The Islamic Republic’s revolutionary credentials are, apart from foreign policy, largely based on the activities of the so-called revolutionary organizations created shortly after the February 1979 uprising. Operating through these popular organizations, the regime signaled a new beginning for millions of Iranians, especially the young, who had been deprived of meaningful social and political activity. In the last three years, these organizations have been the main channel of upward social mobility for clergy and lay people alike. Much of the course of the Iranian revolution and the social basis of the present regime can be discerned in the records of these new institutions.

The most significant non-military organization created over the last four years is the Jihad-e Sazandegi (“Crusade for Constructiveness” or, less literally, “Reconstruction Crusade”). The analysis here, based on observations made in the summer of 1980 in the province of Luristan, some 500 miles southwest of Tehran, can not all be generalized to the rest of the country. I put it forward nonetheless in the hope that it will contribute to a better understanding of the very complex revolutionary process in Iran.

From the beginning, the Jihad’s functioning was heavily influenced by the deep political divisions that engulfed the country after the revolution. The main division was in the ruling coalition itself, between the clergy-dominated Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and the non-clergy technocrats, known in revolutionary Iran as “the liberals” (with a pejorative connotation). These were led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, himself an engineer, a former University of Tehran professor and oil negotiator during the Mossadeq nationalization campaign of 1951-1953. For at least one year after the revolution, the IRP was formally in power but not in control. In Iran, where over two thirds of the national income is generated and spent by the government, being in control means operating the 1.2 million-strong bureaucracy. With all the important organizations of the state falling into the hands of Bazargan and his associates, the IRP quickly turned to the “revolutionary” organizations as a means of generating support and exercising power. Of course, revolutionary reorganization of Iranian society could not have been accomplished by the lethargic bureaucracy, and the establishment of new, popular organizations would have been necessary in any case. This can be seen in the experience of other revolutions, as in Cuba, where civil organizations such as the literacy campaign were set up to carry out the goals of the revolution.

The Jihad and its military counterpart, Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami (Revolutionary Guards), were in theory established by the Bazargan administration, but the IRP moved swiftly to gain control of them. Although formally a party, the IRP did not have a coherent development ideology around which to organize civil corps. For two years after its creation the party remained even without a constitution. The IRP also lacked a mass base, since none of its organizers had any lasting claim to national leadership outside their association with Khomeini. Thus the IRP’s hold on the Jihad was quite tenuous at the beginning, and it resorted to frequent purges to maintain control. In theory, the criterion for belonging to the Jihad was being a “committed Muslim.” In practice, however, purges tended to rid the Jihad of its more liberal and middle- or upper-class members.

The background of the majority of Jihad members can be best described as lower middle-class. Nearly all had some high school education, and most were of urban rather than rural origin. Based on my observations in Iran in 1980, when the political situation was still in a state of flux, the class basis of the Jihad appeared to influence the course of events far more significantly than IRP pronouncements or other central directories. For example, Khomeini’s representative to Khorramabad, the capital of Luristan, was a wealthy mullah and a big local real estate owner. He was at odds on several issues with the local Jihad, and gradually lost power as the situation became increasingly radicalized. The Jihad organization, in alliance with the Pasdaran, were reportedly instrumental in undermining his power and having him called to Tehran.

Faced with the immediate task of reviving the local economy, Jihad leaders in Luristan, in sharp contrast to the revolutionary leaders in Qom or Tehran, were extremely accommodating to various political views as long as they were against the bureaucracy, the large capitalists, and landowners. (One Jihad leader in Luristan, lamenting the lack of enthusiasm of the educated said, “If Marx himself showed up here I would let him work for us.”) In August 1980, while I was still in the area, the Jahad chapter in Boroujerd, the largest city in Luristan, was closed down for having been infiltrated by the “counterrevolutionaries.” Tension was also high in Khorramabad, the province capital. At the time, the IRP was purging the Jihad of its pro-Bani-Sadr members. Finally, both the Jihad and the Pasdaran have been very influential in the struggle for land reform, something the revolutionary leaders are still not sure they want or can afford.


