161. Research Study Prepared in the Office of Political Research, Central Intelligence Agency1

PR 76 100171


Summary and Conclusions

Iran’s importance need not be stressed. A major oil-producer and one of the most influential states in OPEC, it aspires to a position of power and influence. This paper is not focused on its political and international prospects2 but rather attempts to portray and to analyze the people who run Iran, dominate its politics, control its businesses, set its cultural and moral standards and even try to change its ways.

Requisites for elite status in Iran are the traditional ones of family connection, influence in patron-client relationships, wealth and education. In this century education has become more and more Western in thrust, bringing on conflicts with values developed over the centuries by a society which has absorbed, been changed by foreign influences, but never overwhelmed by them. The contemporary Western-educated Iranian bureaucrat often finds on return to work in his homeland that he is facing, and perhaps being frustrated by, an institution far older than the Harvard Business School. The analysis below tries to portray the Iranian elite as it now exists and functions, and to convey some understanding of how it will perform in the years ahead.

At the top of the elite structure is the Shah, by virtue both of his position as monarch and of his personal power. The centuries-old Iranian tradition of kingship has been stronger than any dynasty or of any individual ruler. Iran without a monarch to rule and protect the nation against outside enemies, would be, for most of its people, a contradiction in terms. Acceptance of the monarch, however, has been coupled with a willingness to accept the elimination of an individual shah who was unable to defend himself or the nation. The incumbent, Mohammad Reza Shah, acceded to the throne in 1941. The somewhat insecure son of a tyrannical and domineering father, he has developed remarkably in the years since. For a third of his reign, he was dominated by others and frustrated by his lack of power to carry out his decisions. For another third he engaged in a successful struggle to establish his [Page 483] dominance. For the last third he has been clearly in charge and is now so strong that his word is law.

In Iran’s clearly defined social structure, families count for much; that is, those families whose members compete to carry out the Shah’s decisions, and who are themselves powerful. There are some 40 national elite families whose members move from government to political to private pursuits and back again with facility. There are an additional 150 or so families of major but not national importance. These numbers are not fixed; families’ fortunes rise and fall according to luck, connections, and the skill of their representatives. Nearly a quarter of today’s top families were powerful and influential under the dynasty that the present Shah’s father overthrew 50 years ago.

The royal court has traditionally been a hotbed of byzantine scheming. [3 lines not declassified] The Court’s tone has been much improved since the Shah in 1959 married a woman from one of the lesser branches of a national elite family. French-educated Queen Farah takes a personal and constructive interest in the working of the Shah’s programs of social and economic reform.

Together with his family, the Shah is also surrounded by a host of officials and hangers-on. He appears to rely on a small group, perhaps a dozen persons, in whom he reposes special confidence and on whom he depends for information and whom he uses as channels to various groups in the society. While these people have official positions, their status with the Shah is for the most part independent of job title and totally dependent on their closeness to him. Of these dozen, three represent national elite families, although this is not their chief asset. Long friendship and faithful service are essential attributes. For example, Minister of Court Alam of a national elite family, has been close to the Shah for 40 years, and General Fardust whose father had been a sergeant, has been a friend for 50 years. Although surrounded, the Shah is alone, to the best of any observer’s knowledge. He seeks information. He does not seek advice, and few in Iran would dare to give him any. He decides; others execute.

The successful execution of the Shah’s programs requires a bureaucracy possessing a variety of skills. Lawyers, engineers, economists and medical doctors predominate; those educated in the political and social science are scarcer. A prerequisite for the opportunity to exercise one’s skills is loyalty to the Shah combined with self-restraint in political ambition—a factor which becomes important at the higher levels where an official might be in a position to develop an independent political base. There seems to be a considerable number of educated, competent individuals who refuse to work for a regime of which they disapprove or, if they are employed, work at less than their full potential.

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The career of Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda illustrates the limitations of ambition and power. Hoveyda’s unprecedentedly long tenure in office (11 years) can be attributed to:

—the ability to maneuver among the conflicting personal ambitions of other officials who are in at least covert competition for his job;

—the ability to avoid any serious errors in interpreting and carrying out the Shah’s wishes and, perhaps more important;

—the ability to play second fiddle to the Shah.

This last point has been the downfall of previous politicians, for a prime minister strong enough to be effective has usually ended up believing he is more competent than the Shah to make important decisions. Hoveyda has not yet fallen into that trap.

