Iran Since the Revolution
Iran: The Untold Story
When Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq guerrilla organization, fled Iran in July 1981 and arrived in Paris to establish their National Resistance Council and a government in exile, both men believed the fall of Ayatollah Khomeini to be imminent. Rajavi was then predicting the collapse of the regime in a matter of weeks. Today, more than a year later, Khomeini and his allies not only maintain their hold on the country but have survived a series of convulsions.
Since June 1981, the Mojahedin and other guerrilla organizations have killed hundreds of members of the Revolutionary Guards and committees, minor officials and clerics. They have assassinated religious leaders, government officers, and members of the ruling Islamic Republic Party (IRP). In addition to Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, Khomeini’s right-hand man, those killed have included a president, a prime minister, the revolutionary prosecutor-general, the chief of the national police, four cabinet ministers, some twenty parliamentary deputies, and six ministerial undersecretaries. Leaders of Friday prayers in four major provincial towns, Rasht, Tabriz, Shiraz, and Yazd, lost their lives. All four were part of the chain of command through which Khomeini’s writ is exercised in the provinces. Half the command staff of the armed forces was wiped out in September last year, when the chief of staff, the minister of defense, and two other top commanders lost their lives in an air crash.
None of this has caused the collapse of the regime. Shortages of basic necessities, food lines, nearly two million war refugees, a widespread sense of misgovernment and corruption, forced military conscription and alienation of the merchant and middle classes have not as yet led to the kind of mass strikes and protests that brought down the monarchy in February 1979. The regime has even had a number of successes.
Iranian forces earlier this year expelled Iraqi troops from Iranian territory, and in July, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the two-year-old Persian Gulf war, crossed the frontier and invaded Iraq. The glut in the oil market notwithstanding, Iran was able to increase its oil exports. While these fell back again recently, as a result of Iraqi harassment of tanker shipping at Iranian ports, the government has for the moment at least survived a severe shortage of foreign exchange. By exploiting differences among the Arab states, using trade as an incentive, and lobbying among the nonaligned countries, Tehran has to a degree emerged from its diplomatic isolation.
In Iran Since the Revolution, Sepehr Zabih, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College in California, seeks to explain the Khomeini regime’s seemingly remarkable staying power. Professor Zabih views the Iranian revolution as a good thing gone sour, “an authentic and anti-dictatorial popular revolution” that was “transformed into a fundamentalist power grab” by the men around Khomeini. Because he never provides an adequate analysis of the aims and relative strength of the members of the coalition that overthrew the Shah, Zabih does not really demonstrate, as he sets out to do, in what way Khomeini’s domination of postrevolution Iran was “unplanned and avoidable.” What he does provide, as others have done, is an account of the steps by which the clerics of the radical right and their allies came to control the institutions of the state.
Having consolidated his hold on the country, Zabih tells us, Khomeini has retained control partly through the “power of the purse” and complete domination of the press, radio, and television. He also relies on the Revolutionary Guards, on a network of village mullas, or preachers, who mobilize the masses, and on the hezbollahis, the “partisans of the party of God,” whose effectiveness in breaking up opposition rallies has deservedly earned them the label of chomaqdars, “the club-wielders.” These various “instrumentalities” (to use the political jargon that occurs throughout the book) have been backed up by the harsh justice of the revolutionary courts, the multiplying prisons and the firing squads.
According to Amnesty International, in the first twelve months following the impeachment and ouster of Bani-Sadr, there were nearly three thousand officially reported or confirmed executions. Hundreds of executions have been reported since June 1982. Many executions, moreover, are never publicized. Mistreatment and torture of prisoners is vicious and widespread. Since Zabih’s book was written, the instruments of control have grown more elaborate and more powerful.
The government has taken over much of the economy, including major industries, banking, insurance, and important sectors of foreign and domestic trade. Men beholden to the new order dominate the Tehran ministries, the provincial administration, and the universities. In factories and offices Islamic committees browbeat managers and fellow employees. The parallel government of revolutionary organizations, such as the revolutionary committees and guards, the Crusade for Reconstruction, the Martyrs Foundation, and the Center for Combating Sin, provide jobs, salaries, and often guns and influence to tens of thousands of young men recruited from the urban and small-town underclass.
The takeover of the legal and court systems by the clerics is not yet complete but is being pushed forward. At the military bases, clerics appointed by the “Political-Ideological Office” of the armed forces guard against ideological deviation. Under a bill euphemistically entitled the “Law for Reconstruction of Government Offices,” purge committees are again reviewing the status of government employees. The head of the civil service has said that those who stand against the revolution or who cannot be “corrected” will be dismissed.
