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Institutional Continuities and Changes in the Islamic Republic of Iran: The Case of Construction Jihad

Institutional Continuities and Changes in the Islamic Republic of Iran: The Case of Construction Jihad

Table of Contents

Introduction

The organization Construction Jihad (Jahād-e Sāzandegī, hereafter CJ) was established and mobilized to fulfill the revolutionary promises made in 1978-79 to bring reconstruction and development to the country’s approximately 70,000 villages. CJ consisted of thousands of activists and volunteers undertaking an ambitious reconstruction and development campaign and spreading revolutionary and religious values throughout the countryside, where over half the population resided. Between 1979 and 1989, it built 25,000 kilometers or 71 percent of the 35,000 kilometers of total roads that were constructed during this period. In the first ten years of the revolution, CJ supplied electricity to 9,050 or 51 percent of the 17,800 villages with over twenty families that were electrified. Between 1979 and 1989, CJ provided potable water to 11,428 or 61 percent of the 18,826 villages with between twenty and 150 families that received potable water among the 29,500 such villages that existed. CJ transitioned from a revolutionary organization to a government ministry in 1983.  

Additionally, CJ constructed schools, libraries, clinics, and baths. It also delivered medication and vaccinations, and provided inputs, credit, guidance, and assistance to farmers, herders, and artisans. In its libraries, in village mosques, and elsewhere, the organization disseminated books and films (some with revolutionary and religious content), distributed copies of the Quran and other Islamic texts, and organized clerical sermons, prayer groups, and study sessions.  CJ undertook some of these projects and services in cooperation with the Ministries of Roads and Transportation, Energy, Agriculture, Rural Affairs, Education, Health, and Culture. At the same time, and as will be further described below, the organization negatively perceived and portrayed the ministries as counterrevolutionary and heretical remnants of theshah’s regime (ṭāghūtī), and competed against them for recognition, responsibilities, and resources from the revolutionary state. Despite this initial hostility to the formal government bureaucracy, CJ transitioned from a revolutionary organization to a government ministry in 1983. 

Based on extensive fieldwork and original research in Iran, this article argues that CJ members and Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini and other religiopolitical elites appropriated the shah’s Literacy, Health, and Extension Corps (Sepāh-e Dānesh, Behdāsht va Tārvīj). In doing so, they attempted to validate the Islamic Republic and differentiate CJ by framing its mission as repairing the alleged destruction that the shah had caused the provinces and villages.  Compared to the shah’s Corps, CJ possessed similar attributes, offered comparable services, and performed analogous activities.  Rather than constituting a complete rupture from or clean break with the pre-revolutionary past, CJ  exemplified the political and social continuities of revolutionary Iran.  These continuities contrasted with the perceptions of CJ members and religiopolitical elites concerning the innovativeness of the organization.  They sought to portray it as such in order to justify its existence.  

To differentiate CJ from the shah’s Corps and to bolster the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini blamed the shah’s institutions and policies for exacerbating rural inequality and underdevelopment.  Regardless of its accuracy, this critique of Pahlavi modernism resonated with CJ members, especially those on the left, and later applied to the Islamic Republic’s own moral economy. In addition to resembling the shah’s Corps, CJ exhibited institutional continuity between pre-and post-revolutionary Iran by transitioning from a revolutionary organization to a government ministry in 1983 before merging with the Ministry of Agriculture in 2001. Some CJ members were opposed to their originally anti-bureaucratic, revolutionary organization contradictorily joining a bureaucracy that before the revolution had purportedly neglected the countryside under the shah and that afterward competed against CJ under center-left technocratic politicians like Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (1907-95).

From the Pahlavi Dynasty’s Corps to the Islamic Republic’s Jihad (1962-83)

Establishment and Recruitment

CJ’s origins were rooted in the rural reconstruction and development policies that were instituted under the shah from 1962 to 1979.  Inspired by the Kennedy administration’s Peace Corps and USAID, the shah established the Literacy, Health and Extension Corps in 1962 as part of his “White Revolution.” These Corps largely consisted of urban youth who delivered services in education, healthcare, and agriculture to the villages as a substitute for compulsory military service.  After the victory of the Iranian Revolution and the return of Khomeini to Iran on February 1, 1979, he and other religiopolitical elites in the Islamic Republican Party (Ḥezb-e Jomhūrī-e Eslāmī, hereafter IRP) facilitated the grassroots mobilization of CJ before converting it to a revolutionary organization. On February 4, Khomeini appointed Bazargan prime minister of the provisional government. Bazargan was affiliated with the Freedom Movement of Iran (Nahżat-e Āzādī-e Īrān, hereafter FMI), the main political bloc in the provisional government.  During the next week, the provisional government was challenged, and clashes ensued between Khomeinists and royalists in the military. 

