[Marxism] Why the Islamic Republic has Survived
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Mar 17 01:43:21 MDT 2009
A valuable article, though not on the subject of why the Iranian revolution
did not become socialist. My own impression is that the vast majority of the
Iranian left, including the Fedayeen and Mujahedeen and others, tended to
oppose the Islamic regime from a standpoint that was more bourgeois liberal
This reflected many of the real conditions they were facing, but it tended
to make them ineffective as a left opposition to the regime. An example of
this standpoint is the politics, insofar as it has politics, of the very
fine and moving film Persepolis, whose creator was brought up in a left
However, Abrahamian makes a very valuable contribution to a materialist
understanding of the relative strength of the Islamic Republic. It is true
that without this summary of the gains that the common people of Iran made
through the revolution and under the Islamic Republic, the survival of the
regime is nearly incomprehensible. This is very important and, we should
keep in mind, almost completely blacked out in the US and Europe.
There is a lot more to Iran today than strikebreaking, repression, and
religious obscurantism -- serious though these are. The facts here are an
almost unknown part of the picture.
Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived
By Ervand Abrahamian
Obituaries for the Islamic Republic of Iran appeared even before it was
born. In the hectic months of 1979 -- before the Islamic Republic had been
officially declared -- many Iranians as well as foreigners, academics as
well as journalists, participants as well as observers, conservatives as
well as revolutionaries, confidently predicted its imminent demise. Taking
every street protest, every labor strike, every provincial clash as the
harbinger of its inevitable downfall, they gave the new regime a few months
-- at best, a few short years.
Such predictions were understandable. After all, Iran -- not to mention
world history -- had produced few full-fledged theocracies. Regimes often
taken to be theocracies turn out, upon closer examination, to have been no
such thing. Cromwell's England was controlled by generals and landed
gentry. It was princes, rather than preachers, who ruled the Lutheran
kingdoms. Even Calvin's Geneva, one of the first totalitarian states, was
managed by lay lawyers rather than seminarians. What is more, few in 1979
could contemplate the possibility that seminary-trained clerics could
administer a country that had experienced a half-century of modern
development and was home to hundreds of thousands of engineers, doctors,
scientists, civil servants, teachers and industrial workers. How could
"mullahs" steeped in esoteric medieval writings deal with the formidable
problems of the twentieth century? One did not have to be a Trotskyite in
1979 to think that the downfall of the Shah would inevitably and quickly
pave the way for a more profound Permanent Revolution.
Despite the prognostications, the Islamic Republic has not only survived
three full decades but in recent years has been hyped as a major Middle
Eastern power that threatens its neighbors as well as the world's sole
superpower. It is often depicted in the United States as a cross between
the Sassanid Empire and the Third Reich, between the early caliphate and the
Soviet Union. Leaving aside the geopolitical reasons why a Third World
state with a fourth-rate military has such a puffed-up image, the question
worth asking is: What accounts for the 30-year survival of the Islamic
Four answers come readily to mind. None, however, bears scrutiny. The
first is that the clerical regime has unleashed reigns of terror. It is
true that the Islamic Republic has at times used violence: in 1979,
immediately after the revolution, when it executed 757 -- many of them
members of the Shah's regime; in 1981-1985, when it crushed an uprising of
the quasi-Marxist Mojahedin-e Khalq by executing 12,500; and in 1988,
immediately after the eight-year war with Iraq, when it hanged another 2,000
prisoners -- most of them, again, Mojahedin. But this bloodletting,
grotesque as it is, pales in comparison to the violence attending other
major revolutions -- especially those of England, France, Mexico, Russia and
China. It also pales in comparison to the carnage of right-wing
counter-revolutions such as those in Indonesia, Central America and even
France in 1848 and 1870. And violence took its toll on the regime as well.
In 1981-1982, the Mojahedin assassinated some 2,000 members of the regime,
including a president, a prime minister and Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti,
eminence grise of the clerical leadership, as well as a number of cabinet
ministers, parliamentary deputies, judges, Friday prayer leaders and
officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Violence, on the whole,
has weakened rather than strengthened the Islamic Republic.