The demand for ideological conformity has grown more intense in recent months. Civil servants are continually pestered with questionnaires that probe into their family connections, political ideas, and revolutionary dedication. Applicants for entry into a three-year program to train university instructors are required to declare their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and the revolution, and to the principle of velayat-e faqih, or “the governance of the Islamic jurists,” the doctrine that accords primacy in the administration of the state to Khomeini and his clerical successors.
Applicants must also be practicing Moslems. Non-Moslems must be faithful to their own religions, must refrain from behavior “offensive to an Islamic society,” and are excluded from all fields of study except accounting and foreign languages. Such requirements have become common for many government jobs and training programs, and members or sympathizers of groups considered deviant are often barred from applying. Those suspected of ideological flaws are likely to find access to university places and even ration cards denied them.
These developments have not taken place without serious opposition. Several prominent religious leaders, including Ayatollahs Qomi-Tabatabai, Shirazi, Mahallati, and Zanjani, and the religious teacher Ali Tehrani, have spoken out and issued declarations against the excesses of the regime. In a typical statement, which Zabih quotes, Ayatollah Zanjani condemned, in January 1981, the arbitrary sentences handed down by the revolutionary courts, the unlawful confiscation of property, purges in the civil service, and rule through fear and intimidation. Yet, as Zabih pertinently points out, such statements do not seem to have evoked any response from significant parts of the population. On the contrary, any critical and independent voices, even among well-known religious leaders, were quickly silenced.
The case of the once powerful Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari provides a striking example, of which Zabih cites earlier instances, of the manner in which mosque, mulla, and the media have been organized to ruin the reputations of important opponents of the regime. The case also illustrates the helplessness of those against whom such tactics are used. Shariatmadari was a moderate among the clerical leaders. He opposed clerical involvement in political affairs and the extensive powers granted in the constitution to Khomeini under the principle of velayat-e faqih, and he has been more or less under house arrest in Qom since December 1979, when protests against the new constitution by his followers in Azerbaijan were suppressed. But he retains support in Azerbaijan and among the merchant community. Apparently some of the clerical leaders feared that should he survive Khomeini he would be able to reassert his influence.
The agent of the most recent attack on Shariatmadari was Sadeq Ghotbzadeh the former foreign minister and aide to Khomeini—one of the Westernized liberals who have been devoured by their own revolution. In May of this year he was arrested on charges of plotting with army officers and a number of clerics to overthrow the regime. As usual, the facts of the case as presented by the authorities were vague. When put on trial, Ghotbzadeh denied that he intended to overthrow the Islamic Republic or to have Khomeini killed. But he admitted that he hoped to unseat the current government, and he was executed in September.
During his testimony, Ghotbzadeh implicated Ayatollah Shariatmadari. He claimed that Shariatmadari was aware of his plan, provided financial assistance, and promised to bless the takeover of the government if it succeeded. Shariatmadari’s son-in-law is among those who have been put on trial. Whatever the truth of Ghotbzadeh’s allegations, they were used to organize an intense campaign against Shariatmadari. The government has released obviously doctored documents to suggest that in negotiations with the Shah’s representatives in 1978, Shariatmadari approved martial law, favored keeping radical members of the opposition in jail, and described himself as an opponent of Khomeini. In Parliament and from the pulpit, several younger clerics have accused Shariatmadari of treason. This summer a declaration issued in the name of seminary students from Azerbaijan stated that they would no longer accept study grants from him.
Shariatmadari’s center for Islamic study and publication in Qom has been shut down. The influential Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, in a move virtually without precedent, has demanded that Shariatmadari be deprived of his position as a marja-e taqlid (literally, “source of emulation”). This title is conferred by general consent on someone for his great learning, and it implies that the holder is qualified to act as a guide to members of the community in religious and other matters. No voice was raised against this treatment of an eminent religious leader.
Part of the explanation for the failure of even prominent religious leaders to protest lies in the pattern of repression that Zabih describes. But repression is not the whole story. Zabih refers only in passing to the social groups from which Khomeini draws his support and who share his particular Islamic vision. He tells us, for example, that the regime has acquired legitimacy through referendums and presidential and parliamentary elections. He notes that over a million people attended the funeral of Beheshti. He remarks on the village preachers and the “rag-tag” of Revolutionary Guards on whom Khomeini relies.
