Ahmad Ashraf is an Iranian sociologist currently teaching in the United States. He is presently working on a book with Ali Banuazizi on social classes and the state in contemporary Iran. Ervand Abrahamian and James Paul spoke with him in New York City in late October.

How would you describe the regime’s social base of support?

The regime consists of different factions, and each of them has certain social bases among the populace. The bazaar, for instance, is no longer the social base of the government in general, but rather of a group collaborating with the regime.

What are the main currents, and which social bases are aligned with them?

There are three. One could be called radical. They call themselves radical. The second current could be labelled pragmatist or moderate. The third group is the conservatives, the traditionalists. The conservative/traditionalist camp has lost ground, though they have a very solid social base. In the past ten years, especially since 1984-1985, the radicals and the pragmatist/moderates have fought with this camp over economic, cultural and political issues.

Cultural issues stress overt behavior of men and women in Islamic society, including the appearance of women in public and in the movies, employment of women, men’s wearing of neckties or short-sleeve shirts or shorts in the sport fields, performing music, even playing chess. Khomeini had to issue an edict recently that it is OK to play chess, and one of the ulama from Qom wrote him that it is not!

The major economic controversies relate to private ownership: land reform, foreign trade, urban real estate and labor laws. The conservatives, with the support of the bazaar-mosque alliance, argue the sanctity of private property and the unlimited freedom of commercial and industrial activities in Islamic jurisprudence. They even oppose a minimum wage, arguing that in the Islamic free market labor accepts the proposed wage on its free will. On the other side, the radicals advocate a ceiling on agricultural land, confiscation of lands in urban areas, nationalization of foreign trade, labor laws to protect workers against the owners of capital — in all, their program adds up to a form of statism or state socialism. The pragmatists, representing the new middle classes, support a mixed economy.

Most traditional elements have a slightly pre-capitalist quality to them. It’s the liberals who most completely represent big capital.

The conservatives are more in favor of the traditional capitalism of the bazaar. They don’t like modern, bourgeois capitalism: big businesses, banks, unveiled women working in the offices. But they presently share some interests with the modern capitalists vis-à-vis the statist radicals. The traditionalist camp has lost its clout. Very few from this camp were elected in the last Majles [parliamentary] election — maybe a dozen. Khomeini has curbed them constantly, and they have only one newspaper, Resalat. The majority of high-ranking ulama and well-educated Shi‘i jurisprudents belong to this camp. The source of the traditionalist camp, then, is the old bazaar-mosque alliance.

Have they attracted other social elements to support their programs?

They have attracted the support of remaining landowning classes and the modern bourgeoisie, the owners of capital. But the interests of the modern bourgeoisie are better served by the liberals, the moderates.

Doesn’t the course of the revolution suggest that there’s some traditionalist appeal to the masses as well?

The other groups also have their own clerics, their own cadres, and they are also going to the masses. We cannot say that these conservatives have attracted the support of the working class or the peasantry or the poor. Again, the main base of support is the bazaar-mosque alliance. Also, they control only one organ — admittedly a very important one in the Islamic Republic — the Guardian Council of the constitution.

All laws have to go through this Council?

Yes, they have veto power. They vetoed the land reform law, the progressive labor law, the nationalization of foreign trade.

Actually they have vetoed about 100 bills.

Let’s go to the non-traditionalist groups — the radicals and the moderates/pragmatists. They have more or less worked together, modernists against traditionalists, up to the ceasefire. In the Majles election last summer, these more modernist groups won the overwhelming majority of the seats.

After the ceasefire, a split occurred in this heterogeneous non-traditionalist group. Rafsanjani united under his leadership all the moderate/pragmatist/liberal elements who wanted to end the war, to normalize relations with the West, to reconstruct the society. The other group was the true, ardent radical elements in the Majles, the cabinet and the revolutionary organizations.

When we talk about the radicals’ social base of support, we have to take into account what organs of the state belong to which faction. It is through these institutions that they are able to reach people. For example, the minister of interior and the founder of the Revolutionary Committees from the beginning was Ayatollah Mohammed Reza Madavi Kani, an ardent traditionalist and the leader of Ruhaniyat-e Mubarez, the militant ulama of Tehran. He was succeeded as both minister of interior and as commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Committees by Nateq Nouri, who was later appointed deputy to Madavi Kani as the leader of the militant ulama. So Madavi Kani and Nateq Nouri appointed most of the commanders of the revolutionary committees and the governor generals and governors of districts and so on throughout the country — all more or less conservative and traditionalist. But when Mohtashemi became minister of interior, he replaced the conservatives with radicals. That was why the radicals and non-traditionalists were able to win in the Majles election, because the Ministry of Interior is in charge of elections.

