Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, Vol

Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, Vol

Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, Vol. 18, No.2, November 2002

Behzad Yaghmaian, Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Ac-count of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights,State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2002, Pp.269 + xi, $20.95.

Ali Akbar Mahdi

Ohio Wesleyan University

What has happened in Iran since the election of Mohammad Khatami as the President of the Islamic Republic in 1997? Social Change in Iran discusses the events, personalities, groups, and forces involved in the struggle to rid the Islamic Republic of its repressive measures and to transform it to a more open, modern, and democratic society. Yaghmaian believes that the clerical forces, which took power after the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime, have exhausted their course, and that new movements are emerging in the Iranian society to replace them. In ten chapters, he provides eyewitness accounts of dissent and defiance by Iranian citizens of different classes, ages, occupations, and genders, especially the youth. He writes about the struggle between the reformist and conservative ruling factions and how youths, university students, women, and workers are determined to confront the ideology and policies of "the bearded men in slippers."

Chapter I offers an overview of political, social, and economic changes in Iran since the revolution, especially after the election of Mohammad Khatami as president. Yaghmaian speaks of not just one, but many movements in the making-movements against the depressive and repressive environment imposed on Iranian citizens by the Velayat Faqih system. These include the movement for rights and civil society, the movement for joy, the women's movement, the workers' movement, the youth movement, the new student movement, and even a movement of "deviance embracing the scorned, desiring what was not to be desired, longing for the forbidden fruits of the life of 'decadence,' consumerism, and the Satanic West" (p.24). The chapter briefly lays the foundation for presentation of "an eyewitness account of the emerging 'new' and 'old' social movements in Iran" (p.25).

Yaghmaian begins Chapter 2 with a narrative of his return to Iran in 1995, his encounters with the unexpected, arrest by security forces for sitting with a female acquaintance in the park, and other observations and experiences. He describes the everyday life of people under the prevalent atmosphere of fear and mistrust created by the rule of "the bearded men in slippers." He writes about the anger on the faces of Iranians, the languid stench of fear emanating from every corner of the society, the assassinations of opposition leaders and intellectuals, and the heavy pains of oppression on men and women, old and young. From these unhappy images, Yaghmaian transitions into a different feeling created after Khatami's election: the colorful posters, billboards, and flyers posted throughout Tehran giving the hope for reduction of the clouds of oppression, anger, and fear.

The next three chapters are entitled the "Children of the Islamic Republic," dealing with the youth movement for joy, the transformation of the student movement, and politicization of movements in the late 1990s. In chapter 3, he narrates the effects of separation of men and women in public, the propagation of a culture of mourning and martyrdom, and the harsh measures imposed on public behavior. Then he cites numerous instances of defiance shown by the youth against these measures, including increased dating, use of make-up, listening to Western music, and using public events as a venue for expressing their anger. The chapter ends with an appendix containing the accounts of interviews conducted with the Iranian youth for a government project showing the effects of the cultural invasion on the youth. The documentary was so revealing in the failure of the government's cultural projects that it had to be shelved. These interviews reveal the extent of discontent and discord with the Islamic Republic.

Chapter 4 describes the transcendence of the student movement from a movement against rights to a movement for rights. Yaghmaian explains how the secular student movement of the Shah's period was transformed to a pillar of violence and repression of rights in the universities in the 1980s, and how it was transformed again to a movement for human rights and civil society in the 1990s. He de- scribes the rise of the Unity Consolidation Office (UCO) and splinter groups like the Union of the Islamic Associations of Students and Alumni (UIASA), Voice of the Students, the National Organization of Iranian Students and Alumni, Student United Front, and Iran's Intellectual Students. Yaghmaian discusses the political and ideological metamorphosis of the first two associations from serving the interests of the ruling cleric to critics of the Islamic Republic fighting for rights, plurality, and reform. The change in the UCO centered on views expressed by Abdolkarim Soroush and was decidedly committed to modernize the archaic and pre-modern Islamic Republic.

