Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Development, or modernization, of the Iranian countryside became an ideological imperative at the very outset of the post-revolutionary period. Both the religious and secular leaders of the Islamic Revolution believed that the deposed Pahlavi monarchy deliberately had neglected agriculture and rural economic development in its efforts to create in Iran an imitation of a European urban, industrialized society. Consequently, revolutionary ideologues perceived the rural sector as “deprived” and deserving of remedial programs. The rural inhabitants were the true mostazafin (downtrodden), an Islamic term given a new ideological meaning by Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the admired French-educated intellectual who first used the term in his Persian translation of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and later in many taped and clandestinely circulated sermons calling upon his countrymen to demonstrate their religious faith by struggling against injustice. [1] In addition, 53 percent of Iran’s total population lived in rural areas in 1979, so the new government’s attention to the rural mostazafin was politically expedient as well as ideological. Nevertheless, the revolutionary coalition was comprised of diverse political and social groups, and while everyone gave lip service to the ideal of social justice, many senior clerics, most merchants in the urban bazaars, the large, absentee landowners, and most peasants who owned more than ten hectares of land opposed radical changes, especially land redistribution, which the majority of small and landless peasants tried to implement forcibly in many villages throughout 1979. [2]

By 1983, those opposed to any major land redistribution program would gain political dominance at the national level, but in 1979 the proponents of rural social change had the upper hand and exerted sufficient pressure on the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (r. February to November 1979) to force it to create a special organization, the Jehad-e Sazandegi (Struggle for Construction), with a mandate to wage “war” against rural deprivation. In practice, this mandate translated into a mission to provide a basic infrastructure for all of the country’s 70,000 villages. Jehad attracted and trained several hundred idealistic young men (mostly in the age group 18-25) and, later, women. Many of these men — between 30 and 40 percent of them — were from villages, and enjoyed a measure of local respect due to their education and/or the reputation of their families. Up to 40 percent more Jehad members were men who had migrated with their parents to and been raised in cities but still retained ties to their natal villages. Because Jehad’s philosophy stressed local participation in development projects, the personal ties of so many of its trained cadres proved to be an asset in mobilizing thousands of villagers in cooperative efforts that eventually brought modern amenities to and transformed the appearance of most villages. [3]

Jehad’s Development Projects

Jehad carried out three distinct kinds of development projects — rural infrastructure, social facilities and agricultural technical assistance — throughout the 1980s and 1990s. [4] The organization was still in the process of setting goals and initiating priority projects when Iraq launched a surprise invasion of southwestern Iran in September 1980; the ensuing war lasted for eight years, during which time many Jehad members served at the front. Despite the war and the scarcity of government funds for non-military projects, Jehad actually completed numerous rural infrastructure projects between 1980 and 1988. Its activities expanded significantly after the war, especially during the presidential administration of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997), which made post-war reconstruction a national priority. In the domain of infrastructure, Jehad focused on the construction of rural roads and the electrification of villages. These were both daunting projects for a country as large, mountainous and underdeveloped as was Iran in 1979. For example, only 4,790 miles of rural roads existed at the time of the revolution, most of them unpaved; the overwhelming majority of villages were connected to other populated places by dirt tracks used for pedestrian and animal traffic. In the 20 years ending in March 1999, Jehad built some 36,660 miles of two-lane rural roads; these included both paved and graded gravel roads, and, where relevant, bridges to cross over stream beds and gullies, as well as tunnels. These roads connected thousands of villages to urban areas and to a national highway system; by 2008 less than 10 percent of all villages were still relatively inaccessible except through the use of pack animals.

With respect to rural electrification, at the time of the revolution, only 4,300 villages — 6 percent of the country’s total — had any electricity, with the overwhelming majority being villages close to cities or adjacent to national power lines. By March 2001, Jehad, in cooperation with the Ministry of Power, had extended electricity to 99 percent of all rural homes. Jehad’s other infrastructure projects in the countryside included installing piped water systems (providing 850,000 village households, out of 4.5 million total, with potable water by 1999), stringing telephone lines and replacing mud-and-straw homes with more solid kiln brick houses.