But if Khomeini’s supporters and the young men who staff the revolutionary organizations represent identifiable social groups, or if the extensive purges in the bureaucracy and the rise of a new bureaucratic elite amount to something more than mere replacements in jobs, we do not learn about this from Zabih. If the fierce struggle since the revolution over agricultural land, urban property, jobs, and the control of economic resources has social and economic roots, the author does not tell us about it. These omissions leave a gaping hole at the center of Zabih’s book, which tends too often to remain simply an account of political events.
Repression, and perhaps ideological inclination, have meanwhile led various left-wing opposition groups to revert to armed resistance. Of these groups, the Marxist Fadayan-e Khalq, as Zabih explains in an interesting section, have been plagued by factional splits and disputes over sometimes arcane doctrinal issues. Aside from the Kurds, who continue an indecisive armed struggle for local autonomy, this leaves the Islamic guerrillas called the Mojahedin as the most important resistance organization.
Since the establishment of the National Resistance Council, and in a bid for middle-class support, the Mojahedin have moderated their radical positions, particularly on economic issues. The charter signed by Rajavi and Bani-Sadr in Paris pledges respect for property and private capital, on condition that personal wealth is not excessive and economic activity does not contribute to “dependence” on foreign countries, is not harmful to the society, and is “nationalist” rather than “comprador” or bourgeois in character. The charter promises land for the cultivator and protection for the small producer, artisan, and shopkeeper, who will be taxed only with their own consent. The charter also guarantees individual rights and liberties, except for persons identified with the Shah’s regime or with Khomeini’s regime.
In their tactics, however, the Mojahedin have become more radical. The mass uprising in their favor that they expected last year did not take place. Nor did the assassination of key officials and clerics cause the system to break down. The Mojahedin at the same time have concluded that it is impossible, under Khomeini, to organize the kind of mass strikes and demonstrations that were organized against the Shah. They have thus reverted to what Rajavi describes as all-out national armed struggle against the regime.
The Mojahedin claim to be gunning down large numbers of the Revolutionary Guards and members of the revolutionary organizations. The authorities claim, in turn, to have largely crushed the guerrilla movement, and in fact many of the Mojahedin have been arrested, tortured, and shot. In February, government security forces killed Musa Khiabani, the Mojahedin second-in-command, in a gun battle. Since then authorities have announced that many Mojahedin party cells have been destroyed. Both sides no doubt exaggerate. But prospects are that the killing—on both sides—will continue.
In view of the complexities of the situation, it is not surprising that Zabih’s attempts, in a closing chapter, to predict the future of the Islamic Republic prove to be shaky. Zabih is certain that “the militant clergy who came to power by the sword can only be overthrown by the sword.” He is fairly confident that “in Khomeini’s lifetime the Shia fundamentalists could not be dislodged forcibly or otherwise.” Beyond these certainties, the crystal ball becomes cloudy. The Mojahedin and other guerrilla groups, he tells us, lack the popular support to bring down the regime, but they may eventually secure the backing of the populace. The bureaucracy could transfer its loyalty to the opposition, but then again it may not do so.
In a desperate situation, Khomeini may call on the army to defend the cities against the guerrilla forces, but this is unlikely. The army may step in to seize power; they may even throw their support to the Mojahedin. But the army remains reluctant to take sides in the political struggle and is suspicious of the guerrillas. Given the right conditions, in other words, any of the possibilities he outlines is conceivable. However, without a better sense of the distribution of forces in the army, the Revolutionary Guard, and other institutions, and without a better grasp of the relative strengths and the aims of social groups and classes, all such prognosis remains mere speculation. Zabih’s account, competent in itself, is also marred by uneven writing.
If Zabih entertains legitimate doubts about the future course of the revolution, the well-known Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal does not. In a preface to the American edition of Iran: The Untold Story, Heikal recalls a conversation with Rajavi after the guerrilla leader had taken up residence in Paris. Rajavi was certain he and Bani-Sadr between them represented Iran’s successor regime. But Heikal’s view is that
the army remains the only organized force inside Iran, and that it is from the armed forces that the new leaders may be expected to emerge.
As foreseen by Heikal, and largely as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, the army has already reemerged as a potential source of political power. It has thrown up new leaders, such as the commander of the ground forces, Colonel Sayyad Shirazi, who have risen through the ranks and owe their advancement to the revolution. Khomeini is now attempting to use the army to extend his Islamic revolution to Iraq. In the post-Khomeini period, military officers will not necessarily dominate Iran, as Heikal predicts, but they are certain to figure among the contenders for power.
