The Precarious Revolution: Unchanging Institutions and the Fate of Reform in Iran: Iranian Politics Is a System Made by the Clerics for the Clerics, and for Their Supporters Who Possess a near Monopoly on the Spoils of the Revolution and the Country's Resources

Article excerpt

The Islamic revolution of 1979 was the result of a grand coalition of diverse forces united against the ancient regime. (1) Although the religious dimension eventually became supreme, the revolutionary process was much broader: it included powerful secular and liberal forces that yearned for a democratic post-authoritarian polity, not a theocratic state. The clerics' eventual success in establishing an Islamic republic was largely a result of their ability to mobilize Shi'i religious institutions and focus on mass grievances against the Shah's regime.

The purpose of this article is not to analyze the process leading to the Iranian revolution. It is rather an assessment of the announced goals of the revolutionary regime and its successes and failures in meeting them. These goals have been stated in various forms. They were initially articulated through print, sermons and media routes during the period of revolutionary struggle. The revolution's charismatic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his lieutenants were the dominant and frequent articulators of these goals. Their ideas were subsequently enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the government's domestic and foreign policies, and in statements before international forums and organizations.

The proclamation of regime goals were often preceded by a strong expression of moral outrage at the ancien regime for squandering the country's natural resources by using oil wealth to procure weapons, becoming a lackey of foreign powers, especially the United States, and favoring the rich and well-off over the poor and downtrodden. The revolution's goals emphasized the necessity of reclaiming lost cultural heritage, reincorporating concepts and practices from past traditions and promoting the notion of Islamic authenticity. The ultimate hope was the creation of a new Islamic man who was at peace with an observant religious society ruled by Islamic laws and precepts.

On the domestic side, the goals stressed the achievement of three interrelated desiderata: social justice (with a strong emphasis on justice for the underclass), economic self-sufficiency (autarky), and the proper economic balance of public enterprise, private initiative and cooperative ventures. In the foreign policy arena, the proclaimed goal was to ensure an independent foreign policy that was not tied to the rules and dictates of the superpowers or other dominant states. The proposed foreign policy maxim and the guide for behavior was the concept of "Neither East Nor West, Only the Islamic Republic." The interests of the Islamic state and its self-reliance were to serve as guiding norms. A corollary foreign policy objective was to export the ideas of the Islamic revolution to the world at large and to target the Muslim masses in particular.

To complement these goals, the regime introduced a variety of ideological postures, policies and actions in both domestic and foreign policy. In the domestic arena, efforts focused on the three broad and evolving categories of religious ideology, state institutions and social issues.


Broadly speaking, Shi'i religious authority in both its individual and institutional form is decentralized, even dispersed. As a result, Shi'ism has never developed a monolithic tradition. Although at times of major national crisis disparate religious factions have responded with a common voice and policy, the Shi'i norm has been essentially more one of diversity than uniformity.

The case in point is the behavior of the clerics and their supporters during the revolution. Although clearly united in opposition to the Pahlavi regime--as were most other elements of the social order--the religious groups also displayed significant divisions and expressed differing perspectives on both the revolutionary process and the desired form of the final polity. In general, four different strands of thought can be singled out during this period. …


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