Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Factors Shaping Politics : Part 4 Of "Understanding Iran"

When they are free to do so, Iranians who oppose the current regime but don't wish to be associated with the symbolism of the previous Shah, opt for this earlier Civic Flag in place of the current State Flag which appears below. (H.B. 13.4.08)

Part 1 of this series on "Understanding Iran" appears here, with Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

The strength of national sentiment is one of the factors which shape Iranian Politics. But there is also a complex interplay of other factors at work.

(1) Nationalism

Iran has experienced three major shifts in its overall political make-up since the end of the Second World War. These occurred (1) under Mohammed Mossadeq's democratic premiership (1951-53), (2) under the Shah's dictatorship (1953-79) and (3) from the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Although the nation's politics have lurched dramatically in differing directions with each of these shifts, the bulk of the Iranian population have always shown a strong sense of national identity. This arises from their long history and their long term coherence as a single unit. The most recent exception to their operating in a common structure goes back to the relatively short-lived consequences of the Anglo-Russian invasion during the second world war, which produced foreign controls and a split in the administration of the nation.

Further factors adding to this sense of national identity is the size of Iran and what it perceives to be its status in its region. It has not seen the break-ups and re-alignment of some of its neighbours and has held a strategic position as the only nation on the eastern bank of what it calls the "Persian Gulf". On the other hand the remaining bank is currently shared out between seven different nations. The Gulf itself also having the presence of the US fleet.

The next two factors, also add to Iran's sense of national identity.

(2) Shia Islam

98% of Iran's population are Muslims, with 89% being Shia. Given Iran's size, coherence and status as an Islamic Republic, this makes it the world leader of the Shia version of Islam. The only potential rivals to this position are the Shia of Iraq. The territory dominated by the Iraqi Shia contains most of the Holy centres of this faith. However, the Shia of Iraq have just recently emerged from under the totalitarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. They operate inside a nation in turmoil, in which their fellow believers in Iran play a role which is seen by some as supportive and others as interference. Indeed it is only just over a quarter of a century since Saddam Hussein launched an attack on Iran which led to a hideous eight year conflict between the two nations and between the two Shia camps. All of these factors help to keep Iran and not Iraq, at the forefront of the Shia world.

The majority of Iran's Shia clerics come from mainly urban petite bourgeoise families, but they are also widespread throughout society and tend to retain close links with people from their own backgrounds - which include the working classes.

(3) Anti-Imperialism

In 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency played a major role in restoring the Shah to power. The Shah ran an oppressive regime which was backed by the US and other Western powers. When the Shah attempted to modernise and westernise Iran, he did this in a highly oppressive and exploitive way which included the use of a hated secret police force.

Further aspects of the conflict between the USA and Iran will be examined later. But from the Shah's period it has always been possible for Islamic forces (in particular) within Iran to spread the notions that liberal values from the West are invariably intermingled with forms of decadence and exploitation. What the USA, in particular, sees as forms of liberty are often seen by Islamic peoples as being mere licence and immoral excess.

It needs to be remembered, however, that when it comes to issues such as the way women dress and whether they should have open access to the same life-style as men, then anyone in Iran who is in their mid-40s or over will have experienced the norms of a more Westernised (but corrupt) regime. As Iran is a young population, this is a minority of the population. On the other hand, younger people with middle class lifestyles face the excitements of an illicit Western culture. There is, for instances, a high number of Iranian bloggers and a current dispute over how their activities should and can be subject to control. So whilst Iranians tend to share strong anti-Imperialist feelings, for many this does not spill over into say a full grown anti-Americanism.

(4) Diversity

It isn't inevitable that the above factors of Nationalism, Shia Islam and Anti-Imperialism will lead to a monolithic society; for different people will give different weights and interpretations to each factor. On top of this there are numbers of divisions within Iranian society which persist and challenge tendancies towards a uniform outlook on life. Such divisions will not necessarily lead to splintering. In favourable circumstances they could aid democratic and pluralist developments.


Class divisions are significant in any society. Iran is highly urbanised and has seen the growth of industrial working class occupations. Although this social class draws down from the influences mentioned above, it it can also be attracted towards collective action in pursuit of its common interests. In the past there was clear influence from the Communist-inspired Tudeh Party under the impact of the former Soviet Union which rested on Iran's northern border. Today there are also struggles to organise Trade Unions amongst groups such as the Tehran bus drivers. There is also a high level of graduate unemployment which can act as a recruiting ground for liberal and socialist understandings. Some of the latter move out and back into Iran and help to cross fertilise ideas.

The pull of the views of the Islamic clerics from the time of the events leading up to the Islamic Revolution has been strong amongst the poorer sections of this working class. Numbers of these have moved from agricultural areas and send remittances home to their families who often still live in rural areas.

The growth of the towns has also led to a growth of Bazaars. Those running businesses in these (often with extended family links) plus employees making the goods they sell, have been amongst the stongest supporters and publicists of the norms of the Islamic Revolution.

