Iran’s Reconstruction Jihad: Rural Development and Regime Consolidation after 1979

By: Dr. Eric Lob
Professor at Florida International University

Iran’s Reconstruction Jihad: Rural Development and Regime Consolidation after 1979 is his amazing new book.

Based on extensive fieldwork in Iran and Lebanon, this book examines how the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) instrumentalized rural development to consolidate power at home and project influence abroad. A cornerstone of the IRI’s domestic consolidation and overseas influence was the significant, yet understudied organization and ministry, Reconstruction Jihad (RJ). The term“jihad” in RJ’s name constituted a powerful recruitment and mobilization tool that referred to a sacred struggle to improve society and the self through rural development and other positive pursuits beyond the military sphere.

The ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his circle of clerics in the Islamic.Republican Party (IRP) was not a fait accompli. After Khomeini’s return from exile on February 1, 1979, the revolutionary coalition fragmented and the IRP faced competition from a myriad of political opponents. That same month, among the provisional government’s first orders of business was to establish RJ not just to win the hearts and minds of rural residents – who represented nearly half the population – but also to marginalize opponents.

To this end, RJ’sthousands of activists and volunteers deployed to the countryside, where they delivered project and services and spread revolutionary and religious values by undertaking cultural activities,erecting Islamic structures, and distributing books, films, and other materials. After the IRI consolidated power in 1983, RJ was converted from a revolutionary organization into a government ministry. It helped an internationally isolated and economically strained IRIforge and reinforce diplomatic and commercial relations with the Muslim and developing world.

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In Lebanon, RJ exported its organizational model to Hezbollah so it could service and socialize its constituents. In Africa, RJ allowed countries to strengthen their sizeable agrarian economies, alleviate widespread rural poverty, and overcome other developmental challenges.

While RJenabled the IRI to make deep inroads into Africa, the Iranian presence and expansion was limited by the continent’s inauspicious religious demographics and fierce foreign competition.

In recounting the establishment and evolution of RJ, this book contributes to the extant literature on the IRI in two ways. First, this literature tends to characterize the IRI’s mobilization as a top-down process; in other words, the channeling by the state of activists’ revolutionary and religious fervor into new and parallel, military and administrative institutions. By contrast, the book demonstrates the bi-directional nature of this mobilization.

From below, jihadists initially and independently mobilized to the countryside, pressured the provisional government to pursue their agenda, and radicalized Khomeini and other IRP elites by pushing them into further confrontation with their opponents, who also threatened RJ’s existence and expansion. From above, these elites harnessed this mobilization to consolidate power, and subsequently brought RJ further under their purview by institutionalizing it as a ministry.

Second, the book serves as a corrective and supplement to this literature, which explains the RI’s resilience by focusing on its coercive institutions, including revolutionary courts, club-wielding partisans of God, and the Revolutionary Guard. Without contesting coercion as critical

to the IRI’s historical and political trajectory, the book reveals that rural development and other non-coercive policies also accounted for IRI’s consolidation and persistence. At the same time, the literature on the IRI’s foreign policy tends to concentrate on its military and economic assistance (hard power) and ideological and religious propagation (soft power). This book adds to this literature by identifying and investigating rural development as a soft power mechanism that establishes and enhances relations with other countries, is less fraught with the risks and pitfalls associated with arms trafficking and religious proselytization, and offers equal, if not greater, strategic and ideational benefits.