The Bazargan government announced the establishment of the Jihad-e Sazandegi on May 17, 1979. Since the revolution had not inflicted any catastrophic damage on the economy, and the bureaucracy was almost intact, the purpose of the Jihad’s creation was not immediately obvious. At the time, the government was unsuccessfully trying to revive the capitalist sector of the economy (in both agriculture and industry) by monetary incentives, using the established bureaucracies of the Plan Organization and the banking system. The idea of an army of young men marching to the countryside to breathe life into the system was very appealing. The uprisings in Kurdistan and Turkoman-Sahra, while both among Sunni populations, had underlined the weakness of the regime in rural areas in general. The power of the mosque, moreover, had always been much greater in urban than rural areas. With Jihad members quickly dispatched to the scene with money to distribute, some speculated that the timing of the Jihad’s establishment was motivated by rural unrest.

The goals of the Jihad were officially stated as: 1) to unite the energetic volunteers, especially university and high school students, unemployed high school graduates and others without work; 2) to create lines of communication between the intelligentsia and the disinherited; 3) to assist rural economic development; 4) to increase literacy among peasants; 5) to propagate Islamic culture and the Islamic Revolution in rural areas. Thus it appears that rural reconstruction was to be the main task of the Jihad, but industrial concerns which were under the authority of the bureaucracy could hardly be kept out of the Jihad’s reach.

Information regarding the Jihad’s internal structure is not readily available. The Jihad has been able to recruit successfully from the Islamic Societies of various universities which were active during the shah’s period. At the beginning, the Jahad was a volunteer organization but, like the Pasdaran, gradually developed a hierarchy and established regular monthly salaries. In 1981, it had 14,800 full-time members and 4,700 “volunteer experts” (referring to doctors, engineers and university students). Most of the full-time members came from the 20-30 age group. Several Jihad members in Luristan who considered the introduction of pay a corrupting influence were planning to quit, but it is likely that many others joined as a result, given the extremely poor prospects for regular employment as well as the power and prestige associated with working for a revolutionary organization. Even before regular pay was established, Jihad members benefited from free food, housing and transportation. In Luristan they lived in groups in schools and in abandoned military barracks complete with canteen services.


During its first year of operation, the Jihad’s budget became an object of sharp dispute with the Bazargan administration, which preferred to see it remain at the level of a boy scout organization rather than a rival bureaucracy. They feared, with good reason, that the Jihad would become to the Plan Organization, the Ministry of Economy, and the Ministry of Industry and Mines what the Pasdaran had become to the police and the justice ministry.

During its first year of operation, the Jihad received $330 million in operating revenue and $360 million for the specific purpose of rural credit. The distribution of operating revenue across provinces was quite uneven: Bushehr received $100 million, or 30 percent of the total; Mazandaran (which includes Turkoman-Sahra) was next, receiving $1.1 million. There are no clues to explain this pattern. The distribution of rural credit makes more sense, as it reflects province size and significance of agricultural production. It is believed that in subsequent years, with the control of the government purse and money supply in the hands of the Jihad’s IRP mentors, its finances and hence the size of its operation grew considerably.

Reconstruction Activities

With a generous supply of enthusiastic volunteers and financial resources, how effective has the Jihad been? The paucity of data makes it impossible to give even an approximate quantitative answer. The Jihad itself claims a productive two years, building 8,000 miles of roads, 1,700 schools, 1,600 public baths and 110 health centers, almost all in rural areas (which means one sixth of a mile of road for every village in Iran, one school for every 30 villages, and so on).

The actual extent of these accomplishments cannot be independently confirmed. Here I would note some of the factors which inhibited the Jihad’s effectiveness and indicate the need to interpret these figures with caution. Chief among them is the Jihad’s narrow sectarianism. Only committed Islamic activists were recruited. Before the anti-Bani-Sadr purges, distrust among even the top members ran very high, with a deep demoralizing effect. In Khorramabad, about 100 university and high school graduates staged a month-long sit-in in the governor’s office protesting lack of jobs, while the Jihad kept looking for people to join. The protesters were branded as leftists and counterrevolutionaries and eventually evicted. Throughout the country, sectarianism of this kind, perhaps unavoidable, was responsible for the waste of enormous revolutionary energy.

The extent of the Jihad’s constructiveness was harmed in even more direct ways by regional conflicts. In Kurdistan and in the Caspian region, many Jihad members have been killed by forces opposed to the government. This is because the Jihad has operated very closely with the Pasdaran and is known to have frequently used its civil cover to assist in security operations.

