Ali A. Saeidi is
an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Social Sciences,
University of Tehran and Research Fellow of the London Institute of
Middle Eastern Studies, SOAS, University of London.
establishment of several para-governmental organizations (bonyads)
following the revolution of 1979 in Iran has created a large socio-economic
sector. This sector tried to harness a mass society by creating parallel
structures of revolutionary legitimacy and authority in order to contribute to
the consolidation process. When, in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979, the
properties of the Shah and the royal family were confiscated, the control of
these vast fixed and liquid assets passed on to religious leaders in the forms
of newly established bonyads, and increased their financial independence.
Ayatullah Khomeini, in his letter to the Revolutionary Council, mandated that
"all of the Shah's and royal family's liquid assets should be deposited in the
banks in the name of Revolutionary Council." He directly asked the revolutionary
committees across the country to implement this injunction and called these
assets spoils (ghanimat, pl. ghana'em) and added that they must be
kept and controlled separately from state properties.
bonyads claim to conduct a variety of activities related to social work,
advisory, social, and rehabilitation services for satisfying the needs of
low-income groups, improving the conditions of families of martyrs, former
prisoners of war, needy rural dwellers, guardian-less households, the disabled,
and the handicapped. The bonyads active in this regard include the
Martyrs' Foundation (Bonyad-e Shahid), the
Imam Khomeini Relief Aid Committee, the
Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, the
Housing Foundation, and the 15th Khordad Foundation. The bonyads
maintained the hegemony of revolutionary forces over the subordinated classes
and assisted them by administering social welfare and reconstruction programs.
Yet, they are a unique product of the revolution in the sense that the creation
of an Islamic state was mainly based on Ayatollah Khomeini's doctrine that the
restoration of Muslim unity depended solely on the establishment of a government
having the real interests of Muslims at heart.
Criticizing the machinery of the old regime as being in line with the capitalist
mode of production, an instrument of dependence, and a system that had
established a rentier economy, the Islamic state tried to create an Islamic
economic framework on the basis of independence, self-sufficiency, and
distributional justice in practical terms. It was impossible to apply the
economic aspect of religious injunctions, such as collecting the alms-tax,
protecting the poor, or supervising endowments (awqaf) within the Islamic
state without the creation of bonyads. At first glance, it seemed that,
in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the religious and revolutionary
leaders did not trust the provisional government and state enterprise to fulfill
this truly religious obligation. In subsequent years, however, the bonyads
expanded, evolving from religious charities into giant private monopolies
with no governmental oversight of their operations and institutions that could
contribute to the ideological and cultural needs of the Islamic state.
The bonyads have embodied
a contradictory position within the religious establishment and have reinforced
part of the dual structure of power in the Islamic state when they work parallel
with government enterprises. Although the establishment of the Islamic Republic
led to the integration of the religious establishment into the political system
by the application of the concept of "Guardianship of the Jurisconsult" (velayat-e
faqih), the religious leaders were not inclined to apply the economic aspect
of religious injunctions within government policies.
The revolution led to the
integration of religion and state, resulting in the 'ulama' as the sole
rulers and arbiters of the political order, including the enforcement of the
Islamic penal code. Nevertheless, none of the governments that have taken office
have integrated some of the other important religious injunctions, such as
collecting the alms-tax and administration of awqaf; nor have they let
the religious institutions responsible for these financial practices function
separately from the state organizations.3 For instance, the Bonyad-e Astan-e Qods-e
Razavi, the most important charitable foundation, based on the shrine of
Imam Reza at Mashad, continued to be controlled by religious leaders.
The Iranian Revolution at 30
Source: The Middle East Institute
www.mideasti.org This wide-ranging mega-collection of more than 50 original
essays is the first of a series of six similar publications
commemorating the events of 1979.
bonyads have been actively involved in Iranian politics by propagating
the dominant ideology in a wide range of social and cultural activities. This
major function reinforced the consolidation of political authority for new men
of power by sustaining the revolutionary ideology, assisting the disciples of
religious leaders with secular backgrounds in occupying second-tier positions in
the state, and facilitating social mobility for the lower middle classes. In
fact, these organizations were established in order to assist
institutionalization of the ideology of the ruling class by producing an
ideological apparatus for the new regime, given that the revolutionary forces
could not trust the old regime's bureaucratic apparatus. They also increased the
rate of social mobility among the lower middle classes and supporters of
revolutionary forces in order to extend the power of Islamic ideology. They
assisted individuals from these classes in moving into new economic, social, and
the post-revolutionary era thousands of professionals, white-collar workers,
students, and teachers of both liberal and radical persuasions, who were purged,
imprisoned, executed, or who fled into exile were replaced with members of the
lower middle classes who supported the revolutionary regime by the
These organizations then took advantage of the situation to circumvent the quota
system for higher education in order to set up a system for producing a new
cultural elite. The special higher education quota has been set aside for these
organizations in order to solve the difficulties confronting the regime
resulting from a minimal degree of knowledge among potential appointees. This
exemption enables the bonyads to allocate key positions to those who
support the ruling regime.
Thus, it can be concluded that
since the revolution,
bonyads have facilitated social mobility by
supporting members of lower middle classes with lay backgrounds in occupying the
secondary positions in the state apparatus. They enabled the Islamic state to
implement the policy of training and distributing human capital by controlling
accessibility to higher education and public sector employment to the advantage
of special social groups. In stages, they helped restructure the state
apparatus. In fact, the revolutionary regime needed the resources of these
organizations to consolidate and expand the central state apparatus.
Nur [Pages of Light: A Collection of Speeches and Pronouncements], Vol.17
(Tehran: Ministry of Islamic Guidance, 1984), p. 124.
2. Ruhollah Khomeini, Nameh'i
as Imam Musavi Kashifal-Ghita (Tehran, 1976), pp. 41-42; and H. Enayat,
"Iran: Khumayni's Concept of 'Guardianship of the Jurisconsult,'" in James
Piscatori, ed., Islam in the Political Process (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
1983), pp. 160-180.
3. H. Amirahmadi, "Bonyad," in
John L. Esposito, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World,
Vol. 1 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 234-235.
4. A. Ashraf, "Charisma,
Theocracy, and Men of Power in Post revolutionary Iran," in Ali Banuazizi and
Myron Weiner, eds., The Politics of Social Transformation in Afghanistan,
Iran, and Pakistan (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p.118.
5. N. Habibi, "Allocation of
Educational and Occupational Opportunities in the Islamic Republic of Iran: A
Case Study in the Political Screening of Human Capital in the Islamic Republic
of Iran," Iranian Studies, vol. 22, no. 4 (1989), p. 23.
6. For more see Ali A. Saeidi,
"The Accountability of Para-governmental Organizations (bonyads): The
Case of Iranian Foundations," Iranian Studies, vol. 37, no. 3 (September
2004), pp 479-498.