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  • A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran by Kevan Harris
  • Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi
A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran, by Kevan Harris. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. 326 pages. $85 cloth; $29.95 paper; $29.95 E-book.

In the spring of 2009 the eminent historian of modern Iran Ervand Abrahamian wrote an article entitled, "Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived." Therein he outlined why despite repeated predictions of doom by opposition figures and Western pundits alike, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not only endured but also proven capable of absorbing and channeling societal demands and pressures from below, in a way that the ancien régime it supplanted patently failed. His answer? Upon its founding, "the Islamic Republic promised to create a full-fledged welfare state" and had since made notable headway in realizing this goal during its almost four-decade lifespan.1

Kevan Harris's new book pursues this line of thought, while opening several novel avenues along the way to offer the first monograph analyzing the history of the Islamic Republic's welfare policy and its complex relationship with the sociopolitical transformations experienced by Iranian society since the revolution. As Harris remarks in the introduction, the Iranian state has rarely been examined through the "lens of the developmental state" (p. 4), and its role in the country's "development" is frequently understood solely in terms of income, rather than in a more comprehensive sense outlined by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and others, to include "access to healthcare, education and other forms of social welfare" (p. 5).

Even when the politics of welfare in Iran are appraised, it is often reduced to a crass form of clientelism and co-optation, purchasing the political loyalty of a small minority lording over a passive, albeit disgruntled majority. In line with more recent literature on Iranian politics and society, an early example of which might be considered Asef Bayat's seminal Street Politics (Columbia University Press, 1997), Harris endeavors to show how the lineages of Iran's welfare state evolved through the interplay of elite contestation and popular pressure from below. Facile recourse to rentierism and the doling out of oil revenues is rightly considered to be far from sufficient to explain the continuities and ruptures characterizing the mediated relationship of Iranian state and society. He forcefully argues that postrevolutionary elite competition and the revolution's inheritance of popular mobilization created opportunities for "upward status mobility" (p. 14), where a new middle class has been able to draw upon the social capital [End Page 160] it accumulated in recent decades to place further demands upon the state (p. 176) — even if "state loyalty did not purchase mass loyalty over the long run" (p. 181).

Harris shows how the Islamic Republic not only continued but expanded and extended several Pahlavi-era welfare schemes (p. 146). Moreover, he also reveals how the momentous upsurge of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and wartime mobilization shaped the lineaments of the Iranian welfare state in subsequent decades to create a parallel "martyrs' welfare state" (Chapter 3); what he calls the Islamic Republic's "dual-welfare regime" (p. 15).

The two most illuminating case studies Harris brings to bear to illustrate his larger argument address the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) and Primary Health Care (PHC), for which he undertook extensive fieldwork. The IKRC was able to target marginalized social groups in a way that the Pahlavi-era focus on formal labor and the salaried civil service could not; it thus provided "financial aid and health insurance to low-income families, interest-free loans for housing, scholarships for young Iranians, and stipends for the elderly poor in rural areas" (p. 106). Meanwhile, Iran's PHC system of rural clinics provided access to prenatal health care and family planning initiatives radically shaping Iran's demography in unexpected ways (p. 139). By 2010 the PHC's system of village clinics covered as much as 95% of Iran's rural populace (p. 119). This commitment to development has remained strong among governing elites, even if deeply held disagreements continued to divide them over what constituted development and how it...