On February 11, the military declared neutrality and the shah’s prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar (1914-91), resigned. Immediately following the transfer of executive power from Bakhtiar to Bazargan that day, the provisional government approved the initial charter of a new rural reconstruction and development organization called CJ.  CJ members interpreted the provisional government’s endorsement of their charter as a green light to mobilize at the grassroots level to the countryside.  Beginning on February 11, they deployed to provinces and villages around the country to establish CJ branches, recruit volunteers, and deliver similar projects and services as the Corps to villagers in immediate and surrounding areas.  Like the shah’s Corps and before becoming a ministry, CJ practiced cost sharing to compensate for resource limitations and budgetary deficits as a revolutionary organization, and to deliver on its rhetoric of popular participation (moshārekat-e mardomī).  To this end, and as had been the case with the Corps, cost sharing allowed CJ to reduce operating costs, leverage the resources, skills, and contacts of local residents, and offer them a stake in the developmental process – even if the organization ultimately excluded them from decision-making, planning, monitoring, and evaluation.  Particularly in the provinces and villages with larger populations and greater resources, residents donated the factors of production to CJ’s projects, services, and activities.  Like CJ, the Literacy Corps had employed cost sharing whereby the villagers provided buildings and covered the costs of constructing schools and other facilities.

To a greater extent than Corps members, CJ members comprised a mix of urban and rural youth and other individuals, some of who were personally motivated to improve the developmental and socioeconomic conditions of their native provinces and villages, and others around the country.  At the same time, from the standpoint of demographics, religiosity, and motivations, CJ did not differ significantly from the Corps.  As was the case with some CJ members, some Literacy Corps members had come from the cities, provinces, and villages outside of Tehran, and had been “sent to their own districts so that they could be familiar with the language and the customs, providing a common base between the villagers and the corpsmen and thus a confidence which otherwise would have taken some time to build.”  Similar to CJ members, Literacy Corps members had recited Quranic verses on a daily basis, held morning prayer sessions for their students, and permitted gender segregation in their schools to accommodate and appease clerics, elders, and other religiously and socially conservative villagers.  Like CJ members, many Literacy Corps members had been imbued with an idealistic enthusiasm that had enabled them to earn villagers’ trust and respect and had been a key factor of these members’ success.  While some CJ members had been ideationally motivated by idealism, altruism, nationalism, and religion, other members had been strategically motivated by similar incentives as Corps members, including military exemptions, employment opportunities, and academic scholarships. 

As had been the case with the Corps, the universities and high schools constituted important sites of recruitment, mobilization, expansion, and expertise for CJ because students possessed the disposable time – not to mention the energy, motivation, and drive – to participate in the organization, particularly during summer vacations and national holidays.  CJ members established centers in high schools and universities around the country to recruit and mobilize students and graduates during vacations and holidays.  At universities in Iran and abroad, CJ members tapped into student associations that had opposed the shah.  This vast network of student activists proved to be fertile ground for the recruitment and mobilization of CJ members and volunteers.  

As had been the case with the shah’s Corps, CJ’s specialization of tasks and recruitment process were based on students’ area of study and specialization.  Students and graduates with majors, diplomas, and degrees in engineering, agriculture, medicine, and education respectively joined CJ’s construction, extension, hygiene, and cultural committees as members and volunteers.

Politicization and Differentiation

Beyond bringing development to provinces and villages, the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic respectively instrumentalized the Corps and CJ to further state-building efforts and to demobilize and marginalize political opponents.  Apart from attempting to assuage the Kennedy administration’s fears regarding the threat of communism spreading in the Iranian countryside, the shah had established the Corps and instituted land reform as part of his White Revolution.He intended to expand the central government’s authority at the expense of large landlords, a group with political clout, financial autonomy, and access to coercion that had traditionally challenged the monarchy and the state.  By backing CJ, Khomeini and other IRP elites sought to gain favor with the landlords and other radical and religious revolutionaries as a base of support against the FMI, the communists and Marxists, and other political parties and social movements that had been part of the revolutionary coalition against the shah and that currently competed for power.  