The radicals are the children of the war. They rose to prominence because of the war, for a number of reasons. How can you mobilize masses of people to fight at the front without a radical posture? This is exactly what Khomeini argued to the ulama when they asked him about disseminating their ideas on Islam and private property. If you go and disseminate these ideas, Khomeini replied, then you will discourage these young people who are getting martyred on the war front.

During the most difficult times of World War II in Britain there were all sorts of efforts by the Churchill government to develop fairly progressive social programs.

That’s right. That’s what Khomeini said: I don’t need you, the ulama. I need volunteers for martyrdom who can go and fight. So the war created a favorable milieu for the rise of radical elements. And these radicals managed in the course of time, with the support of Khomeini, step by step, to occupy key positions. The cabinet is dominated by radicals — Prime Minister Mousavi, Minister of Interior Mohtashemi, Minister of Oil Gholam Reza Agazadeh, Minister of Heavy Industry Nabavi. Very few posts are not in the hands of the radicals.

Look at the courts and the judicial system. The prosecutor general, Mousavi Khoeiniha, is an ardent radical, the leader of the students who occupied the US embassy. Mousavi Ardebili, the chief justice, has always supported the radicals. Most of the clerical judges of the religious courts are conservative, but the heads of the judiciary are radical.

Most of the revolutionary organizations have been dominated by radicals. The Revolutionary Guards, the Foundation of Martyrs — Karroubi, their leader, is the one who organized those demonstrations in Mecca that cost 400 Iranian lives in 1987. And the Foundation of the Impoverished is more or less controlled by the hardline radicals.

The radicals have gradually occupied the key positions in the state apparatus and Khomeini’s household (beyt-e imam) and pushed out the conservative, traditionalist elements. Khomeini helped them, especially in this past year. Khomeini’s message to pilgrims in Mecca, the Manifesto of the Islamic Revolution, is highly radical. He attacks capitalism and the Islam which he calls islam-i amrika’i — that is, the kind of Islam dear to American imperialism, the Islam of the conservatives.

Eventually, through this struggle, Khomeini made an important innovation in Shi‘i law, which helps transform the Shi‘i approach to jurisprudence toward a position close to that of the Sunnis. I call it the “sunnization” of Shi‘i jurisprudence. It has consequences of utmost significance. Khomeini used the concept of maslaha, the best interest of the community, as the basic principle for evaluating religious rulings. So, if the best interest of the community is to deviate from the sanctity of private property, you have to do it.

He didn’t actually mention that, but he said that for the protection of the community the state can stop people from praying or going on hajj.

The state can even level a mosque in the name of urban planning. He promoted maslaha instead of the Shi‘i principle of zarua — that in a situation of force majeure you can deviate, but only temporarily, from the basic rules and principles. They had never before used the Sunni concept of maslaha. When the survival of the system is at stake, you can deviate from Islamic principles, and you can innovate. So the fight between these two camps was basically between the supporters of traditional jurisprudence and the supporters of innovative or progressive jurisprudence. They also used the term dynamic jurisprudence.

The result seems like a stalemate: The radicals can pass as many laws as they want, but they’re going to be vetoed unless there’s another internal coup or the constitution is revised.

They found a solution a few months ago. Khomeini created the Supreme Council of Maslaha. He’s added the prime minister, the speaker of Majles, the prosecutor general and several other modernists from his own bureau to the members of the Guardian Council to form a new body responsible for resolving differences between the Guardian Council and the parliament, such as land reform.

Another issue had to do with permission to punish price gougers without going to the court. The bazaaris hated that. The judges of the religious courts often hesitated to issue rulings against the bazaaris. They held that it was against Islam to fix prices. The merchant can sell at whatever price he wants, they argued, you don’t have to buy it.

Sounds like Adam Smith.

Yes. But the government had that power from Khomeini. Then recently, because of pressure from the bazaaris following the ceasefire, Khomeini said that power rests with the Maslaha Council. They can give whatever bit of it they want to the government at their own discretion.

Who are the more moderate and pragmatic forces — Speaker of the Majles Hashemi Rafsanjani is key. He is also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces — actually deputy supreme; Khomeini is Supreme Commander. Rafsanjani’s brother is in charge of TV.

There must be others.

