Does the Islamic Republic Run on Machine Politics?

Many accounts of Iranian politics have claimed that social programs are designed to gain supporters for the Islamic Republic. Survey results illustrate that state aid programs have broader coverage of the population than the semi-governmental “bonyads”, and that there is no significant relationship between aid program coverage and voting patterns.

Scholarly and think-tank accounts of Iranian politics allege that welfare linkages to the state function as a crucial source of regime legitimation among poorer and conservative-leaning citizens. Analysts often assume that the political elite’s conservative factions successfully mobilise the votes of individuals who receive aid or welfare from government, engendering a dependent class of beneficiaries in the process. More specifically, scholars have touted the organisational prowess and popular reach of semi-governmental welfare foundations in the post-1979 era (bonyads). To quote one of many such assertions: “the bonyads simultaneously provide essential social services and strengthen the regime. In short, bonyads are the means for patronage as well as social controlFootnote 53 ”.

How accurate is this portrayal of social welfare linkages between individuals and the regime? The Iran Social Survey,a nationally representative survey fielded via landline phone to 5005 randomly selected respondents throughout the country, was conducted in late 2016Footnote 54 . The primary goal of the project was to empirically assess prevailing accounts of social and political dynamics in Iran.

One of the most comprehensive survey segments measured household linkages to social welfare services. To gauge the degree and range of state-society linkages through social welfare policy, respondents were asked whether “anyone in their household receives insurance, aid or income” from a list of public, semi-public and private organisations. Included in the list were several post-revolutionary bonyads.

The four largest social welfare programs in Iran, as reported by survey respondents, are:

  • Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC): Founded in 1979, this is the largest self-identified, revolutionary welfare institution in Iran. Funded through government sources, income-generating investments, as well as private donations, benefits include monthly income transfers, in-kind aid and subsidies for health care costs. By population reach, this is the biggest bonyad in IranFootnote 55 ;
  • Social Security Organisation (SSO): Founded before the 1979 revolution by the Pahlavi monarchy (1925-79), the SSO provides social insurance for formal employees in large firms in the public and private sector. Since the late 1990s, enrollment among employees in small firms and informal self-employed has also been encouraged. Social insurance includes health, pension and disability benefits. The SSO is administered by the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare;
  • Civil Service Pension Fund (CSPF): Descending from the oldest social welfare institution of the Pahlavi monarchy, the CSPF provides social insurance for government employees. It is also managed by the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare, and does not cover employees in the military, law enforcement or Islamic Revolutionary Guards, each of which has its own social insurance organisation; and
  • Yaraneh/cash transfer: Enacted in 2011 by the Ahmadinejad administration as partial compensation for the liberalisation of price subsidies on fuel and electricity, this is a direct cash transfer to a specified bank or credit institution account held by eligible individuals under a given income threshold. After 2013, the Rouhani administration continued the yaraneh program, although the real amount has declined due to inflation.

Measuring social welfare linkages

The Iran Social Survey categorised respondents by household income bracket that reported a household linkage to each social welfare institution. Overall, most households reported the receipt of unconditional cash transfers in Iran, a relatively new policy innovation, amounting to roughly USD 11-12 per month per personFootnote 56 . It should be noted that 85 per cent of survey respondents fall into the lowest three income categories, with 23.4 per cent of respondents self-reporting household incomes under 500,000 tomans (USD 130) a month. Nearly all of the respondents in the poorest household category (N=1169) reported receiving cash transfers.

Moreover, within this poorest income category more respondent households are linked to the Social Security Organisation than the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. In other words, among poorer Iranians, more beneficiaries are linked to the main governmental social insurance organisation than the largest semi-governmental bonyad. This might be a surprising finding for Middle East analysts given popular accounts of semi-governmental bonyads as the key Iranian institutions of aid and insurance for low-income households. Yet the limited reach of the IKRC can be seen in claims by the organisation itself. In 2008, only two years into the Ahmadinejad administration and well before the implementation of cash transfers, the IKRC reported that 1.9 million households (around 10 per cent of the total) were covered by its servicesFootnote 57 . The SSO, on the other hand, covered over 40 per cent of the population in 2008, and continued to expand coverage over the next decadeFootnote 58 .

Households can be linked to multiple social welfare institutions in Iran. As an Iranian health-policy analyst described in a 2011 interview:

There is no one insurance fund that pools the health costs in Iran. For instance, with a 75 million population, there are almost 85, or some figures say, 90 million insurance booklets, which means that there are some people with two or even three insurance schemes, which is absolutely a waste of resources. If your dad is a public servant, you are entitled to insurance from the [CSPF]; if your mom is a factory laborer, you are also entitled to insurance from the SSO, and if your brother is in the military, you can have insurance from the Armed Forces Insurance, and if your sister works in the mayor’s office, you are entitled to a type of private insurance for some special services. This is the story, more or less, across the countryFootnote 59 .

Contrary to popular accounts of social welfare as a vehicle to specifically target poor citizens, the main linkages to Iran’s social welfare system, as with most middle-income countries, are clustered around households in the middle and upper-income strata of the population. In the poorest stratum of survey respondents, this sort of cross-organisational linkage is less apparent: only 2 per cent of survey respondents reported linkages to both the IKRC and the SSO. Among middle and upper income strata, the reach of the SSO expands while linkages to the IKRC are absent. This is to be expected, as the IKRC uses means-testing to deliver aid to low-income households. The reach of the SSO to lower income strata is consistent with the expansion of benefits to a range of occupations in the informal, self-employed sector of Iran’s economy over the past decade, where poorer Iranians tend to earn a living. In reality, however, it is higher-income households which are more likely to be linked to pensions and health insurance across multiple organisations: 14 per cent of respondents in the survey reported that their household was linked to both the SSO and the CSPF.