While swiftly endorsing CJ’s charter, the provisional government did not approve the official establishment of the organization or offer financial support for its activities until four months later, on June 16.  The provisional government’s initial reluctance to fully support CJ stemmed from an ideological and political preference by the FMI to restrict CJ and other revolutionary organizations and rely instead on the bureaucracy and the Bazargan-appointed ministers to run the state.  Due to their technocratic worldview and desire to appease the ministries, these officials attempted to restrict CJ by withholding government funds, resources, and support – a similar issue that had been experienced by the Literacy Corps, even though it had also received funding from the government and bureaucracy. 

Between February and June of 1979, Khomeini and the IRP deferred to Bazargan and the FMI because they possessed greater experience and expertise in governance.  However, on June 16, Khomeini and the IRP disregarded the bureaucratic preferences of Bazargan and the FMI by supporting CJ’s official establishment as a revolutionary organization.  Despite reluctance or downright disapproval from Bazargan and the FMI, Khomeini delivered a nationally televised speech on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (Sedā va Sīmā-ye Jomhūri-ye Eslāmi-ye Īrān, hereafter IRIB) on that day announcing the official establishment of CJ as a revolutionary organization.  

While CJ had been mobilizing from below in the provinces and villages, Khomeini’s speech facilitated and accelerated the organization’s recruitment, mobilization, and expansion from above in Tehran.  The speech was designed to appeal to CJ members, other radical and religious revolutionaries, and provincial and rural constituents. At the same time, the speech inspired and mobilized urban youth and other citizens with higher radio and television access to join CJ. 

In his speech, Khomeini attempted to maximize recruits for CJ by equating membership and participation in the organization with the sacred duty of jihad.  The term “jihad” in CJ’s name constituted a powerful tool of recruitment, mobilization, cohesion, and commitment.  By invoking the concept of jihad, Khomeini helped frame CJ’s mission as a collective and individual effort or struggle to improve society and the self through reconstruction and development.  While CJ was primarily a development organization, its moniker and mission contained military metaphors and terminology.  These metaphors and terminology also applied to the Literacy Corps, which was translated into Persian as the “army of knowledge,” was dedicated to fighting and waging a crusade against illiteracy, and contained a military hierarchy with ranks that were based on educational level. 

In his speech, Khomeini attempted to differentiate the Islamic Republic from the former regime, and CJ from the shah’s rural institutions, including the Corps and the ministries, which were considered the counterrevolutionary and heretical remnants of his rule. .  Khomeini did this by emphasizing the destruction that the “oppressive” (sitamgar) and “unjust” (jāʾir) Pahlavi dynasty had allegedly caused the provinces and villages.  Khomeini’s discourse was part of a state propaganda campaign that intended to showcase the shah’s purported destruction of the villages and to persuade Iranians to repair it by joining and participating in CJ.  

According to an Iranian rural sociologist and development expert, around the time of Khomeini’s June 16 speech, “state television ran advertisements with images of destitute and diseased villagers without infrastructure, medicine, and other services to persuade and shame urban Iranians into joining CJ and improving rural reconstruction and development.”  A former CJ member stated that on the IRIB, “Imam Khomeini made many speeches about [the poor conditions of] the villages, [including one speech in which] he lamented an eye infection that had spread in the villages of Khuzestan due to a lack of medication, education, and clean drinking water.”  Similar to what state media had done with the shah’s Corps before the revolution, the IRIB broadcast radio and television programs with CJ that publicized its developmental activities and achievements in an attempt to validate its existence, attract recruits, and gain support from the government and the public.

Regardless of its accuracy, the critique of Pahlavi modernism by the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite and state media resonated with CJ members, particularly those on the left, who perceived their purpose as repairing and remedying the shah’s alleged destruction of the countryside through reconstruction and development.  Demonstrating the continuities that existed between pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, much like the existence of CJ itself, this critique eventually informed the Islamic Republic’s own moral economy. For example, as had been the case with the shah’s Corps, CJ helped improve the absolute living standards and economic conditions (literacy, education, healthcare, hygiene, sanitation, agriculture, and infrastructure) of provinces and villages, but failed to mitigate rural-urban inequality and rural migration and depopulation, especially along the ethnic periphery.  As a consequence, and despite the activities of CJ and other institutions, the pronounced developmental and socioeconomic disparities, along with the systematic discrimination and exclusion, that had existed under the shah between the Persian-majority central provinces and the ethnic-minority peripheral ones persisted and worsened, leading to rising discontent, conflict, and instability.

