Contemporary Iran

Book looks at sociopolitical landscape in twenty-first-century Iran


Contemporary Iran
by bparhami

Contemporary Iran

Economy, Society, Politics

Ali Gheissari, (editor)
Oxford University Press, (2009)

According to the back cover blurb, this book collects in one place the results of field work and insights of "both internationally renowned Iranian scholars and rising young Iranian academics ... on the nature and evolution of Iran's economy, significant aspects of Iran's changing society, and the dynamics of its domestic and international politics since the 1979 revolution, focusing particularly on the post-Khomeini period. Some of the chapters in this work are updated/expanded versions of papers presented at the conference "Iran: Domestic Change and Regional Challenges," held in San Diego during September 2005.

The book is structured in three parts. Part 1, "Economy," has three chapters focusing on oil, provincial realities, and women's employment. Part 2, "Society," consists of four chapters on women's activism, health care, addiction, and scientific research. Part 3, "Politics," is composed of five chapters on political discourse, new conservatism, ethnic/religious minorities, regional issues, and the Persian Gulf policy.

I tend to view published facts and figures about Iran with great suspicion, as data tend to be misreported at the source and subject to distortions at every stop along their journey to the public domain, due to a fundamental lack of openness on sociopolitical issues. To see if this book's snapshot of modern Iran is any more accurate than the typical broad-brush, unsubstantial treatment one finds elsewhere, I turned my focus to the topics discussed in Chapters 7 and 10, about which I have greater knowledge and experience.

Chapter 7, "Iran's New Scientific Community," pp. 211-244, is authored by Farhad Khosrokhavar, a professor of sociology at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and an affiliate of the National Research Institute for Science Policy in Iran. Chapter 10, "Ethnicity and Religious Minority Politics in Iran," pp. 299-323, is the work of Nayereh Tohidi, professor and chair of the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at California State University, Northridge, and a research associate at the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA.

Nearly all the facts and figures in Chapter 7 are of questionable validity or come from interviews with a small number of researchers. The author begins by citing the number of research articles published, based on Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) reports. Table 7.1 shows that the number of ISI-recognized scientific publications in Iran rose from around 300-400 per year in the late 1970s to the 4000-5000 range in the mid 2000s, after dipping to below 200 per year in the 1980s. The rise in the production of scientific papers in recent years is correctly attributed to the establishment of doctoral programs at various universities in Iran.

What is completely missing from the analysis in Chapter 7 is the extent to which the order-of-magnitude numerical increase in productivity corresponds to greater production of science in Iran, rather than to the incentive to win in the race for monetary compensation that comes with ISI-recognized publications and the production of PhD graduates. In fact, it is well-known within the Iranian scientific community that once plagiarized papers, publication of the same set of results in multiple venues, and ISI-recognized pay-to-publish journals and conferences have been accounted for, much of the perceived increase in productivity is wiped out.

The "Professors Against Plagiarism" blog, maintained and moderated by Professor Mohammad Ghodsi of Sharif University of Technology, documents some of the abhorrent practices in this domain, which include submission of the same doctoral thesis to two different universities, buying and selling of research reports, listing the names of well-known or influential individuals as authors, despite their total noninvolvement in the reported research, and data fabrication/copying.

It is also quite simplistic to believe that greater production of research publications is at the service of domestic science and technology in Iran, rather than a benefit to Western companies and universities where many of these elite researchers end up. In fact, the number of researchers who work hard in building up their publications lists in order to make themselves more marketable abroad is quite significant. The author makes a transitory reference to the latter trend when he notes that "Many young, bright scientists finish their studies in the elite universities of Sharif, Tehran, or Amir-Kabir and then find positions in Western universities, sometimes via Internet connections, and leave Iran" (p. 223).

