Ahmad Ashraf is a sociologist who studied and later taught at Tehran University and the New School in New York City. Ashraf is the author of “Historical Obstacles to the Development of the Bourgeoisie in Iran,” Iranian Studies 2/1-2 (Spring and Summer 1969). Ervand Abrahamian spoke with him in New York City in February 1983.
Of the many classes and groups that participated in the Iranian revolution, which have won the fruits of victory?
The one group in Iranian society which benefited most was a segment of the fundamentalist clergy, under the leadership of Khomeini and his lieutenants. The social stratum which benefited is the traditional petty bourgeoisie—mainly the bazaari elements of middle and lower middle ranks who were also very active in the revolutionary movement.
What are the links between the fundamentalist clergy as a group and the petty bourgeoisie as a class?
The link goes back to the traditional set up of the urban communities in Iran and the location and significance of the bazaar in the social structure. The bazaar and the mosques are mainly in the same place. Physical proximity is one factor. The other important factor is economic. The bazaari elements provide the economic foundation and financial resources for the clergy. On the other hand, the clergy supports them in their conflicts with the government. The bazaar has served as the cradle of the traditional urban culture in Iran, and has maintained and reproduced its cultural elements in the face of modernization and development. This is a structurally important explanation for the survival of traditional sectors in Iranian society.
The natural leadership of that traditional sector, ideologically, politically, socially and culturally, is the clergy. Another point is the numerical strength of the bazaar. The survey I and my colleagues did in Tehran on the eve of the revolution indicated that this traditional petty bourgeoisie constituted about 25 percent of all employed heads of households. The bazaar could survive and reproduce itself, if only as a middleman to sell foreign goods.
Can you identify ideological issues where there might be differences between the fundamentalist radical clergy and the bazaar?
The bazaar community itself is stratified. First, prosperous merchants control the trade network in the bazaar and they were very powerful, even during the Shah’s regime. Then there are middle-rank merchants and wholesale traders and the lower middle levels of simple shopkeepers and artisans in the bazaar, as well as the simple worker in the bazaar communities. The fundamentalist elements idealize the shopkeeper as a perfect man. They are highly critical of the big merchants. The Prophet was against the big merchants and usurers of Mecca who exploited the people of Medina. The founder of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, Nabav Safavid, in his well-known argument for an Islamic Brotherhood, says “the grocer and the person who sells herbs, traditional drugs” knows how to run the economy much better than a doctor of economics.
He’s probably right.
He’s confusing economics with economizing. Most of the bazaari elements have maintained their traditional cultural mode of behavior and outlook. They were highly critical of the changes which were detrimental to their Islamic beliefs and ideas. Culturally, all of them could have been attracted to the religious movement of Khomeini. From the economic point of view, the prosperous merchants felt that they had nothing to fear from the revolution because Islam protected the sanctity of private property.
It is much easier for them to deal with these good Muslims, who are from bazaar communities, than with the modern government bureaucrats, who are some other type of species. They could deal better socially with the new regime. Economically they are well off, not paying any more taxes and secure in Islam’s sanction of private property. Politically, they gain some power in running the society.
Also, the revolution eliminated the big bourgeoisie tied to the Pahlavi regime, which ihe bazaar viewed as a competitor.
That’s right. Particularly the middle elements in the bazaar community, the asnaf (guild-like organizations of shopkeepers and artisans). In its last years, the Shah’s regime attempted to control commodity prices. They established special courts and really harassed the asnaf. This caused tremendous hatred of the regime among that group.
But there must be elements in the ideology of the radical fundamentalist clergy that would disturb the richer bazaaris.
