The Islamic Revolution Derailed

By Hossein Bashiriyeh | Professor of Political Science - Tehran University | Jan 29, 2009
The Islamic Revolution Derailed

The execution of the original project of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been repeatedly deferred for various reasons. More recently it is the increasing secularization of society under theocratic rule that is hindering the implementation of the original project despite a monopolization of political power by core elite factions. No doubt the clerical and non-clerical fundamentalist groups and cliques have more or less dominated the political scene since the revolution, but the ideological aim of the revolution was not just to usurp political power at any price but to try to build an “Islamic” state and society. It is something to use religion as a political tool for capturing power, but quite another to seek to implement the principles of that religion. More often however, in real life, the weapon of religion proves to be very useful for gaining power, although its principles create trouble for “religious” politicians.

The original project of the Islamic Revolution as laid out in Ayatollah Khomeini’s works and speeches aimed at a thorough Islamicization of politics, state, society, culture, law, and economy. However, the revolution was derailed from this projected course for a number of reasons including power struggles, internal conflicts, inability of core Islamic elites to establish their hegemony, the war with Iraq, attempts at postwar reconstruction, and the ascendancy of reformist or moderate factions.

The period of the Provisional Government led by Mehdi Bazargan (1979 to early 1981) was marked by an uneasy alliance between extremist-Islamic and moderate-liberal factions. The former favored a fusion of religion and politics and a theocratic state ruled by the clergy, while the latter advocated liberal democracy and separation of religion from government. The dual and somewhat contradictory nature of the constitution adopted in 1979 reflected that uneasy alliance. The specific conditions under this situation led to a transition to theocracy rather than to democracy.

Between 1981 and 1988, the ruling elite was much more unified, but the government was preoccupied with the war effort requiring ad hoc policies and decision-making. Although the project of Islamification continued, there were other more urgent issues for the government to attend to. As before, the clerical ruling elite differed over a number of important issues ranging from cultural and economic policies to how to interpret the laws of Islam. The clerical-fundamentalist rightist faction, which predominated in the Council of Guardians, supported capitalist economic policies along with strict cultural and social control. The clerical Left, which had the majority in the Third Majlis, supported state control of the economy and limited cultural and social freedom. Given the war conditions, Ayatollah Khomeini had to shift his support from the right to the left and back again.

The postwar reconstruction period (1989-97) witnessed yet another derailment from the original course of the Revolution and the virtual marginalization of the core fundamentalist elite. As a result, the first signs of fundamentalist opposition to the regime appeared in this period. While the traditionalist rightist factions were dominant in the Council of Guardians and the Majlis, a new modernist rightist faction emerged and dominated the executive. The Kargozaran (Reconstructionists) supported and implemented neo-liberal policies of privatization and during the Fifth Majlis elections competed with the Traditional Rightists. Neo-liberal policies paved the way for a degree of social secularization and liberalization, which was obviously disliked by the fundamentalist and extremist factions.

At the same time, the end of war mobilization and neo-liberal policies led to a decrease in state subsidies, greater unemployment, working class unrest, higher inflation, a decline in ideology, the political activation of various social forces, such as intellectuals, journalists and students, and the outbreak of a number of popular mass rebellions (especially in Mashad, Islamabad, and Qazvin). All this paved the way for the victory of the reformist factions (the older leftist factions and a number of newly rising new middle class political parties) who supported Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential elections.

From the perspective of the core fundamentalist elite, the period of the reformist government (1997-2005) was the sharpest deviation from the supposedly original project of the Revolution. During this period, the reformist parties succeeded in gaining control of the executive and the Parliament in three consecutive elections (1997 presidential, 1999 parliamentary and 2001 presidential elections). On the other hand the core elite retained control of the Office of Leadership, the Council of Guardian, the Council of Expediency, the Judiciary, and the Revolutionary Guards. In the conflict that ensued between the two blocs, the Council of Guardians vetoed 111 out of 297 bills passed by the reformist Sixth Majles in support of civil liberties, political participation, women’s rights, ban on torture, press freedom, labor rights, public welfare policies, and so on.

