Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, depicted Iranian society as formed by two antagonistic classes: ‘kookh’neshinan’ (those who live in very poor accommodations) against ‘kakh’neshinan’ (those who live in palaces). He also used Quranic terms: ‘mostazafin’, or the oppressed who had been fighting against ‘mostakbarin’, the oppressors, throughout history. Khomeini mobilised the masses by defending the barefooted (pa berahne ha) against the rich, the exploiters, the capitalists, the palace dwellers, the corrupt, the high and mighty, and morafahin bi’dard (the wealthy who never care about the pain of the poor).
Khomeini argued that the palace-dwellers always favoured unjust and satanic governments. As an example, he asserted that they opposed Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] and subverted his message, while the poor rallied behind the Prophet [PBUH] and were ready to give up their lives for the Islamic Revolution.
He also contended that Islam had always found its true strength among the dispossessed masses and the lower class. During the Revolution, Khomeini not only portrayed society as a fight between two antagonistic camps, but also promised to redistribute among the deprived masses the ill-gotten wealth of the rich accumulated during the Shah’s tenure.
In 1980, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain’s forces invaded Iran. During the war (1980-1988), the end of which coincided with the death of Khomeini, the Islamic Left had the upper hand within the government. They controlled both the administration and the parliament. The Left advocated for, and in practical terms was loyal to, the doctrine that the government should have control over the economy in general. They were the proponents of state ownership of strategic industries, objected to vast privatisation, prioritised social and economic justice over economic growth, and favoured a strong role for cooperative enterprises in the economy.
During that era, within the administration, this school of thought was led by Mir Hussain Mousavi, the then Iranian prime minister (the prime minister position was abolished in 1989) who has been under house arrest since 2011. Interestingly, Mousavi, who at the time was an Islamic leftist, was in intense conflict with the then president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, who opposed Mousavi’s economic views.
Many observers maintain that Khomeini’s picture of society — one of an “antagonistic dichotomy” — was merely a populist political stance to attract the support of the large, deprived faction of Iranian society during and after the revolution. However, in 1985, Khomeini, in a glaring move that demonstrated his support for the leftist Mousavi, ordered Khamenei, who was re-elected as president for a second term, to keep Mousavi as his prime minister. In his inauguration speech, Khamenei alluded to being forced to re-appoint Mousavi against his wishes. (Two days later, Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, shared his father’s annoyance at Khamenei’s words). Nevertheless, until Khomeini died (1989), defending the rich was a taboo.
Things, however, began to change after Khamenei assumed the position of leadership and the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a staunch free-market advocate, took office in 1989. Rafsanjani and his team would concentrate on liberalisation of the economy and economic justice discourse. But save the occasional empty slogan by the supreme leader, to please the poor — who shape the backbone of the supporters of the regime — discussions of reform policies seldom surfaced, and no plan to reduce inequalities was ever thought of or debated.
On August 31, in an unprecedented speech, Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, cleric Mahmoud Alavi, whose position is completely removed from economics, openly and fiercely glorified and defended the capitalist system. To the capitalists — calling them investors in his speech, out of fear of being attacked by a faction in the establishment that still believes that the Revolution has not ended — he said, “I kiss your hands”. To the private sector and owners of capital, he said, “We are your friends.” He continued, “If any of my colleagues get close to arresting a [largely] economically-active person, that would be the end of his career.”
Promoting “small government”, he exemplified the Swiss government as a successful model of governance and stressed that Iran should move in that direction. In an unheard-of-statement by an official in the Islamic Republic, Alavi, addressing the capital owners, added: “Just because your generosity reaches our society and our youth, we send you our prayers and do our best to protect your security and your reputation.”
It is an open secret that in Iran’s corrupt system, wealth accumulation is primarily realised through patronage, nepotism, cronyism and “rent-seeking activities”. These activities, which are prevalent in Iran, include bribery and other shady dealings involving misuse of the public sector.
A 2016 study by Transparency International “highlight[s] the connection between corruption and inequality, which feed off each other to create a vicious circle between corruption, unequal distribution of power in society, and unequal distribution of wealth”. As a measure for comparison, Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, which is published by Transparency International, ranks Iran 131 among 176 countries.
Against this backdrop, according to a September 4 report by the Revolutionary Guards in their political organ Sobhe Sadeq titled ‘People’s livelihood is the Leader’s many-years-long concern’, half of the Iranian population lives below the poverty line and inequity is widening.
In recent years, while majority of Iranians struggle for survival and the walls of Tehran are covered with ads of people selling their kidneys, the rich who live in luxurious houses and condominiums have begun to reveal their glamorous lifestyle. They race with their Porsches, Bugattis and Maseratis in the northern streets of Tehran. They also throw Porsche parties — one must own a Porsche to be invited — and post pictures of their parties on the internet.
Alavi’s open statements demonstrate that the decision regarding the trajectory of the economy has been made, and the shame about supporting and embracing the capitalist system, felt by the officials since the victory of the revolution in 1979, has been overcome.
Cyrus Namjoo Moghadam is a columnist specialising in Iranian issues.