With respect to social facilities, Jehad concentrated on the construction of primary schools, the objective being to have one boys’ and one girls’ primary school in each village of 100 or more households. Both boys’ and girls’ secondary schools were constructed in larger villages; groups of small villages and the Ministry of Education in each district were supposed to cooperate in developing plans for the transport of middle and high school pupils to the nearest large village or town to continue post-primary education. Other social facilities in which Jehad took the initiative in some villages included the construction of health clinics, mosques and public bathhouses.

Jehad’s technical assistance projects in agriculture have been varied and designed to meet the specific crop and climatic patterns of Iran’s various regions. Technical assistance includes cooperation with villagers on group projects such as construction of grain storage silos, irrigation systems and sanitary stables for keeping livestock during the winters; facilitating interest-free credit for purchasing dairy cattle herds, agricultural machinery and water pumps; provision of subsidized seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and livestock feed; and continuous interaction with agricultural cooperatives, which are encouraged to develop local projects for processing and marketing their crops and animal products. Jehad’s general successes with technical assistance, as with its infrastructure projects, raised its national profile, and it was elevated to the status of a cabinet-level ministry in 1984. As a ministry, Jehad’s hands-on approach to agricultural productivity problems often clashed with the more bureaucratic and pro-private business approach of the Ministry of Agriculture, and rivalry between the two ministries grew more intense in the late 1980s. Jehad generally enjoyed the support of Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Musavi (1981-1989), whose government viewed rural poverty as a priority social justice issue and saw Jehad’s activities as contributing to its elimination. This situation changed with the Rafsanjani administration, which tended to view the ideologically motivated policies of the 1980s as hindrances to the private investment it wanted to encourage as part of its overall reconstruction strategy. This new emphasis on private investment was in line with the ideas of Tehran’s economic development technocrats, who gradually had embraced the neo-liberal economic polices that the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other international organizations were pushing by the late 1980s.With respect to agriculture, the latter wanted to tame Jehad by merging it with the Ministry of Agriculture, a policy that both initially resisted. Eventually, Jehad was unable to prevent its incorporation into the Ministry of Agriculture, but it has maintained a separate identity and its focus on rural development projects. [5]

Unintended Outcomes

All the new roads, power lines and schools contributed to a significant reduction in the level of rural poverty. This is not to say that social class distinctions have disappeared from rural Iran. In fact, they seem to have become sharper than in the pre-revolutionary era, with the number of hectares of farmland owned being a major determinant of rural socioeconomic status. It is also true that rural (as well as urban) poverty as a societal problem has not disappeared; on the contrary, an estimated 50 percent of rural households are at or below the officially defined minimum annual income necessary to provide adequate food, clothing, housing and utilities for a family of four. [6] Nevertheless, the abject poverty that forced so many rural families in the 1970s to subsist on low-calorie diets that left them malnourished and susceptible to disease is no longer characteristic of rural (or urban) Iran, thanks to various government and private assistance programs for low-income households, including food and fuel subsidies, state pensions for disabled and elderly farmers, and free medical care at government health clinics.

Jehad’s projects not only have improved rural life but also have facilitated several socio-economic changes. Examining the impact of the thousands of miles of new rural roads is instructive. As one example, we can consider the Bayza rural district of central Fars province in southern Iran, a fruit- and grain-growing area regionally renowned for its aromatic, long-grained rice known as confiruz. As late as 1978, the main route from the provincial center of Shiraz to Bayza was through a complex mountain chain and along dirt tracks; the one-way trip for people and pack animals took 12 hours. The paved highway, completed in the 1990s, allows one to drive between Bayza and Shiraz in 65 minutes, thus making the market of Iran’s fifth-largest city easily accessible for the rice, wheat, fruits and vegetables grown by farmers in the Bayza villages. But these new roads also have facilitated rural-to-urban migration. Indeed, according to the 2006 census, the rural population has continued to decline relative to the urban population, both as a percentage of total population (down to 31.6) and in absolute terms: One million fewer people were living in rural Iran in 2006 (22 million) than in 1996 (23 million). Many small and more remote villages have experienced the emigration of their prime labor force, young men (and their new families) in the 18-30 age group, and this has had negative effects on local agricultural productivity and the transmission of specialized farming techniques to future generations.

