Domestic Support for the Islamic Republic of Iran

Written by admin on July 24th, 2009

There’s no doubt that the Iranian government’s claim that Ahmadinejad won the June 2009 national election by a 62% margin was grossly exaggerated or that, as the Iranian president put it, the election was the “freest and the healthiest election the world has ever seen” was pure delusion.

But the fact remains that a substantial portion of Iranians supported Ahmadinejad.  There is the real possibility that he may have won a majority of the popular vote; we’ll never know because of the government’s skullduggery.  For a number of reasons, the regime’s support often reaches down deep into Iranian society. Understanding why may moderate those in Washington and elsewhere who still are bucking for regime change in Iran.

Two of the most knowledgeable scholars on Iran – Ervand Abrahamian and Eric Hooglund – offered insightful articles on Iran’s domestic scene in the Spring 2009 issue of Middle East Report entitled The Islamic Revolution at 30.

Ervand Abrahamian, a professor at Baruch College and author of the recently published A History of Modern Iran, penned the article “Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived.”  He rejects the four traditional answers: terror (it weakened rather than strengthened the Republic), the Iran-Iraq war (initial support for the government dissipated as the war needlessly dragged on), oil (high revenues didn’t help the shah and the last 30 year’s income has fluctuated greatly), and Shi’ism (it’s not believable 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.”).

The Republic’s survival was not in religion but “in economic and social populism,” Abrahamian concludes. Forgotten by most Western observers, the revolution promised to bring about fundamental social and economic justice. Couched in an Islamic milieu, prominent voices within the revolution echoed Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh in propagating a future anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist agenda. Abrahamian points out that 175 clauses of the Islamic Republic’s constitution promises in effect to create a full-fledged welfare – the elimination of poverty, illiteracy, slums and unemployment, coupled with free education, accessible medical care, decent housing, pension, disability pay and unemployment insurance.

After 30 years, the Republic “has taken significant steps toward fulfilling these promises.”  Priority spending has gone to social rather than military programs.  The result has been the near elimination of illiteracy among the post-revolutionary generations; the percentage of women in universities jumped from 30 to 62 percent; and,  life expectancy at birth increased from 56 to 70. The rural areas have directly benefited from the revolution’s program and continued land distribution to poorer peasants has formed “a substantial rural class” that “provides the regime with a rural social base.”

The urban poor likewise have been uplifted through low-income housing and extending electricity, water and sewage lines throughout working class neighborhoods. A safety net for the underclass is firmly in place, with subsidized bread, fuel, gas, heat electricity, medicines and public transportation.  Semi-independent social institutions established by and loyal to the Supreme Leader, stand as powerful interest groups protecting an array of social programs.

Abrahamian warns of the coming tension between the beneficiaries of these popular social programs and the swelling numbers of well educated, socially upward mobile young people who want jobs, a better standard of living and expanded access to the Western world. Absent an increase in oil and gas revenues – now frustrated by U.S.-led economic sanctions – the Republic will be hard pressed to ameliorate this class conflict. The clashes that ensued after the June election illustrated Abrahamian’s prescient observations.

Eric Hooglund, a professor at Bates College, who has been visiting rural Iran for the past 30 years, reviewed how the countryside has benefited under 30 years of Islamic Republic governance. He notes the huge increase in paved, two-lane roads, piped water, telephone lines and that 99 percent of rural homes now have electricity. “Refrigerators are ubiquitous in villages” observed Hooglund, but the “most popular appliance is the television set.” Education has highly regarded, with both boys and girls finishing high school and some going on to college. The slow integration of the countryside into the metropolis has brought “urban ideas and fashions into the villages” along with national politics.  In the 2005 election, Ahmadinejad won most of the village vote.

Hooglund noted that social class divisions have become sharper than in the pre-revolutionary era but the abject poverty common under the shah no longer prevails. Government subsidized food and fuel, free medical care, and other welfare programs meet the needs of low income families. “The seeping of urban consumer society into the villages,” Hooglund predicted, accompanied by an interest in government politics, will see more rural participation in the contentions debates over social, political and religious issues now centered largely in Iran’s urban areas.

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The June elections underscored just how politicized rural communities had become.  Talking with old friends in Iran, Hooglund learned that at least one village was “seething with moral outrage because at least two-thirds of all people over 18 years of age believe that the recent presidential election was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Villagers flocked to the city of Shiraz to participate in anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations. “Most villagers are supporters of the Islamic Republic,” Hooglund stated, “but they are ready for the reforms that they say are essential so that their children will have a secure economic future. They saw hope in Mousavi’s promise to implement reforms, even though he is a part of the governing elite.”


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