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Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and the United States: U.S. Congressional Research Service Reports

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) is an often overlooked gold mine of information on U.S. policy on an array of topics, including foreign affairs.  A division of the Library of Congress, it offers analysis of issues for members of congress and their staff and is written by individuals knowledgeable in their chosen field. While some of its reports are classified, most can be found on line.

Reports issued by CRS’s division of foreign affairs are predictably stilted but their descriptive content is indispensable for those seeking data on U.S. foreign military and economic assistance, succinct histories of U.S. foreign relations, and summarizes of U.S. policy concerns toward select countries. It’s a bonanza of information collected in one place. The Middle East division has been particularly busy in recent months, having issued 12 reports in January 2011 and December 2010, compared to their monthly average of two. Issues include political reform in Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait, U.S. relations toward Syria and Lebanon, background reports on Hezbollah and Hamas, and U.S. foreign aid to Israel.

The most recent releases are Tunisia: Recent Developments and Policy Issues and Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations. The 13 page Tunisia report was written soon after President Ben Ali fled the country and highlights following the Tunisian uprising the “potential implications for Congress related to the oversight to U.S.-Tunisian bilateral relations and assistance.” It offered the understated prediction that “many analysts believe the events in Tunisia could affect political stability in other countries in the region with authoritarian-leaning, Western-backed regimes.”

The 28 page report on Egypt, released January 18, 2011 at the rise of the Egyptian rebellion, presents an overview of Egypt’s political structure and parties and U.S.-Egyptian relations, including a chart showing U.S. aid to Egypt from 1948 to the present.  It recognizes the tension between some U.S. policy makers advocating an “orderly” transfer of power from Mubarak to new leadership that insures “Egypt’s peace with Israel, U.S. access to the Suez Canal, and general bilateral military cooperation” and others wishing to see in Egypt “a genuine democracy even if it empowers the Muslim Brotherhood.”

CRS also issued in early January 2011 Iran Sanctions, a report detailing the evolution of international sanctions against Iran.  It succinctly reviews the myriad of U.S. sanctions legislation, U.N. resolutions, and action by other countries against Iran.  It outlines the policies that target Iran’s energy sector, restrict its ability to make or import gasoline, and isolate Iran from the international financial system. The report states that by “all accounts,” sanctions is “having a growing effect on Iran’s economy” by intensifying “the effects of Iran’s economic mismanagement and key bottlenecks.” But the CRS study concedes that a “consensus [opines] that sanctions have not, to date, caused such an Iranian policy shift.” It suggests that the White House and Congress may be promoting Iran’s domestic opposition by “emphasizing measures that would sanction Iranian officials who are human rights abusers, facilitate the democracy movement’s access to information, and express outright U.S. support for the opposition.”

The report’s author, Kenneth Katzman, is prominent among Washington’s Middle East foreign policy establishment and a long time Iran watcher, having started his career at the CIA’s Middle East analytic section and authoring one of the earliest books on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He has written an extensive series of fact laden CRS publications on Iran, with one title, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, periodically updated. Glenn Greenwald, however, considers him a neocon whose opinions “reveal the grotesque indifference and banal evil that characterizes much of America’s war-loving Foreign Policy Community.”

Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East by Jubin M. Goodarzi (I.B. Tauris London, 2009) Reviewed by Mateen Rokhsefat

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Jubin Goodarzi’s dense book is full of detailed historical events mapping the thirty year long Syrian-Iranian alliance. Goodarzi effectively reiterates his main points throughout the book. He maintains that with careful research and analysis he has detailed the origins and development of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, a feat different from other scholars who only provide a general overview of the formative years. He points to several key reasons for the alliance to have remained resilient and united for the past thirty years: regime survival in view of their authoritarian nature; a defensive alliance against Iraqi, Israeli and American encroachment in the Middle East; maintaining national security and the territorial integrity and independence of each country; their different areas of concern (Gulf for Iran and Levant for Syria) does not interfere with each other.

