/6/Confidential. Drafted by Bowling on March 20.
POLITICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE IRANIAN URBAN MIDDLE CLASS AND IMPLICATIONS THEREOF FOR U.S. POLICY
A meaningful definition of the Iranian urban middle class must be sociological and historical, not primarily economic. The urban middle class constitutes that element of Iranian society in which there are present two cultures, two value systems, the traditional and the Western. Those elements of society in which the traditional value systems are overwhelmingly predominant are excluded, i.e., the peasantry, both in the countryside and recently arrived in the large cities, most landlords, older religious leaders, and the great majority of small merchants and artisans outside the capital. Similarly excluded is the very small minority of thoroughly Westernized individuals, in high levels of society, who are really strangers in their own society.
The political middle class must be identified with the process of cultural clash. We may for the purposes of this paper attempt a rough breakdown of the urban middle class as follows:
(a) The upper middle class.
Its mark is primarily money. It includes industrialists, contractors, richer merchants who have shed the limits of the bazaar mentality, senior officials and professors, and other top professional types. Iranian society is and always has been relatively mobile, and this class includes individuals who have risen from below and others who have dropped down into it from the traditional elite.
(b) The middle middle class.
It is typified by junior civil servants, bazaar merchants, students, engineers, teachers, and journalists, who are products of the local universities and secondary schools.
(c) The lower middle class.
It is typified by clerks, skilled workers, taxi drivers, and that portion of the urban proletariat which has been cut adrift by long city residence from the thought patterns of the traditional society. It appears to be extending itself downward with the erosion of the traditional structure of society. There is a small increment of individuals who drop into it from the middle middle class. It is literate but otherwise poorly educated.
The key to the entire class lies in the middle group. Most of the upper group is "in" at the present time; is economically satisfied, feels itself participating in and adjusted to the status quo to some extent, and, while ready to support any stable regime which would not disturb its position, is at least passively content with things as they are. From this relatively sophisticated group, however, particularly among the younger elements with foreign educations, is drawn much of the political leadership for which the key middle group is crying. The lower middle class is restive and dissatisfied, and by virtue of its numbers will form the mass of effective street demonstrations, but depends on the groups above it to provide the political and social channels for the expression of its discontent. The comments below will be concentrated on the key middle group.
It is well known that individuals the world over tend to rationalize political behavior which stems from deep emotional needs. This is particularly true with regard to extremist views aimed at radical changes in an existing society. To take at face value the rationalizations of an Iranian middle class leader is as unrewarding as to accept the rationalizations of anti-Semites, Negro-haters, or communists in the United States. Some understanding of the psychological background of such individuals is necessary in order to be able to understand them and to predict their behavior.
The political reactions of the key elements of the Iranian middle class find their psychological roots in the fact that these people are partly Westernized and partly attached to their traditional culture. The result is an inability to adjust to society, and an inability to find security. Thus, if a student tries to "date" a girl, and to choose his own wife, one side of his "super-ego" tells him that he is behaving atrociously; if he asks his parents to find him a wife and does not expect to become acquainted with her until after the marriage, the other side says he is behaving atrociously. He is continually frustrated, unhappy, and unable to achieve adjustment to, and security within, his society.
At the same time, he is oppressed by feelings of inferiority. He has lost the deft understanding which enables one to fit into the traditional society in its small middle niches; he is unable to sense the nuances which allow for security through sycophancy, flattery, and the manipulation of chains of influence. He is likewise, with only a few exceptions, quite incompetent by Western standards. There is enough of the traditional culture in him that he is not able to work for the sake of the results, and to view a task as separate from considerations of personal prestige and status.
He is not willing to accept now the old idea of status, self-fulfillment, and success resting upon traditional values, nor can he adjust to the ideally Western concept of rewarding an individual strictly according to how he performs. Too often, he tends to accept the basic idea of rewards based on membership in an autocratic group, but wishes to substitute for the badges of the traditional autocracy what he conceives as the badge of Western autocracy--"educational qualifications". He feels, understandably enough, that he should, by virtue of formal educational qualifications, be allowed to attain the security and status of an informal autocracy. The traditionalist element of society refuses to recognize this claim, holding rather that "qualifications" are based on traditional values; the Westerner laughs at him and tells him that performance, continual performance against competition, is the only standard by which status can be achieved.
Our typical member of the urban middle class now becomes desperate. He becomes anxious and then angry. He cannot, as a normal human being, admit of his inadequacy to meet either system, much less the confused mixture of both which confronts him. He suspects that he is being persecuted and plotted against, and develops aggressive desires for revenge against "the system".
