The Islamic Republic and the World: Two Reviews


Maryam Panah.  The Islamic Republic and the World: Global Dimensions of the Iranian Revolution.  Pluto Press, 2007.  232 pp.  ISBN: 978-0-7453-2622-1, ISBN10: 0-7453-2622-6.

Review of The Islamic Republic and the World

Maryam Panah offers a refreshingly different and powerful account of the causes and consequences of the Iranian Revolution.  Drawing on recent developments within Marxist international relations theory, Panah goes against the extant literature’s grain of methodological essentialism/culturalism and adopts a reformulated historical materialist approach, central to which is a sustained emphasis on the dynamic and mutually conditioning interrelation between international structures and processes, and domestic socioeconomic and politico-cultural relations and institutions.  The worldwide spread of capitalist modernity, Panah argues, is always mediated by the pre-existing geopolitical structures of the international system (p. 7).  The interaction between the geopolitically mediated capitalist sociality and non-capitalist social formations therefore subverts the developmental unilinearism central to various editions of development and modernisation theory.  Challenging the homogenisation credo of the orthodox approaches, Panah argues that the specificities of pre-capitalist states, class-structures and cultural inventories codetermine the process of capitalist development and its specific outcomes.  Panah then systematically reilluminates Iran’s modern political history under this theoretical light, and provides a novel interpretation of (post)revolutionary Iran — one that refuses to be transfixed, analytically, by either the ‘cultural turn’ or the emaciated base-superstructure causality.

Panah begins with an analysis of Iran’s externally induced ‘primitive accumulation’, i.e. the 1960s land reforms.  She argues that the combination of US support and oil revenues invested the Pahlavi state with a high degree of autonomy vis-à-vis domestic exploiting classes.  Consequently, the land-reform project it was externally impelled to undertake was distinct in two main ways.  First, the political power of the landlord class was significantly diminished while its capacity for economic reproduction remained largely intact.  Second, the coeval industrialisation projects were highly capital-intensive, involving significant state and foreign ownership.  As a result, the sociopolitical impact of the growing labour surplus was exacerbated, while a small capitalist ‘state class’ emerged that had strong links with foreign and especially US capital.  The economic dependence of the emerging domestic industrial capitalist class on the state further reinforced the political supremacy and power monopoly of the state-embedded capitalist class.

Importantly, the impact of this process of state-led capitalist development on the traditional centres of power, i.e. the ulama (clergy) and bazaar-based mercantile capital, was uneven: the erosion of their political power was rapid and deep, while their economic bases and institutional presence were less affected.  In fact, in a paradoxical way the Pahlavi state’s ‘revolution from above”, Panah argues, triggered a process of financial and bureaucratic centralisation and rationalisation within the Shia establishment (pp. 40-1), a pillar of Iran’s traditional sociopolitical structure.  The resulting strengthening of the financial and organisational structures of the Shia ulama, Panah argues, was crucial to the success of their nationwide exercise of corporate power and the imposition of ideological hegemony on the discourse and leadership of the reemerging political opposition to the Pahlavi state.

Panah identifies another particularly pronounced effect of Iran’s specific international temporality on the emerging popular resistance to the Pahlavi state.  Engaged in an ideological rivalry with secular forces both right and left, the Iranian ulama was closely exposed to the populist anti-imperialist language of the revolutionary and anticolonial movements of the late-1950s and 1960s.  Consequently, they adopted and adapted their rivals’ discourse to a great extent, which significantly extended the social reach of their political appeal.  Thus secular contenders became the mentors of Iran’s embattled radical Shi’ism.  Popular susceptibility to this emerging revolutionary Shia discourse was significantly facilitated by the Pahlavi monarchy’s close association with the US, whose key role in the 1953 coup against Musaddiq was acutely fresh in the collective memory of the Iranian people.  By the late 1970s, Khomeini’s charismatic hegemony over within the growing anti-Shah revolutionary coalition was so prevalent that nationalist and leftist forces did not openly challenge it.  It was this hegemony that was later transformed into a de jure political leadership by Khomeini and his followers through a combination of tactful political manoeuvring (e.g. the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran) and systematic suppression of their secular and religious rivals.

Once victorious, Panah contends, the Iranian revolution in turn impacted on the regional and international states system.  Khomeini believed that the ‘Islamic state in one country’ was condemned to defeat, hence the young Islamic Republic’s drive for ‘exporting revolution’.  According to Panah (Chapter 4), it was essentially this revolutionary principle articulated through an Islamic-populist discourse that set in motion a region-wide policy of containment of which Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 was the most important instance.  More broadly, it led to the transformation of the USA’s ‘twin pillar’ policy of the 1970s into the strategy of ‘dual containment’ (of Iran and Iraq) in the 19805.

The international containment of the Iranian revolution was, Panah argues, paradoxical in its outcomes, however.  Externally, it enormously augmented the military power of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, which came back to haunt US interests in the region following the end of the Iran-Iraq war.  Internally, and more importantly, the growth of ‘war populism’ mobilised a broad spectrum of social groups behind an emerging small state elite that presided over, and directly benefited from, the increasing ‘concentration of the means of coercion, production and distribution’ within the state.  Nonetheless, there were, Panah maintains, definite limits to the socioeconomic reproductive capacity of this new state elite.  For, peculiarly, it commanded an essentially capitalist economy that was largely isolated from global capitalism.  Rafsanjani’s economic deregulation and privatisation reform programme of the 1990s, largely in line with ‘structural adjustment’ programmes prescribed by the IMF and World Bank, was therefore a conscious attempt to resolve this structural contradiction.