The expanding road system also has facilitated urban sprawl, as Iran’s fast-growing cities spread out to villages within a 12-mile radius (or even further in the case of Tehran). Farmers are tempted to sell agricultural land to both private and public developers, who then convert it into housing developments. In the Caspian Sea coastal province of Mazandaran, for example, rice paddies have been transformed into communities of expensive summer homes for Tehran’s fast-expanding middle- and upper-class families; in metropolitan Tehran, former villages such as Fardis and Talebabad (once famous for melons) and Karaj and Shahriar (once famous for fruit orchards) have been transformed into densely populated suburbs; and similar changes have happened to former villages in the vicinity of cities such as Esfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and Tabriz. In this process, thousands of hectares of fertile land that had access to water sources for irrigation are being lost permanently to food production, although no agency has undertaken any systematic study of the long-term consequences of this trend.

Virtually all of Iran’s 4.5 million rural households have electricity, and this has led to changes in how villagers order their daily lives. Refrigerators are ubiquitous in villages, and their widespread use has stimulated the emergence of a new, albeit still small, class of rural merchants who sell a variety of perishables. Many villagers have become consumers seeking household appliances, and local sales and repair shops have opened to meet this demand. The most popular appliance is the television set, and the 16 hours per day of programs broadcast by the state networks play a major role in bringing urban ideas and fashions into the villages, thereby contributing to the erasing of cultural differences between urban and rural Iran. Television ads tend to stimulate demand for various “national” products, some of which replace local ones. This trend is especially apparent with clothing, as distinctive regional dress is being abandoned by village youth who prefer to dress like popular TV personalities. National politics also enters the villages through television, especially during the one week before each presidential and parliamentary election when candidates are permitted to campaign. In the 2005 presidential election, for example, villagers seemed to judge the slick, five-minute television videos of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as more appealing than those of the six other and better-known candidates, for he carried most villages in the central heart of the country — from Tehran south to Qom, Arak, Esfahan and Shiraz — by large margins. He unexpectedly polled the second-largest number of votes among the seven candidates, while the frontrunner, Rafsanjani, failed to get an absolute majority, thus requiring a second round of voting, in which Ahmadinejad won outright with substantial rural support.

All villagers have access to elementary schools, and primary education — which is mandatory — is now universal for both boys and girls. Attendance at middle and high schools is not compulsory, and small villages tend not to have either type of secondary school, factors that contribute to high dropout rates among rural youth. Although instruction in the public schools is free, parents must buy uniforms and required textbooks and supplies for their children. Furthermore, under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the Ministry of Education introduced a controversial registration fee that parents must pay for each child who enrolls in school at the beginning of the academic year in September. All these expenses are especially burdensome for low-income villagers, and, unless their children are doing exceptionally well academically, poor families tend to encourage their secondary-age students to drop out, especially daughters who need transportation to schools in the nearest larger village.  Nevertheless, education has become valued in rural areas, and bright students, whether boys or girls, are encouraged to finish high school and even go on to college. In fact, by the early 2000s, 50 percent of rural boys and 45 percent of rural girls were completing high school. Interestingly, more rural female high school graduates sit for and pass the competitive college entrance exams than do rural male high school graduates, a trend similar to that in urban areas. Sociologists in Iran believe that older teenaged girls concentrate on their studies more intently than similarly aged boys because most families discourage their daughters, but not their sons, from routinely spending unsupervised hours of time outside of the home. Nevertheless, less than 7 percent of all rural girls aged 18-25 are in college; and they tend to attend classes at the campus nearest to their villages of the private Azad University, which has been developed in the past decade in scores of medium-sized and small towns throughout the country.

