Feb/March 1997 THE IRANIAN Issue No. 9

Global Publishing Group

The conclusion to "From the White Revolution to the Islamic Revolution" by Ahmad Ashraf, a chapter from the book "Iran after the Revolution: Crisis of an Islamic state" edited by Saeed Rahnema and Sohrab Behdad (I.B. Tauris publishers, London, 1995). Dr. Ashraf is a professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York and a senior editor of Encyclopedia Iranica.

The ideological guideline of the Shah's White Revolution was the old Iranian and Islamic concept of "organic benevolent statism": at its economic base were the increasing oil revenues and expanding public enterprises; its political and coercive power base was the rapidly expanding public and military bureaucracies; and its social base was built upon maneuverings and mediations among conflicting forces in society.

The accumulation of vast political and economic resources within the public domain made the state the supreme social mediator among the major social forces, including the dominant classes of the public and private sectors, the modern and traditional middle classes, and such popular classes as peasant proprietors, privileged workers in the modern industrial sector, and urban poor and rural migrants.Under these circumstances the state acquired great bargaining power and relative autonomy vis-a-vis the society, thus subordinating all social forces to its selective and often arbitrary development policies and strategies.

The process of intellectual divergence and cultural alienation reached its climax in the 1960s with the emergence of a new Westernized intelligentsia that boasted about its contempt for and ignorance of religion and traditional Persian culture. A segment of this group, many of whom were educated at Western universities, replaced the old-guard political elites in the course of the White Revolution.

Meanwhile, the religious establishment at Qom showed resilience and experienced a drastic intellectual change, which paved the way for its appeal to the young intelligentsia and the impending rise to power of its militant and politicizing segment.

Under these circumstances, the main societal role of the state became that of an uncomfortable mediator among major conflicting forces in society. The selective mode of the state's social mediation -- with its strong statist and bourgeois-capitalist biases -- led to increasing grievances on the part of the urban middle and lower middle classes against the state.

The state managers were bitterly critical of the windfall capital accumulation by the private-sector magnates, and influence peddlers maneuvering around the royal court. the entrepreneurs and the nouveau riches of the private sector were discontented with their powerlessness vis-a-vis the arbitrary decision-making of the state, with the authorities' support of privileged labor, with the competition of state-owned enterprises, and the lack of political power and an autonomous organizational base.

The rapidly growing intelligentsia, though it had acquired a handsome share of the petrol pie, was discontented with its political powerlessness and the repression of human rights. The members of the bazaar-mosque alliance were dissatisfied with the state's increasing interventionist policies, (including the state-owned and operated chain stores, rising taxes, and the campaign against price gouging) as well as with the encroachment of a Western mode of life, which was considered a threat to their traditional urban Islamic lifestyle. The rising expectations of fixed-income wage- and salary-earners, including industrial workers and government employees, led them to increase their demands for higher salaries and fringe benefits.

Yet the state's clear objective was to prevent the transformation of the class conflict from a covert to an overt one. To this end, it relied on benevolent distributive policies as well as on repressive measures and prevention of the formation of autonomous class-based organizations, including those of the grande bourgeoisie, intelligentsia and the industrial proletariat.

Iran's regime in this period may be characterized as a neopatrimonial authority, under the command of the Shah, that was imposed upon a rentier state. The Shah proved himself to be, time and again in periods of political strife, an incompetent autocratic ruler. Such a regime was susceptible to challenge and collapse in times of crisis.

There were a number of reasons for this. In general, rentier states tend to be vulnerable because they are the center of resources and thus monopolize the mechanisms of economic development with ever more paternalistic, distributive, accumulative and extractive policies. In Iran, these circumstances led the state to assume excessive responsibilities, thus encouraging if not forcing the privileged classes to retreat from responsibility, weakening the internal cohesion of the dominant classes and the invisible links between the rulers and major social classes and groups in society.

With the regime organized around a network of patronage relations, the dominant classes became "politically immature". The political culture of the power elite, top bureaucrats, army commanders, state managers , grande bourgeoisie, as well as the intellectuals and the new middle class, was essentially a culture of idleness. As individuals, they were given an opportunity for social mobility and for promotion of their own material interests, but as a group they were systematically denied the opportunity to protect their class interests through organized and independent political action. They were ignorant of Iranian culture as well as the living conditions of the traditional strata of the masses of villagers, urban poor and rural migrants.

As a result, the Shah's patronage system constantly weakened the ability of the ruling elites to forge alliances among themselves or to guide, mobilize and control contenders for state power in times of political turmoil. The political and mobilizational feebleness of the bureaucratic/military elites and entrepreneurial classes, their low level of symbolic institutional autonomy, and their low level of political maturity were all detrimental to the regime at the time of trouble.

The White Revolution eliminated the traditional foundation of patrimonial authority -- the ulema, the bazaaris, and the landowning classes -- which had maintained linkages among the old oligarchy as well as between them and the masses of urban, rural and tribal communities. They were replaced by new classes and groups -- the newly-created grande bourgeoisie, the young Western-educated bureaucratic elites, and the new middle classes who had weak links among themselves and were unable to or incapable of developing a strong connection with the core of the state or with the intelligentsia and other key elements of society.

The new elite's lack of an independent political base often meant that they did not have any significant input into major economic and policy decisions, whereas the old elite, by virtue of its traditional patron-client relations with the local populations, had provided a point of articulation between the state and the urban society. Because of the Shah's fear of independent power centers, members of the new power elite and the grande bourgeoisie were denied the opportunity to organize themselves into effective political groupings.

In the 1970s, the nucleus of a revolutionary coalition was formed from a small group of militant ulema, their bazaari followers and activist intelligentsia who together had ready access to the extensive human, financial and spatial resources of the bazaar, the mosque and the school-university networks. A crack in the regime, in conjunction with preexisting organizational networks and solidarity groups in the urban society, was needed as a catalyst for the mobilization of an effective protest movement.

Finally, the character of the ruler in "autocratic rentier states" is an important factor in crisis management. A ruler's lack of will for a time of crisis would, of course, be detrimental to the system as a whole. A combination of these factors was present in the mid-1970s. The Shah began to lose his will to fight, especially after the victory of Jimmy Carter in the American presidential race of November 1976 and the ensuing pressure of human-rights issues by the new Democratic administration in Washington.

These political pressures to accord human rights gave the revolutionary coalition opportunities for mass mobilization. When the political upheavals of 1977-79 came, the feeble character of the Shah combined with the political immaturity and structural weakness of the newly dominant middle classes, led to the collapse of the Pahlavi regime.

Other articles by Dr. Ashraf:

Conspiracy Theories and the Persian Mind

The Qajar class structure

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