Eric Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).
Land and Revolution in Iran is the most comprehensive and authoritative study of changes in Iranian agrarian social structure available. By the mid-1970s, Iranian land reform was acclaimed by many as a preeminently successful transformation of rural social structure and land tenure. Statistics appeared to support this reputation. Iran’s reform redistributed land to half of all village families (90 percent of peasants who had held cultivation rights), while among self-proclaimed revolutionary regimes like Egypt, Iraq and Syria the comparable figure was around 10 percent. Hooglund disputes this reputation. He maintains that simple redistribution figures reveal little about the impact of land reform on the economic, political and social structure of agrarian societies.
The most prominent feature of the Iranian rural system in the 1950s and early 1960s was its domination by large, usually absentee, landlords. The large owners, fewer than two percent of all landowners, controlled about 55 percent of all cultivated land and often owned 20 to 40 villages apiece.
Such owners included members of the royal families, important government officials at both the national and the local level, high-ranking military officers, leaders of the larger pastoral tribes, prominent members of the clergy, wealthy merchants, and individuals whose primary occupation was the personal supervision of their properties.
Institutional owners consisted of the government and vaqf religious endowments, which gradually fell under government control after 1934. A third category of landlords rented land either from the government or the vaqf.
The peasantry had the right (nasagh) to cultivate the land for a share of the harvest. The nasagh holders numbered some 2.1 million, comprising 60 percent of the agrarian population in 1960. These peasants worked in cooperative farming units called bunehs. The landlords confiscated most of the harvests, leaving the peasants quantities of food barely adequate for subsistence. These peasants were generally “victims of extortion and oppression against which they had little, if any, protection. Debts kept them tied to the land. Organized opposition was effectively stifled by the fear of losing cultivation rights.”
In addition to the lords and the peasantry, there were the khushnishin, those with no rights to the land. A minority of these were involved in trading and lending, or worked as village artisans and craftsmen. A large majority was landless agricultural laborers for whom “poverty, malnutrition, and disease were the perpetual lot.”
The land reform law limited an individual landlord’s holdings to one village. Landlords were required to sell the rest of their land to the government, which would in turn sell it only to nasagh holders. The khushnishin laborers received no land. The reform plan redistributed the land in three phases to approximately 92 percent of former nasagh sharecroppers. In 1971, at the end of the third phase, about 1.8 million nasagh holders had obtained land.
Hooglund argues that if all the arable land (16.6 million hectares, or 41 million acres) had been distributed equally, each nasagh holder would have received 7.9 hectares. Since approximately seven hectares of land is needed to support one village family of five at a basic subsistence level, even complete redistribution could not have changed the condition of the peasantry radically. Only half this amount was actually distributed. Landlords were allowed to retain the other half. The reform destroyed the egalitarian buneh system by distributing the land unequally. At the top of the newly created hierarchy, less than 10 percent acquired more than 10 hectares. At the bottom, 35 percent obtained less than one hectare. At least three quarters of the recipients owned less than the seven hectares needed for basic survival.
The land reform failed to improve the condition of most of the peasantry; it did not lead to economic development. It did, however, erode the traditional power of the large absentee landlords and created a small minority of profit-oriented farmers. The reform also strengthened the position of village traders and entrepreneurs by generating a mass of poor peasants who were unable to support themselves and had to depend ow moneylenders and merchants for credit.
Unfortunately, Hooglund does not satisfactorily discuss the relation between social discontent and social revolution. During the 1978 upheavals, most subsistence peasants remained indifferent to the fate of the monarchy. Only a minority of the ruling elites in villages stood up to support the Shah. Active peasant opposition to the regime only developed at the end, when it became apparent that the regime was destined to be overthrown. Hooglund correctly notes that heavy repression by government security forces inhibited opposition. Having lived in an Iranian village for over a year, I do not dispute the existence of this repression. But repression pervaded urban Iran, where it was even more effective. It is not a sufficient explanation.
Nevertheless, Hooglund does provide a richly detailed portrait of the villages in the revolution. His discussion of the phenomenal migration of young workers from rural areas to urban settings is the best available. His account of the politics of drafting the land reform bill, and the dramatic extension of state power into the countryside make this book essential reading for all persons concerned with Iran and with agricultural policies and economic development in the Third World.