In the Majlis right now the fight is between the radicals and the person of Rafsanjani. He is the main figure among the pragmatists. The core of the radical elements are those students who occupied the US embassy. Their spokesman, 33-year old engineer Mohammed Ebrahim Asgharzadah, elected to the Majles from Tehran, is the deputy chief editor of Kayhan, the daily newspaper which is the main organ of the radicals. In the Majles, Asgharzadah openly called Rafsanjani a traitor to the revolution and Khomeini. I’m not saying there are no other elements, but this personality element is important. The radicals are now fighting face-to-face with Rafsanjani. The most visible and vocal figure confronting Rafsanjani is Prime Minister Mousavi.

The elements behind Rafsanjani are basically bureaucratic, professional intelligentsia, those whom the regime calls the middle classes — modern industrialists, modern commercial farmers — those who want to have normalization at home and in international relations. Rafsanjani represents the new middle class both in the government and in civil society. Rafsanjani supports chess playing, he is against restrictions on women. He supports modern, private property, though in the context of a mixed economy. He favors Islamic principles in general terms — after all, he is a cleric. He says the private sector and the bazaar should be allowed to be active while at the same time the state should be powerful and in a position to supervise them.

He sounds like a reincarnation of Khomeini’s first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan.

But a militant Bazargan. Bazargan is too modern, too liberal and democratic for the Iranian situation, whereas Rafsanjani is an astute political animal. He advocates an eclectic blend of Islam, liberalism and socialism. Now about 100 deputies support him, out of more than 260. He has a few ministers he can work with in the cabinet and he hopes in time to control the radicals and create his own base of power in post-Khomeini Iran.

When Prime Minister Mousavi resigned a few months ago, Khomeini didn’t accept his resignation. He was aware that if Mousavi left, the radicals would have rebelled, and Rafsanjani would have a better chance to take over. This Khomeini doesn’t want to happen. Rafsanjani has firm control over the armed forces. Recently they started again to give the grade of general to army officers. There had been only two or three, and now there are 30, 40, maybe 50.

Rafsanjani has problems with the Revolutionary Guards, though. The leadership could be persuaded to collaborate with Rafsanjani, but the rank and file of the Guards are furious about recent developments — normalization, the ceasefire, Iraq’s use of chemical gas. Iran has chemical weapons, but they have used them only two or three times, in a very limited way, to show the Iraqis that they have them. The Iraqis knew they didn’t want to use them. So the Guards are very bitter and demoralized, and very critical of the leadership of the regime. They say the clerics are not the kind of people to hold out to the end; they abandoned us. They believe that Khomeini was deceived by Rafsanjani on the ceasefire, and they resent Rafsanjani for that.

Didn’t the government try to merge the Guards into the army?

There were different attempts. There was an attempt to have the Guards take over the armed forces. The radicals have managed to take over one by one key positions in the Islamic regime sirice 1984. Recently they have also been able to gain leverage over, the Guardian Council through the establishment of the Council of Maslaha. These were important advancements for the non-traditionalists and radicals. But the defeat in the war and the issues concerning the future development of the society and relations with the West, specifically with the United States, led to the split of the radical leadership.

One main issue is post-war reconstruction. The radicals argue that Iran must rely exclusively on local human, financial and technological resources, and should be very cautious in any normalization of relations with the imperialists, especially the US. The radicals reject the idea that hasty reconstruction is essential. “What is wrong?” they ask. “True, everything has fallen apart, factories, roads, infrastructure are ruined, but we have survived. The first priority is independence from imperialism.”

Where does Montazeri, the presumed successor to Khomeini, stand on these questions?

Montazeri has been a figurehead. The president, the prime minister, the chief justice, the prosecutor general and their people don’t consult him. He has no real power. His line is mixed, but usually he has supported the hardliners on foreign issues. On internal issues he is considered a moderate. He calls for reconciliation and peace. He was instrumental in dismissing Ladjevardi, the prosecutor of Evin prison.

Montazeri supports land reform. But at the same time he’s suspicious of the government. I remember immediately after the revolution he thought that retirement pensions were something unusual. We clerics don’t get pensions, he said. The bazaaris don’t get pensions. Why do government employees get retirement pensions? He has always stood outside of the state apparatus. So it’s very difficult to put him in one of these categories — and it’s not important. But he could be used. He was the hope of the radicals at the beginning.

Could you say something more about the radicals?

These people are young and militant, mainly; they were in the universities in the 1970s under the Shah’s regime. They were active in radical, guerrilla-type organizations, like the Mojahedin. They were the followers of Ali Shariati and his ideas. They were jailed.

