A very interesting story of a recent trip around Iran from New Geography.

An excerpt.

With Iranian-American nuclear relations back on the front burner — make that front and center — I was able to secure a visa and travel counter-clockwise by train around Iran, covering more than a thousand miles. In American headlines and Congressional outbursts, Iran is thought only to be grappling with its nuclear dilemma. But I came to the conclusion that Iran’s future is tied more closely to its cities, where some 60 percent of the population lives, than it is to its nuclear capabilities or its revolutionary doctrines.

By the time I left, a few weeks ago, nothing I saw lined up with its sinister reputation for revolutionary violence or near-fascist religious zeal. Mostly, I saw a developing country — like China in many ways — moving its young population sideways from the countryside into the cities (usually in an old car, spewing fumes). Herewith, an urban rundown:

Tehran: I flew into and out of Tehran, the city that dominates the life of Iran. Even at 3:00AM the traffic was heavy, and when I went around on the metro, there was never a moment when I wasn’t as squeezed as canned caviar.

For a city of never-ending tenements (similar to Queens or Brooklyn), Tehran remains, comparatively, calm. I never heard shouting, car horns, or confrontations, just as I never saw an armed police officer (except at the airports) or Revolutionary Guards. Omnipresent portraits of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei are the only symbols of sidewalk,politics.

Diplomats and wealthier Iranians prefer to remain crowded into North Tehran, which feels like an alpine village, given the snowcapped peaks that soar in the background. This is where the last two Shahs had their palaces (which are now open as museums of imperialist decadence). The poor live in the desert flatlands to the south. I walked outside the embassy complex where in 1979 the American diplomats were held hostage; its twenty-seven acres looks like an 1850s textile mill in Pawtucket.

For reasons few can explain, Tehran works well as a city. The subway trains — while packed — come and go on schedule. The bazaar is a mall of plenty, even with all the sanctions; the university attracts the best students (including my gifted guide), and even the dense traffic seems to move.

 Tehran may lack architectural grace, central focus, cozy neighborhoods, restaurants (I saw few), tea gardens, and sufficient parks. But it doesn’t feel as if it is on the edge of a fundamentalist abyss, as it’s portrayed in the Western press. It struck me more as an endless block party.

Mashad: Iran’s most holy city. With a population of three million, Mashad is holy because it is where the remains of the Eighth Imam (Reza) are entombed. Pilgrims from all over Iran and Iraq come to the shrine, which is at the center of a large complex of mosques, museums, minarets, and open courtyards.

Before the 1979 revolution, Mashad had an old-city feel, with the shrine at the core of narrow twisting lanes and alleys. Now the shrine is at the center of an open, polished-marble mall that would be a skateboarder’s dream, were dudes ever called to prayers.

Faith is the serious business in Mashad, and most of the women I saw wore black, no-nonsense chadors and hijabs. (In Tehran, younger women, especially, wear their headscarves as fashion statements, and wrap themselves in vibrant colors.)

Retrieved April 21, 2015 from http://www.newgeography.com/content/004898-irans-urban-future-tehran-and-beyond