However, no structural change in the political system occurred during this period for a number of reasons. First, there was not much real elite ideological disunity; the hegemonic elite faction continued to control the system. Second, the reformist factions failed to develop strong social organizations despite widespread popular support. The nascent civil society, rising after a long period of social atomization, was itself under constant pressure from the hegemonic factions. Third, the armed forces were united and loyal to the hegemonic faction in power.

The inability of the reformist Khatami government to bring about change led to increasing disillusionment and dissatisfaction among its mainly urban educated middle class popular support base, especially intellectuals, students and government employees. Meanwhile, the right-wing, hard-line factions associated with the core elite were seeking to mobilize the lower classes in town and country, promising them better living conditions than the reformists had been able to provide. Already in 2003, they had managed to win in the city council elections and replace the fractious reformists. The core elite dominant in the Office of Leadership and the Council of Guardians had already made its mind not to let the main reformist parties enter the Majlis again.

Towards the Implementation of the Original Project?

The presidential elections of 2005 ensured the complete ascendancy of the core elite factions and the ousting of the reformists from the political system. This marked the first time that a high degree of structural and ideological unity within the ruling elites had emerged since the revolution. All three branches of government as well as the major clerical institutions were now occupied by a coalition of conservative, hard-line factions. The degree of harmony between the executive and the legislative branches of government was unprecedented. A new configuration of revolutionary extremist factions came into existence, forming a “Third Force,” i.e. the Abadgaran coalition, clearly distinct from the older conservative factions. The political presence of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and the Basij militia as part of the social base of the new political elite has been quite noticeable since. Deputies with backgrounds in the IRGC won a third of the parliamentary seats. Extremist and ultra-conservative groups such as the Hojjatiyeh and Haqqani Seminary School factions as well as the Ansare Hezbollah and Society for the Defense of Revolutionary Values supported the new elite configuration. To a considerable degree, a militarization of theocracy has since taken place with the increasing political involvement of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij.

The positions and policies adopted by the new ruling group since 2005 can be described as attempts to implement the will and testament of Ayatollah Khomeini, which clearly embodies the original project of the Islamic Revolution. The new policy positions such as attempts at the disruption of neo-liberal economic policies and the banking system, increasing cultural control, restrictions imposed on civil society, and greater militancy in foreign policy can be interpreted as attempts to implement the original project of the revolution.

But power consolidation, elite unification, and the attempt at reconsolidation of the revolution and implementation of its project are taking place under socio-cultural conditions and circumstances very much different from those existing in the early years of the revolution. The major difference lies in the demise of the politically mobile and active mass society of the 1980’s and the rise of an immobile and passive mass society resulting from growing anomie and a widening gap between public opinion and the official ideology. Various factors have been responsible for the erosion of ideology and the development of a passive and anomic mass society, including the increasing secularization of society, the conclusion of the war with Iraq, the new turns in economic policy, and the disappointing results of the Reform Movement.

Some field research and surveys recently carried out by a number of public and private research organizations clearly demonstrate the widening gap between official-religious ideology and public opinion and practices. In particular, the National Survey of Values and Attitudes conducted by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, on the basis of a sample of 16,824 people, found:

a decline in religious beliefs and practices especially among the new generation;

  • growing secularization of private life;

  • increasing use of cultural products prohibited by the ruling clergy;

  • growing political distrust and cynicism;

  • decline in the feelings of social solidarity; and

  • widespread feelings of political inefficacy;

Thus the most important characteristic of the present time can be described as an increasing secularization of society under a theocratic regime, the most unfavorable grounds for the implementation of the revolutionary project. It seems that the social secularization trend is expanding as a result of increasing development in terms of education, communication, and modernization. Thus, like all ideological revolutionary projects, the Islamic ideological project has found it very difficult to reconstruct culture and identity in a society undergoing a fast process of change and secularization.


the revolutoin was derailed from this projected course for a number of reasons