The cabinet of today is a classic example of how an important Iranian institution, the dowreh, works, in this case to the advantage of several young politicians, Hassan Ali Mansur, Amir Abbas Hoveyda and their friends. (The dowreh “circle” is an informal associational group often cutting across class lines, formed for social reasons, e.g., card playing, for literary or professional discussions or simply for amiability. A well-established dowreh provides a forum for the exchange of information and opinions and a means of promoting the political and economic fortunes of its members.) Mansur had already been a cabinet minister, when he gathered in 1959 a youngish group of middle-level bureaucrats interested in the problems of Iranian development. Within two years the group had expanded and became the Progressive Center, at which point the Shah gave his blessing. The establishment reformism the group indulged in seemed to dovetail with the plans he was formulating, and, in 1964, Mansur became Prime Minister and the Progressive Center transformed itself into the Iran Novin Party. Mansur was assassinated in 1965 by a religious fanatic. Dowreh-member Hoveyda, the Minister of Finance, was appointed Prime Minister. Two other ministers in the present cabinet were original members of Mansur’s dowreh; three more have served in Hoveyda’s first cabinet. Several of the cabinet ministers are in competition with each other and with Hoveyda, seeking a dominant position with the Shah, within the cabinet or in the various programs. This rivalry is encouraged by the Shah, who uses it as a mechanism to prevent any single individual from gaining too much personal influence.

Parliament has its role to play in the Shah’s system of government, although not as the legislative body that the term parliament implies. In the absence of an authoritarian ruler, the dominant interest in a constituency has generally dictated the choice of deputies. Local landlords, merchants, tribal leaders, religious leaders or their representatives have usually been selected. In constituencies where these were weak, the army, the prime minister or the Royal Court might predominate. Some[Page 485]times these forces cooperated; sometimes they competed. During periods when the parliament was relatively free from royal control, e.g., 1906–1923 and 1941–1960, it was rent by factionalism and by the competing interests of those groups who had manipulated the elections.

During the last 12 years parliament has been a tool of the Shah. In 1961, frustrated in an attempt to get a land reform bill through a landlord-dominated parliament, he dissolved that body declaring that it had been elected through rigged elections. That was true, but it was not news, since the same statement could have been made for nearly every parliament. It served the purpose that the Shah wanted, however. His land reform bill was enacted by decree and, when parliament was once more elected nearly two years later, all the deputies—carefully chosen by the Shah—were enthusiastic supporters of his programs. This has been the pattern ever since. The public retains its traditional skepticism toward elections, but membership in parliament is still sought and prized. It provides an opportunity for personal advancement, gives one local prestige and does provide a channel by which grievances can be expressed and through which favors can be sought and granted.

Probably no group is more favored by the Shah than his officer corps. Special privileges such as pay differential, subsidized housing, education and low-price stores are designed to make the military—traditionally not held in high repute—an attractive profession. Not only professional competence but also skill in military politics are essential for advancement to the higher ranks. Having the confidence and the ear of the Shah are keys to success and, as in the civilian bureaucracy, political ambition or the too enthusiastic promotion of a policy the monarch has not approved is dangerous to an officer’s career.

Elite families were once heavily represented in the officer corps; such representation could help protect the family and its interests. From the scanty evidence available, it appears that more and more men from the middle, and even the lower, classes are coming into the officer corps. At company and lower field grade, the officers probably still think and react in much the same way as the non-military in the same class. By the time a man has reached general’s rank, however, he is likely to have absorbed the attitudes of the elite in general and, indeed, may have assured his position in the traditional manner, by accumulating wealth, making the right marriage—or a less formal liaison—and securing a circle of friends, acquaintances and family who can help him.

A new elite class with a potential for challenging the traditional system may be in the process of formation. Described by an academic investigator as the bureaucratic intelligentsia or the professional middle class, it is characterized by its members’ rejection of traditional [Page 486] power relationships and dependence on modern education and skills as means to establish their own influence. This element is receptive to a wide range of experience and ideas outside the traditional ones and, for the most part, rejects Islam as a guide to life. This class includes professionals of all kinds—doctors, lawyers, teachers and bureaucrats as well as artists, writers and poets who often serve as its spokesmen. The more vocal of this group see themselves as opponents of the Shah, as the vanguard of a modernizing, democratic force which will change Iranian society by sweeping away the traditional order. It is not yet evident that this group will emerge as a relatively homogenous, self-conscious class. It may rather fragment with its more ambitious members becoming part of the traditional elite, others accommodating to a middle class status with little power, and a small number pursuing active opposition on the fringes of Iranian society.

