Hooshang Amirahmadi, Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience (SUNY, 1990).
Within the growing literature on the nature of the Iranian revolution and the factors that contributed to the formation of the current regime, Hooshang Amirahmadi’s work stands out for its novelty, the new original data it presents and its in-depth analysis of post-revolutionary conditions. Following Emmanuel Wallerstein, Amirahmadi maintains that peripheral and semi-peripheral states have only limited possibilities of transformation within the capitalist world economy. Two sets of factors determine the transformative potential of revolutions. The first set comprises the social basis of post-revolutionary leadership, the geopolitical significance of the country and the hegemonic ideology of the revolution. The second involves the nature of the compromises made by the new regime. In Iran, Amirahmadi argues, despite many positive forces, old and new constraints combined to hinder economic transformation. These obstacles included the pre-revolutionary patterns of uneven development, dependence on the world market, rising public expectations, unrealistic promises by the new regime and pressures generated by the Iran-Iraq war and the United States. Added to these were the struggles over state power, the rise of workers’ councils, ethnic autonomy movements, land reform and development strategy.
Amirahmadi presents a detailed view of the Iranian economy since the overthrow of the monarchy. Some of his data are startling. For example, the consumption expenditure of Iranians declined from 50,000 rials in 1979 to 30,000 rials in 1989, while the incidence of poverty increased among 65 to 70 percent of the population. In 1986, at least 34 percent of the population lived in poverty even with rationed food prices. Inflation ran from 20 to 60 percent in 1989 for most essential consumer goods, and 41 percent of the work force were unemployed. Over 1,000 families become rial billionaires, up from the 100 families prior to the revolution, while the under-taxed merchants in the bazaar accumulated vast wealth. These powerful bazaaris and their state allies have effectively blocked passage of more restrictive government policies regarding investment, trade and inflation.
According to Amirahmadi, positive developments include a reorganized banking system, creating a stronger state sector, and greater attention to rural and underdeveloped regions through more infrastructure expenditures. He asserts, without providing specific evidence, that positive changes have also occurred in the Iranian political system, including “a reduced fear of authority and a change of power relationship between the ruled and the ruler. A positive trend of political de-ideologization is also discernible.”
Amirahmadi’s data underscore the fact that the dominant faction in the Islamic Republic of Iran has increasingly abandoned the radical policies, and issues of social justice have been subordinated to economic growth. There has been no land reform; foreign trade is still in private hands; and the reconstruction plan approved by the parliament advocates privatization of most nationalized industries and reduced state intervention in the economy.
Although well-documented and rigorous, the book contains certain contradictory and problematic aspects. Amirahmadi labels the Islamist regime “middle-class,” a regime which attempts to monopolize political power out of fear of the upper and lower classes. This middle class, he writes, lacks a coherent ideology, but at the same time he asserts that middle-class revolutions often adopt indigenous nationalistic ideologies.
Assessing the leadership of the Islamic Republic as “middle-class” is problematic. In fact, significant segments of the middle class were eliminated from the state early on, and their organizations repressed. Amirahmadi’s assertion that middle-class leaderships seek monopolization of power is not supported by evidence from Iran or elsewhere. The middle class and its organizations have played important roles in the liberal nationalist movement in Iran throughout much of the twentieth century. Many would argue that the middle class is one of the driving forces behind democratization and moderation in the transitional process from traditional to modern societies.
Amirahmadi’s treatment of ideology is puzzling. Part of the problem arises from the absence of a clear definition of the concept of ideology. He ignores the important debate in the social sciences, dating back to Max Weber, on the relationship between religion and economic development. Some analysts claim that Iran’s problems (including economic ones) arise out of the very nature of fundamentalism and its impact on the social structure. Amirahmadi does not touch upon these issues. Instead, he discusses and criticizes Iran’s “obsolete political culture.”
Still, Amirahmadi’s main focus is the economic changes in Iran since the revolution, and here he makes a unique contribution to understanding the dynamics of economic development in Iran.