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People and Society, Social Structure

Iranian society in the early 20th century consisted of a narrow ruling elite (the Qajar dynasty monarch and his extended family, court-appointed officials in Tehran and provincial capitals, major landlords, and chiefs of large nomadic tribes); a middle tier, including urban bazaar merchants, the Shia clergy, and artisans; and a large, poor segment comprising mostly share-cropping peasants and nomads but also some town dwellers engaged in service-sector trades. Following the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi implemented wide-ranging economic development programs that stimulated the industrialization and urbanization of the country. These changes led to the emergence of two new, urban social groups: a middle class of professionals and technocrats (technical experts) and a working class engaged in manual and industrial labor. Reza Shah’s son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, continued the development programs, and the two new social groups gradually expanded.

By the late 1970s, however, the professional and technocratic middle class had divided into secular and religious factions. Both groups contributed to the overthrow of the shah in 1979; the secular group objected to the autocratic rule and economic corruption of the monarchy, while the religious group feared that the shah’s embrace of the West threatened traditional Islamic morality. The religious middle class, in alliance with the Shia clergy and under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gradually split from the secular middle class and consolidated power after the revolution. This group pursued an accelerated industrialization program, causing further expansion of the middle-income population from 15 percent of the total population in 1979 to 40 percent by 1996. The working class also expanded, while the peasant and nomad populations decreased; together these three low-income groups accounted for 53 percent of the population. High-ranking officials, physicians, and entrepreneurs made up the upper-income group (7 percent of the population).

 

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