Consolidation and Bureaucratization

While CJ members and IRP officials promoted rural reconstruction and development as a policy goal or an end in itself, these individuals also did so as a means of consolidating power against their political opponents and purging them from the countryside between 1979 and 1983.  These opponents included center-left parties and politicians, shah loyalists, communists and Marxists, Sunni and ethnic separatists, traditional elites and other counterrevolutionaries, and Iraqi forces and their collaborators.  Khomeini and the IRP feared provincial and rural opponents comprised of communists, Marxists, and leftists, including the Tudeh (Masses) Party, the People’s Guerilla Warriors (Fadāiyān-e Khalq or FEK), and the leftist-Islamist People’s Warriors (Mujāhedīn-e Khalq or MEK).  Though part of the same revolutionary coalition that had overthrown the shah, the Tudeh Party, the FEK, and the MEK were excluded from the provisional government by the FMI and the IRP – both of which opposed communism, Marxism, and radical leftism. Similarly, as previously mentioned, one of the political rationales of the shah for establishing the Corps with support from the Kennedy administration had been to prevent the spread of communism in the Iranian countryside.

As a revolutionary organization, CJ helped neutralize the FMI, the FEK, the MEK, Sunni and ethnic separatists, and other political opponents of the IRP in four ways.  First, CJ monitored these opponents and reported on their presence, personnel, and activities in the provinces and villages to the political and security establishment.  Second, in the spirit of patronage or clientelism, the organization encouraged provincial and rural residents – who were privy to its services – to participate in political rallies in support of the IRP and to vote for it during elections.  Third, CJ integrated its members, partners, and supporters – who ostensibly supported the IRP and participated in the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) – into thousands of rural or Islamic councils, and away from those that were affiliated with traditional elites, the FEK and the MEK, and other opponents.  Fourth, during the war, the organization provided troops on the front with logistical support in the areas of medicine and literacy, religion and culture, and infrastructure and technology.

After consolidating power against its domestic opponents and turning the tide of the war against Iraq, the IRP converted CJ from a revolutionary organization into a government ministry in 1983.  While CJ helped demobilize and marginalize radical leftist groups like the FEK and the MEK in the provinces and villages, some of its members harbored leftist tendencies and supported populist and egalitarian policies, including land expropriation, labor collectivization, and income redistribution.  Some IRP officials, particularly those on the right, grew concerned that CJ’s disillusioned leftist members would turn against the revolutionary state, which backtracked on land reform and other radical and populist promises that had been originally used to mobilize CJ and galvanize the masses.  A similar outcome had occurred with the shah’s Corps, which became increasingly radicalized due to their exposure to communist propaganda and destitute conditions in the provinces and villages.  Rather than stem the tide of communism in the countryside, radicalized Corps members had turned against the shah by participating in the revolution that led to his demise.  With this outcome fresh in their minds, rightist IRP officials advocated CJ’s demobilization and institutionalization as a ministry to mitigate its radicalization and threat to the state. 

For CJ’s members, volunteers, and veterans, its bureaucratization created a mixed outcome.  Some of them experienced upward mobility while others did not and consequently became deeply disillusioned.  In the process, some members became officials and government advisers, ministers and deputy ministers, governors and parliamentarians, company executives and business consultants, and newspaper editors and university professors – the very individuals whom the organization had initially despised as ṭāghūtī. As had been the case with members of the Shah’s Corps, former CJ members received preferential treatment in the civil service due to their revolutionary and religious credentials, as well as their personal and professional connections with their former superiors in the organization, bureaucracy, and cabinet. While some CJ members experienced upward mobility, others – including those who were less well-connected, educated, skilled, ambitious, or lucky – worked lower level jobs, struggled to make ends meet and support their families, and were re-integrated back into sociopolitical marginalization. As a consequence, these individuals experienced cognitive dissonance and deep-seated disillusionment because they believed that their political and socioeconomic status was not commensurate with the sacrifices they had made, the risks they had assumed, and the recognition they had received during the revolution and the war. 

