international analysis and commentary

The ongoing transformations of Iranian society


“Revolution is a rapture in the course of time”, argues Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, the prominent Iranian scholar referring to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. As a moment of “creative pause” to shape a new order (to quote again Ghamari), nobody is aware of the outcome of the revolution, nor how it will change internal socio-political dimensions. Popular enthusiasm is often dampened by the succeeding phase of the revolution, in which only a voice of the revolutionary chorus enforces a normalization that takes over the other forces, without disdaining the use of violence.

This is what happened for the Iranian Revolution, when the Islamist forces succeeded in overwhelming other political forces, such as liberals, leftists, and seculars. The former had promised justice that many would have understood as a coexistence of several political groups and opening spaces to diverse political ideologies. Under the leadership of the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeyni, post-revolutionary Iran crystallized its political system on promises of social justice, equal distribution of wealth and poverty alleviation. The normalization phase was apt to marginalize opponents and enforce a Republican, yet religious-led, political system. Although the popular referendum held in March 1979 had awarded an overwhelming victory to the Islamic republic, it was difficult to understand at that stage what that political system meant.

Forty years after the revolution, Iranian society reflects the numerous contradictions of the revolution’s results. Some social groups benefited from socio-economic development, while others are still asking for a real improvement in standards of living.

The slogans of the Iranian Revolution provided the rhetorical field for a new set of social policies, with the aim of attracting the support of the masses (the so-called mostazafan, the oppressed). Already in the eighties, the Islamic Republic extended the welfare program and social policies to cover a vast portion of the population. The government boosted social expenditure and expanded infrastructures to connect urban and peripheral centers, often confined in conditions of backwardness and lack of services. Secondary education was guaranteed to the whole population, hence literacy rate improved radically, especially among youth (15-24 years-old) where it reaches 98% percent (2015). Considering these data, Iran has one of the highest literacy rates in the region. Health service was extended in rural areas of the country where also drinking water, electricity, refrigerators and TVs were supplied. Low-income families have consistently benefit from subsidies on basic goods and fuel. Yet, state control over prices, which were below the market rate, also advanced the middle class and increased the consumption of subsidized goods.

These policies, aimed at alleviating poverty, prompted the creation of an educated middle class that grew in volume also due a significant population expansion. While poverty has been gradually reduced, inequality among social classes has remained stable, and in fact increased during periods of economic growth. Oil revenues and capital inflow were destined to shape political power and to create a network of patron-client relations, which however did not mitigate social disparities. Therefore, only a part of the population, sometimes with privileged proximity to political circles, has been able to improve its economic conditions. Considering social transformations and the gradual – and certainly incomplete – attempt to overcome international isolation, the Islamic Republic has been able to widen the wealthy class, which during the Pahlavi monarchy was restricted to the royal family, military officials and merchants (bazari). However, mismanagement has curtailed a widespread expansion of prosperity and the reduction of inequalities.

Forty years after the revolution, mainly two categories have significantly benefited from economic policies and internal dynamics: the Revolutionary Guards and technocrats connected to the political system. Revolutionary Guards, simply referred as pasdaran, shifted from being the military apparatus of the Islamic Republic, to its main economic players. They operate through several companies (Khatam ol-anbiya, to name one) that hold a monopoly in large-scale construction and infrastructural projects. These companies benefit from tax exemption and special licenses to import goods. Controlling ports and borders, the Revolutionary Guards manage goods entering the country, therefore, they can influence the entire national economy.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards parading in Tehran


The so-called “second generation” epitomises a new political-economic elite, which is mainly composed of technicians and professionals from the upper class. Powerful families that permeate the political realm are often referred to “dynasties” (khanedan-e eghtedar). This hints at a specific dynamic of nepotism and clientelism that helps keep powerful personalities in key positions within the political system. Wealthy and influential families, whose children are disdainfully called “the children of elite” (aqazadehgan), expand their control over economic, religious and political spheres, thanks to mutual support, loyalty, marriages and clientelist ties. Therefore, power tends to thicken around influential and dominant groups, that have been crucial for holding the hinges of the Iranian political system. There are a few exceptions, as several businessmen have been able to make their fortunes, despite being far from the “inner circle” (gheyr-e khodi) of politicians. Thus, to a limited extent, the revolution also added more consciousness, education and tools to people’s ambitions in Iranian society.

Already during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) migrant flows from rural areas to urban centers increased and altered the traditional structures that guaranteed social stability. Lack of housing and demand for jobs were the main cause of discontent away from the power centers. People moved to the suburbs of big cities but could not access high-level jobs or afford housing. Problems of unemployment that especially hit young university students are a constant challenge for the government and a reason of popular disenchantment toward the political elite. Due to economic mismanagement, long-standing diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, pro-business reforms, corruption and lack of transparency, a significant portion of the population is certainly unhappy with the revolution’s outcome.

Various categories, such as low-income households, workers, young students, educated women, the marginal poor, those who live in peripheries, truck drivers, and teachers are still waiting for a real improvement in their living standards. Work has become more uncertain especially for young people, who are often hired with temporary contracts that prevent them from accessing the benefits provided to formal workers. High cost of living, mainly due to the recent reduction of subsidies, which most of the population used, caused a series of protests in the country in 2018. Beyond economic mismanagent, the worsening of Iranian economy is also due to the uncertain future of the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA), since the unilateral withdrawal of the United States and the following reintroduction of secondary sanctions. Many European companies (also Italians) were forced to leave not to incur in penalties by the US. Among the protestors were unemployed youth demanding jobs and different categories of workers frustrated by delays in wages and bad working conditions.

The disparity between the upper-middle class and low-income households and workers is still a matter of discontent, frustration and feeling of betrayal. Nevertheless, polarization among social classes is also a matter of perspective. People residing in the suburbs of big urban centers constantly compare their living conditions with those of the middle-class bourgeoisie. Despite having the same access to goods and services, the latter could exploit economic growth hence improve living conditions, while the former are still waiting for “social justice”, as the revolutionary slogan conveyed.

On the fortieth anniversary of the revolution, a part of the Iranian society is still asking for “social justice”, political-economic transparency, job security and environmental protection. For instance, air pollution and lack of water are among the main challenges for many regions, like Khuzestan. Individual freedom is also a very controversial quest in current Iran. It is exploited by some political forces in the West to downplay the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy as well as its regional posture. But it also truly reflects the demands of the new generation under the age of thirty (more than half of the population), which is technological educated, connected through social media and exposed to the outside world. The Islamic Republic improved people’s living conditions, especially by reducing poverty, but in doing so it created expectations that it did not fulfil. The expansion of the middle class displays how adopted policies were not effectively pro-poor, but rather destined to please specific sectors of the population.

A view of Tehran

Iranians generally agree that the revolution was bound to happen. Yet the discontent from lower-classes, workers and unemployed youth discloses a rift between some expectations and real changes. Today’s Iranian society is in many ways post-revolutionary: dynamic, young, with a high level of education and a strong resilience. Young people did not experience the revolution, nor the institutionalization of the Islamic Republic, but witnessed political dysfunctions and popular dissatisfaction due to unfulfilled promises. Despite critics to the current political system, there is a widespread consensus that only reforms can improve the socio political life, while abrupt revolution will only lead to chaos and more uncertainty. Yet disenchantment with the revolution’s outcome influences youths’ interactions with the political institutions.

To conclude, the new generation took for granted the substantial improvements in education and socio-economic development, without participating in the process that led to it. For these reasons, youth’s political consensus and attachment to the roots of the Islamic Republic seem nowadays fragile.