Heikal, who has written widely on Arab affairs, has also occasionally been involved with Iran. He reported on the oil nationalization crisis of 1951-1953 as a young journalist. He visited Iran in 1975 and interviewed the Shah and other high officials. He interviewed Khomeini in Paris shortly before the Ayatollah returned in triumph to Tehran. After the revolution, he was welcomed in Tehran as a kind of comrade-in-arms. The militants who seized the American hostages gave him one of their rare interviews. Officials took him into their confidence.
Heikal’s book reflects this intermittent involvement in Iranian affairs, in that it is only intermittently interesting and intermittently reliable. He has combined his direct knowledge of Iran with accounts of recent Iranian history, Shi’ism, and the American involvement in Iran. The book is at its best when the author is reporting directly on his own experience—his interview with Khomeini or his meeting with the student militants at the American embassy in Tehran.
With his habit of producing “confidential” documents, Heikal can come up with material not widely known—for example the so-called “Safari Club” agreement reached in 1972 by Iran, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco for cooperation on intelligence matters. Often, however, such material is neither very confidential nor very reliable. The book contains many errors of fact, largely because the author seems to be merely repeating what he has been told about Iranian events and personalities by various sources. Even material from Khomeini’s speeches and statements appearing in quotes must be regarded only as an approximation of what Khomeini said. All this reduces the value of Heikal’s book.
Neither Zabih nor Heikal deals in any detail with the inner conflicts that continue to trouble the revolutionary government and whose depth and seriousness are only now becoming fully evident. First, the authorities have failed to bring the revolutionary organizations into the government—particularly the Revolutionary Guards, the revolutionary courts, and the revolutionary committees. Recruited among the urban poor, occupying a blurred no-man’s land between legality and illegality, nominally centralized but subject to little central control, combining Islamic pretensions with an edge of violence, the revolutionary committees and guards are the true children of the revolution. The committee members continue to enter homes, make arrests, and seize property without warrants. The revolutionary courts are not restrained by directives from Tehran when they hand down death sentences.
Every attempt to bring the revolutionary organizations to heel has failed. In December, Khomeini named two high-ranking clerics who were to look into the excesses of the revolutionary courts and the Revolutionary Guards. Those who had acted in unlawful or un-Islamic fashion, he said, must be prosecuted. Nothing has since been heard of this assignment. This August, Khomeini again warned judges to exercise care lest they “imprison one of the dispossessed as an oppressor and, God forbid, put him to death.” He urged the Revolutionary Guards to make sure a house is a guerrilla hideout before shooting it up, lest “they enter a house to come upon women and children and, before they know what is what, some of the children are killed or wounded.”
But the revolutionary organizations are the coercive arm of the Islamic Republic. They have become powerful lobbies in their own right and resist outside control. They continue to enjoy Khomeini’s favor. Yet another attempt to integrate the revolutionary courts into the regular court system failed earlier this year. Khomeini said the revolutionary tribunals must continue until the judicial system is Islamized and counter-revolutionaries are eliminated. The Revolutionary Guards recently beat back an attempt to integrate them into the armed forces. They have instead been organized into a separate ministry. The revolutionary committees have been put under the direction of the minister of the interior, but he has yet to bring them under any real control. The revolutionary organizations remain an element of organized anarchy at the heart of the new order.
Secondly, the attempt to Islamize the state, particularly in law and economic policy, is proving disruptive and divisive. The High Judicial Council has finally sent to Parliament the new penal code, which reimposes such “Islamic” punishments as the cutting off of hands for theft and stoning for adultery and restores the law of talion—an eye for an eye, a beating for a beating, etc. The council also approved revised civil, commercial, and procedural law codes. Parliament, under pressure from Khomeini, passed the penal code but has not acted on the other measures in part because many of the deputies realize they are impractical. The Islamic character of part of the penal code, meantime, has been challenged by the Council of Guardians, a body that rules on the constitutionality of legislation. In September, however, Khomeini urged judges to “throw out” all non-Islamic laws. The judicial authorities then sent a circular to judges to apply only Islamic laws when trying cases and to refer difficult cases to their religious superiors. The effect will certainly be to give judges a freer hand than they already exercise.