We learn from Chapter 7 that there is very little collaboration among scientists in Iran, or between researchers and the industry. Even scientists working within the framework of national research centers tend to be isolated and suspicious of others in their disciplines. While this modus operandi may be acceptable in certain theoretical fields, it is highly restrictive when it comes to engineering and other applied disciplines. Researchers in applied areas cite the lack of laboratory facilities and adequate ties to the outside world as being major problems (p. 230). Nonetheless, many Iranian scientist view themselves as members of the international scientific community, though one hears occasional complaints about being ignored or not cited by foreign researchers due to a lack of respect for Iranian scientists or an “Israeli bias” in certain world institutions (p. 231).

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Iranian community of researchers is a fundamental lack of trust between them and the officials who hold the purse strings for research funding. While "the separation of religion and scientific activity seems to be a given" (p. 239), even among scientists who are practicing Muslims, the same cannot be said about political appointees who oversee institutions of higher learning and who tend to be deeply suspicious of the former group.

The author concludes Chapter 7 by this upbeat statement: "The creativity of Iranian society, not only in the scientific field but also in the arts, literature, and philosophy, are testimony to the vitality of a society inventing new forms of pluralism amid political stalemate" (p. 241). At the end, the reader is left with an uneasy feeling about the accuracy of assertions and conclutions about the current state of scieintific research in Iran.

Chapter 10 begins by supplying stats on the religious and ethnic composition of Iran's population. In religious terms, Iran is fairly homogeneous: 98% Muslim, with Shiites outnumbering Sunnis roughly 9 to 1. Zoroastrians, various Christian sects, and Jews account for a less than 2% of the population. Ethnically, however, the population is much more diverse: roughly half Persians, a quarter Azeris, less than 1/10 each of Kurds and Guilakis/Mazandranis, with the rest nearly equally divided among the Arab, Lur, Baluch, and Turkmen minorities (pp. 301-302).

Chapter 10 focuses primarily on the state institutions and their roles in designing and implementing minority policies. The equally important questions of interreligious and interethnic relations are deemed beyond the scope of the work. We learn early on that discrimination and segmentation has been institutionalized in the Islamic Republic of Iran's constitution, whose Article 19 declares that the people of Iran enjoy equal rights, regardless of their ethnic and tribal origins and that "Color, race, language and the like will not be cause for privilege," pointedly omitting religion and sex from the list. In fact, all important leadership positions, including supreme leader, president, vice presidents, members of various top councils and assemblies, and head of the state TV and radio "all have been either by legal requirement or tacit agreement strictly male Shi'i" (p. 303).

Religious minorities have token representation in the 290-member parliament. In fact, the five representatives of these groups (two for Armenians, and one each for Zoroastrians, Jews, and Assyrian/Chaldean Christians) constitute more than their fair share in numerical terms. However, these representatives are practically constrained to pursue only issues of religious practices and do not carry much weight or prestige among their peers. Even though the Islamic regime corrected one serious error of the Shah's, who used to downplay religious and ethnic differences in his attempt to promote "Iranianness," the current recognition of differences is nullified by the "outsider" status given to such minorities, whose slightest expression of discontent is quickly branded as being caused by foreign powers or their agents.

Such alienating rhetoric continues to be the norm, despite the regime's apparent awareness of its dangers. For example, the minister of intelligence is quoted as having said in 2004 that "the nature of future crises in Iran will not necessarily be political but, rather, they will be ethnic and social," perhaps using "social" as a codeword for the escalating discontent among women. Despite the awareness just cited, Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, used two Friday sermons in early 2005 to scold certain presidential candidates for provoking ethnic sensitivities (p. 306), when all they had done was to promise greater participation to Kurdish and Arab minorities.

The author ends this highly informative chapter with the recommendation that nationhood and "Iranianness" should be redefined "by emphasizing on citizenship and rights rather than ethno-linguistic criteria grounded on race, blood, and cultural or religious variables" (p. 319).

As evident from the two chapters discussed in depth, the chapters in this volume vary greatly in their objectivity, completeness, and relevance. Nevertheless, this book is a head-and-shoulder above similar volumes published in recent years about the sociopolitical landscape in the twenty-first-century Iran. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about social and political issues in today's Iran.

Behrooz Parhami
Santa Barbara, California


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