But the post-war economic reforms also involved a (seemingly) strategic retreat from the revolutionary populism and transnational Islamic solidarity that had been central to the revolutionary mobilisation.  This was justified through the reconstruction by Khomeini of the classical jurisprudential Shi’i concept of maslehat to mean ‘national expediency’ (p. 129).  The introduction of maslehat, Panah argues, amounted to the formalisation of the state’s primacy over the revolution.  However, this added a new contradiction to the ideological and legitimating bases of the Islamic state.  For although maslehat institutionalised the ability of the state class to (temporarily) suspend even the first-order Islamic ordinances in order to secure the overall viability of the Islamic Republic, it also came into direct tension with the revolutionary discourse and slogans that had been the original basis of Khomeinism as a distinct variety of Islamic populism.

Moreover, representatives of the social constituency that materially benefited from the erstwhile populist-interventionist state and ideologically despised the reform-rooted nouveaux riches maintained a strong presence within Iran’s power structure.  Crucially, these included large sections of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose leading commanders occupy high positions within the current Ahmadinejad administration.  According to Panah, it is this contradiction that underlies the post-war ‘reform and reaction’ cycle and the preemption of a conclusive ‘socialisation’ of the Islamic Republic into the international system.  The failure of the reform movement under Khatami and the emergence of Ahmadinejad’s populist radicalism must, Panah soundly contends, be seen against this backdrop.  By the same token, the direction and content of political change in Iran depends both on the sociopolitical dynamics internal to Iran and the policy and actions of the West.  What is therefore certain, Panah judiciously concludes, is that the potential and momentum of the existing indigenous movement for progressive change in Iran are seriously damaged by the imperial designs of the USA and its allies.

Trenchant, terse and timely, Panah’s book is an invaluable contribution to contemporary critical scholarship on Iran.  But the theoretical implications of Panah’s argument go beyond the Iranian case.  For Panah strategically anchors her analysis in a causal complex that emerges from the interface between the specific intra-societal socioeconomic and politico-cultural structures and forms, and the wider and more general international tendencies and contingencies.  And this causal complex has, arguably, always been implicated in all instances of the worldwide processes of modern capitalist transformation.  But Panah remains rather coy about the need and rationale for a deeper theoretical articulation of this national-international nexus.  Nevertheless, her adroit anatomy of (post-) revolutionary Iran throws into sharp relief the theoretical direction towards which historical-materialist categories need to be reoriented in order to adequately account for the developmental heterogeneity of the modern world.  All the same, Maryam Panah’s book is a must-read for all students of Marxism, international relations, and Iran’s modern political history.

Review of The Islamic Republic and the World

Within the academic world it has become respectable and fashionable to use Marxist language to justify neoliberalism.  This book does just that.  It is certainly very well written and researched.  Marxist and Weberian theories of state, revolution and development have been used to analyse the socioeconomic developments in pre and post 1979 revolution in Iran.

In assessing the process of industrialisation under the Shah, Panah suggests that the policy of the state in that period was to guarantee the conditions for the reproduction and expansion of capitalism.  She acknowledges that the success of capitalist enterprises depended on maintaining the emerging industrial capitalist class.  But she does not see the dominance of foreign capital, and the enormous gap between the rich and the poor, as issues which contributed to the emergence of the revolutionary movements and the 1979 revolution.

The book claims that there is a theoretical vacuum within international relations studies in treating “revolutions as international events”, and the book is an attempt to fill this vacuum.  In this context she discusses the impact of the Iranian Revolution on the opposition movements in the region and correctly criticises the essentialist notions of “Islam”.  She argues that Islamic movements are diverse and grounded in differing social structural conditions.

However, the book does not discuss why there is a rise of diverse Islamic social movements in the region and why these movements, despite their religious (Shia, Sunni) and numerous ethnic, class and national diversities, support the role of Iran, and its stand against US military intervention.

In the author’s view, Iran portrayed the Iran/Iraq War as a “counter-revolutionary plot of imperialist powers to destroy the 1979 revolution”.  Yet many Iranian scholars and scholars on Iran, especially those who have Marxist or socialist worldviews, also argue that the war was imposed on Iran with the support of the West for Saddam Hussein to counter the 1979 revolution.

The author’s economic analysis of the 1990s when Iran embraced neoliberalism under global economic pressures is quite accurate.  However, for her the economic problem in Iran is due to not enough privatisation.  Contrary to this view, many scholars, including non-Marxists, have argued that economic problems in Iran and many other developing countries are the direct result of neoliberalism, privatisation, less state intervention, “NGOisation” and opening up to the global markets.

She correctly argues that the 1979 revolution in Iran challenged the international status quo and its prevailing global order, and development and democracy in Iran have to come from indigenous movements.  But, contrary to her view, further development and democracy means turning away from neoliberalism and continuing to challenge imperial interventions in the region.

Kamran Matin is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex.  Elaheh Rostami-Povey is a Research Associate at the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.  Matin’s review was first published in the Autumn 2008 issue of Capital & Class; Rostami-Povey’s was first published in the November 2007 issue of Socialist Review.  They are reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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