Major questions of economic policy remain unsettled. The revolutionaries came to power committed to pursuing egalitarian policies. But serious doctrinal objections have been raised by leading religious figures to the seizure of private property and interference with the freedom of trade. Radical economic measures, it has been discovered, also play havoc with agricultural production, investment in housing and industry, and general business confidence. Thus any further implementation of the land distribution law was suspended in November 1980. A law approved by Parliament nationalizing foreign trade has not been implemented. Another bill on urban property approved by Parliament inserts the government as middle-man in real-estate transactions. But it does nothing to solve the severe housing shortage.
The government has now appointed a commission to try to define the place of private property and enterprise in an Islamic republic. In sermons during Friday prayers, the speaker of the Parliament, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has been attempting to develop the concept of Islamic economics as the middle way between capitalism, which, he holds, exploits the many in the interests of the few, and communism, which exploits everyone in the interests of the state. Although harsh on profiteers and hoarders, he has argued that capital, management, labor, and the state (which guarantees order, provides technical know-how, and is guardian of natural resources) each have a rightful share in the profits from production. He has portrayed the government as a kind of supervisor that guarantees that fair shares are distributed. It is a doctrine to which the Shah’s technocrats could easily have subscribed.
Thirdly, there is the question of succession. The constitution provides that at Khomeini’s death, an assembly of experts will select either a single prominent Islamic jurist or a council of eminent jurists to succeed him. Those who hope for a more flexible system of rule in the post-Khomeini period are arguing for a council of jurists; those in the ruling party who want a fundamental transformation of the state are pressing for the appointment of Ayatollah Hosayn-Ali Montazeri, who is apparently also Khomeini’s choice. In recent months, and despite rumors of illness, Montazeri has been more visibly acting as if he were the heir apparent. He issues statements on major questions, is delegated by Khomeini to make various appointments, and receives reports from heads of government organizations.
In the meantime, there is a more marked attempt to infuse the position of Khomeini, as the faqih, with virtually unchallengeable religious and temporal authority. “We have accepted the Imam [Khomeini] as a source of emulation, faqih and leader,” Khomeini’s representative in Khorasan and the guardian of the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashad recently stated. “We recognize him as the rightful representative of the infallible Imam; and the implementation of his orders and instructions are incumbent on all.”
Largely overlooked in Heikal’s easy simplifications and Zabih’s fairly straightforward account of political events is how deep-rooted historical conflicts between social groups, classes, and ideologies combined to produce the Iranian revolution. These elements emerge with great force, however, in Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions. The “two revolutions” of the title are the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the Islamic Revolution of 1978. The book, Abrahamian tells us, aims
…to analyze the social bases of Iranian politics by examining the central class and ethnic conflicts of the last hundred years, the relationship between socioeconomic modernization and political development, the rise of new classes as well as the decline of old communities, and the social composition together with the ideological outlook, of the main political parties.
Here as throughout his book Abrahamian shows himself to be following a neo-Marxist approach similar to that of E.P. Thompson, in which classes are not understood merely as the foundation of the means of production. Drawing on previously unused historical material, he has painstakingly put together profiles of the ethnic background, class, occupation, education, and political affiliation of the leaders of the main political parties and groups, and the ideologies of such organizations, during this century. He has combined all this into a richly detailed account of the politics of the period.
Sometimes it seems too detailed. The book began as a study of the Iranian Tudeh (Communist) Party, and the chapters devoted to the Tudeh are both exhaustive and exhausting. Fortunately the author is not constricted by his emphasis on the class basis of political forces, and his account of the political struggles between 1941 and 1953, for example, show that there was a politics of “notables” and a politics of the palace as well as a politics of parties; a politics of the intelligentsia as well as a politics of social classes. But he successfully challenges a commonly held view that the fragmentation of Iranian politics can be explained as a matter of “national character” and “national psychology.” In his account of the explosion of political parties and groups following the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, he shows that “the complex maze of political parties and parliamentary groups reflected…not personal insecurities and irrational animosities but rational, though equally intense, disagreements over complex national and international problems.”
Both Pahlavi monarchs promoted changes that deeply transformed Iranian society. They broke or undermined the power of the great tribal chiefs and federations, as well as that of the provincial notables and the great landed families. As Abrahamian notes, the programs of modernization pursued by the Pahlavis—the expansion of education, communications, industry, and trade, the establishment of a centralized bureaucratic state—also led to the rapid growth of the intelligentsia and middle classes, to the creation of an urban industrial proletariat, and to the vast expansion of the wage-earning classes. Unlike the authors of some of the simplistic accounts of the Shah’s reign that have recently been published, Abrahamian finds that modern economic development was both extensive and impressive.