These desires are channelled, naturally, against both of the structures which form the underpinnings of his society. He applies Western standards against the traditional element of his society, and finds it wanting. He applies traditional standards in a critique of the Western element in his society, and naturally finds it wanting, too. It is a short step from these judgments to an uncritical aggressive desire for revenge, and for a final justification of himself by punishing and humiliating the two figures who seemingly mock at his plight, the self-assured member of the traditional upper class and the self-assured Westerner.
Good and Evil
There are certain key concepts of the world which are born and bred into Iranians which unfortunately tend to sharpen the terrible psychological dilemma outlined above. They are rooted in Iranian history, and can be traced back to Zoroastrianism and picked up again in the Iranian interpretation of Shi'a Islam.
Persians tend to believe in the all-pervasive presence of a powerful force of evil in the world. All actions, all motives, are divisible into good and evil. It is probable at any time in history that the forces of evil control the world, while the good man, like the hidden Imam, is forced to hide and remain inconspicuous, to lie and pretend if need be, until the moment arrives for battle. Thus, most Persians cannot ascribe political actions with which they disagree to error, or to grant good intentions to the author of such actions. The term "political compromise" cannot be translated into colloquial Persian without a connotation of "sell-out".
Two results follow from this--first, since the forces of evil are strong and organized, actions by others which one disapproves are not isolated, they are linked together in a mesh of intertwining conspiracies with an overall evil motive behind them. Second, public and private morality are inextricably confused--no politician with a reprehensible private life can be other than evil in his public actions, and no saintly man can be really wrong in his public life.
As a corollary of the above, Persians tend to follow blindly a man who has convinced them that he is on the side of right, without examining political issues critically. Since members of the urban middle class have deep aggressive drives against the traditional ruling class and the Westerner, it is natural to associate a saintly leader with opposition to these two forces. All the ingredients are present for what we would call demagogic politics directed against them as scapegoats and as evil forces.
Persians, and especially the urban middle class, have, from historical experience and from their own peculiarities, evolved an amazing political mythology whereby almost all political developments are viewed in terms of foreign influence, usually selfish and malignant. Most such influence has been ascribed to the Russians and the British; practically every national leader was in the past characterized as "pro-British" or "pro-Russian". Since German and U.S. power was far away and supposedly disinterested, members of the urban middle class for a long time tended to describe themselves as "pro-German" or "pro-American". Nowadays, with the U.S. obviously in the Shah's graces, the term "pro-American" is taking on the evil overtone which "pro-British" has had; the Germans are out of the picture.
There is a deep residue of hatred and distrust of Russia in Iran, but communism has its attractions. This attraction for the urban middle class is based primarily on (a) the communist opposition to the existing scheme of things, and (b) a hope that communism really means that the "educationally qualified" urban middle class displaces the traditional autocracy and thereafter enjoys status, security, and justification. However, even the most angry and frustrated Persian tends to draw back in alarm when he suspects that a Russian lurks behind the fair mask of communism.
Let us set aside immediately the common conception that the urban middle class is primarily concerned with national economic development. Nothing interests it less. It would like an aristocratic standard of living, but it channels this desire primarily through the idea of stepping into the seats of the traditional ruling class and the high-living Westerners resident in Iran. It has repeatedly shown its almost total lack of concern for the peasantry and even for the urban proletariat, except insofar as it can turn these groups against the traditional ruling class and the West. It is noteworthy that the consumption levels of the urban middle class have been rising sharply over the past eight years, while its political discontent has been rising even more sharply.
Members of the class, with Western tastes whetted by an addiction to movie-going, often bemoan the absence of "a decent standard of living" for themselves. This "decent standard" is measured in Western terms. Its provision, in a society still desperately poor, would obviously result in a profound increase in the gap between the educated and the uneducated, and therefore of "social injustice".
This class has, over the past ten years, shown itself to be ready at any time to put almost all other factors ahead of economic development for the nation. They have opposed infrastructure development and have instead demanded relatively non-productive amenities such as hospitals, colleges, asphalt streets, and urban water and sewage systems. They have been particularly opposed to any development involving foreign contractors or suppliers, which they feel is by definition somewhat nefarious.
It is important to note, however, that an expanding economy and a high rate of investment, particularly in the private sector, provide (a) attractive outlets for the energies of the more intelligent and better-educated members of the class, and (b) obviate the dangers of mass urban unemployment. They do not effectively modify political and psychological attitudes, but they dilute the readiness of the urban population to take drastic action along the lines indicated by these attitudes.
Most members of the class look back on the Mosadeq era with undisguised nostalgia. We are thus not operating in a vacuum when we attempt to determine the results of a political change or changes in which power would come into the hands of this group.