During and after CJ’s conversion into a ministry, some members also experienced cognitive dissonance and deep-seated disillusionment over the organization joining a bureaucracy that had been associated with the shah, who had allegedly damaged the countryside, and that was subsequently affiliated with Bazargan, who deprived the organization of much-needed resources.  Furthermore, some CJ members experienced disillusionment after their anti-bureaucratic and anti-materialistic movement and organization had been contradictorily converted to a government ministry.  CJ members and volunteers conceived and depicted their organization, when it had existed as a popular movement and a revolutionary organization, as representing an essential alternative to the bureaucracy, both in spirit and practice.  In the process, some of these individuals initially embraced altruism, self-sacrifice, and piety over the mobility, status, and compensation that the bureaucrats had supposedly prioritized and that had purportedly prevented them from alleviating rural poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment.  Regardless of the extent that their sentiments and perceptions fully reflected reality, these individuals lamented the shift from CJ’s original ethos of collectiveness, altruism, piety, and self-sacrifice to an organizational culture of individualism, careerism, inefficiency, and stagnancy – attributes that had allegedly applied to the ministries which CJ members had previously criticized.  Some of these individuals, especially those on the left, associated the adverse effects of CJ’s bureaucratization, alongside that of the Islamic Republic, with the failures of the Iranian Revolution to fulfill its populist promises of mitigating and eliminating rural inequality and underdevelopment, as well as assisting the oppressed (mostażʿafīn) and dispossessed (mahrūmīn) in the countryside and elsewhere.

These critiques of CJ’s bureaucratization overlooked or downplayed the contradictory efforts of some members to lobby Khomeini and other IRP officials for greater material and financial support to CJ as a revolutionary organization, and to subsequently convert it into a ministry with a higher status, fixed budget, steady salaries, and fringe benefits.  Some members also recognized the need for CJ’s bureaucratization and professionalization to remedy its organizational ineffectiveness, reduce wasted resources, replace unqualified volunteers, and recruit trained experts.  Such counterpoints demonstrated CJ’s internal diversity and fragmentation that contributed to its longer-term vulnerability and susceptibility to elite preferences and designs regarding its ultimate de-politicization and institutionalization as a ministry – an outcome for which some members had lobbied and helped bring to fruition.

Conclusion

With the exception of being a voluntary organization, CJ resembled the shah’s Literacy, Health, and Extension Corps, which had performed similar developmental and cultural activities in the provinces and villages during the White Revolution and land reform.  As had been the case with the Corps, CJ employed cost sharing to reduce operating costs and leverage local resources.  While CJ may have possessed more provincial and rural members and volunteers, it imitated the Corps by recruiting youth, students, and other individuals with different educational and vocational specializations and similar idealistic and altruistic motivations for undertaking reconstruction and development in the countryside.  While rural reconstruction and development constituted an end in itself, both the Corps and CJ were also established for political purposes, namely for the shah and the IRP to consolidate power against traditional elites and communist, Marxist, and radical leftist groups in the provinces and villages – even if some members of the Corps and CJ also possessed leftist orientations and aspirations. 

CJ members and IRP officials appropriated the shah’s Corps, which had been modeled after USAID and the Peace Corps. Nevertheless, these individuals framed CJ’s mission as repairing the destruction – which the shah had allegedly inflicted on the provinces and villages – in an effort to differentiate the organization and facilitate its recruitment, mobilization, and expansion.  By discrediting the shah and his Corps, this framing also represented an attempt to validate the Islamic Republic’s existence, bolster its legitimacy, and deliver on its developmental and populist rhetoric and ideology.  That being said, the Corps and CJ possessed similar performance records in terms of improving absolute living conditions, but failing to narrow socioeconomic disparities between urban and rural areas, particularly those along the ethnic periphery.  

After Khomeini and the IRP consolidated power, CJ was converted into a ministry and joined a bureaucracy that had been negatively associated with the shah, who had allegedly damaged the countryside, and with Bazargan, who had deprived the organization of essential resources.  This conversion caused cognitive dissonance and deep-seated disillusionment among some CJ members and volunteers who had thought of themselves as being part of a popular movement and a revolutionary organization that eschewed the mobility, status, and compensation that had supposedly been prioritized by the ministries and that had purportedly rendered them inactive and ineffective in the countryside before the revolution.  Despite CJ’s initial anti-bureaucratic and anti-materialistic ethos and worldview, along with Khomeini’s religious rhetoric and differentiating discourse, some members lobbied him and other IRP elites for the organization’s conversion into a ministry to receive the same status, benefits, and privileges as other government officials, cabinet ministers, and civil servants.  Such internal fragmentation within CJ also permeated the IRP, which officially dissolved in 1987, and the Islamic Republic, which experienced intra-elite factionalism for decades to come. 

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Eric Lob is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the politics of development in the Middle East and beyond. He is the author of the book Iran’s Reconstruction Jihad: Rural Development and Regime Consolidation after 1979.

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