Many people on the left in Britain and further afield are generally dismayed and confused about the nature of Islamism. The traditional Muslim opposition to charging interest on loans, the clear preference of many Islamists for nationalised property, when linked to hostility towards America, Western interests and multinational corporations, creates a thoroughgoing anti-capitalist impression. Despite socialist hostility towards what Tariq Ali has called ‘the social programmes’ of Islamists, many socialists are always prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to America’s enemies.
However, the nature of nationalisation and the relationship that exists between the public and private sector creates an extremely complicated picture in countries where capitalist relations are thin or poorly developed. Such is the case in Iran where the relationship between the public sector, the private sector, charitable trusts (Bonyads), cooperatives, and the organs of state security, are often interfused: sharing a webwork of senior officials, politicians, and clerics between them.
In the struggle to understand more about how these complicated networks function in Iran the US Secretary of Defense recently commissioned a study of the Revolutionary Guards by the RAND Corporation. This study has just been published as The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, and it looks in some detail at the nature of the Guards’ relationship to the rest of the Iranian state and society.
Founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 as an ideological police guard for the infant revolutionary regime the Pasdaran (or Guards) have grown into a vast net of political, military, economic, and social influence embracing hundreds of companies engaged in large civil engineering projects, manufacturing, chemicals, housing projects and health facilities. The 120,000 Guards train and supervise the tens of thousands people in the Basij Militia, in youth camps, student and professional organizations; they have interests in think tanks, press and publishing houses; they work closely with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the Islamic Propagation Organization. All this, together with their own army, navy, air force, and the crack troops of the Jerusalem Force (Qods), makes the Revolutionary Guards Corp a truly formidable organization, one sewn into the very fabric of Iranian society.
In their economic role they are not dissimilar from the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) before the reforms of the late nineties. In 1998 Jiang Zemin’s government forced the PLA to give up all its interests in agriculture, transport, information technology, and entertainment: the PLA lost all of its business enterprises. In Pakistan, however, the army continues run the country’s largest construction consortium, it has interests in petrol stations, shopping centres, farming, and in ‘charitable foundations’ that have spun off more than a hundred companies in banking, insurance, education, and information technology.
So Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not alone in engaging in extensive business activities. There are circumstances in which it is often necessary for military and police formations, in countries unable to subsidise them sufficiently from taxation, to assist the state by generating their own income. In the case of the Guards this is further complicated, and their economic influence greatly enhanced, by their capacity as a police agency and armed militia, to place people in key positions in private companies, in nationalised enterprises, in the judiciary, in Parliament, and in university faculties.
Following the Revolution some eighty per cent of the Iran’s economy was state owned and controlled. Since then only 15% of state enterprises have been privatised. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to strengthen economic activity in Iran by privatising much of the economy have run into numerous difficulties. To carry out successful denationalisation you need a stable environment for investment, good regulation, developed capital markets, open competition in the delivery of goods and services, and the capacity to get the workers, sacked in the process of privatisation, back into good jobs. None of these conditions exist in Iran. Consequently, the process of privatisation grinds very slow indeed, in the face of considerable opposition within the middle class and throughout many other sectors of society which benefit from the continuation of economic arrangements dependant more upon the quality of personal contacts than upon competence and technical expertise – more upon military, paramilitary, and clerical influence, than upon professionalism, profitability or efficiency.
In a situation like this it is clearly inappropriate to think in terms of the kinds of struggles, which in Britain or France might centre on the defence of public enterprises against the introduction of private capital. In the context of the thin or fragile development of capitalist relations, in which pre-capitalist formations, clerical elites, oligarchies, armies, militias and police organizations are vying for political and economic power by seeking control of the state, the rhetoric of ‘public ownership’ versus ‘private enterprise’ makes little or no sense.
It remains to be seen how the struggles taking place within the Iranian Revolution and within Iranian governing circles play out, but we can be sure that nothing resembling a socialist defence of public ownership will have any part to play.
- The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, by Frederic Wehrey, Jerrold D. Green, Brian Nichiporuk, Alireza Nader, Lydia Hansell, Rasool Nafisi, and S. R. Bohandy. Prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Santa Monica CA: National Defense Research Institute, RAND Corporation, 2009.
- See the note on RAND Corporation below.