Kevan Harris. The Martyrs Welfare State: Politics and social policy in post-revolutionary Iran

Monday, January 26, 2015 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

The Martyrs Welfare State: Politics and social policy in post-revolutionary Iran

Is social policy a mechanism of state control and bargaining, or does it empower social actors and give force to new demands
​ ?​ Are commodity-exporting states in the global South exempt from the politics of making and unmaking social welfare compacts? Using the case of post-revolutionary Iran, an oil-fueled state has 

repeatedly faced powerful mobilization from below, I argue that examining the politics of distribution can be both corrective and complement to the politics of production. Iran’s government managed to transform society after the 1979 revolution through a “martyrs welfare state.” Borne out of the longest conventional war of the 20th century – the Iran-Iraq War – and its aftermath, this warfare-welfare system targeted segments of the population formerly excluded from the pre-revolutionary social compact. Newly assembled social policy organizations created political bases from which to recruit new state cadres and supporters. This process of welfare making, however, also enlarged and empowered social constituencies with new demands. In response, the Islamic Republic commenced a postwar effort to deliver the material goods promised during the period of revolutionary élan and postponed during wartime sacrifice. The martyrs welfare state, consequently, was retooled into a developmental state. Yet this push, familiar in many middle-income countries, generated expectations among the population for upward mobility, improved livelihoods, and an alternative cultural-political order. The electoral surprises, street protests, and social vibrancy witnessed in Iran since the 1990s are not the consequence of an awakened civil society set against an ossified, backward-looking state. Instead, they are an outcome of various and conflicting state-building efforts and responses by newly empowered social classes.

This research draws on primary sources, structured interviews, and ethnographic observation during sixteen
months of fieldwork from 2008-11 in several Iranian provinces. This talk will spotlight two key sites of welfare politics amidst Iran's complex welfare system: rural health clinics and higher education.
Kevan Harris (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University) is a postdoctoral research associate at Department for Near Eastern Studies and the acting Associate Director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University.  He will begin a position as assistant professor of sociology at UCLA in Fall 2015.