A fashionable description of the Islamic Republic of Iran is “garrison state,” a concept that originated in the West in the early 1940s. In a garrison state, the ruling elite is mainly composed of “specialists in violence,” and military bureaucrats dominate the social and civil spheres. In Iran’s case, the term is meant to refer to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its rise in the state apparatus. After World War II, however, a group of social historians revised the consensus concerning the social effects of war. Observing the total mobilization of society in wartime, scholars such as Richard Titmuss noticed an increased effort by Western governments to reduce inequality. In describing the origins of the post-1945 welfare state, Titmuss contended that “the waging of modern war presupposes and imposes a great increase in social discipline; moreover, this discipline is only tolerable if, and only if, social inequalities are not intolerable.” In many instances, it seems, governments can have both guns and butter, though within limits.

Iran did not fight Iraq with revolutionary Shi‘i ideology or human wave attacks alone, nor did it depend wholly on the Shah’s dated munitions. Just as organizations like the IRGC and the Basij arose in parallel to the regular army, so a set of new welfare organizations emerged to play major roles in wartime Iran. The first, and arguably most important, of these quasi-official welfare organizations was the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. It is colloquially known in Iran as Komiteh Emdad, and its octagonal blue collection boxes are still ubiquitous in the country.

In a 2008 publication entitled Komiteh Emdad and War, Committee officials reminisce about their experiences. Baqer Ghaffari, who helped organize truck caravans of donated goods to the front, recalls the day when a white rooster was seen strutting amidst the cargo. Ghaffari asked where the fowl had come from, and a volunteer told him it had been donated from a small village outside of Kashan, in central Iran. There was a mother there whose son was at the front, and she had been given a cash allowance by the Committee. The rooster had been raised by the soldier, and waited every day for his return. Instead, news of the son’s death soon reached the village. When a Committee truck came through to make a collection, the mother ran out in front of it, delivered the rooster and said, “Take this as a memento of my son and give it to the other soldiers to eat; I cannot afford to give any more.” Ghaffari made sure the rooster was given to a cook at the front, where it reportedly fed a surprisingly large number of soldiers.

Although the Committee was founded by order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to aid the “deprived and excluded,” its duties expanded considerably during the war. The organization maintained four main supply stations: Ahvaz on the southern front, Sanandaj and Kermanshah in the west, and Orumiyeh in the northwest. At these posts, personnel loaded a fleet of donated trucks and cars to ship goods to some 350 substations on the front lines. These religiously themed substations (salavatis) offered soup, sweet porridge (halim), ice cream and cigarettes, as well as the services of barbers, tailors and cobblers. According to conservative politician Habibollah Asgarowladi, who was Khomeini’s personal emissary to the Committee, the halim at the Faw peninsula substation was famous throughout the armed forces.

By 1981, as the war dragged on, the Committee was firmly entrenched in the mundane duties of civil defense. In addition to distributing relief at the scenes of floods and fires, the organization took over the compensation of victims of bombs and missiles. In the last year of the war, nearly 150,000 families were reportedly given financial support for injuries and housing reconstruction. Refugees, including Iraqis, were housed in Committee-run camps or placed with host families in cities. Originally, cash allowances for the families of war dead and wounded were handled by the Committee as well, but these payments shifted to the newly created Martyrs’ Foundation and the Foundation for the Disabled.

The Committee did not shrink in size at the outset of the “era of reconstruction” under President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Indeed, Rafsanjani’s first five-year development plan promised to cover the basic needs of 570,000 elderly Iranians, 360,000 families and 1 million refugees partly by using Committee resources. In 1990, marking the eleventh anniversary of the welfare body, then-Parliament head Mehdi Karroubi stated, “Today we realize that if [the Committee and similar organizations] did not exist, there is no knowing what would have happened to the fate of the revolution and the country.” By the early 2000s, the Committee claimed to have nearly 1,500 primary and subsidiary facilities around Iran, including educational dormitories, cultural camps and therapy centers. In 2006, it reportedly provided over 7 million Iranians with health insurance coverage, and in 2010 the Committee’s database of poorer families was used to plan the cash payments President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set up to compensate for proposed cuts in fuel and food subsidies.

On a field visit to Committee offices in Tabriz in February 2010, it appeared that the logistics of this organization are well behind other Iranian welfare institutions, such as the much larger Social Security Organization, which maintains most of Iran’s sizable pension funds. Supplicants filled out a form similar to what was used 20 years ago, and goods and cash were distributed through procurement centers. Yet the Committee headquarters, which were formerly in central Tehran, have been relocated to a sprawling new compound in the tony northeast of the capital. Pictures of the visiting Hasan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Hamas officials, adorn the entrance, and charity operations in Lebanon as well as Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Bosnia advertise that the Committee’s “revolutionary” mission is alive and well. Even so, its ordinary activities among the poorest strata of Iranians more closely resemble poverty-targeting projects in Brazil or Mexico, albeit predating these development fads by decades.

The story of the white rooster may be good propaganda, but it also demonstrates how the Islamic Republic replaced many kinship-based networks of solidarity and support in Iranian society, as a consequence of the upheavals of war, with state-based networks of welfare. The resulting social compact has not proven easy to undo, even when the staunchest proponents of the free market in the Islamic Republic so demand. Critics of the regime deride this outcome as dependency, rent seeking and cooptation, unknowingly echoing welfare bashers in the United States. But Iran’s upper and middle classes, hyper-visible as they are in the West, still make up only 20 percent of the population. Most of these well-heeled Iranians actively avoid interacting with the Revolutionary Guards and Basij, but they continue to toss their spare change into the blue boxes that are found on every main city street.

How to cite this article:

Kevan Harris "The Imam’s Blue Boxes," Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).

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