The Society and Its Environment
IRAN HAS BEEN EXPERIENCING significant social changes since the
1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the monarchy. Ayatollah
Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Revolution,
and his supporters, who were organized in the Islamic Republican
Party (IRP), were determined to desecularize Iranian society.
They envisaged the destruction of the royal regime as a prelude
to the creation of an Islamic society whose laws and values were
derived from the Quran and religious texts sacred to Shia (see
Glossary) Islam. The flight into foreign exile of the royal family
and most of the prerevolutionary political elite, and the imprisonment
or cooptation of those who chose to remain, effectively enabled
the Shia Islamic clergy (see Glossary) to take over governmental
institutions and to use the power and authority of the central
government to implement programs designed to accomplish this goal.
The creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 resulted
in the destruction of the power and influence of the predominantly
secular and Western-oriented political elite that had ruled Iran
since the early part of the twentieth century. The new political
elite that emerged was composed of Shia clergymen and lay technocrats
of middle-class origins. The major consequence of their programs
has been cultural, that is, the desecularization of public life
in Iran. By 1987 this new political elite had not adopted policies
that would have caused any major restructuring of the country's
economy. While there has been controversy regarding the appropriate
role of the government in regulating the national economy, the
overall philosophy of this new political elite has been that private
property is respected and protected under Islam.
The establishment of an "ideal" religious society has been impeded
by foreign war. Iran became involved in a protracted war with
its neighbor, Iraq, in September 1980, when the latter country
invaded Iran's oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan. This
conflict has meant a total war for Iran. By 1987 at least 200,000
Iranians had been killed and another 350,000 to 500,000 wounded.
At any one time, 600,000 men were under arms. Property destruction,
including the complete leveling of one major city, several towns,
and scores of villages, as well as extensive damage to industrial
infrastructure and residential neighborhoods of other urban areas,
was estimated at billions of dollars. The war also created the
need to provide for as many as 1.5 million persons who had become
refugees; to ration a wide variety of foodstuffs; to retool most
major industries for the production of war-related goods; and
to expend a substantial proportion of government resources, including
revenues from the sale of petroleum, on the war effort.
Although the war with Iraq has imposed extraordinary burdens
on the economy and society, the government of the Republic has
continued its efforts to recast society according to religiously
prescribed behavioral codes. These policies have resulted in a
significant enhancement of the role that the mosque plays in society.
The Shia clergy have become the major political actors not only
at the national level but also at the local level, where the chief
cleric in each town has assumed the functions of a de facto district
governor (see Local Government , ch. 4). Thus, local mosques,
in addition to fulfilling their traditional roles as places for
prayer, have become primary sources of social services that formerly
were obtained from various government ministries. Mosques also
have become one of the principal institutions for enforcing the
observance of public morals.
All the major cultural and social groups in Iran have been affected
by the changes resulting from the establishment of the Republic.
The secularized, Western-educated, upper and middle classes of
the prerevolutionary period have been frequent targets of criticism
by the clergy and lay political leaders, who have accused them
of "immoral life- styles." These secular groups have tended to
resent the laws that regulate individual behavior. In particular,
they dislike hejab
(see Glossary), the dress codes that require women to be covered
in public except for their faces and hands, and the prohibition
of all alcoholic beverages. Members of these classes, who predominated
in the upper levels of the civil service and in the professions,
have also been compelled to undergo "re-education classes" in
Islam to retain their positions.
In contrast, the religious middle class, generally identified
as the bazaar class, has tended to support the laws the secularized
groups disliked because these laws reflect the ideal life-style
that the bazaar traditionally has tried to follow. Similarly,
the lower classes in both urban and rural areas have not necessarily
tended to perceive laws regulating behavior as intrusions because
the religious sanctions have for the most part merely reinforced
the values of their generally conservative life-styles.
Data as of December 1987