There is also a class with business, management, professional and financial skills in a mixed economy with a wide area of State, co-operative and foundation structures. Numbers of these have clerical connections and all tend to share concerns to preserve and advance their interests - however, some will seek to do this via more radical avenues then others.


Iran contains numbers of minority ethnic and religious groups. Such divisions are mellowed by inter-marriages and the unifying factors mentioned in sections (1), (2) and (3)above. Divisions can come to the fore, however, in periods of tension such as that of the Revolution itself - for it wasn't clear at the time that the forces around the Khomeini would truimph.

The largest ethnic minority are the Azeriz and since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been the pull of a neighbouring independent Azerbaijan on part of Iran's northern border. Other groups include Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and Turkmen (with now a neighbouring Turkmenistan). Whilst inter-ethnic relations tend to be reasonably amicable, outside events in neighbouring countries (such as the move to relative autonomy by the Kurds in Northern Iraq) can have an impact on attitudes amongst their related ethnic minorities in Iran.

On religion, the only sizeable minority are the Sunni, who are also strong amongst the Kurds. Developments in Iraq can influence the Sunni of Iran in contrasting ways to their impact on the majority Shia.


Whilst the role of women is seriously restricted by the practices of the Islamic Republic, a number of countervailing factors also need to be considered.

Women have the vote, widespread access to some genuine education and improving health facilities. They played prominent roles in the Islamic Revolution and during the Iraq-Iran War which enhanced their status within what was otherwise an alien setting.

The legal, practical and social restrictions upon women in Iran cannot be ignored. But if other forces begin to work upon their husbands and sons to achieve democratic, libetarian and social advances: then women are liable to be able to press more effectively for their own improvements. The struggle for advancement can then (in numbers of areas) cross the gender divide.

Female undergraduates outnumber males and are often restricted to jobs openings in the teaching profession. It is, however, a key avenue for those wishing to open up the minds of future generations. At the moment the franchise might have its limitations, but it also provides votes from 15 for all - including those taught by female graduates.

Those in Iran who press for civil rights for women, trade unionists, homesexuals, reformers, minority interests and others can benefit from outside pressures organised by groups such as Amnesty. Here is an example.


hass said...

Anti-Americanism really doesn't exist in Iran, not even among the political class. Quite the reverse, philo-Americanism is the rule. Iranians don't confuse Americans and America with the specific policies of specific administrations. (There was an article in the International Herald Tribune about this sort of thing quite recently entitled "Many in Iran bear the US no ill-will) Iranians lately however have become disappointed and disenchanted with the US, and only now have a more realistic view. However, rather than "anti-Americanism" one could say that a sentiment of "siege mentality" is taking over Iran, with the belief (hardly unfounded) that Iran is being ganged-up upon yet again. 1953 is a searing memory that has not been forgotten, nor the war with Iraq.

Also, the myth that the White Revolution was intended to be progresive but was wrongly implemented through repressive means, was exploded long ago. The whole idea of the Shah as a moderniser with it.

Class differences in Iran today are far, far less than what they used to be. There is actually a large and growing class of "new money" middle class that has pushed out the "old money" classes. The sons and daughters of gardners and house servants now have advanced degrees, and are no longer content to be the servants of the old classes left over from the Shah's time. The improvements in their status is palpable and recognised.

Harry Barnes said...

Hass : (1) An item I wish to turn to in Part 5 is the problem of the relationship with the USA, so I will have your comments in mind. (2) As the problem of that relationship emerged from the 1953 coup, it gives me a chance to have a further look at the White Revolution. (3) Whilst Class structures shift and change with the help of access to education, they don't disappear so easily. The UK's advance in access to higher education, for instance, allows us to modernise but is probably adding to inequality and divisions. But again, I will give your points thought - especially as you are the only person has taken me seriously enough to comment on this series. Thanks.
(4) I am not likely to post anything now for a few days as I am off to meet some Iraqi transport workers.

Harry Barnes said...

Hass: After looking further into the question of the Shah's "White Revolution", I now see that it was a mixture of the cosmetic and (in its operations) the counter-productive. I have, therefore, amended my text at the start of section 3 in Part 4 - Thanks.

Harry Barnes said...

Hass: I have revamped this thread. "Anti-Americanism" has been replaced by "Anti-Imperialism". Item 4 has been expanded and reworked. Whilst item 5 has gone, for now. So I do listen to criticism, although I might now have presented you with fresh concerns.

Naj said...

I think a nice ethnographic review of the areas where women in Iran are more powerful than their men is overdue.

My perception of female power in Iran is based on my life experience; and observation of the role of women especially in nomadic and rural agricultural societies.

Gender roles in Iran are defined in a complex way; economy is the most determining factor in female autonomy. and if a woman finds a way, there are no restrictions to limit her in becoming economically autonomous.

With that, comes power.

Exclusion of women from certain sectors of the society is dressed very euphemistically as "you are too delicate to do this", rather than "you are incapable or undeserving".

You see some of the most prominent public figures, artists, political activists, writers, filmmakers in Iran being women!

And no, they are not very young either!