Insofar as Shariati was influenced by Marxism, so were they?

That’s right. Like Shariati, they are suspicious of the ulama and the religious establishment. They are just like the Mojahedin in terms of social background and orientation. The only difference is the Mojahedin’s leader is Rajavi, their leader is Khomeini. They collaborate with the regime, the Mojahedin fight the regime. But basically they are the same people, the same social creatures. The Iranian radicals unfolded in three ways from among the young intelligentsia. One group joined the formal Marxist-Leninist groups, all different lines; another group joined the Mojahedin; and the third group developed inside the Islamic regime. Obviously the three groups are different, but I consider them as a part of a general manifestation of radicalism among the Iranian intelligentsia.

Ideologically there may be one difference. The Mojahedin refused to accept the concept of velayat-e faqih, that clerics have the final say. Although they are suspicious of the clerics, the regime radicals jumped on the bandwagon by agreeing with the principle of the sovereignty of the faqih. They hope for the erosion of that principle in post-Khomeini Iran.

The traditionalists themselves charge that the radicals in the bottom of their hearts don’t really believe in velayat-e faqih. They are correct. The radicals don’t believe it. They say Khomeini is a great man, he’s a charismatic leader, a true revolutionary, we have to use the situation to advance the cause of the impoverished. And they have used it to advance the concept of maslaha. Khomeini with velayat-e faqih or Khomeini without velayat-e faqih has absolute rule, but no one else can take his position. When he dies, velayat-e faqih will be eroded. This is what they think, the radicals.

They may not be right.

Sure. But one thing I see in all these developments is that a more modernist Islam is winning in factional politics. I see more secularization in the process and for the future of the regime. The two currents that are gaining ground are the radicals and the pragmatists.

Do the radicals have considerable mass following?

They have tried to mobilize the masses, just like the Mojahedin and the Marxist-Leninist groups. They have tried to dominate the house of labor. They try, through the Jihad for Reconstruction, to mobilize the youth in the villages. Most of the villagers are conservative, but the young people in the villages have been mobilized for the war by the Jihad for Reconstruction and Mobilization of the Impoverished People.

In Iran at the present time there is disillusionment, a depoliticization of many important elements in society, including the youth and even the students. The main core of activists apparently is in the universities. They dominate most of the university student associations. But control of the Tehran University Students’ Association doesn’t mean that 20-25,000 students of Tehran University are actually participating. The overwhelming majority of the students are depoliticized. University students today could be more a base of support for Rafsanjani, the pragmatist who wants to reconstruct the country and provide jobs for these students.

The radicals rose to prominence in the last two years, a time of economic difficulties for the Islamic Republic and confrontation with the international community. Any group that rose to power under these circumstances, it was easy to see, would have a hard time. They rose at the wrong time, at a time when the regime was declining. They were on top and they fell. Now they are being blamed, in a sense. To fight imperialism, to fight the world, to use only internal, native resources for reconstruction — these are not things that people can buy at this time. This at least is the hope of Rafsanjani when he looks at students and workers. The working class wants jobs, they want the factories to function. They don’t care if it’s the Americans or the Russians, the British or the French who are helping.

Could we speak a little about the changes that have occurred in class structure?

The immediate course of the revolution itself eliminated the big bourgeoisie and the influence peddlers of the Shah’s regime, the large landed capitalists, factory owners, bankers. Hundreds, maybe thousands, fled the country or were imprisoned and had their property confiscated.

The middle bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie remained intact. But in the course of developments, specifically the war, new elements rose to prominence, those from the bottom of the petty bourgeoisie who could adapt themselves to the new situation. They had connections and through contacts with influential elements in the new regime they became the nouveau riche merchants and traders.

I don’t see a great change in the class structure of Iranian society. The new middle class, though it was curbed at the beginning, gradually revitalized itself. With the advancement of these so-called pragmatist liberals, things are looking up for the middle class. Rafsanjani has now sent missions to Europe and to the US to call people back home, arguing that Iran needs the expertise of engineers, doctors.

Have people begun to go back?

To some extent, yes. When the war stopped you couldn’t find a ticket to go to Tehran.

But every time Rafsanjani talks about amnesty, other people like Mousavi say something that scares people.

Yes, like “we don’t need these traitors who were out of the country when we were bombed by the Iraqis.”

If the new people go back in high positions, they’re going to replace people already there.

That’s right. A new group has emerged in Iran, new bureaucrats, a new elite. They have a vested interest in the survival of the regime. But many of them want to keep their high position, and to do that they have to follow a normalization process, pragmatist planning, and reconstruction of the society in collaboration with the West. This is in their class interest.

