The establishment of several para-governmental organizations (bonyads) following the revolution of 1979 in Iran has created a large socio-economic sector. This sector tried to harness a mass society by creating parallel structures of revolutionary legitimacy and authority in order to contribute to the consolidation process. When, in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979, the properties of the Shah and the royal family were confiscated, the control of these vast fixed and liquid assets passed on to religious leaders in the forms of newly established bonyads, and increased their financial independence. Ayatullah Khomeini, in his letter to the Revolutionary Council, mandated that “all of the Shah’s and royal family’s liquid assets should be deposited in the banks in the name of Revolutionary Council.” He directly asked the revolutionary committees across the country to implement this injunction and called these assets spoils (ghanimat, pl. ghana’em) and added that they must be kept and controlled separately from state properties.
These bonyads claim to conduct a variety of activities related to social work, advisory, social, and rehabilitation services for satisfying the needs of low-income groups, improving the conditions of families of martyrs, former prisoners of war, needy rural dwellers, guardian-less households, the disabled, and the handicapped. The bonyads active in this regard include the Martyrs’ Foundation (Bonyad-e Shahid), the Imam Khomeini Relief Aid Committee, the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, the Housing Foundation, and the 15th Khordad Foundation.
The bonyads maintained the hegemony of revolutionary forces over the subordinated classes and assisted them by administering social welfare and reconstruction programs. Yet, they are a unique product of the revolution in the sense that the creation of an Islamic state was mainly based on Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine that the restoration of Muslim unity depended solely on the establishment of a government having the real interests of Muslims at heart.
Criticizing the machinery of the old regime as being in line with the capitalist mode of production, an instrument of dependence, and a system that had established a rentier economy, the Islamic state tried to create an Islamic economic framework on the basis of independence, self-sufficiency, and distributional justice in practical terms. It was impossible to apply the economic aspect of religious injunctions, such as collecting the alms-tax, protecting the poor, or supervising endowments (awqaf) within the Islamic state without the creation of bonyads. At first glance, it seemed that, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the religious and revolutionary leaders did not trust the provisional government and state enterprise to fulfill this truly religious obligation. In subsequent years, however, the bonyads expanded, evolving from religious charities into giant private monopolies with no governmental oversight of their operations and institutions that could contribute to the ideological and cultural needs of the Islamic state.
The bonyads have embodied a contradictory position within the religious establishment and have reinforced part of the dual structure of power in the Islamic state when they work parallel with government enterprises. Although the establishment of the Islamic Republic led to the integration of the religious establishment into the political system by the application of the concept of “Guardianship of the Jurisconsult” (velayat-e faqih), the religious leaders were not inclined to apply the economic aspect of religious injunctions within government policies.
The revolution led to the integration of religion and state, resulting in the ‘ulama’ as the sole rulers and arbiters of the political order, including the enforcement of the Islamic penal code. Nevertheless, none of the governments that have taken office have integrated some of the other important religious injunctions, such as collecting the alms-tax and administration of awqaf; nor have they let the religious institutions responsible for these financial practices function separately from the state organizations. For instance, the Bonyad-e Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, the most important charitable foundation, based on the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashad, continued to be controlled by religious leaders.
The bonyads have been actively involved in Iranian politics by propagating the dominant ideology in a wide range of social and cultural activities. This major function reinforced the consolidation of political authority for new men of power by sustaining the revolutionary ideology, assisting the disciples of religious leaders with secular backgrounds in occupying second-tier positions in the state, and facilitating social mobility for the lower middle classes. In fact, these organizations were established in order to assist institutionalization of the ideology of the ruling class by producing an ideological apparatus for the new regime, given that the revolutionary forces could not trust the old regime’s bureaucratic apparatus. They also increased the rate of social mobility among the lower middle classes and supporters of revolutionary forces in order to extend the power of Islamic ideology. They assisted individuals from these classes in moving into new economic, social, and occupational positions.
In the post-revolutionary era thousands of professionals, white-collar workers, students, and teachers of both liberal and radical persuasions, who were purged, imprisoned, executed, or who fled into exile were replaced with members of the lower middle classes who supported the revolutionary regime by the bonyads. These organizations then took advantage of the situation to circumvent the quota system for higher education in order to set up a system for producing a new cultural elite. The special higher education quota has been set aside for these organizations in order to solve the difficulties confronting the regime resulting from a minimal degree of knowledge among potential appointees. This exemption enables the bonyads to allocate key positions to those who support the ruling regime.
Thus, it can be concluded that since the revolution, bonyads have facilitated social mobility by supporting members of lower middle classes with lay backgrounds in occupying the secondary positions in the state apparatus. They enabled the Islamic state to implement the policy of training and distributing human capital by controlling accessibility to higher education and public sector employment to the advantage of special social groups. In stages, they helped restructure the state apparatus. In fact, the revolutionary regime needed the resources of these organizations to consolidate and expand the central state apparatus.
. Ruhollah Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Nur [Pages of Light: A Collection of Speeches and Pronouncements], Vol.17 (Tehran: Ministry of Islamic Guidance, 1984), p. 124.
. Ruhollah Khomeini, Nameh’i as Imam Musavi Kashifal-Ghita (Tehran, 1976), pp. 41–42; and H. Enayat, “Iran: Khumayni’s Concept of ‘Guardianship of the Jurisconsult,’” in James Piscatori, ed., Islam in the Political Process (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 160–180.
. H. Amirahmadi, “Bonyad,” in John L. Esposito, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 1 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 234–235.
. A. Ashraf, “Charisma, Theocracy, and Men of Power in Post revolutionary Iran,” in Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner, eds., The Politics of Social Transformation in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 118.
. N. Habibi, “Allocation of Educational and Occupational Opportunities in the Islamic Republic of Iran: A Case Study in the Political Screening of Human Capital in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Iranian Studies, vol. 22, no. 4 (1989), p. 23.
. For more see Ali A. Saeidi, “The Accountability of Para-governmental Organizations (bonyads): The Case of Iranian Foundations,” Iranian Studies, vol. 37, no. 3 (September 2004), pp 479-498.