[The writer is an Iranian living in the West. The present article is largely based on impressions and material gathered during a recent visit to Iran. It is a sequel to Iran After the War, which appeared in issue no. 7 of this Bulletin.]

A new bureaucracy

Khomeini’s funeral was attended by four million people. The Islamic Republic had created a large fundamentalist apparatus, committed to the Islamization of society. This became, in effect, a powerful new bureaucracy, which embraced the ruling ideology epitomized by the rhe­toric of “neither East nor West” and the vows to continue the Gulf War “till the victory of Islam”. For nine years it justified and defended the appal­lingly high number of war casualties ‒ an estimated one million killed out of a population of 40 million ‒ with the grotesque claim that dying for Islam means “liberation from the Great Satan of Eastern and Western Imperialism, and a sure way to paradise”.

This new social bureaucracy was recruited from the petty bourgeoisie, the urban poor and lumpen elements who provided an important base of support for Khomeini in the vital early years after the fall of the Shah. Many of them could have been drawn towards a socialist perspective had a clear political lead been provided by the organizations of the left. Instead, in the absence of such a vital pole of attraction, they were drawn towards the Islamic Republic as Khomeini’s regime began to conso­lidate itself. They were incorporated by the state into Islamic institutions and projects such as the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), the local Komttehs (Islamic Councils which played the role of a police force), the Basseej (an organization for mobilizing irregulars for war), Jihad (recon­struction crusades) and various other Islamic bodies, which play the role of secret police and have replaced the old Savak (the Shah’s secret police) in workplaces, schools, universities and on the streets (M. Poya, “Iran: Background to the Gulf War”, Capital and Class no. 33, Winter 1987).

Members of this layer are the ideological prop of the regime: it has given them material security and they have a real stake in its survival. They have risen in social position from the petty bourgeoisie and urban poor to a privileged middle class of the Islamic Republic. They have much to gain by fighting for Islam, but everything to lose when the interests of the Islamic regime are threatened.

However, despite their commitment to the Islamic state, even this group of Khomeini’s most diehard supporters felt some unease due to the con­tradictions of the war. Some were unhappy with his conduct in certain matters, such as his last decision to dismiss his successor, Montazeri. Of course, his death immediately re-united them. For his supporters, Khomeini became an Iranian Napoleon or Atatürk, a national hero who shed blood and caused much suffering, but at the same time defended their honour by standing up to the world and declaring that he and Iran would not bow to foreigners as the Shah had done. His tomb became a national monument as well as a religious shrine. It was built by the Basseej, whose members had been trained and hardened by the war and had acquired dis­cipline, faith and capacity for hard work. They recruited the unemployed and beggars of Tehran to help build the shrine and the roads around it, in return for some money and food: lorries arrived three times a day with substantial hot cooked meals. The work was completed in a matter of weeks.

A picnic atmosphere

This shrine has now become a venue for religious and social gather­ings. The supporters, those who helped to build it, go there with their families every night; some of them, who are homeless or shanty-town dwellers, actually camp there. The month after Khomeini’s death happened to be Muharram, which is particularly important in Shi’i Islam as a month of mourning for Imam Husain, son of ‘Ali son of the Prophet, who was killed at Karbala on 10 Muharram AH 61 (AD 680), after leading an abortive revolt against Caliph Yazid.

Shi’i Islam ‒ of the mainstream, so-called Twelver variety ‒ was esta­blished as official religion of Iran in AD 1501 by Shah Isma’il I, founder of the Safavid dynasty. An important political role is played in Twelver Shi’ism by the doctrine of the Hidden Imam. The succession of Imams who led this main Shi’i sect came to an end in the late 9th century, with the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam. The Twelvers believe that he has gone into ghayba (hiding or occultation), and will return one day as Mahdi (Rightly Guided) and Sahib al-Zaman (Lord of the Age), to establish the reign of justice. Until his return, no state is considered fully legitimate ‒ a doctrine which obviously makes the position of Shi’ism as state religion somewhat problematic, not to say paradoxical.

