In the spring of 2009 the eminent historian of modern Iran Ervand Abrahamian wrote an article entitled, “Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived.” Therein he outlined why despite repeated predictions of doom by opposition figures and Western pundits alike, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not only endured but also proven capable of absorbing and channeling societal demands and pressures from below, in a way that the ancien régime it supplanted patently failed. His answer? Upon its founding, “the Islamic Republic promised to create a full-fledged welfare state” and had since made notable headway in realizing this goal during its almost four-decade lifespan.
Kevan Harris’s new book pursues this line of thought, while opening several novel avenues along the way to offer the first monograph analyzing the history of the Islamic Republic’s welfare policy and its complex relationship with the sociopolitical transformations experienced by Iranian society since the revolution. As Harris remarks in the introduction, the Iranian state has rarely been examined through the “lens of the developmental state” (p. 4), and its role in the country’s “development” is frequently understood solely in terms of income, rather than in a more comprehensive sense outlined by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and others, to include “access to healthcare, education and other forms of social welfare” (p. 5).
Even when the politics of welfare in Iran are appraised, it is often reduced to a crass form of clientelism and co-optation, purchasing the political loyalty of a small minority lording over a passive, albeit disgruntled majority. In line with more recent literature on Iranian politics and society, an early example of which might be considered Asef Bayat’s seminal Street Politics (Columbia University Press, 1997), Harris endeavors to show how the lineages of Iran’s welfare state evolved through the interplay of elite contestation and popular pressure from below. Facile recourse to rentierism and the doling out of oil revenues is rightly considered to be far from sufficient to explain the continuities and ruptures characterizing the mediated relationship of Iranian state and society. He forcefully argues that postrevolutionary elite competition and the revolution’s inheritance of popular mobilization created opportunities for “upward status mobility” (p. 14), where a new middle class has been able to draw upon the social capital it accumulated in recent decades to place further demands upon the state (p. 176) — even if “state loyalty did not purchase mass loyalty over the long run” (p. 181).
Harris shows how the Islamic Republic not only continued but expanded and extended several Pahlavi-era welfare schemes (p. 146). Moreover, he also reveals how the momentous upsurge of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and wartime mobilization shaped the lineaments of the Iranian welfare state in subsequent decades to create a parallel “martyrs’ welfare state” (Chapter 3); what he calls the Islamic Republic’s “dual-welfare regime” (p. 15).
The two most illuminating case studies Harris brings to bear to illustrate his larger argument address the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) and Primary Health Care (PHC), for which he undertook extensive fieldwork. The IKRC was able to target marginalized social groups in a way that the Pahlavi-era focus on formal labor and the salaried civil service could not; it thus provided “financial aid and health insurance to low-income families, interest-free loans for housing, scholarships for young Iranians, and stipends for the elderly poor in rural areas” (p. 106). Meanwhile, Iran’s PHC system of rural clinics provided access to prenatal health care and family planning initiatives radically shaping Iran’s demography in unexpected ways (p. 139). By 2010 the PHC’s system of village clinics covered as much as 95% of Iran’s rural populace (p. 119). This commitment to development has remained strong among governing elites, even if deeply held disagreements continued to divide them over what constituted development and how it ought to best be realized (p. 159).
A Social Revolution acts as a much-needed corrective to a lot of the academic and policy literature on contemporary Iran, which tends to view the country’s political and social geography in binary terms: namely, a top-heavy, ideological, and oppressive state versus a resistant, cosmopolitan society. The latter framing of state/society relations has increasingly found itself under siege in scholarly accounts, of which Harris’s contribution is an important addition.
Despite the Iranian dual-welfare regime having a broader scope than most are prepared to admit, the question still remains whether cultural, social and economic capital has been and continues to be distributed by means of parallel state and quasi-state institutions to favored groups and segments of the population in the expectation that it will engender the reproduction of the regime’s political, religious, and cultural hegemony? If, yes, is it necessarily effective in fostering political acquiescence or producing the results desired by elites? Hardly, as Mohammad Reza Shah’s own developmentalist drive attests. Despite myriad co-optative efforts, the shah, to his great dismay, still found himself overthrown by a popular revolution, which his modernizing drive had no small part in engendering. In fact, because of the difficulties faced by researchers trying to understand the inner workings of the Islamic Republic’s religious, political, and cultural foundations, it is perhaps better to admit that there is still much essential meso-level work which needs to be done.
While Harris’s account of welfare greatly enriches the debate over regime resilience and the sources of social mobility and Iran’s shifting class composition, it does not vanquish the specter of clientelistic politics writ large under the Islamic Republic, even if it manages to deftly demonstrate how recourse to such explanations alone are often lazy and profoundly reductive. The author must be commended for not only considerably complicating this picture, but also highlighting Iran’s unexceptional status on this score amongst other middle-income countries of the erstwhile Third World (p. 31). His demonstration that the main beneficiaries of Iran’s Social Security Organization have not been the poorest strata of Iranian society, but rather its middle and upper income strata is enlightening (p. 167). Nonetheless, the intractable “problem” of state parallelism and its thorny relationship to political patronage and the distribution of “capital” persists, not merely in the sphere of welfare but also domestic security, economic extractive activities, cultural production, and geopolitical decision-making, all which regularly overlap and at times bleed into one another.
A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran, by Kevan Harris. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. 326 pages.
Published with permission from The Middle East Journal, a publication of the Middle East Institute, where this book review first appeared. All rights reserved ©Middle East Institute.
Learn more about the book and read an excerpt here.
 Ervand Abrahamian, “Why the Islamic Republic of Iran Has Survived,” Middle East Report, No. 250 (Spring 2009), www.merip.org/mer/mer250/why-islamic-republic-has-survived.