In trying to understand the Jihad’s role in revolutionary Iran, and in comparing it to revolutionary organizations with similar tasks in other countries, it is useful to keep in mind two economic factors which distinguish the Iranian situation from all others. First, the Iranian revolution followed a major economic boom, including at least five years of massive investments which for the most part had not come to fruition by 1979. Second, for at least its first year and a half the regime did not suffer a financial crisis. In 1979-1980, Iran’s foreign reserves reached an all-time high of $15 billion. The significance of these facts derives from the climate they helped to create in which the Jihad’s success depended not so much on self-reliance and mass mobilization for productive activity but rather on such things as control of credit and physical capital. These in turn required strong connections to the sources of economic power within the government, principally the Central Bank.

The Jihad’s Rural Program in Luristan

When I visited Luristan in July 1980, the Jihad had been in operation for just over one year, and the Luristan chapter for even less. Thus there was little experience. On the whole, the young volunteers and their energetic leader (an engineer from Tehran) could be described as naive and unprepared for the complex task of economic mobilization. It appeared that their literacy and Islamic propaganda programs were the most successful.

The Jihad considered every social and economic aspect of village life to be within its jurisdiction, such as setting up village councils and redistribution of land (which they supported but could not carry out in the absence of word from Tehran). They had set two specific tasks for themselves: rural credit distribution and public works construction such as schools, baths, and health centers.

The credit program in Luristan was small in scale, $1.2 million for approximately 400,000 rural households. The ceiling for loans was set at $25,000 with no interest, a small service charge, and a repayment period of eight years. The previous regime had paid little attention to small farmers and the poor in villages. The largest loans, several million dollars apiece, had gone to agribusinesses; small loans of only several hundred dollars had been available for small and medium farmers, but those without land and therefore without collateral received nothing. The Jihad’s main goal was to reach the last group. Of the $1.2 million allocated to the Luristan chapter for rural loans, 63 percent had been disbursed in two months. Approximately 30 percent of this had gone to agricultural activities, 30 percent to construction and the rest to various small-scale industrial activities. Every village received a share of the total credit, proportional to its population.

In trying to reach the neediest Jihad had turned the credit program into lump-sum welfare payments. Some lip service had been paid to productivity in the cases of a tractor repair shop, a butcher shop and a household weaving operation. But the organization had no way of making sure that what was on the application would actually happen. In the butcher’s case, the man had no previous experience, and openly admitted that he did not intend to open a butcher shop, or any other kind of shop for that matter. He claimed simply that he deserved the $1,700 loan (approximately the income of a rural family for three years) because he was so poor and in debt. In fact, his old creditors had already descended upon him and taken away a third of his windfall. Furthermore, he added, the village already had a butcher and a second one would not get enough business. It was fairly clear from the other cases too that, in trying to beat the logic of the local commercial bank (credit to the “credit-worthy”), the Jihad had fallen into an idealist trap. Lack of competent staff and information also impaired the loan program to a considerable extent. Recent efforts by the organization to collect detailed national data and make up “identity papers” for every village is in part designed to put their activities on a sounder footing. The rural public works program showed even more acute idealism on the part of the Jihad members. In almost all the cases I was shown—schools, health centers, baths and the like—the buildings had been abandoned half finished. The Jihad had hoped that by starting the construction and contributing about half the costs, the peasants would rally to their side, pick up their tools and complete the job. Instead, as Jihad members who showed us the sites reported, the villagers were lacking in “Islamic and revolutionary spirit.” They simply surrounded the site and stood by, but did not participate. Not wishing to descend from the position of vanguard activists to mere construction workers, Jihad members had suspended construction in those cases that I saw.

The reasons for lack of enthusiasm on the peasants’ part are certainly quite complex. In talking to the local population and the Jahad members, though, one main reason became apparent: the Jihad’s perception of the reality of village life in the area was quite naive and outdated. This perception was largely based on the prevailing revolutionary wisdom that agriculture had been destroyed during the Shah’s reign. Therefore it followed that the rural population would greatly appreciate any effort at reconstruction: In fact, these villages had seen a rapid growth of capitalism aided by government policy. This process may indeed seem to represent the destruction of agriculture to the urban petty bourgeoisie. Peasants in this area, though, had experienced rapid economic change: increased credit, more tractors, and new opportunities for cash crops (such as soybeans, encouraged by the local vegetable oil industry). Some had already benefited from these changes, while others looked forward to their chance. In any case, the new rules of the game for everyone were increasingly those of capitalism. Emphasis on individual accumulation had become quite strong, and public works were considered the proper job of the government. The Jihad’s attempt to attract voluntary or cooperative labor was doomed, since it did not consider actual social differentiation in the village. The negative attitude toward the Jihad’s accomplishments was particularly strong in the district of Alashtar. During the 1970s, a major experimental “self-reliance” project, operated by an enlightened sociologist and a team of experts from Tehran, had brought extra benefits to the area in terms of schools, health centers and agricultural machinery. Finally, it is likely that peasants’ anticipation of land redistribution had made them cool to these smaller projects.