A central feature of Shi’ism is the popular emotional expression given to the mourning for Imam Husain; his martyrdom at the hands of the Ummayads, more than 1300 years ago, is ever present in Shi’i conscious­ness as if it were a living memory. This is still observable in contemporary Iran. The ‘Ashura (tenth day [of Muharram]) ceremony is accompanied by dramatic performances symbolically re-enacting the events of Husain’s martyrdom, by the recitation of verses known as ta’ziya (consolation) and rouzeh Khani, as well as by ecstatic rituals of self-flagellation: sineh zani (men marching, beating their chests and scourging their backs with chains) and ghameh zani (laceration of one’s forehead; this latter ritual was banned in Iran in the 1920s by Reza Shah). These popular manifestations have always had a socio-political connotation, and served as a powerful inspi­ration to revolt against injustice and tyranny. The Shah was designated “the Yazid of the age”, since in the Shi’i mind all oppressor states are likened to the Ummayad rule of usurpation against the legitimate ‘Ali’s suc­cession. The clergy and the present Islamic state, on the other hand, have been associated with opposition to aggressive non-Muslim powers that threatened to impose their total control on Iran and destroy the Islamic community just as the Ummayads had done. (For a valuable descriptions of the powerful attitudes deriving from the myths of the occultation of the Twelfth Imam and the martyrdom of Imam Husain, see H. Algar, “The oppositional role of the Ulama in twentieth-century Iran” and G. Thaiss, “Re­ligious symbolism and social change: the drama of Hussain”, both in N. Keddle (ed), Scholars, Saints and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500, London, 1972.)  

This year (1989), the celebrations fell in August. Every night the custom­ary rituals took place by Khomeini’s shrine and gave an added flavour to his commemoration. Women busily tied strips of cloth (known as dakhil bastan) around the tomb, seeking God’s mercy and good luck. At the end of the day’s ritual, food was distributed and the place turned into a large picnic: women chatted with each other, men made petty business deals, and young men and women made friends. Mothers, aware of friendships between their sons and daughters, discussed match-making. Religious rites blended with social affairs in the relaxed atmosphere and clean air of Beheshteh Zahra, the suburb where Tehran cemetary is located, away from the over-crowding and pollution of the city.

In Iran mosques and shrines are places of social gathering and tourism as well as religious institutions. Visiting such sites is a cultural activity that fits in with social, economic and political ends. Religion, as belief in meta­physical force, combines with cultural forms and content that change with the historical situation. For example, the ‘ashura ceremony is a con­stant reminder of class struggle and class domination. The superstitious practice of dakhil bastan has been integrated into a cultural practice, which many extend to seeking mercy and good luck from great philo­sophers and poets of the past, such as Hafez and Saadi.

From fundamentalism to pragmatism

Khomeini’s social base was motivated both culturally and mater­ially. His supporters felt that someone, for the first time in history, was defending their honour in the world; and they also derived material benefit from the regime. However, with Khomeini’s death, revolutionary funda­mentalist Islam is coming to an end and is making way to a more reformist or pragmatist Islam.

Hashemi Rafsanjani, former speaker of the Majlis (Parliament), was elected president on 28 July 1989. He gained unprecedented executive power as contitutional reforms abolished the post of prime minister. Within days hard-line fundamentalists were removed from their political positions and were replaced by persons of more moderate fundamentalist or pragmatist views. Mossavi, the former prime minister and a mild funda­mentalist, became vice-president. Ali Khameini, the ex-president, was appointed successor to Khomeini as supreme spiritual leader, but without the latter’s political base and power: a leading religious Council of Guar­dians has replaced Khomeini’s one-man religious rule according to the theory of wilayat al-faqih (rule of the religious jurisprudent). Mehdi Kar­roubi, although a fundamentalist, threw his weight behind Rafsanjani and became speaker of the Majlis. The fundamentalist minister of the interior, Ali Akbar Mohtashmi, who in August made a speech from Khomeini’s shrine and called upon Hizbollah in Lebanon and all Shi’is around the world to escalate their attacks against the US and Israel, was dismissed and replaced by Abdullah Nouri, who is close to Rafsanjani. Another fundamentalist turned pragmatist, Ali Fallahian, replaced the hard-liner Ali Reyshahri ‒ the man responsible for the recent mass execution of political prisoners ‒ as Intelligence minister (Keyhan [Iranian national newspaper], 30 August 1989).

All members of cabinet nominated by President Rafsanjani are Western-­educated. After a lengthy debate which was broadcast live on the radio, the Majlis passed a vote of confidence in all 22 nominees. In his speech defending his nominations against the opposition in the Majlis, Rafsanjani said, “What we need today is a working cabinet and not a political cabinet. I am political and that is enough. This is in the interest of the country, re­volution and Islam” (ibid).

This reformist Islam is neither homogeneous nor static; it is a religious-­political system which is developing out of Khomeini’s regime. Like the latter, it is a religious dictatorship, and there is hardly any change in the appalling human rights record; but there are some small and perhaps signi­ficant differences. Within strict bounds, there are elements of universal sufferage and a limited freedom of speech, press and assembly ‒ as long as they are in the interests of Shi’i Islam. Surprisingly, many people feel they are participating in political life, eagerly listening to the debates in the Majlis and discussing them with each other. In the recent presidential elec­tions, Rafsanjani genuinely gained a massive majority. Those who voted for him ranged from the middle class to the working class, from support­ers of the Islamic Republic to sympathizers of left-wing organizations. After experiencing ten years of revolution, counter-revolution, war, civil war, destruction, economic hardship and ideological conflicts, most people believed he might be the only person capable of normalizing the situation, starting reconstruction and providing stability.