In 1957, one urban middle class group indicated in a public manifesto that it was willing to live with CENTO and with the Consortium Agreement. We must note, however, that the leader of this particular group is probably the most moderate of all potential leaders of the class, and that he and his followers admitted openly that the promise represented the stiff price which they are willing to pay for American "support" in a bid for power. In practice, it seems highly unlikely that any leader would be able to hold to such a position for long. His rivals would make life intolerable for him by accusing him of being a stooge of the West. It is almost a certainty that any government responsive to the urban middle class would as a minimum be forced to withdraw from CENTO and initiate some kind of squeeze on the Consortium, at least to the extent that it could prove to its followers that it was hostile to Western interests. Similarly, in the international arena, such a government would be forced to display its opposition to Western interests in the Arab world, the Congo, the Far East, and other trouble spots, and to extend sympathy to urban middle class leaders in those areas who are now opposing the West.
It is highly probable that, as another minimum, the U.S. military mission to Iran would be invited to leave. The Army is highly unpopular with the urban middle class, and to retain any position whatever in society, the Army itself would have to acquiesce in good grace.
The urban middle class has historically had no interest in or knowledge of financial realities. The degree of financial stability which has been maintained recently would almost certainly go overboard. One cannot imagine school teachers agreeing to postpone wage demands, for example, in view of esoteric and complicated financial factors, nor a government responsive to the urban middle class refusing to embark on a highly desirable hospital-building program because there was not enough money in the kitty. After all, as in the Mosadeq era, the printing press is always available.
Democracy in the Western sense means nothing to the urban middle class. It is probable that the oft-proposed measure to disenfranchise the illiterate classes would be brought up again and adopted, if there were any desire to utilize a freely-elected assembly.
The urban middle class complains bitterly about corruption in the government, but shows little interest in reducing corruption at low levels. Rather, it sympathizes with low-level officials in trouble for this reason, and insists that nothing can be done to remedy the basic problem until high-level corruption, involving the traditional upper class and foreigners, is eliminated. Almost all members of the upper class and most foreigners are believed to be guilty of corruption, unless they are openly sympathetic to the Mosadeqist groups. It seems quite likely that this middle class concern over corruption is actually a rationalization of its deeper emotional antipathies, and its justification in terms of the actual situation is coincidental.
The traditional upper classes, and the upper strata of the upper middle class as well, would probably be victimized in one way or another, ranging from confiscatory taxation to hanging. These policies would naturally quickly dry up the sources of capital formation for the private sector of the economy. Economic enterprise would turn toward the statist road, primarily because it is in the bureaucracy that the urban middle class is closest to having a vehicle through which it can institutionalize status and security for itself.
The aspirations described above do not constitute a prediction of the future. They represent the existing political raw material provided by the urban middle class. When one considers that they are inchoate, contradictory, and emotional in essence, it is obvious that they will be shaped by leadership. They cannot be disregarded. They are growing and spreading every day at an accelerating rate, upward into the younger sons of the aristocracy and downward into the proletariat, pushed by increasing urbanization. Their spread can only be stopped by stopping the process of culture clash, and that is impossible in the world of today.
There is no discernible competent leadership in the urban middle class at present. Should its incompetent leadership of today be catapulted into power, it is likely that a process of confused demagoguery would ensue, which would result in uncoordinated moves in the direction of the various negative aspirations listed above and increase potential for the communists, who obviously by virtue of their program and organization, would have a good chance of eventually filling the vacuum if they have learned to stop bowing publicly in the direction of the hated Russians.
The Iranian military does not offer potential leadership which could deal with these aspirations and satisfy them. Most junior officers share the prejudices of the middle class families from which they sprang; senior officers are roundly hated as members of the traditional aristocracy.
Traditional leaders--clergy, landlords, and the really big merchants--offer little hope of providing competent leadership, and are blind to the threat which the urban middle class represents. It might conceivably still be possible to "bypass" the urban middle class by providing a dynamic to the inert traditional-minded peasantry and proletariat, perhaps based on a regeneration of Shi'a Islam with new values adjustable to semi-Western values and to modern techniques of production and organization. But there is no sign of the gigantic creativity which would be necessary for such a reversal of the current historical trend.
There is one potential leader who has the necessary ability, personality, and talent, and whose political capital is not yet quite exhausted. That is the Shah himself. The Shah would still be capable, if he could only see the truth, of taking steps like the following which might allow him to seize and mold middle class aspirations.
(a) Channelling current resentments against Ministers rather than against himself.
(b) Dumping his family, or most of it, in Europe.