The second reason often given for the survival of the Islamic Republic is
the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). It is true that the initial Iraqi invasion
rallied the nation behind the government. But the continuation of the
fighting across the Iraqi border in May 1983, under the banners "war, war
until victory" and "the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad," did much to
damage the Islamic Republic. Most of the damage suffered by Iran in terms
of human lives, urban destruction and financial drain came in these last
five years of fighting, and in 1988 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had to
accept terms he had been offered as early as May 1983. The regime calls the
fighting the Imposed War, but it was imposed upon Iran in more ways than
The third commonly cited explanation is oil revenue. It is true that oil
money lubricates the machinery of government in Iran, as it does in
neighboring "rentier states." But oil revenues are neither an unmitigated
"curse" nor a deus ex machina lying behind the rise and fall of all regimes
and sundry. After all, oil did not guarantee the survival of the Shah. And
since 1979, the Islamic Republic has suffered from highly erratic
fluctuations in the international price of oil. After reaching $39 per
barrel in 1981, oil prices fell to a new low of $9 in 1986, hovered below
$20 for much of the late 1980s, climbed to $32 in 1991 and fell again to
less than $10 in 1999. Oil prices did not boom again until the US invasion
of Iraq in 2003. The last 30 years have seen as many years of famine as of
The fourth reason adduced for both the Islamic Revolution and the durability
of the Islamic Republic is Shi'ism. It is true that one cannot analyze the
mass demonstrations of 1978 without taking religion into account. Witness
the potent slogan, "Make every place Karbala', every month Muharram, every
day Ashoura." But if Shi'ism is the real answer, then we are faced with the
question of why Iran -- which has been majority-Shi'i since 1500 -- did not
produce the Islamic Revolution until 1979. For most of these 470 years,
Shi'ism had been considered, at best, apolitical and quietist and, at worst,
conservative and reactionary. No historian can buy the official explanation
that imperialism, monarchism and Zionism had for centuries distorted
Shi'ism, and that the world had to await the arrival of Khomeini to unveil
the true revolutionary nature of Islam. The idea that the republic has
survived because it is Islamic is a tautology.
If these stock explanations do not suffice, then what does? The real answer
lies not in religion, but in economic and social populism. By the early
1970s, Iran had produced a generation of radical intelligentsia that was
revolutionary not only in its politics -- wanting to replace the monarchy
with a republic -- but in its economic and social outlook. It wanted to
transform the class structure root and branch. The trailblazer was a young
intellectual named Ali Shariati, who did not live to see the revolution but
whose teachings fueled the revolutionary movement. Inspired by the
Algerians, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Shariati spent his short life
reinterpreting Shi'ism as a revolutionary ideology and synthesizing it with
Marxism. He produced what can be termed a Shi'i version of Catholic
liberation theology. His teachings struck a chord not just among college
and high school students, but also among younger seminary students. These
budding theologians could easily accept his teachings (except his occasional
anti-clericalism). One theology student went so far as to describe Imam
Husayn as an early Che Guevara and Karbala' as the Sierra Madre. Most of
those who organized demonstrations and confrontations in the streets and
bazaars during the turbulent months of 1978 were college and high school
students inspired mainly by Shariati. His catch phrases -- which had more
in common with Third World populism than with conventional Shi'ism -- found
their way, sometimes via Khomeini, into slogans and banners displayed
throughout the revolution. Typical of them were:
Our enemy is imperialism, capitalism and feudalism!
Islam belongs to the oppressed, not the oppressors!
Oppressed of the world unite!
Islam is not the opiate of the people!
Islam is for equality and social justice!
Islam represents the slum dwellers, not the palace dwellers!
Islam will eliminate class differences!
Islam comes from the masses, not the rich!
Islam will eliminate landlessness!
We are for Islam, not for capitalism and feudalism!
Islam will free the hungry from the clutches of the rich!
The poor fought for the Prophet, the rich fought against him!
The poor die for the revolution, the rich plot against it!
Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic!
Freedom, equality, Islamic Republic!
This populism helps explain not only the success of the revolution but also
the continued survival of the Islamic Republic. The Republic's constitution
-- with 175 clauses -- transformed these general aspirations into specific
inscribed promises. It pledged to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, slums and
unemployment. It also vowed to provide the population with free education,
accessible medical care, decent housing, pensions, disability pay and
unemployment insurance. "The government," the constitution declared, "has a
legal obligation to provide the aforementioned services to every individual
in the country." In short, the Islamic Republic promised to create a
full-fledged welfare state -- in its proper European, rather than derogatory
In the three decades since the revolution, the Islamic Republic -- despite
its poor image abroad -- has taken significant steps toward fulfilling these
promises. It has done so by giving priority to social rather than military
expenditures, and thus dramatically expanding the Ministries of Education,
Health, Agriculture, Labor, Housing, Welfare and Social Security. The
military consumed as much as 18 percent of the gross domestic product in the
last years of the shah. Now it takes up as little as 4 percent. The
Ministry of Industries has also grown in most part because in 1979-1980 the
state took over numerous large factories whose owners had absconded abroad.
The alternative would have been to close them down and create mass
unemployment. Since most of these factories had functioned only because of
subsidies from the old regime, the new regime had no choice but to continue
In three decades the regime has come close to eliminating illiteracy among
the post-revolutionary generations, reducing the overall rate from 53
percent to 15 percent.1 The rate among women has fallen from 65 percent to
20 percent. The state has increased the number of students enrolled in
primary schools from 4,768,000 to 5,700,000, in secondary schools from 2.1
million to over 7.6 million, in technical schools from 201,000 to 509,000,
and in universities from 154,000 to over 1.5 million. The percentage of
women in university student populations has gone up from 30 percent to 62
percent. Thanks to medical clinics, life expectancy at birth has increased
from 56 to 70, and infant mortality has decreased from 104 to 25 per 1,000.