Concern for Industry

Data published by the Jihad shows that, as intended by its founders, most of its activities concentrated in rural areas. Urban areas were to be left to the existing bureaucracy, and to a separate institution created for small productive loans to cooperative enterprises in urban areas. In Luristan, though, much of the Jihad’s attention had turned to industry, mainly the large uncompleted investment projects standing idle. Five particular enterprises were involved, located within 10-20 miles of Khorramabad. All had been started by private enterprise. Because of huge debts left by their owners, all but one now effectively belonged to the nationalized banks.

No steps had been taken toward their revival by mid-1980, when the Jihad showed interest in taking over the smallest factory, and initiating work in the rest. This was a garment factory, built at a cost of $6 million and designed to employ 200 workers. It had been ready to start production for over a year, but all it had produced were green lawns and nice flowers at government expense and at least 10 miles away from the public’s sight. At the time, it looked almost impossible for the middle class bureaucrats to do much about such projects while they awaited the outcome of the national power struggle. The responsible officials in Luristan—those in the Ministry of Industries and Mines who were responsible for operating these industries and the bankers who literally owned them—seemed disinterested. “Before we can move, the government has to make up its mind whether it wants socialism, capitalism or an Islamic economy, whatever that means,” was a typical justification. In contrast, the Jihad and some members of the governor’s office (including the governor himself, an IRP appointee) seemed to realize that the outcome of the national political struggle was in part to be decided not in Tehran or Qom, but right there in Luristan.

Had the government decided to cooperate, the transfer of ownership or simply control could have gone from the ministry to the Jihad without difficulty. Instead, the ministry resisted the transfer while the banks asked the Jihad to come up with the factory’s book value ($6 million, even then an overestimate of at least 40 percent). Luristan’s chapter had only $1.1 million as operating revenues, and tension between the “two governments” continued. A year later, newspapers announced the start of the garment factory’s operation, and credited it to the Jihad. By then, Bani-Sadr had been ousted and the IRP was in full control of the state machinery.

Other industrial concerns required additional investment and the cooperation of foreign contractors who had all abandoned the projects and left the country. About these the Jihad could do little on its own except pressure those in the Ministry of Industries and Mines who had been appointed to the board of the would-be corporations. These individuals all resided in Tehran. Because of a shortage of qualified people, they belonged to the boards of several nationalized corporations, most of which they had never seen, especially if they happened to be as far away as Luristan. To the rugged, bearded Jihad members, these fine-clothed gentlemen epitomized “liberals.” The distrust between the two groups was so high that the board members refused to visit Luristan at all. Asked what might happen if any of them ever showed up in Luristan, a Jihad member confided with a smile that he would be promptly arrested by a “brother from the Pasdaran” and held hostage until the government in Tehran listened to their demands!

There was little doubt as to where the real power lay in Luristan, but even in Tehran matters were beginning to get resolved in the Jihad’s favor. One day we were shown a newspaper headline which read: “Mr. Hastei has been found in contact with the US agents!” Hastei was deputy minister of industry and mines and, we were told, responsible for all newly nationalized industry. Helping hands in Tehran were coming to the rescue, slowly but surely.

Perhaps the most interesting dispute was over the fate of a barely started plant to manufacture bricks out of sand and cement. This dispute involved the Jihad, the bureaucracy and a so-called dependent capitalist, and proved to the Jihad leaders that either of the latter could live better with each other than with the Jihad. The private entrepreneur, like other persons of importance, lived in Tehran and did not visit Luristan. He already owed $2.4 million to the Industrial Credit Bank, but needed $700,000 in foreign exchange to pay for foreign equipment and consultants to complete his project. Because of foreign exchange restrictions imposed after the revolution, the Central Bank had to approve his application.