Would you say that the Iranian working class is substantially diminished in its social weight because of the elimination of so many factories?

They have been reduced to a sort of sub-proletariat. If you are a worker in a modern factory and this factory doesn’t work for months and months, you still have to report every day to the factory. Then they tell you to go home, but you will be paid half your salary. Only the poor workers come every day and sit at the door of the factory so as not to lose their job. They have been humiliated. They see themselves as sort of parasites.

And the cities have grown tremendously, especially Tehran. What is all this new population doing?

Different things — construction, menial work, often part-time, temporary work. Cleaning cars or watching cars.

Somehow reconstruction is going to have to address the problems of these impoverished masses.

This is the hope of Rafsanjani, that in the post-war reconstruction, with a liberal approach, with the oil revenues, there is a chance for entrepreneurs to make more money and, with rapid economic development, to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. The radicals are understandably scared of this process. These circumstances would reproduce the pre-revolutionary class society.

What are the financial resources?

They hope the West will help them raise their oil revenues and get credits based on oil revenues.

But given the low price of oil and the cost of importing food and even refined petroleum products, isn’t this going to be a problem?

Yes, but we should not forget that Iran doesn’t have any foreign debt, despite all the war expenditures.

Absolutely no debt? That’s quite extraordinary.

It is. So there’s a good chance for success. This is what scares the radicals, because they see the potential of this invasion of hungry Western capitalists to jeopardize their situation.

What about social reconstruction, the promises the revolution made about elimination of illiteracy, expansion of medical facilities?

There are some genuine concerns among the leadership of the Islamic Republic about the needs of the masses, and the sacrifices the masses have made during the war. The radicals argue that the priority is to provide basic services — education, housing, medical care, and so on. I don’t see any capability in the system at the present time. In the course of this normalization and liberalization, revolutionary zeal will be eroded. People will be more interested in their own prosperity in the rat race of postwar reconstruction.

So reconstruction will resemble the Shah’s construction: ports, roads, infrastructure?

Yes. It will create jobs, and conditions will improve. But will the regime be able to provide basic services to the poor? I’m not sure. In the past, the Jihad for Reconstruction had certain ideals. But I don’t see those idealistic tendencies prevailing today among the young people. How can you expect them to fight illiteracy and disease in the rural areas when they see foreign and local companies in a rat race to make money? These are contradictions that the changing situation will create.

How powerful is the military at this point?

I don’t see a chance for a military government in the near future. The present Iranian army is completely different than the army under the Shah. For 25 years American advisors were present, most of the high-ranking officers were trained in the US, the technical language of the army was English, all the weapons were American.

Now these people are gone. The generals of today were cadets in the military academy five or six years before the Shah left. They are 35 years old now. They had little contact with the American military apparatus. The Iranian armed forces of the future will behave like the armed forces in Iraq or Syria. But they are not capable of any major political operation because of the Revolutionary Guards who have garrisons in every province.

Could you assess the situation of the peasantry today?

Economic conditions for most classes worsened after the revolution. The vast majority of peasants are conservative in a non-revolutionary sense.

Conditions must have been bad in the countryside because so many people fled into the cities.

Yes. The majority of peasants have remained non-revolutionary, and not sympathetic to the changes which have occurred. But rural youth were mobilized by the Jihad for Reconstruction and sent to the war front. The regime has actually bolstered its capabilities in the cities and the villages among the teenagers of the lower classes. They have mobilized these young people, indoctrinated them, but it doesn’t mean that the villagers themselves support the regime as such.

There is a feeling in the air that the regime was defeated after eight years of futile war. The regime is acting like the people owe something to it. This kind of feeling is common in revolutions — that you owe the revolution, and the people who have sacrificed their lives for the revolution. Now, for the first time, there is the feeling that the regime owes something to the people, at least some explanations.

Would you say that this is turning into a sort of cynical period?

Yes. This does not mean that a major crack has occurred in the regime, but it seems that the regime is in a very similar situation to that of Nasser after the June 1967 defeat. After his defeat, the radicals in Nasser’s regime lost their clout and the liberal elements who supported infitah rose to prominence. These same sorts of things are happening in Iran. But Nasser himself and his regime survived that fiasco, which was much worse than the defeat of the Islamic regime.

How to cite this article:

James Paul, Ervand Abrahamian "“There Is a Feeling That the Regime Owes Something to the People”," Middle East Report 156 (January/February 1989).

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