In his first chapter, Goodarzi explains that inter-Arab politics and revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy orientation and ideology were critical factors for this alliance. In late 1970s, the relation between Syria and Pahlavi Iran was severely damaged due to Iran’s close ties with Israel which prompted Syria to welcome the new Iranian government. Another deciding factor was the contentious relationship of both countries with Iraq. Iraq’s invasion of Iran brought Syria and Iran closer together, with Syria providing valuable diplomatic and military aid. Many expected Syria to join other Arab countries in backing Saddam against non-Arab Iran. However, Syria supported Iran and played a key role in preventing a united Arab front against Iran which strengthened the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement and transformed it into a formal alliance. Syria saw in Iran a powerful non-Arab ally that would increase the ability of the Arab states to undermine Israeli and Western power in the region and provide leverage against Syria’s Arab rivals.

Chapter two examines the period between 1982 and 1985 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and engaging Syria in the fifth Arab-Israeli war. Iran having pushed the war inside Iraq reciprocated Syria’s help and lent support by mobilizing Lebanon’s Shiites to drive out Israeli and Western forces.  These events created a period of even closer cooperation between Syria and Iran against their common enemies. However, by 1984 Iraq became the stronger partly due to rapprochement with Washington and Moscow and played a main role in “the Reagan administration’s overall approach to safeguard Western interests against states such as Iran and Syria.”

The third chapter covers the 1985-1988 phase which was the most critical and tumultuous time in the alliance when the two allies developed conflicting agendas. Areas of contention included Iran’s support of Hezbollah who was at odds with Syria-supported Amal. In addition, Arab states and the USSR were pressuring Syria to abandon Iran and there were signs of rapprochement with previously staunch enemies: Jordan and Iraq.  However, by late 1980s, their partnership had solidified and they had overcome difficulties by handling the extremely turbulent crises in Lebanese and Gulf politics. Goodarzi explains that Syria and Iran: “saw a unique role for themselves in the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term, and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region.”

The very concise final chapter explains why the alliance lasted beyond the 1980s and into the 21st century. The Kuwait crisis changed the entire political equation in the Middle East overnight and gave Syria and Iran opportunities to capitalize on the new situation and recoup their positions. Furthermore, Iraq’s attack on another Arab country and the subsequent division in the Arab world provided an opportunity for both Iran and Syria to reconcile with Arab and Western governments and to break out of their regional and international isolation. Goodarzi states that the United States was a main reason for the fortification of Syrian-Iranian alliance in the late 1990s and specifically after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Overall, Washington’s pro-Israeli stance in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, its support for the emergence of a Turkish-Israeli alliance after 1996 to isolate Iran and cow Syria into submission, and its willingness to exploit Iran-Gulf Arab differences to justify military presence and huge arms sales to its regional allies reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the period after the cold war.”  Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and increased US domination and presence in the Middle East, Syria and Iran have become more resolved in reinforcing their alliance.


Mateen Rokhsefat is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Affairs at the University of Toronto

Will Iraq Join a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race?

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

In the current issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, Richard L. Russell, a professor at the National Defense University, portends a Middle East on the verge of a nuclear arms race.  His prognosis is based on the many Arab states, plus Turkey, that have expressed an interest in acquiring or reinvesting in nuclear power to meet their future energy needs.  Russell fears that peaceful nuclear power in the Arab world inevitably will lead to clandestine nuclear weapons development.

Russell faults Iran for prompting the likelihood of a nuclear arms race but he also recognizes that the Islamic Republic is not the only contributor to a regional nuclear arms race. Russell identifies five factors influencing the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the region: “to deter adversaries, compensate for conventional military shortcomings, fight wars, garner domestic political power, and win international political power, especially to leverage against the United States.”

Russell warns that “given this powerful array of determinants for nuclear weapons present and pervasive in the Middle East, the current Western push to market and sell nuclear power infrastructure and capabilities to the region is dangerously short-sighted. These capabilities could well be converted for military nuclear weapons programs in some shape or form in the next generation.”

Absent from Russell’s review is consideration of war-torn Iraq, a significant omission in light of an in-depth study published by the U.S. Army War College.  Authored by Dr. Norman Cigar, a former senior Pentagon Middle East analyst, the report concludes that Iraqi political elites are determined to reconstitute their country’s nuclear program, including the possible development of nuclear weapons. Cigar readily acknowledges that forecasting Iraq’s future is unpredictable but concludes that “one should expect in Iraq the same movement toward nuclear power as in the rest of the Middle East, at least in the civilian sector.”  He relates how as early as 1993, Iraqi nuclear scientists were urging a resumption of a nuclear program and that “virtually everyone in [Iraq’s] informed public” view nuclear power as “quintessentially emblematic of scientific and intellectual progress.”