Chapter 5 continues the discussion of the student movement by narrating major developments during 1998-99. He talks of the impeachment of the Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri, the increasing critical activities by Tabarzadi 's UIASA, and numerous student demonstrations in Tehran and twenty other cities between July 8 and 14, 1999, leading up to protests against the passage of the press law and the closing of the Salam newspaper in July 1999. The author details the operation of the attack, the state's response, and the involvement of different political factions in making and unmaking these events.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the reformist press, or what the author calls the "critical press." He chronicles the emergence of various papers and continued efforts to close them by the conservative faction: Jame'eh, Toos, Zan, Aftab-Emrooz, Neshat, Asr-e Azadegan, Khordad, Sobh-e Emrooz, and many other smaller or older papers. Yaghmaian discusses the role of the press in civil society and what these critical papers were able to achieve as a formidable foe for the loyalists to the Islamic Republic and what he terms the "old guard." He posits that the critical press had become an important staple for the movement toward civil society and the "engine of the struggle for rights." He discusses their role in exposing the dark side of the Islamic Republic, especially Ganji's efforts in revealing details of serial murders committed by the agents of the Intelligence Ministry.

After reviewing the emergence of the independent Worker Councils and their suppression and replacement by the Islamic Councils in Chapter 7, Yaghmaian criticizes the reformist political strategies for citizen's participation and empowerment because they lack specificity and do not take into account the class nature of citizen groups and their specific needs and demands. Khatami's focus on civil society excluded the plight of the wage earners. Yaghmaian argues that, in the absence of a civil society and opportunity for collective action, responses to economic deprivation and public concerns become internalized and manifest themselves in private and personalized manners through bribery, manic anxiety, depression, suicide, heart attack, and crime. The chapter demonstrates the negative consequences of the neo-liberal policies implemented in the 1990s and cites numerous cases of individualized responses to them. The chapter ends with two appendixes: an academic essay on "structural adjustment, exchange rate liberalization, and wage earners' standard of living" and a chronological list of collective action against the nonpayment of wages and salaries from December 1998 to December 1999.

Chapter 8 discusses the economic decline coinciding with Khatami's presidency in 1997 and the different reactions of each faction to this decline, its causes, and solutions. While conservatives blamed reformists for not giving priority to economic issues, supporters of Khatami blamed Rafsanjani's economic liberalization and structural adjustment policies. Yaghmaian identifies three economic tendencies in the Islamic Republic (Traditional Right, Traditional Left, and Kargozaran) and shows the transformation of welfare state policies during Khomeini's tenure to structural adjustment and neo-liberal policies during Rafsanjani and Khatami's presidencies.

Chapter 9 is the most theoretical chapter of the book. It presents a brief political economic analysis of oil, international division of labor, and the structural crises faced by the Islamic state. Yaghmaian discusses "the stages of the spatial expansion of the capitalist relations of production and the consequent changes in the international division of labor." He attributes the current economic crises to the role played by internationally fluctuating oil prices, the colonial international division of labor and newer division created in the 1960s and 1970s, and the conflicting economic policies implemented by the Islamic government. The author posits that Iran's third plan and Khatami's economic program reflect Islamic Republic's desire to re- verse its economic decline and gain through export-led growth, a new position in the changing international division of labor. The success or failure of Iran's economic recovery depends, according to him, on the speed and thoroughness by which the country will replace and upgrade its industrial base, create new industries based upon cutting- edge technology, reduce its dependency on oil, and create adequate political reform for attracting capital.