Education and television are two important agents that have altered rural social values. These changes can be observed in some of the most intimate life rituals, weddings and births. For example, regionally distinctive wedding festivities and costumes are losing appeal among rural couples who aspire to imitate the ceremonies and attire — white wedding gowns for brides, jackets and neckties for grooms — they see on television shows. For both rural men and women, the average age at first marriage has risen, up from 22 years for men in 1980 to 25.3 years in 2002, and up from 19 years for women in 1980 to 23.4 years in 2002. [7] Fertility among married rural women also has declined dramatically, from five births per woman to two. The decline in the number of children per couple can be attributed to the family planning program instituted by the government in the late 1980s. For example, in order to obtain a marriage license required by the state before it certifies the legality of marriages, prospective brides and grooms must produce signed documents attesting that each has attended a prescribed number of hours of family education classes. These classes promote birth spacing as ideally Islamic and provide instruction on the use of birth control methods. [8]

Making Demands

Thirty years of state-promoted programs in rural Iran have transformed villages and precipitated social and economic changes. Although these changes are the direct consequence of government policies aimed at providing social justice for villagers, they did not end, as was originally intended in 1979-1980, the income gap between rural and urban households and seem to have resulted in more, rather than less, rural class stratification. It is accurate to say that the level of poverty that existed in 1979 — substandard housing, inadequate diets and illiteracy for the majority of rural households — no longer is characteristic of villages, for rural families took advantage of new opportunities that Jehad and other government development programs inevitably brought. The degree to which individual households could benefit from these opportunities tended to correlate with their socio-economic status, however. Iran’s foremost rural sociologist, Mostafa Azkia, has noted that most villagers had no class consciousness at the time of the revolution, though they did recognize which families were poor by village standards, which were better off and which well-to-do. [9] The small group of well-to-do farmers, that is, those who owned more than ten hectares of land, tended to benefit disproportionately from post-revolutionary government programs, compared with the majority of villages who owned three or less hectares or no land at all. Of course, the revolution did provide opportunities for social mobility, especially in the largest villages, where some individuals from low-income families succeeded in getting employment with government organizations or in becoming entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, those who benefited the most from government development projects were able to realize levels of profits from farming that enabled them to participate more conspicuously in the urban consumer society that began filtering into rural Iran during the 1990s. The ownership of consumer goods such as automobiles, appliances and home furnishings now provides visible evidence of a family’s socioeconomic status, and in this way distinct classes have emerged in most villages.

Assessing class divisions for rural Iran as a whole is harder than observing it in individual villages. First, there is little reliable data about the annual incomes of all rural households (although there is excellent data on land ownership). Second, there is considerable variation with respect to class structure from one village to the next. Nevertheless, one can make two broad generalizations with respect to rural class: There tends to be a direct relationship between the amount of hectares owned and the level of income derived from farming (although 38 percent of all rural households own no land at all); and rural indebtedness and poverty are highest in areas where land is marginal in terms of agricultural productivity. For example, in Zagros Mountain villages located at above 5,900 feet (especially in parts of the western provinces of Ilam, Kurdistan and Luristan), a combination of scarcity of level land and short growing seasons severely limits the kinds and quality of production; in such areas, up to 80 percent of a village’s households can be low-income. A similar situation is found in the exceptionally arid southeast (parts of eastern Kerman, southern Khorasan and most of Baluchistan provinces), where ground water is inadequate for irrigation. In contrast, in villages with fertile soil, abundant water and close enough proximity to cities to enable family members to commute to urban jobs (especially in Central, Fars, Esfahan, Mazandaran, Qazvin and Tehran provinces), up to 75 percent of households might be middle-income or above.

