Foreign ministers of the P5+1 nations at the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna in 2015
Iranian politics are certainly enigmatic. Many conversations focusing on the subject typically center around the reform movement, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet pundits and writers devote little time to perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of Iranian politics: the missing left wing. While it could be claimed that the reform movement occupies the space of social and economic justice advocates, reformist president Hassan Rouhani’s economic policies demonstrate that economic growth takes primacy over economic egalitarianism. This is in stark contrast to the real history of left-wing and communist movements as a form of political agitation in Iran. The communist Tudeh Party, for example, has a robust history of political agitation, as does the more recent Worker Communist Party of Iran, to name but a few. With this knowledge in mind, it appears that a genuine left-wing bloc should have emerged in contemporary Iranian politics. Yet the absence of significant Iranian leftism is a glaring omission for a state that is clearly more politically diverse than its de facto one party system suggests.
In fact, the reasons for the Iranian left’s failure to reform in the aftermath of the revolution are centered on the structure of the Iranian government, the concentrations of wealth in Iran, and the rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution. First, Iran’s government functions as a patron-client network, in which support is maintained through the allocation of resources. Second, much of Iranian wealth is concentrated into charities, called bonyads. Third, the Supreme Leader appoints bonyad chiefs, controlling those that control the wealth. Fourth, the language used in the Islamic Revolution appropriated clear leftist notions, and was used to first co-opt leftist movements and then to prevent their emergence in post-revolution politics. These four factors led to the current distributions of political allegiances, maintaining the loyalty of the demographics that generally make up traditional leftist blocs and eliminating additional political cleavages.
The absence of significant Iranian leftism is a glaring omission for a state that is clearly more politically diverse than its de facto one party system suggests.
Iran’s missing left-wing is problematic because its absence contributes to stagnant policies that harm most citizens while benefiting a privileged few. To fill this hole, economic justice-minded reformers should take advantage of the budding detente between Iran and the West in the aftermath of the recent nuclear deal. Ideological diffusion and the dissemination of alternative political discourses naturally ensue as more people commingle, providing an avenue for the reemergence of Iranian leftism.
Iran’s Patron-Client Network and How it is Facilitated
A patron-client network can be defined as a system in which those with abundant resources, the patron, allocates those resources to a certain recipient, the client, in exchange for support. This system stagnates politics, preventing new developments from occurring. Loyalties of politically dynamic individuals, such as the urban middle class, are maintained through the distribution of money. Upwards mobility in these systems is predicated on the demonstration of loyalty and the proximity to those that hold resources, discouraging challenges to the system.
In Iran, bonyads facilitate this network. The idea of the bonyad is derived from the Islamic waqf, which is a charitable endowment the wealthy typically use as a way to store money. Likewise, bonyads are designed to act as a tax-free way for the wealthy to demonstrate their value to society. Ultimately, bonyads are utilized to spread influence, and to maintain the clientelist networks that purport the state’s legitimacy. Perhaps the best known of these organizations, the Bonyad Mostazafan, or the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled (MFJ), began as a successor to the Pahlavi Foundation, which was established in 1958 as a tax exempt slush fund for the former Iranian dictator Rezah Shah. Currently, the MFJ is the wealthiest holding company in the Middle East, highlighting its considerable wealth. Additionally, the most powerful bonyads tend to own hundreds of different companies, extending their influence far beyond the reach of immediate clientelist relationships.
The target goals of bonyads typically consist of providing aid to the needy or rewarding the deserving. These are indeed noble goals, but occupy the space of traditional leftist state policies and maintain a problematic dynamic, in that dependency is purported to manufacture loyalty to the state. Two groups that are the main consumers of bonyad benefits are veterans of the military, and the families of those killed or incapacitated in action, and the mostazafan, or, the poor and weak. In exchange for state supported aid or assistance, loyalty to the state is the assumed price. While generous benefits are given to former members of the military and their families, the urban and rural poor often have to deal with confusing bureaucracy to secure jobs through the Bonyad Mostazafan, making it difficult for them to benefit from the relationship. The state expertly circumvents these bureaucratic problems through the IRGC paramilitary and Basij militia, who target the poor for recruitment, offering high pay and lifelong benefits while maintaining the loyalty of a potentially problematic demographic.
To highlight how the state utilizes bonyads to co-opt emerging political factions, consider the events surrounding the Bonus Army and America’s 1932 elections, in which unsatiated actors were able to influence America’s political trajectory. When benefits to WW1 veterans were delayed amid the Great Depression, roughly 20,000 veterans protested the Hoover Administration in Washington DC. Ultimately, these protests helped to sink President Hoover’s chances in 1932, contributing to President Roosevelt’s resounding victory. At the time, America lacked a persuasive mechanism to ensure the loyalty of certain influential groups. Thus veterans, feeling abandoned, agitated for political change. The great concentrations of wealth in bonyads ensure that veterans and the poor remain loyal to the state.
Lastly, the rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution has greatly contributed to the elimination and co-optation of varied discourses on politics in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power on the wave of discontent directed at the wealth gap between the vast majority of Iranians and the ruling elite. In doing so, Khomeini was able to co-opt leftist elements and their traditional demographic into his revolution, then maintained those relationships through the bonyad network as well as continual usage of economic justice rhetoric. The Iranian constitution, for example, includes sections provisioning for a “just” economy, as well as for a system in which the state meets basic needs. Thus, the emergence of a genuine leftist bloc in Iranian politics was subverted due to the state’s machiavellian circumvention of certain political cleavages.
The missing leftist bloc in Iranian politics is problematic because of the general goals associated with leftist politics, namely genuine economic equality. Scholars typically view income inequality as an engine for political change, in which class divides spark new challenges to the dominant political apparatus. As noted above, Iran’s inequality issues have worsened under the stewardship of the Iranian political class. Iran’s large amount of young, highly educated and underemployed people spearheaded the 2009 Green Movement, protesting the policies of the ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad administration, demonstrating the considerable potential for political agitation held by a vast amount of Iranians.
Iran’s missing left-wing is problematic because its absence contributes to stagnant policies that harm most citizens while benefiting a privileged few.
Policy makers wishing to foment political dynamism should be aware of this paradigm, in which a sizable portion of the population acknowledges the failures of a parochial, inflexible, yet durable regime. There is already a robust history of and a constituency for a leftist bloc, yet the left’s coaptation at the hands of Iran’s bonyad-facilitated clientelist system prevents its re-emergence.
To incubate a new wave of Iranian leftism, reform minded politicians should work to take advantage of both the wealth that will surely flood into the country in the aftermath of the recent nuclear deal, and the subsequent intermingling of foreign ideas and notions. This wealth should be used to finance new employment opportunities, infrastructure improvement, and in general, improve the welfare of the average Iranian. In doing so, reform minded politicians will come to hold the traditional leftist position of redistributing wealth to benefit the greater population. In this manner, wealth returning to and entering Iran can take democratizing properties, allowing reformist politicians to break the yoke of bonyads and to increase the individual’s economic power and influence by providing additional political cleavages and thus alternative paths for Iranian politics.
Adam Goldstein is a senior at American University on the combined Bachelors/Masters track majoring in Comparative Politics.
Image Attribution: “Iran Talk Vienna” by Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres, licensed under CC BY 2.0.