Respondents were asked to comment on other well-known bonyads in Iran also purported to be organisations of mass patronage and party mobilisation. In the case of the Foundation for the Dispossessed, only 36 respondents out of 5005 (0.7 per cent) reported a household linkage. In the case of the Martyrs Foundation, only 95 respondents (1.9 per cent) reported a household linkage. These shares are also consistent with the counts of beneficiaries officially reported by these organisations. Moreover, even if there is under-reporting in the survey for these organisations due to a perceived stigma (though this is arguably not the case for cash transfers, a policy equally associated with conservative Iranian politicians), this underreporting would have to be extremely widespread to raise the importance of these bonyads to the level of linkages from other social welfare organisations. On the whole, the survey data illustrates the reach of core welfare organisations under the control of the central Iranian government, not semi-governmental bonyads, into the poorer strata of society.

A rural exception?

It is regularly stated by journalists and scholars that the political base of the Iranian regime is strongest among rural citizens who tend to be poorer and less educated than urban residents. Household linkages to the above social welfare organisations among only rural respondents (living in a settlement size under 5,000 people) were also analysed in the Iran Social Survey. Even rural households are more likely to be connected to the government-run SSO than the bonyad IKRC. Overlap among rural household linkages to both organisations is minimal (3.2 per cent). In addition, nearly all rural households receive a bimonthly cash transfer. The yaraneh program is often construed as a naked ‘handout’ of cash in exchange for votes. Given the basic design of the policy, this is a misleading characterisation. While the recipients of cash transfers might perceive particular politicians or factions more favourably due to the implementation and advocacy of this program, the distributional structure of a universal cash grant does not resemble a patron-client relationship. Every household receives one cash transfer per individual, regardless of occupation or voting behaviour.

Given the mix of cash transfers, health subsidies and social insurance reported in the survey, a narrowly targeted clientelist machine does not seem to be prevalent in rural Iran. Rather, rural household linkages to social welfare organisations resemble those under a modern welfare state with programmatic policies at its centre.

Do state linkages displace associational activities?

Civil society, defined as non-state and non-family associational activities, is a concept often invoked in scholarship on Iran and the broader Middle East, which often claims that associational activities are largely absent in these countries. Some reports on Iran portray everyday life as routinely captured by state penetration, displacing the associational arenas where public social interaction could take placeFootnote 60 . This assertion has rarely been empirically assessed outside of anecdotal or official accounts. To gauge the degree of participation in a variety of non-state associational activities, the Iran Social Survey asked respondents whether they currently participate or used to participate in a range of formal or informal groups, clubs or other associationsFootnote 61 .

Respondents identified the neighbourhood religious association (hey'at-e mazhabi) as the one in which they most commonly participated. Such organisations often arrange holiday celebrations in Iran, endorse candidates for local offices, and sponsor commemorations of notable individuals. They are commonly funded privately by local residents and do not require the participation of state-appointed clerics. Four decades ago, during the build-up to the 1979 Iranian revolution, the neighbourhood religious association was arguably a more important institution than the local mosque for organising collective behaviour, sharing political information and mobilising individuals towards actionFootnote 62 .

Little research has been conducted on the role of neighbourhood associations in contemporary Iran. With the inclusion of this type of association in the Iran Social Survey, one can estimate participation and examine variation between different groupings of respondents.

The survey also compared self-reported participation in a neighbourhood religious association across respondent households that are linked to three types of social welfare: the IKRC, the SSO, and cash transfers. There is no significant difference in neighbourhood religious associational participation across the types of social welfare linkages. For the most common type of non-state, non-family associational activity in Iran, then, state linkages are not associated with lower rates of participation in civil society.

Vote choice and the Iranian welfare system

Do beneficiaries of different welfare organisations in Iran, bonyad or governmental, vote differently? If bonyads were consequential vehicles for turning out the vote for conservative politicians in Iran, this might be observed in the reported vote choice by individuals who live in households linked to the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. After all, to become eligible for IKRC aid, a household usually has to receive a visit from a local IKRC officer in order to take a means test or have their home examined. This would be a prime site for clientelist mobilisation to occur, especially if the IKRC made benefits contingent on vote choice. Respondents were asked to recall their vote choice, if any, for president in 2013. Given the competitive race between the moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani and four conservative politicians, the vote choice of respondents might tell us about how welfare linkages affect political inclinations in a mobilised election with wide turn-out.

However, among all vote choices for the 2013 presidential election, including the choice not to vote at all, there is no significant difference among respondents linked to different welfare organisations. The higher share of respondents in IKRC-linked households who reported that they did not remember for whom they voted (19 per cent) is likely due to the fact that poorer voters in general reported in higher numbers that they did not remember (17 per cent).

These data suggest an important finding about electoral mobilisation in Iran. Individuals linked to welfare programs currently or formerly associated with conservative politicians or factions (the IKRC with post-revolutionary conservatives; cash transfers with the Ahmadinejad administration) are not voting differently on average than people linked to welfare programs associated with technocratic or moderate politicians or factions (SSO).

Given that an individual’s linkages to the largest Iranian social welfare organisations, including the largest bonyad in the IKRC, do not seem to correlate with associational and electoral behaviour, it is worth asking if the model of a clientelist-welfare machine is operational in the Islamic Republic of Iran?

If such a model was on display during the chaotic and violent post-revolutionary period after 1979, it has been subsumed and surpassed by a much different system of social welfare distribution. Even with numerous forms of electoral competition, high levels of intra-elite strife, and a marked degree of ideological friction, the clientelist model of welfare-based mobilisation is not discernable in Iran at a systematic levelFootnote 63 . Given the findings from the Iran Social Survey, it is perhaps time to reassess which models of politics and state-society relations are observable in Iran for other spheres as well.

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