After the revolution, the lower elements in the bazaar community occupied positions in the revolutionary government. In many cases there was a rivalry between them. The big merchants acted as a type of ruling class in the bazaar communities. The fundamentalist ideology had its location in the middle and lower middle elements in the bazaar. They were the cadres of the revolutionary movement. After the revolution, they were absorbed into the revolutionary organizations and the government. Now, because of the objective position that they occupy, they act in contradiction to the interests of the stratum or class that they come from, in ways which were particularly detrimental to the interests of the big merchants and even to the middle traders, shopkeepers and artisans. Nationalization of foreign trade, for instance. Because of the war and shrinking foreign exchange, foreign trade transactions in the bazaar communities declined rapidly. However, there are several middle bazaar elements in the regime. The minister of commerce is one who is fighting for the interests of the bazaar merchants. But there is a fairly large segment of fundamentalists, mainly from the lower and middle elements in the bazaar communities, which is fighting the prosperous merchants. They are also backed by the lower elements of the petty bourgeoisie in communities other than the bazaar, for instance, many high school or elementary school teachers.
In the Iranian revolution do you see the demise of the more radical fundamentalist elements as the thermidor sets in?
Apparently we are just in the middle of this process. These radical elements are gradually losing their strongholds in the regime, and they are being constrained by the fundamentalist traditional elements who advocate the sanctity of private property.
There are three main features of fundamentalism: political, economic and cultural. The moderates are fundamentalist culturally and politically. They want to have a true Islamic society in which the sanctity of private property is honored, a revival of all the traditional cultural elements, and the political rule of Islam. The radical fundamentalists share with the moderate group this political and cultural fundamentalism, but question the economic and property aspect. They interpret Islam as a sort of socialistic tendency. Culturally, these radical elements are less rigid than the moderates.
Are there some concrete cases where the radicals have lost out?
There are three basic questions concerning private property. These questions now, after the four years of bitter conflict, are going to be settled in the more moderate, conservative way. They are: first, the land or agrarian question; second, the nationalization of foreign trade; and third, limitations and confiscations of urban real estate. The leadership, even Khomeini and his lieutenants, didn’t want to deal with the question of private property. The Islamic movement had its own left, the Mojahedin. There was a very small segment of ulema who took sides with the left in arguing for some ceiling at least, if not abolishing private property. The main pressure, however, was not from within. In the first year of the revolution, the leadership didn’t respond, except to buttress the position of private property. But because of the mounting pressure, and declining popularity, they attempted to take the issue from the hands of the left. After land seizures in several areas, the provisional government and the clergy, even those elements who later became the advocates of land reform, were silent. The top clergy, including Khomeini, issued several edicts explicitly supporting private property in Islam, and declaring that all confiscated lands should be returned to their original owners. After the first year, with mounting pressures from the left, especially the Fedayin in Turkoman-Sahra, they had to announce their own land reform. Now, three years later, after eliminating the leftist groups, they have gone back to their original position by eroding the stipulated limitations on land ownership.
I would say that the fate of the other two bills, the nationalization of foreign trade and the ceiling on urban real estate will be the same as the land reform bill. Nothing will come of them. In the Majles, there are radical groups of middle and lower middle class elements, mainly teachers and lower civil servants and some shopkeepers and traditional petty bourgeoisie. This group may represent in many cases a majority in the Majles. But the Guardians of the Constitution are appointed by Khomeini himself, and he always appoints strong conservatives. With the help of Beheshti and now with Rafsanjani, he manages to balance the conflict between these rival groups, but in the end sides with the conservative elements.
What are the possibilities of revolutionary opposition to the present regime?
We should distinguish between two potential sources of opposition in this “convalescence” period. One is the opposition from the left, and from the outside of the regime. The other is the potential opposition from the inside of the regime, which is more viable and more visible for the near future. The Islamic ideology, with its leftist and radical flavor, is still pretty strong, lt has been suppressed by the moderates in the regime. These elements have not had any chance to unfold fully. They are pretty strong in the Pasdaran and the ]ihad-e Sazandegi and other revolutionary organizations, though not among the clergy. However, there is a small segment of the clergy who support radiqal elements and views. If something happened in the future, these elements might seize the key positions in society. Khomeini himself is now taking a traditionalist or moderate position. I don’t really know what will happen after he’s gone. A powerful person might emerge from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard.
