No, it’s not the oil, the terror, Shi’ism, or the nationalism unleashed by the war with Iraq, writes Ervand Abrahamian, in an interesting background to current events. Economic and social populism has been the key to sustaining Iran’s clerical authoritarianism.
By prioritizing social over military spending (the armed forces take up some 4 per cent of GDP compared with 18 per cent in the last years of the shah), successive governments have nearly eliminated illiteracy, boosted primary school enrolment rates, increased life expectancy and reduced infant mortality.
The regime has also used a network of quasi-governmental foundations – the bonyads – as mini-welfare states to spread patronage and build a substantial social base. But, Abrahamian argues, the welfare state’s political role now makes these expenditures the “third rail of Iranian politics”:
Upcoming decades will test the regime’s ability to juggle the competing demands of these populist programs with those of the educated middle class—especially the ever expanding army of university graduates produced, ironically, by one of the revolution’s main achievements. This new stratum needs not only jobs and a decent standard of living but also greater social mobility and access to the outside world—with all its dangers, especially to well-protected home industries—and, concomitantly, the creation of a viable civil society.