The Iraqi  Shi’a community, Cigar found, was largely supportive of Iran’s nuclear endeavors and some viewed a nuclear armed Iran as a shield against threats from neighboring Sunni countries, Israel or the United States. In contrast, Iraqi Sunnis and secular leftists viewed Iran’s nuclear proclivities with alarm. But generally, “within the informed [Iraqi] public opinion,” Cigar found a “domestic and intellectual and political environment that is receptive to the notion of nuclear weapons as a useful and legitimate instrument of national power.”

Iraq has begun to reestablish its nuclear program by reintegrating itself into the Arab world’s official nuclear research mainstream, asking France to help build a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and seeking Italian investment in its nuclear industry.  The government is also trying to reconstitute the country’s scientific community – Cigar’s sources estimate that some 5,500 Iraqi scientists were lost through emigration or assassination; of those killed, 350 were nuclear scientists.

Cigar concludes that a near-term resumption of an Iraqi military program is unlikely, although how Iraqi leadership views regional threats could change that prediction.  He implicitly takes issue with Russell’s thesis in JFQ that rejected any suggestion that Israel’s nuclear weapons play a role in the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Cigar asserts that a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict “would create an environment that is less conductive to consensus for the need of nuclear weapons” and recognizes that “a continuing fear of Israel’s nuclear intentions … spurs and justifies calls for proliferation of nuclear weapons as a counterweight.”  He also identifies the double standard on which the U.S. and the international community judges Israel’s nuclear weapons and those of other regional states as a cause for proliferation. Lastly, the former Pentagon analyst recommends that the United States and its allies avoid “threatening regimes such as Iran’s with forcible change.”  He counsels that such intimidation only “make regional rulers defensive, putting a premium on acquiring a nuclear deterrent as a buttress to regime security, thus sparking a cascade effect.”

Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad by William R. Polk (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) Reviewed by Farideh Farhi

Monday, March 15th, 2010

I must admit that I began reading William R. Polk’s book on Iran with quite a bit of skepticism. The rather immodest ‘everything you need to know’ subtitle, claiming both historical depth and breadth, made this short book suspect. But this is a book that should not be missed by those who would like to read a short, accessible, and well-written précis of Iranian history, political culture, and paranoia and fear-inducing historical memories and how this history has framed how Iran understands its relations with the United States.

Polk has been both an academic and a policymaker and while a good deal of the book covers Iran’s ancient and early-modern history – in a lively and enjoyable way that highlights key moments and the impact they have had on Iran’s historical consciousness and mental torments – he comes into his element when talking about events in the twentieth century.

By the end it is clear that the intent of highlighting Iran’s tormented history is to contribute to the thriving ‘what to do with Iran’ industry that exists in Washington.

What makes Understanding Iran decidedly different from other works, however, is Polk’s attempt to “appreciate” the influences, fears, and motivations which “in sum define Iranians.” The result is an argument that challenges the common perception about Iran as political or militarily expansionist state. It also rejects the religious aggressiveness of the Iranian state, pointing that Shi’a Islam is eschatological and not messianic.

Most importantly, the Islamic Iran Polk presents is not a caricature or a country led and shaped by a few deranged men intent on challenging the United States’ good will for no reason but spite.

Polk’s narrative makes it clear that one cannot adopt such a faulty approach toward a political system that arose out of a genuinely popular revolution and was a world historical event that changed the Middle East, even if the ensuing system ended up being a major disappointment to many of its participants.

Polk also reminds his readers that threatening, bullying, and containing Islamic Iran has been the norm in US policy for the past three decades. These policies have added to the older bitter memories of British, Russian and American machinations, invasions, and dominance. Despite it all, Islamic Iran has survived but it has done so with a chip on its shoulders and pursues policies that, given what it has faced, are merely rational for its preservation and security.

These policies include the imposition of stern ideological and security controls to make espionage impossible, creation of a capacity for guerrilla war that could survive an American and Israeli attack, cultivation of non-Western friends and allies, and attempted acquisition of the “ultimate defense.”  Polk is quite clear that he considers it both “ahistorical and illogical for Iran not to be acquiring at least the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon.”