Also thanks to medical clinics, the birth rate has fallen from an all-time
high of 3.2 to 2.1, and the fertility rate -- the average number of children
born to a woman in her lifetime -- from 7 to 3. It is expected to fall
further to 2 by 2012 -- in other words, Iran in the near future will achieve
near zero population growth.
The Islamic Republic has bridged the chasm between urban and rural life in
part by raising the prices of agricultural goods relative to other
commodities and in part by introducing schools, medical clinics, roads,
electricity and piped water into the countryside. For the first time ever,
villagers can afford consumer goods, even motorbikes and pickup trucks.
According to one economist who, on the whole, is critical of the regime, 80
percent of rural households own refrigerators, 77 percent televisions and 76
percent gas stoves.2 Some 220,000 peasant families, moreover, have received
850,000 hectares of land confiscated from the old elite. They, together
with the some 660,000 families who had obtained land under the earlier White
Revolution, form a substantial rural class that has benefited not only from
these new social services but also from state-subsidized cooperatives and
protective tariff walls. This class provides the regime with a rural social
The regime has also tackled problems of the urban poor. It has replaced
slums with low-income housing, beautified the worst districts and extended
electricity, water and sewage lines to working-class districts. As an
American journalist highly critical of the regime's economic policies
admits, "Iran has become a modern country with few visible signs of
squalor."3 What is more, it has supplemented the income of the underclass
-- both rural and urban -- by generously subsidizing bread, fuel, gas, heat,
electricity, medicines and public transport. The regime may not have
eradicated poverty nor appreciatively narrowed the gap between rich and poor
but it has provided the underclass with a safety net. In the words of the
same independent-minded economist, "Poverty has declined to an enviable
level for middle-income developing countries."4
In addition to substantially expanding the central ministries, the Islamic
Republic has also set up numerous semi-independent institutions, such as the
Mostazafin (Oppressed), Martyrs', Housing, Alavi and Imam Khomeini Relief
Foundations. Headed by clerics or other persons appointed by and loyal to
the Supreme Leader, these foundations together account for as much as 15
percent of the national economy and control budgets that total as much as
half that of the central government. Much of their assets are businesses
confiscated from the former elite. The largest of them, the Mostazafin
Foundation, administers 140 factories, 120 mines, 470 agribusinesses, 100
construction companies and innumerable rural cooperatives. It also owns the
country's two leading newspapers, Ettelaat and Keyhan. According to the
Guardian, in 1993 the foundation employed 65,000 and had an annual budget of
over $10 billion.5 Some of these foundations also lobby effectively to
protect university quotas for war veterans and together they provide
hundreds of thousands with wages and benefits, including pensions, housing
and health insurance. In other words, they are small welfare states within
the larger welfare state.
The important role the welfare state plays makes these expenditures the
third rail of Iranian politics. Few politicians -- whether conservative or
liberal, reformist or fundamentalist, radical or moderate, pro-business or
pro-labor -- are foolhardy enough to take advice from Chicago School
economists inside and outside the country who denounce the "moral hazards"
of big government and instead wax ecstatic over the "virtues" of free
markets, privatization, small government, business competition,
cost-effectiveness, efficiency, entrepreneurship, globalization and entry
into the World Trade Organization. In fact, most politicians since the
revolution have subscribed to varying degrees to economic populism. Some,
such as former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami,
were muted populists shy about tampering with social programs. Others, such
as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are out-and-out populists promising to
"bring the oil money to peoples' dining room tables" by further expanding
social programs. No realist would contemplate drastic cuts in the safety
net, though there are limits to the populism: Ahmadinejad, for instance,
placed a quota on subsidized gasoline.
Upcoming decades will test the regime's ability to juggle the competing
demands of these populist programs with those of the educated middle class
-- especially the ever expanding army of university graduates produced,
ironically, by one of the revolution's main achievements. This new stratum
needs not only jobs and a decent standard of living but also greater social
mobility and access to the outside world -- with all its dangers, especially
to well-protected home industries -- and, concomitantly, the creation of a
viable civil society. The regime may be able to meet these formidable
demands if it finds fresh sources of oil and gas revenues -- but to do so it
will need to markedly improve its relations with Washington so that economic
sanctions can be lifted. Without the lifting of sanctions, Iran cannot gain
access to the technology and capital needed to develop its large gas
reserves. If new revenues do not materialize, class politics will threaten
to rear its head again. For 30 years, populism has managed to blunt the
sharp edge of class politics. It may not do so in the future.
1 Most of these statistics have been taken from government reports. For
updated summaries of these reports, see Middle East Institute, The Iranian
Revolution at 30 (Washington, DC, 2009).
2 Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, "Poverty and Inequality Since the Revolution,"
The Iranian Revolution at 30 (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 2009),
3 Laura Secor, "The Rationalist," New Yorker, February 2, 2009.
4 Salehi-Isfahani, p. 105.
5 Guardian, July 9, 1993.
Ervand Abrahamian is a CUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of
History, Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. He is author of A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge, 2008). This
article was first published by Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009); it is
reproduced here for educational purposes. Subscribe to Middle East Report
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