Clearly the new men in power have differences of opinion about economic, political, social and foreign-policy affairs. But they seem to exercise power collectively; they have compromised over the division of power for the time being. This form of pluralism and parliamentary rule is not the outcome of a class struggle resulting in indirect democracy based on grass-root support. Rather, it is the outcome of a power struggle within the ruling class, which at present does not allow the establishment of a system such as existed both under the Shah and under Khomeini, namely one-man rule in which no opposition is tolerated, even within the ruling class. In a country where a bourgeois revolution has never been completed, if no single dictator is able to emerge by eliminating his rivals, then the outcome is a collective dictatorship in a parliamentary and relatively pluralist form, where power is divided in order to ensure the political and economic survival of the regime and prevent its self-destruction (for a valuable discussion on dictatorship and democracy, see H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, part I, vol. Ill, Monthly Review Press, 1986).

Contradictions of economic development

An Islamic state and its Shari’a law have to be rationalized in order to function in a modern social, economic and political context. But the re­formers ‒ those who seek to revitalize Islam in a form compatible with a modern state and economy, so as to ensure progress for the Islamic society ‒ share the fundamentalists’ doctrine inasmuch as they are com­mitted to the Islamization of society. As long as God-given laws coexist alongside man-made laws, the economy and society continue in their secular decline and contradictions will arise. The important question is when the contradictions of a reformist Islamic state will lead towards the establishment of a secular democracy, through movements for the demo­cratization of political power and social reforms for improvements in the conditions of the working masses.

Under the new leadership, economic progress and development have begun. Contracts are being signed with both East and West, and new ways are being found to overcome the ideological restrictions on using foreign credit to pay for reconstruction. In July 1989, Iran and the Soviet Union concluded agreements on economic and industrial cooperation worth more than £4 billion. This will include oil exploration in the Caspian Sea, piping Iran’s natural gas to Europe through Soviet pipelines, and building seven dams on five Iranian rivers, constructing and developing power-­stations in the industrial cities Isfahan and Ahvaz. This will add some 8,000 megawatts to Iran’s national electricity grid. Iran will export to Russia wheat and gas and will increase the production of the Russian-­built steel mill in Isfahan from 1.9 to 4 million tons (The Guardian, 26 June 1989). Contracts have also been signed with a Japanese-Korean consortium led by Japan Gas Company for two large petrochemical complexes, in Arak near Tehran and in Bandar Abbas near the Gulf coast. Further contracts are expected to be signed with Japanese and Italian firms for the construction of gas and oil refineries.

All these agreements are being funded through complex oil barter arrange­ments. There is an ideological ban on foreign loans, which are deemed usurious. Inevitably, this has forced Iran and its trading partners to find creative arrangements for disguising foreign loans. European banks pro­vide credits against future deliveries of Iranian oil. Iran’s cash reserves are low, estimated at about $4.7bn. To fund its reconstruction, Iran re­quires between $13bn and $15bn annually. Oil revenues are expected to increase and reach $11bn in the current year (1989-90). Total reconstruc­tion costs are estimated at $100-150bn; the total war damage at $400bn (The Financial Times, 12 July 1989).

Reformist Islam will begin reconstruction and economic development, but the contradictions of uneven development that existed under the previous system and led to its destruction are inescapable. The new policies of re­construction will involve the political and economic disintegration of Islamic organizations. This has already started: the Revolutionary Guards are being integrated into the army, and the Komitehs into the conventional police force. These and other Islamic organizations constituted the main support for the regime. Their demise will mean that a large number who have been cushioned against inflation and unemployment will now feel a much greater economic pressure, followed no doubt by disappointment and disillusion.

Amongst them there is a hard core that may organize Islamic fundamental­ism in a new guerrilla form and forge links with other fundamentalist groups in the region. Fundamentalism can appear in a new phase. A new leadership will emerge from the ranks and replace the present leaders, such as Muhtashami, the fundamentalist former minister of the interior, who have no firm grass-root base.

In the last few years the government forced the universities to recruit 80 per cent of their intake from among the children of members of Islamic organizations. This was seen by many supporters as a socially progres­sive step, helping to close the social gap that existed under the Shah, by giving children of lower classes the chance to get a higher education. However, it created ideological and material difficulties for the Islamic regime. The hundreds of thousands of young people who left their vil­lages and small towns and flocked to the great cities ‒ such as Tehran, Shiraz and Tabriz ‒ caused a problem of overcrowding. Apart from the housing difficulties there were also social problems, as these young people shared rooms and formed pre-marital sexual relations. Many of these were punished for their un-Islamic behaviour.