Finally, Chapter 10 discusses the major political debate underlying factional dispute and challenges to the Islamic Republic from within. After reviewing the diverse political tendencies within the religious groups involved in the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the author discusses the new religious intellectuals-- Soroush, Kadivar, Mojtahed Shabestari, and Yousefi Ashkevari-- and their recent ideological efforts in challenging the absolutist features of the regime in favor of its republican tendencies. The duality of political power embedded in the Islamic constitution has created a major crisis for the regime and provided an opportunity for religious intellectuals to push for broader political participation and more civil rights. The Islamic Republic is "being asked to abandon the absolute authority of Islam in organizing the cultural and socio-political structure of the state." This abandonment, according to Yaghmaian, will make the Islamic Republic "an Islamic state with- out Islam as its ideology !"

Yaghmaian's book is an informative source on recent developments and changes in the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially in the past decade. It also provides a brief analysis of Iranian economy from a political economy perspective, a glimpse of student activities and organizations in the past six years, and a sense of debates taking place among the Iranian intellectuals and political analysts regarding the nature and direction of change in that country. Here is a rich report with full attention to colorful and diverse voices of resistance against theocracy in Iran. Yaghmaian tries to uncover the intangibles that shape this resistance, and he does so from the perspective of the many actors who participate in resistant activities. He chronicles numerous student demonstrations, provides accounts of numerous conversations, and offers rich observations regarding changing realities of Iran. He never loses track of the paralyzing gap between "the bearded men in slippers" and "the children of the Islamic Republic"-a gap leading to "the defeat of Islamic utopia” and retreat by "the crusaders of Islam."

Yaghmaian is at his best when he discusses the economic changes in the Islamic Republic. As a political economist, he presents an insightful analysis of the effects of economic hardships on the Iranian families, their daily economic interactions, and broader social relations in society. However, these accounts would have been more effective and thorough if they were presented in a less emotional language and oppositional tone. The latter qualities at times reduce the book to a political track written against the Islamic Re- public. Chapters are uneven in representing a collage of personal observations, reportage, journal writings, and academic analysis. His descriptions of events are often emotional, reciting political slogans and narrating events with a passionate language filled with emotive words and feelings. His passionate description of various student political activities or resistance by the youth, while informative, at times seems repetitive, especially in the first seven chapters.

While it is clear that Yaghmaian is a political economist, the book fails to either develop a theory of social change in Iran or cohesively explain these diverse changes in light of an already established theoretical perspective, even from a political-economic perspective. Without such a theoretical focus, it is difficult to know what the primary focus of the book is: economic analysis, social change, social movements, student movement, youth movement, accounts of resistance and defiance, or narration of the failures of the Islamic Republic and its inevitable downfall? As an economist, it is not surprising that Yaghmaian would be expected to devote a considerable portion of the book to economic factors underlying the social and political changes in Iran. However, analysis of social change, especially changes described by the author as "social movements," requires more substance than description. Yaghmaian is very loose with the concept of "social movement." He speaks of so many movements without clearly defining their ideologies, organizations, strategies, and leaderships. Sure, they are decentralized and defused forms of movements recently theorized as "new social movements." But even new social movements have defining elements, direction, agency, and network.

Certainly, there are many sites, flows, and moments of defiance and resistance to the theocratic system imposed on Iranian citizens by the Ayatollahs. Some of these sites are reflections of the structural weaknesses of the regime where opportunity for resistance is readily available. Some are new sites reflecting the creative approaches taken by the citizens. Some moments are merely moments, and some are occasional bursts of an underlying flow. In the absence of a clear theoretically worked out analysis, it is easy to misread these events and activities. Could it not be possible that much of what Yaghmaian describes represents the multiple voices of social strata and classes who are harmed by multiple and intertwined forms of theocratic oppression-a multiplicity whose core represents resistance to theocracy rather than separate movements attempting to establish their own identity independent of the other movements in society? For a non- democratic state with totalitarian tendencies, it is not hard to contextualize these forms of resistance as reflections of multiple sites within what William Roseberry calls a multi-level "field of force.”


* See William Roseberry, "Hegemony and the Language of Contention" in A. Joseph and D. Nugent (Eds.), Everyday Forms of State Formation. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, Pp. 335-366).