Accordingly, the solution to the “Iran problem” for Polk essentially lies in giving Iran sufficient security guarantees. The US must renounce its assertion of the right to attack Iran preemptively and it should take steps to create a nuclear-free Middle East.

Polk’s points are of course well-taken. There is no doubt that US policies, by threatening Iran and by ratcheting up the sanctions noose, have led to a more security-conscious Iran. Instead of pushing Iran in the direction of compromise or giving in to external demands, these policies have created a hardened and securitized country. Different US policies should lead to different results.

But the reality is that external pressures are only one part – albeit a big part – of Iran’s story in the past 30 years. The other part of Iran’s story is its highly contested political environment that has made relations with the United States political football inside the country.

By mostly focusing on the “interests” of the Iranian state vis-à-vis the United States, Polk somewhat shortchanges the impact of domestic politics on Iran’s foreign policy and in the process assumes that drastic change of policy in the United States – no matter how unlikely that may be – will be reciprocated soon enough.

This is while in Iran, like in the United States, 30 years of animosity has created stakeholders who have a stake in maintaining the animosity for the sake of political power. While it is true that the imposition of stern ideological an security control is one way of making externally-inspired espionage impossible, it is also a path for certain forces insides Iran to maintain political power. At this point, it is not clear if these forces merely find American policies a threat or the whole idea of relations with the United States is something they reject.

After the June 12 election and the ensuing crackdown, it is also not clear if reconciliation with the United States is possible without some sort of reconciliation among key players and forces in Iran who are now openly in war.

Polk’s book went into print before the Obama Administration’s decision to engage with Iran, which as of now is in tatters after only one short meeting among the principals in Geneva, with Tehran turning even more defiant and distrustful of American intentions and the Obama administration talking about options that can be considered neither effective nor not dangerous. In short, yet another attempted encounter between the US and Iran intended to build confidence led to more mistrust on the part of both sides.

The Obama administration’s mantra of change regarding Iran appears more and more like the Bush administration policies of threatening Iran with sanctions or worse.  Conversely, the chronic chaos of Iran’s domestic politics reinforces for many American policymakers what seems to be Iran’s perfidy and brutality.  Still, Polk’s basic point remains valid that the solving of the “Iran Problem” cannot come about without patience and understanding Iran and its fears.

. ***

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua (University of Illinois Press) and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and was most recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.

Acknowledging Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities: “Beyond Zero Enrichment: Suggestions for an Iranian Nuclear Deal,” Matthew Bunn, Belfer Center, Harvard, Kennedy School; “The Paradox of Iran’s Nuclear Consensus,” Kayhan Barzegar; World Policy Journal.

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Concluding that there is “virtually no chance that Iran will agree to zero enrichment,” Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, recommends that acquiescing to a limited Iranian enrichment program is the “least bad option” for the United States.  His conclusion was based on an assessment that economic sanctions would not stop Iran’s enrichment program and that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be unproductive, and after the dust settled, probably compel Iran to develop a bomb in covert sites. He recommends agreement on a near-nuclear capability, where Iran would continue to enrich uranium but not actually build a bomb. Blunn recognizes the drawbacks in this scenario. But he believes that possessing the threat that Iran could quickly assemble a bomb if need be would satisfy significant factions within Iran’s foreign policymaking establishment. The “carrot” of expanded trade, investment and other benefits would strengthen the so-called moderates, bring other voices into Iranian decision-making (eg. finance or oil ministers), and raise the political threshold when deciding to build a bomb. Iranian hardliners would be further undermined with a U.S.-Iran agreement which reduced Iran’s perceived security threats.

Blunn’s conclusion that Iran will not give up totally its enrichment program was seconded by Kayhan Barzegar, a research fellow at the Belfer Center and an assistant professor in Tehran’s Islamic Azad University. He quickly squelches any suggestion that Iran will become more accommodating in the aftermath of its recent turbulent presidential election. Political divisions within Iran may exist on a number of foreign policy issues but they “will not,” says Barzegar, “severely impact the previous consensus around the nuclear issue as a matter of national and geostrategic pride.”  Underscoring this consensus was that Ahmadinejad’s presidential rival – Mir Hossein Moussavi – supported Iran’s nuclear development.