In 1989, the share of this social group in university entrance declined to 20 per cent, creating greater disillusion, disappointment and tension among the supporters of the Islamic state.

Expectations are high: the new government is expected to solve the problems of inflation and unemployment. People are getting impatient and distrustful; they keep asking how long they must wait for material improvement in their life. The answer is, as Rafsanjani warned in his pre­sidential address, “We promise, but do not expect changes overnight”.

In part fulfilment of its promise to protect living standards against rising inflation, the government granted substantial increases to retired public employees and to university lecturers, adding 30,000 and 60,000 rials res­pectively to their monthly incomes. The rise in pensions is important both ideologically and materially. Typically, a pensioner is the head of his household, supporting his sons and daughters and their children, who may all live together. Or, if the younger generation live apart, they need their parents’ help to pay the rent, which is very high. In Iran, as else­where in the Third World, it is the extended family ‒ rather than specialized state agencies ‒ that provides economic, social and moral security. Kinship ties, as well as securing traditional values, are indispensible for material survival where economic opportunities are scarce.

University lecturers are also an important social group. In the absence of foreign experts, the regime has been promoting and fostering local talent. It has even encouraged women to enter “male” fields. A significant share of official foreign currency allocations is given to universities and lecturers to enable them to import academic books. This in turn raises expectations and gives rise to new beliefs and values, alongside the traditional ones and contrary to them.

However, failing to increase the income of other sections of society is likely to result in more disillusionment and discontent. Whether these tensions will lead to a struggle for a secular democratic system will depend on the degree and orientation of class conflict.


In Iran, as in all Third-World societies, uneven economic development never allowed the social situation to change completely. The processes of agrarian transformation and of industrialization altered the mentality of Iranian peasants and workers, as they discovered the existence of so­cieties that provide greater well-being and freedom. They strove to change their miserable life, comparing themselves with those classes who had benefitted from the splendours of capitalism. In the media ‒ in films, the press and radio ‒ they were shown an attractive affluent life-style provided by industrial society. At first, they pinned their hopes on secu­lar nationalism and the Russian model of “socialism” as a means of raising living standards and transforming their situation. But these hopes were dashed. The oppressed classes turned to religious ideology for their sal­vation.

In this context, the resurgence of Islam raised two questions. First, whe­ther Islam is an irrational religion, contradictory to capitalist development. Second, whether Islam is a revolutionary religion that struggles for a just society, regulated by the principles of the shari’a (divine law), to be achieved here on earth (T. Hodgkin, “The Revolutionary Tradition in Islam”, Race and Class, vol. XXI no. 3, 1980).

A study of the political economy of Iran during the last ten years suggests that, first, Islam and capitalism are quite compatible, as Rodinson had pointed out long before the Iranian revolution. The existence of both re­formist and fundamentalist currents within Islam throughout the history of Iran and other Middle-Eastern countries reflects the material changes in society that affect Islamic ideology. It is the economic and social changes that have created a role for fundamentalism: as an inspiration for protest movements struggling against an “unjust” society. Equally, it is the material changes in society that have led to the rise of reformists and moderates, theorizing and harmonizing the divine laws of god with the constitution of capitalist relations (M. Rodinson, Islam and Capitalism, Penguin Books, 1974; Marxism and the Muslim World, Zed Press, 1979; “Islam Resurgent?”, Gazelle Review no. 6, Ithaca Press, 1979). Ayatollah Khomeini’s acceptance of the need to end the Gulf War, and the recent rapid political development after his death are good illustrations of Islam’s rational orientation towards capitalism.

But, while adapting to the needs of capitalism, Islam will nevertheless re­main an impediment to full capitalist development and will also continue to serve as an “opiate of the people”.

Islamic economics lacks a coherent general theoretical framework; it com­bines traditional Islamic doctrines and practices with elements of modern radical ideologies. Its proponents claim that it is a revolutionary theory for changing the present “corrupt” system, without offering any clear programme for change. For in Islamic economics there is no analysis of money and accumulation, nothing on the theory of technology and the growth of output and income, on prices and patterns of consumption. Although it regards labour as the source of all human wealth, there is no analysis of wage, profit or rent.

On the other hand, the moral and idealistic principles for changing the “un­just society”, such as a limitation on property ownership, are never more than a feeble restriction on the power of the rulers and they never con­flict with the real religious doctrine of Islam, which does not condemn capitalist principles. Revolutionary or progressive ideas cannot be derived from dogmas that claim divine origin and include so many reactionary and oppressive tenets, not least those concerning women. Religious ideology is therefore a false consciousness, which mystifies the potential revolu­tionary consciousness of the oppressed and has often provided a cover for the manoeuvres of the ruling classes. True, believers in the great reli­gions have played a positive political role in support of social reform, equality and national independence. But progressive ideas must in the end come not from the divine, but from secular and rational social forces.