By: Arang Keshavarzian and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)
When asked to devise a reading list on postrevolutionary Iran, it became apparent to me that by “essential” I could neither be comprehensive, nor was I interested in devising some sort of rank ordering of scholarship. Instead, once I began considering the growing scholarship on Iran’s postrevolutionary social order, I came to discern a narrative recounting the transformative consequences of the 1979 revolution. Hence, I devised a collection of multidisciplinary monographs mappings shifts in the topography of power and trajectories of social conflict; manifestations of subjectivities and reconstitution of identities; and the place of Iran in the world. These are themes that stand out and undercut conventional wisdoms about Iran and the revolutionary legacy. Left out of this formulation (and by the necessarily limited number of works I could reference) are a good many important books as well as the myriad essays published in journals and edited volumes. While this list privileges single-authored books in English, those interested in the study of Iran should explore their bibliographies and databases of journals. Besides Jadaliyya, which has published original examinations of Iran in its close to a decade of existence, Middle East Report or MERIP has been a rich source of empirically informed coverage of Iran. MERIP includes valuable materials for teaching and research including coverage of the revolutionary uprising (1977-81), the Iran-Iraq war, as well as the reformist and “populist” eras of the past two decades.
The 1979 Revolution for Beginners
Iran’s 1979 revolution looms large in the literature on contemporary Iran. Like other social revolutions, the events of 1978-9 have generated a massive corpus documenting and explaining the revolution itself. Notable works have been written by Said Amir Arjomand, Shaul Bakhash James Bill, Houchang Chehabi, Peter Chelkowski, Hamid Dabashi, Farideh Farhi, Michael Fischer, Nikkie Keddie, Charles Kurzman, Ali Mirsepassi, Misagh Parsa, and Parvin Paidar to name just a few of the authors who have tackled questions regarding how and why millions of Iranians participated in the mobilization that overthrew the monarchy and the immediate struggles over the fashioning the Islamic Republic. Much of this scholarship was researched and published in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, and one hopes that in the coming years new initiatives will offer us less teleological and more prospective histories of the revolution.
For those new to this topic and literature a productive beginning would be the works of Roy Mottahedeh and Ervand Abrahamian. Mottahedeh’s extraordinary book challenges conventions of intellectual history writing. Ostensibly a history of religious education, the work weaves biography and subtle social readings to outline the conditions that made revolution possible. Abrahamian is the author of several foundational works on modern Iran that can all be read profitably. But the one I have selected here is often overlooked. It offers both a synthetic summary of the late Pahlavi era and early postrevolutionary years as well as an account of one of the political organizations that is typically thought of as “losing the revolution” or “was outmaneuvered” by the Khomeinist bloc, that is the Mojahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran). Thanks to Negin Nabavi, we also now have a compilation of primary sources translated into English that allows readers, including students, to access certain critical and exemplary documents for understanding the making of the revolution and its afterlife.
Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven: Yale University, 1989).
Roy Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).
Negin Nabavi, Modern Iran: A History in Documents (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2016).
Topographies of Power and Trajectories Social Conflict
Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
Kevan Harris, A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).
Setrag Manoukian, City of Knowledge in Twentieth Century Iran: Shiraz, History, and Poetry (London: Routledge, 2012).
Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002).
Anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists trace the ways in which both institutionalized political power and organized social force constitute state policy and everyday life. Critical here are the structures of the postrevolutionary political regime, which is documented by Mehdi Moslem as a means to chart the key dynamic of factionalism. Through a series of case studies of welfare organizations and policy outcomes, Kevan Harris uncovers how “antisystemic developmental state” was realized, not merely via coercion and the autonomous will of elites, but by the protracted processes of social inclusion and claim-making, including protests such as the Green Movement. Notably, much of the research on contemporary struggles in Iran demonstrates that space is a source of conflict and not just a stage for politics. This is clearly demonstrated in Asef Bayat’s study of the urban poor. What he terms “quiet encroachment of the ordinary,” is a form of everyday street politics building on place-based sociability and challenging urban property regimes before, during, and since the revolution. This scholarship exposes how these processes fashion social realities that are rarely as they were intended by policymakers. For instance, Setrag Manoukian combines history, literature, and ethnography to illustrate how key practices of governance in Shiraz are mediated by heterogeneous networks and ethical projects producing knowledge (also see works cited below). Taken together, these works urge moving beyond the letter of the law to bring into view kaleidoscopic shifts over the past four decades. Politics cannot be reduced to the state and revolutionary changes are not solely situated on the strategic terrain of ruling classes.
Manifestations of Subjectivities and Reconstitution of Identities
Arzoo Osanloo, The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
Orkideh Behrouzan, Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).
Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
Shahram Khosravi, Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran (Pennsylvania: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
If the scholarship on the exercise of power in post revolutionary Iran does not stop at the convictions of state elites and the thoughts of intellectuals, the most rewarding explorations into life under the Islamic Republic similarly tacksbetween multiple spheres. In doing so these works disrupt and reconceptualize categories such as “Islamic,” “youth,” and “class,” as well as too-easily accepted binaries. Arzoo Osanloo uses field research in court rooms, women’s Quranic reading circles, and lawyers’ offices to document a variety of “rights talk” and analyze the experience of women as being shaped by the amalgamation of “Islamic” and “civil” law. Law is also a vector for Afsaneh Najmadbadi’s study of transsexuality in contemporary Iran. However, legal authorities are situated in relation to medical experts, state officials and Iranian citizens with diverse self-identifications. Through these alliances and disjunctures over “fixing homosexuality” emerge new terrain for non-normative living in Iran. Similarly, Iran’s political economy is constituted by evolving unevenness and inequalities that integrate, exploit, and exclude citizens and non-citizens (e.g. Afghani migrants). This is elucidated by Shahram Khosravi’s book. This is a work that is primarily interested in the youth, both urban and rural, who are economically and socially jettisoned, yet deploy tactics that allow them to remain visible, mobile, and even hopeful. Combining research in multiple cities and rural communities he explores everyday life as well as contentious politics. Even cursory followers of Iran notice how everyday conversation is shot through with references to mental health. Orkideh Behrouzan explores this via analyzing medical texts, media discourses, interviews inside and outside Iran, and a close reading of Internet blogs. Psychology and psychiatry become ways for people of multiple generations to speak about how they feel, articulate memories, and dream about futures. These ethnographic and empirically rich treatments do far more than “give voice to ordinary Iranians,” but complement the works above by forcing us (as well the current leadership in Tehran) to contend with citizens who are not mere malleable products of revolution, war, sanctions, and factionalism.
The Place of Iran in the World
Fariba Adelkhah, The Thousand and One Borders of Iran: Travel and Identity; trans. Andrew Brown (New York: Routledge, 2016).
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
Neda Maghbouleh, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).
Sami Zubaida, Islam, the people and the State: Essays on Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (London: Routledge, 1989).
Unlike the previous two clusters of works, this final selection is more skeletal and reflects my own interest in situating modern Iranian society in multiple regional and global contexts. While Iranian historiography remains largely centered on methodological nationalism and often imbued with a strong sense of national exceptionalism, transnational approaches and spatially de-centered scholarship is gaining traction. For some, such as Fariba Adelkhah, this is a means to confront overly Tehran-centric accounts. Better know for her impressive first volume, Being Modern in Iran, in her more recent book Adelkhah combines a broad historical sweep with in-depth studies of diasporas and routes of migration and pilgrimage to transnationalize Iran and feature its geographic margins more centrally. Neda Maghbouleh is also interested in Iranians living abroad, but here their experiences and rhetorical haunting of legal archives become a vehicle to examine the intersection of the United State’s migration regime and Iranian subjectivities that are both informed by modern theories of race. A scholar of international relations, Mohammad Ayatollahi-Tabaar, analyzes the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy positions and involvement in interstate war. In doing so he challenges conventional wisdom about the nature of the regime and presents political decision-making in the regime as far more internally contentious and with the boundaries of “domestic” and “international” politics rendered porous. Comparative work deploying Iran as a case is rather rare and much of it has focused on the questions of comparative revolutions or the theory of rentier states. An older work by Sami Zubaida, however, is an example of original thinking about Iran with the aid of the sociological and intellectual history of Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and other places. Specifically, religious thought and political action in the twentieth century are situated in relation to the formation of the nation-state and class fractions but never mechanistically. All this reminds us that postrevolutionary Iran, just like the revolution itself, is a product of its historical epoch and global situation.
Despite very real limitations to accessing primary sources and ensnarling sanctions regimes that impinge on collaboration with scholars and students across political borders, research on Iran has challenged the way we understand Iran as it enters it ends it forth decade after the social revolution. Publications on postrevolutionary Iran have been informed by multiple theoretical and methodological concerns and do not always explicitly speak to each other as much as their distinct disciplines in the academy. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this and arguably this has ensured that this research has garnered audiences broader than area studies. Yet, considering this disparate scholarship of the past few decades collectively is fruitful for revealing an Iranian society that is neither as static nor as monolithic as policy makers in Tehran or Washington would like. Instead it is a material condensation of powers and struggles that are not reducible to the state or an ideology. The collection of books cited above also point to lacuna that need further and more extensive examination. For instance, while in many of the works listed above the Iran-Iraq war is highlighted as a critical juncture and social mobilization casting a shadow for years to come, more sustained treatments are needed to fully contemplate the import of warfare on the making of postrevolutionary Iran. Book-length treatments of Iran’s political economy are also unfortunately scarce. Topics such as the petroleum industry, labor processes and class formations, and the financial system need to be given the utmost consideration to challenge assumptions about contemporary Iran, as well as theories of development, insurgent politics, and capitalism.