Many of the members of this potential elite are the persons to whom the Shah must turn to carry out his programs. The Shah clearly recognizes his problem and chooses his people carefully. A member of this group can get ahead only by playing the game, but by doing so (by permitting himself to be co-opted) he supports and strengthens the system. The Shah has successfully co-opted many who formerly, and perhaps still secretly, would rather see the monarchy reduced to a figurehead.

The Shah’s ambitious industrialization plans seem certain to bring a new element into the elite. The large entrepreneurs, businessmen, merchants and financiers are the sparkplug of the private sector. A few families, interrelated in many cases, seem to predominate. For the most part, they are not the same as the 40 families and the traditional political elites, but they do have connections with them which are of value to both. Even a partial picture of these business, professional and political relationships is difficult to draw on the basis of present information.

The Shah’s attempt to control inflation and profiteering has resulted in arrests, imprisonment and fines not only for small shopkeepers accused of overpricing but also some of Iran’s most prestigious—if not most honest—businessmen. This campaign, together with a decree mandating the sale of stock in private concerns to the workers and to the public has created a climate of uncertainty which, if not dispersed, could have a serious effect on investment in the private sector.

Iran does have some who have resorted to violence to destroy the Shah and his system.3 There are not many in this category and, barring [Page 487] a successful attempt on his life, the terrorists do not threaten the stability of the regime or the Shah’s programs. The present violent opposition is embodied in an organization, Mujahadin-e-Khalq, the “People’s Warriors,” composed of the religious community and Marxist/Communists who have submerged their antipathy to each other in the interests of attacking a greater target, the Shah and the system he represents.

The monarchy as an essential feature of Iranian existence is a concept which is likely to be destroyed eventually by more widespread education and by exposure to other political concepts, systems and customs. If the monarchy is accepted by the bulk of the population, for much of the educated minority, the monarchy has already lost its meaning. If they accept Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi it is for reasons other than the venerability of the institution he represents—a desire for personal security and advancement or the lack of any effective alternative. The clergy would probably not prefer the elimination of the monarchy but would be happy to see the present Shah go. For them a secular government would be as dangerous as the present Shah, but in the eyes of the religious leaders Mohammad Reza has betrayed an essential element of his role, protection of Islam. The present generation of religious leaders, moreover, seems to be convinced that the Shah, as his father before him, is determined to destroy Islam in Iran.

At age 56 the Shah seems very aware that he has a limited time to establish his policies firmly enough to be irreversible. A return to landlordism, at least in its old form, is unlikely; industrial development is likely to go ahead with or without the Shah, and programs of more widespread educational opportunities would be an imperative for any government. How effective such programs would be under the Shah’s designated successor—Crown Prince Reza Cyrus, now 15—can only be conjectured. The Shah has not lavished great praise on his son’s potential; the most he has found to say is that a king of the future could do a great deal if he were willing but on the other hand, “we are fixing things so he can do no harm.”

This Shah has dominated Iran so completely that trying to project the behavior of the elite into a time when he is gone is most difficult. Lacking a strong authoritarian leader the divisiveness which has always been a characteristic of Iranian society is likely once more to predominate. Personal and family loyalties still take precedence over institutional loyalties and the scramble for political power which has so long been suppressed will re-emerge as a major factor. Even the Army, potentially the most powerful institution in Iran is not likely to escape [Page 488] the personal competition which would reduce its effectiveness as an instrument of any single individual. The scope of relations between high-ranking military officers on one hand and the political or industrial elites on the other is not known. Such linkages are inherent in the nature of Iranian society but their effectiveness in any particular situation would depend on the personalities involved. Even the professional-bureaucratic intelligentsia, the one new group which might eventually produce a structural change in Iran’s centuries-old system remains an uncertain quantity. What does remain more predictable is a continuation of the traditional competition between two major factors—an authoritarian leader dominating or sometimes dominated by a group of competing, power-seeking elites.

[Omitted here is the body of the report.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DI/OCI Files, Job 79T00889A, Box 6, Folder 9. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. An addendum entitled “A Word on Elites” is attached but not printed.
  2. These are addressed in, inter alia, NIE 34–1–75, “Iran,” 9 May 1975. [Footnote in the original. NIE 34–1–75 is Document 121.]
  3. According to telegrams 738 and 866 from Tehran, January 25 and 28, a new terrorist group was making headlines in this period, Cherika-ye-Feda-ye-Khalk, the People’s Sacrifice Guerrillas. (Both in National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D760028–1026 and D760033–0277)