While climate, hydrology and topography set natural limits on the profits farmers can reap from their land and consequently their socio-economic status, class formation is an effect rather than a cause of the changes that have been occurring in rural Iran during the past 30 years. The overall broader change is more significant: the seeping of urban consumer society into the villages. The accompanying change in rural attitudes, including interest in government policies, implies that villagers are beginning to feel they have a right to make demands on the political system. Furthermore, they are forming opinions about the many contentious political and social issues that dominate the media, with the debates between religious conservatives and religious reformers in the capital being mirrored in villages. And villages have participated enthusiastically in elections for local councils, first introduced nationwide in 1999. The village councils generally hold regular public meetings at which issues such as paving streets, instituting garbage collection services, purchasing school buses, establishing zoning to prevent cultivable land from being used for non-agricultural development, and raising assessments for services are discussed and debated. Because all government ministries have offices in the provincial capitals, members of the village councils and officials of other rural institutions, such as cooperatives, health clinics and schools, tend to have contacts with provincial-level government offices, and these ties facilitate getting government funds and other assistance for village projects. On matters of broad concern, such as the routing of the planned rail route from Esfahan to Shiraz, it has become customary for several villagers to sign petitions to the Majles representative for their districts to register their support for or opposition to a particular project.

With respect to national politics, however, rural engagement tends to be limited to voting in national elections. This seems to be related to the way that national politics is dominated by urban elites, especially those in Tehran. For example, there is scant political mobilization of rural constituencies by any of the national political parties. This failure to mobilize the countryside certainly was demonstrated in the 2005 presidential elections, because none of the national political parties had rural party networks that they could call upon to get out the vote. It is plausible that a degree of popular resentment at being ignored prompted such a large number of rural voters to cast ballots for Ahmadinejad, a relatively unknown candidate whose ads promised to end the abuse of government contracts and other privileges of the aghazadehha (sons of the clergy). Given that presidential elections will take place in June 2009, it will be interesting to see whether rural Iran will defy expectations again by voting for an unlikely candidate as a means of protesting the tendency of Tehran’s politicians to take this constituency for granted.


[1] For analyses of Shariati’s ideas and their impact on Iranian youth during the late 1970s, see Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 464-473; and Ali Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998).
[2] On rural class structure and its relationship to size of land holdings, see Eric Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran, 1960-1980 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), pp. 77-99.
[3] For an analysis of the philosophy and early activities of Jehad, see Emad Ferdows, “The Reconstruction Crusade and Class Conflict in Iran,” MERIP Reports 113 (March-April 1983); for a more recent evaluation, see Mostafa Azkia, “Rural Society and Revolution in Iran,” in Eric Hooglund, ed., Twenty Years of Islamic Revolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002), pp. 104-106.
[4] The discussion in the rest of this paper is based largely on my own field research in rural Iran during several summers between 1993 and 2005. I wish to acknowledge two Iranian colleagues, Mostafa Azkia and Jabbar Bagheri, both of whom have listened patiently in hours of conversation about my research findings and helped me to understand the relationship of my case study data to national trends.
[5] On the rivalries over philosophies and policies of Jehad and the Ministry of Agriculture since 1989, see Ali Shakoori, “Planning and Agricultural Development in Iran,” Critique 13/3 (Fall 2006), pp. 271-280.
[6] On rural social class structure and poverty, see further Azkia, pp. 101-103.
[7] Roksana Bahramitash and Shahla Kazemipour, “Myths and Realities of the Impact of Islam on Women: Changing Marital Status in Iran,” Critique 15/2 (Summer 2006), p. 115.
[8] On changing rural attitudes about marriage and birth control, see Eric Hooglund, “Letter from an Iranian Village,” Journal of Palestine Studies 27/1 (Autumn 1997), pp. 83-84.
[9] Azkia, p. 103.

How to cite this article:

Eric Hooglund "Thirty Years of the Islamic Revolution in Rural Iran," Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).