But the political picture was sharply different. Between 1921 and 1941 Reza Shah relied on the army, the bureaucracy, and royal patronage. His power, unlike that of his predecessors, was not built “on the sands of tribal contingents and communal manipulations.” Nevertheless, it remained unstable because it “had no viable class bases, no sound social props…. It failed to cement its institutions of coercion into the class structure.” Under the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah between 1941 and 1978 there was no lack of economic development, but it was uneven; some groups benefited disproportionately, particularly the “modern classes” of technocrats and bureaucrats; others were neglected, including the people of the bazaar and the mullas. And while there was economic development, there was “political underdevelopment.” The late Shah, like his father, failed “to open the political arena for various social forces, forge links between the regime and the new classes, preserve the existing link between the regime and the old classes, and broaden the social base of the monarchy.”
Instead, Mohammad Reza Shah sought to base his rule on the military, the security organizations, patronage, the bureaucracy, and, eventually, a one-party state. While his control increased after 1953, and particularly after 1963, politics did not die. As Abrahamian points out, twenty-five years of repression produced counter forces to the Shah: a new intelligentsia that formulated ideas far more radical than those espoused by the old parties; guerrilla organizations, such as the Mojahedin and the Fadayan, committed to overthrow the regime by force of arms; and a reformulated Islam that pointed, in many cases, to revolution rather than to reform.
While Abrahamian describes these social and class conflicts and the radical ideologies that led to revolution in 1978, he nevertheless finds the revolution to be a paradox, “unique in the annals of modern history in that it brought to power not a new social group equipped with political parties and secular ideologies but a traditional clergy” claiming primacy in the administration of the state by divine right. He finds the paradox compounded by the fact that in the seventy years since the Constitutional Revolution a social and economic transformation diminished traditional classes and built up the “modern classes,” dissolved patrimonial ties and strengthened class consciousness among the modern sectors of the population. Moreover, he notes, between 1941 and 1953, the only extensive period in modern times when Iran enjoyed an open political system, it was the intelligentsia, not the clerical classes, which had been able to mobilize mass protests.
Abrahamian explains this paradox by the unique appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini. “Khomeini,” he says, “is to the Islamic Revolution what Lenin was to the Bolshevik, Mao to the Chinese, and Castro to the Cuban revolutions.” Leading a simple, austere life, incorruptible, uncompromising, he seemed the antithesis of all that the population had come to dislike about the royal family and court. Avoiding divisive issues such as land reform and female equality, he hammered at those aspects of Pahlavi rule that outraged all factions of the opposition.
He managed also to be all things to all men. To the petty bourgeoisie, he appeared as the guardian of private property; to the intelligentsia as a militant nationalist; to the urban workers as a man of the people and the advocate of distributive justice, to the rural masses as the man who would bring them water, electricity, housing, and health care—“the material goods the [Shah’s] White Revolution had failed to deliver.”
Ironically, Abrahamian notes, modernization strengthened the traditional classes. Religion provided urban slum dwellers from the villages with a sense of community and social solidarity. Class consciousness among the urban poor led them to look for leadership, not to the sophisticated intelligentsia, but to the religious classes who could speak their language. The Shah’s reforms freed the rural population from the tight control of landlords and tribal chiefs and opened the way for preachers and Islamic propagandists. By suppressing the old parties, trade unions, craft and local organizations, moreover, the Shah had effectively destroyed the means by which the moderate parties might have organized various groups in the community.
Yet in explaining the paradox of the Iranian revolution, Abrahamian seems reluctant to concede that clerics may serve as the vehicle for the advancement of new social groups, or that the masses, once mobilized, may articulate their needs in ways and through channels not normally associated with the “modern classes” or the urban or industrial proletariat. Rather, he finds that the conditions that at present account for clerical ascendancy are likely to pass. The religious community, in his view, will not produce another Khomeini; the mullas will not easily find another target, like the Shah, against whom the entire country can be aroused. Finally, “the clergy will gradually lose their organizational monopoly once the secular forces catch their breath and start establishing roots among the discontented classes, especially among the intelligentsia, the urban proletariat, and the rural lower classes. But whether it will be the older organizations, notably the Tudeh and the National Front, or those of more recent origin, such as the Feda’i and the Mujahedin, or even elements within the shattered military, that will attract the discontented classes is a question left to posterity.”
No doubt there will be those who will argue with the heavy emphasis Abrahamian gives to class in his analysis of Iranian politics. But he has written an excellent book—impressively researched, thoughtfully argued, and always provocative.