Jihad leaders strongly objected to giving any funds to the entrepreneur. Their suspicions were based on facts that could have easily come to the Central Bank’s attention, yet they did not. Suspecting the capitalist’s professed bellef in the Islamic Revolution, as well as his intentions to go ahead with the construction, they began their own inquiries. Very little of the original $2.4 million loan was visible on the site in Luristan, so they looked for equipment the owner claimed was sitting at the Khorramshahr docks. When they could not locate it there, they sent someone to Tehran to look for the owner. They found his office abandoned. He was living alone in an unfurnished apartment; his wife and children had already left for West Germany, where the equipment was to have come from. These circumstances seemed proof enough that the capitalist was about to take the money and flee the country.

No independent confirmation of this account was possible, but there is little reason to doubt the Jihad’s story. Similar cases are known to have occurred. The account is significant because it portrays the difference in attitude toward private investment between the Jahad and the bureaucracy. For the government there was nothing more appropriate than approving a loan application to help complete a productive project. The Jihad people, taking a more political view of the process, saw the capitalist’s purposes as incompatible with their own, and mistrusted his proposition for coexistence implicit in the loan application.

The Luristan Jihad appeared altogether more satisfied with its involvement in industry than agriculture. First, the attempts at industrial revival placed the Jihad in opposition to the classic villains in populist circles: the bureaucrats, the big capitalists and foreign companies. This helped them to unite themselves and create a sense of revolutionary purpose. Facing the peasants was a different matter: while they tried not to blame the peasants directly, they were clearly dismayed to see them unenthusiastic about the Jihad’s offer of assistance. The second reason has to do with the nature of industrial vs. agricultural production. Industry lends itself easier to government control. Thus the urban-industrial bias so clearly displayed by regimes with populist politics (Algeria and Iraq, for example), is likely to emerge in post-revolutionary Iran as well, despite all the pro-agriculture rhetoric.

State Power

This account of the Jihad’s activities is based mainly on observations made well over two years ago. Its implications for political change over the first two years of the Iranian revolution can be summarized as follows. First, the triumph of the revolution in toppling the Pahlavi regime set in motion great social forces which have continued to define the character of the revolution beyond early pronouncements from its leadership. One strong political current was that of the petty bourgeoisie, or lower middle class. The populist nature of the revolutionary leadership in the early days, and the particular style of mobilization by the IRP from the bottom up, provided these social groups with opportunities to strengthen their positions. What the Islamic Societies accomplished in this respect in the Tehran bureaucracy during their “anti-liberal” campaigns, the Jihad and the Pasdaran achieved nationally. These campaigns alienated the bourgeoisie and the middle class from positions of political power, and greatly strengthened the economic role of the state and the role of the lower middle class in the bureaucracy.

Since the struggle for political power was quite intense during the first two years, the reconstruction activities of the Jihad were necessarily highly political. This accounts for the emphasis on takeover of local government rather than campaigns for literacy or social services. Some social groups were left out of the reconstruction process altogether—for example, the intellectuals. Others were made the object rather than the subject of social reform. The urban poor and the peasants were used to consolidate power; their demands were addressed directly and urgently, for so long as there were other political groups which they might support.

It appears, therefore, that the increasing success of the IRP in consolidating state power has made it less willing to alienate the propertied classes in order to win over the disinherited. Recent pronouncements from Iran seem to bear out this analysis. The land reform bill and the bill to nationalize foreign trade are still being debated with all signs indicating that the land reform bill will not be passed.

After the Iraqi invasion of Iran in the summer of 1980, the Jihad’s attention also turned to sending volunteers and supplies to the front. In rural areas they are a strong source of support for the so-called seven-man councils that are supervising land redistribution. In Tehran they are still considered a lobby for radical economic change, but their power is hard to gauge. The struggle between the conservatives and the radicals is still going on in the government. In the unlikely event that the radicals win, the Jihad will be an important force once again. The conservatives, for their part, will also place more emphasis on the countryside than did the Pahlavi regime. Thus, no matter what the outcome of the political struggle in Tehran, the Jihad will not disappear. Most probably, though, it will be a more or less conventional development agency, a rural institutional pillar of the Islamic Republic.

How to cite this article:

Emad Ferdows "The Reconstruction Crusade and Class Conflict in Iran," Middle East Report 113 (March/April 1983).

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