(c) Abstaining from state visits abroad and discouraging state visits to Iran.
(d) Reducing his military forces gradually to a small, tough force of infantry and artillery capable of internal security and guerrilla activities.
(e) Removing gradually most U.S. advisers from the Iranian Government except those few engaged in health, education, and welfare work in the field.
(f) Publicly excoriating the traditional ruling class for a lack of social responsibility.
(g) Withdrawing from his openly pro-Western international posture with as little damage as possible to Free World morale and to his own prestige.
(h) Ostentatiously reducing his personal standard of living, and the pomp and panoply of his life.
(i) Proceeding loudly with at least a token land distribution program against the big landlords.
(j) Making menacing gestures against the Oil Consortium and "extracting" concessions from it, in such a way as to make it appear that the Consortium was reluctantly bowing to his power and determination.
(k) Making public scapegoats of scores of "corrupt" high officials, whether or not the "corruption" could be proved.
(l) Appointing respected moderate Mosadeqists to positions such as those of Minister of Finance and Head of the Plan Organization, where they could assume responsibilities without being able to reverse policy.
(m) Making public all details of the operations of the Pahlavi Foundation, and appointing as its supervisors a few moderate Mosadeqists.
(n) Employing his personality to make constant personal contact with the members of the middle class.
The foregoing items are not intended to be a comprehensive program of action for the Shah. They are rather examples of actions which would have a positive effect on relations between the Shah and the class under discussion, and as indications of the types of action and gesture by the Shah to which the class would respond. Many of them would be demagogic in nature and would be hard for the West to swallow. But it is still possible that the Shah could turn the trick. He has the brains, the personality, and the cunning to do it.
United States Policy
Elements of U.S. policy which are presently open and which would serve to protect U.S. interests against the dangers represented by the rise of the urban middle class in Iran are as follows:
(a) Inducing the Shah to turn his political talents and his attention, as a matter of priority over military and foreign affairs, to the broad task of winning the confidence of the urban middle class by providing them with a sense of participation in, and identification with, his regime.
(b) Providing economic assistance to Iran sufficient to prevent economic and financial collapse, maintain a high rate of economic growth in both the public and private sectors, and provide for the continuing provision of a reasonable amount of relatively non-productive urban amenities.
(c) Watching political developments carefully with a view to the identification and analysis of effective and responsible alternative political leaders who might, as a last resort, be available to replace the Shah should he fail completely as a political leader.
28. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Bowles to President Kennedy/1/
Washington, March 30, 1961.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 611.84A45/3-3061. Secret. Drafted by Lewis Jones.
Dimona Reactor in Israel
On March 27 you inquired regarding the status of the promised invitation for American experts to visit quietly the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona. Deputy Under Secretary Roger Jones promised to provide you with a reply. This invitation was first promised to us by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion on January 4 through Ambassador Reid./2/
/2/See Document 1.
The enclosed chronology regarding the Dimona reactor shows that the Department has been reminding the Israel Government at approximately weekly intervals through Ambassador Harman of the importance of an early "quiet" visit by Americans to Dimona./3/
/3/Attached but not printed.
Following your telephone call, Assistant Secretary Lewis Jones called in Ambassador Harman and again told him that we are anxiously waiting the Israeli invitation (see memorandum of conversation enclosed)./4/ On this occasion Harman, who personally shares our belief that the visit should take place soon, reiterated the difficulties occasioned by the internal political crisis in Israel. He said, and our Embassy at Tel Aviv confirms, that the Israeli leaders are profoundly preoccupied by their internal political problems. This is particularly true of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, who is personally in charge of Israel's atomic energy program.
/4/Attached but not printed. Also in Department of State, Central Files, 884A.1901/3-2861.
When Jones urged Harman to make a new effort to hasten the invitation, Harman said he would do so but that in any case it was unlikely that any decision could be taken in Israel during the next few days. Between April 3 and April 10 is Passover Week, when little work is done in Israel.
The Department believes that Harman is probably right regarding the unlikelihood of the Israelis issuing an invitation prior to April 10, although our latest démarche to Harman using your name is likely to be helpful to this end.
We believe that Ben-Gurion fully intends to issue the invitation. Part of his difficulty is (a) that, having given his word, he does not like to be pushed by the United States, and (b) he is personally in the greatest internal political difficulty of his career. He probably feels that his problems may be compounded if his enemies have something new to pin on him arising out of his handling of the Dimona reactor affair. It is for the latter reason that when the visit takes place it should be a quiet one regarding which there should be no United States publicity.
/5/Printed from a copy that indicates Bowles signed the original.