Recent opinion polls confirm popular support for Iran’s on-going uranium enrichment. Asked whether they would favor an agreement whereby the current sanctions would be removed and Iran would continue its nuclear energy program but agree not to enrich uranium, only 31% of those surveyed favored the idea, while 55% were opposed and 14% did not give an answer. Significantly, the poll found that two thirds of Iranians would agree not to build nuclear weapons and permit IAEA inspectors full access to nuclear facilities in exchange for lifting current sanctions – but one third would consent only if Iran’s enrichment program was permitted to continue.

Barzegar predicts that Iran’s nuclear program will progress independently of any future nuclear negotiations. He suggests that the extent of the program will significantly depend on whether Israel continues to threaten preemptive attacks and whether Washington persists in its efforts to delegitimize the regime. Barzegar offers compelling reasons why Iran’s leaders would find weaponization to be “untenable, unnecessary, and unwise.” But faced with threats from Israel and the United States, “it is hardly surprising that the Iranian government views an independent nuclear fuel cycle as interchangeable with deterrence.”

Three possible end games are envisioned: a verifiable Iranian nuclear fuel cycle subject to international monitoring following Washington’s guarantee not to disturb Tehran’s security and legitimacy; an independent nuclear capability not aspiring to weaponization resulting from the failure of negotiations to assure Iran’s security; or, development of a nuclear weapons program in the face of mounting, credible threats. Barzegar suggests that Ahmadinejad, having consolidated his power and backed by the Supreme Leader, would be willing and capable to engage in substantive negotiations with the U.S. and Western leaders, so long as Iran is treated as equal, the negotiations are devoid of threats, and accompanied by a “genuine change” in attitude toward the Islamic Republic.

Israel’s “Sadat Option”: Could Israel Push the U.S. to Attack Iran? – Joint Forces Quarterly

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

The  general consensus among military policy wonks is that an Israeli attack to halt Iran’s nuclear development would be difficult and largely ineffectual: the lengthy flightpath would have Israel’s warplanes transiting over possible hostile foreign airspace, it doesn’t have a sufficient number of aircraft to hit all of Iran’s widely dispersed nuclear installations, and the long fight probably would prohibit its bombers from carrying the heavy ordinance necessary to destroy Iran’s hardened sites. Only the United States has the capability to mount a sustained and widespread attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  President Bush had rejected Israel’s request for a joint U.S.-Israeli attack and the Obama administration so far has shown no willingness to resort to the military option to force Iran to halt its nuclear development.

But Richard L. Russell, a professor at the National Defense University, points out that Israel could push the U.S. into a fight with Iran.  Writing in the Joint Forces Quarterly, a publication for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Russell shares Israel’s view that economic sanctions against Iran will have little meaningful effect and that Tehran will continue a clandestine nuclear weapons program under the cover of prolonged negotiations.  He posits that Israel could take a page from Anwar Sadat’s playbook:  the 1973 war was not launched to defeat Israel but to shake Washington and Tel Aviv into starting meaningful negotiations.  Russell suggests that Israel could become frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations and “strike out militarily with no illusion of severely damaging Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but with every intention of shocking the international community via the Sada option into substantially greater diplomatic, political, economic, and military pressure on Iran.”

The drawback with this plan is that no one believes that in response to an assault, Iran simply would sit back and do nothing.  Russell recognizes that Iran and most of the Muslim world inevitably would blame Washington for an Israeli strike, resulting in retaliatory attacks against a broad range of U.S. interests worldwide. Iranian action against U.S. forces in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, attacks by the Revolutionary Guards on U.S. ships in the Gulf, or Iranian sponsored terrorist attacks would compel U.S. counter-attacks. Similarly, the Obama administration would be hard pressed not to come to Israel’s defense if Iran retaliated with missile strikes against Israel.

Russell hints that Israeli action against Iran could be precipitated by bellicose threats or reckless action by Iran or by strikes by Hizballah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad against Israeli interests.  Any such incidents also could serve as a pretext for war, much like the incidents used to justify Israel’s 2006 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon.  But unlike Lebanon, exercizing the “Sadat option” by Israel most likely would push the United States into a war with Iran.  Russell tactfully sidesteps this conclusion; he simply suggests that U.S. military planner be ready for Iranian retalliation.

Domestic Support for the Islamic Republic of Iran

Friday, 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.


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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