and escape Tehran’s severe pollution.

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Given that Pardis is mainly home to the comfortably off, then, it seems that the Mehr scheme failed in its main aim of providing widespread affordable housing. As costs spiraled out of control, the houses built at Mehra Mer – and presumably other similar developments across Iran – were simply unaffordable for many working-class families.

And after President Ahmadinejad left office in 2013, his successor, President Hassan Rouhani, blamed the Mehr housing scheme for Iran’s continuing high levels of inflation. Nevertheless, prior to departing his post, Ahmadinejad had proudly declared that his government had delivered almost 1.2 million affordable homes via the project.

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So, it was left to the pinched Rouhani administration to solve the problems that the Mehr program had created. And late in 2013, the Iranian government therefore stated that it had set aside $400 million for the projects that were yet to be finished. This was intended to put an end to the construction program that Ahmadinejad has described as “the finest undertaking since Adam.”

The Mehr housing scheme was also due to be removed from the Central Bank of Iran’s books in 2014. Instead, Rouhani claimed that by 2017 the project would be superseded by offering low-income families affordable loans. He also said that he would reduce construction to 150,000 new homes annually.

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However, if the most recent satellite photographs of Pardis are anything to go by, it appears that the Mehra Mer project has been largely forgotten. And maybe that has something to do with the economic situation that the Rouhani administration inherited. In 2014, you see, the government was drowning in debt as homeowners battled to keep up with their mortgage payments in the midst of inflation.

In addition, Rouhani’s plan to refinance mortgages led to further financial instability, which in turn fueled even greater increases in house prices. And while in 2014 the scheme allowed people to each claim a loan worth up to $10,000 from the state, that amounted to less than 50 percent of the overall costs involved in buying a home at the time.

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In the absence of some kind of reform, though, it was estimated that close to three-quarters of the Iranian population would be unable to buy their own property. And while Iran’s housing market continued to slump, urban populations carried on rising – as did unemployment. Furthermore, with the Mehr scheme scrapped, the migration to larger cities such as Tehran looked set to continue.

Planned new towns such as the one at Pardis had been intended to alleviate pressure on Iran’s major urban centers by redirecting populations into specially prepared communities. These new settlements were all also supposed to contain the infrastructure to support their inhabitants. However, with the plug pulled on the Mehr project, pollution, traffic and rent would all likely rise in the main Iranian cities.

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Another problem that the Rouhani administration had to contend with when it came to housing reform was corruption, as by 2014 rising property prices had already been exploited by extortionists. Yes, crooks had gotten people to apply for properties through the Mehr scheme before the scammers themselves sold the homes at considerable profit.

Yet while Rouhani’s cabinet planned to introduce measures – including special taxes – to help put a stop to this kind of malfeasance, the luxury cars found dotted around Pardis in 2014 seemed to suggest that it was by now too late to honor the good intentions of the Mehr scheme. And although the new properties were supposed to provide poor families with some security, the system had seemingly been exploited by people seeking to profit financially – no matter the human cost.

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In 2017, then, Iranian MPs officially voted in favor of terminating the Mehr housing project – meaning no more new homes would be constructed under the scheme. And the move was largely welcomed in the Iranian press following a 900 percent increase in house prices in the country. Even so, it was unclear what would become of ghost towns such as Pardis following the ruling.

For the time being at least, Pardis stands as a haunting reminder of the ill-conceived Mehr scheme. And while the city’s empty tower blocks may be the cause of some disdain in their native Iran – where they’re symbols of the country’s housing problems – they’ve nonetheless found some cult appreciation in certain corners of the internet.

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For example, a June 2019 article on the Messy Nessy Chic website described Mehra Mer as a “modernist utopia in the middle of a barren desert landscape.” And when a photograph of Pardis appeared on Reddit at around the same time, one user said the snap looked “right out of an Ingmar Bergman flick.” Another simply commented, “This looks kinda dope.”

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