There’s also another group that seems to be important—the Revolutionary Islamic Mojahedin, which should not be confused with the Mojahedin-e Khalq. This Islamic Mojahedin was organized by Behzad Nabavi, who had been imprisoned under the Shah as a Marxist. Until now, the group has followed Khomeini’s line, but it’s hard to believe that they are committed to the theory of velayat-e faqih.
I think that the Mojahedin Enqelab-e Islami and the Behzad Nabavi people were not following the Line of the Imam as much as Khomeini has been forced to follow the revolutionary line. Khomeini is a traditionalist. Because he challenged the previous regime, there is a radical flavor to his political posture. But there is a core of radical elements, Meshkini and some of his people, who now have the upper hand in the so-called Council of the Prayers of the Friday Congregation, established in Qom under Ayatollah Montazeri. The Mojahidin Enqelab-e Islami are young, they are armed, they have been exposed to radical ideologies, and they come from the lower middle classes. They come from the same socioeconomic background as the Mojahedin-e Khalq. They have three ministers in the cabinet, but they are facing severe pressures. They have been forced by the regime to change from a clandestine to an open organization, and they recently suffered a three-way split.
It’s often said that the main right-wing element within the regime is a group called the Hojjatieh. What is the history of the group and their present political orientation?
The theological ideas of the Hojjatieh were developed about half a century ago by Mirza Mehdi Isfahani, in the Mashhad Theological Center. They are very fanatical and anti-philosophical, against any type of logical reasoning, and very superstitious. One of his students, Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi, came to Tehran and developed the Hojjatieh as an anti-Bahai organization. A turning point was some time in the early 1970s, when several students at Qom Theological Seminary were converted to Bahaism. That incident humiliated the whole clerical establishment. Halabi started to work hard on surveying the people and watching the seminary students. Under the Shah they were not an open group. But they didn’t oppose the regime, and they had connections with many old elements of the establishment. Even the SAVAK tolerated this anti-Bahai group. Their main ideological element was opposition to the Bahai faith. At the time, because it was one active religious organization, many people joined or attended meetings. Therefore many people who have key positions in the new regime used to be affiliated in one way or another. Two such figures are the president and the prime minister. Actually, they are not as active or important as many people, notably the Tudeh Party, say.
Are there other groups you could identify within the Islamic Republican Party?
There is a group of deputies of parliament who are radical cadres of the IRP. Their adherents in the Majlis might number about 140. Most of the elements in the IRP, after the departure of Beheshti, are organized around the president, Hojjat-al-lslam Khamenei, who has some idealistic views about the export of the revolution. Khamenei translated one of the works of a main figure of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, lt is a fundamentalist Islamic text, but has some socialistic elements as well, borrowed from Marxism.
When Beheshti created the Islamic Republican Party, it seemed that he wanted a disciplined, centralized organization. But two years after his death the IRP is very much divided. Does the party actually exist any more as an organization?
Yes. Khomeini’s bitter criticism of the Majles for passing “un-Islamic” laws was directed at the 140 or so deputies who are IRP members. They have some share in the power structure of the Islamic Republic.
Is the revolution over?
The radical elements are those who are armed, including the Islamic Guards. After the departure of Khomeini, these elements could take the upper hand. They are working on their own candidates to be their vali-ye faqih. Montazeri is their choice, not because he is a radical, but because they know that they can manage him. The newspapers of the radicals have bestowed on him the title of Great Ayatollah. No one in the theological center acknowledges that title for Montazeri. If something happens to Montazeri and Khomeini, these radicals will push for Meshkini, who is truly, originally and genuinely a radical. He was the one who devised the idea of Islamic land reform and found the loophole for its legitimization in Islamic laws. With Meshkini as the vali-ye faqih, and with tens of thousands of armed, radical Guards, there could be a real radical revitalization.