Comparing Economic Sanctions and Conventional Wars: Social Conflict, Elite Fragmentation and War-Making in Iran

Zep Kalb, UCLA

Over the course of the 2010s, the Islamic Republic of Iran was gripped by numerous protests and revolts. Scholars argue that these protests are caused by the unraveling of Iran’s post-revolutionary social contract. By contrast, this article highlights how high-intensity warfare has tended to provoke social conflict and fragment ruling coalitions in post-revolutionary Iran. I make this argument by comparing the 2010s, when the Islamic Republic put up a defense against tough US-led economic sanctions, with the 1980s, when Iran fought a bloody, conventional war against Iraq. Iran’s political economy is tied to war-making. The shift in modes of warfare, from conventional military struggle in the 1980s to ‘smart’ economic statecraft in the 2010s, corresponds to a shift from corporatist to neoliberal administrative strategies on the part of the Iranian state. In the 1980s, the need to recruit soldiers and increase labor productivity pushed the government to organize social groups and integrate them into decision-making processes. In the 2010s, in response to international oil embargoes, the government cut public expenses and accelerated its privatization campaign. I argue that, in both periods, war-time policy-making provoked an unexpected societal backlash. These bottom-up pressures in turn fragmented Iran’s ruling coalitions. In the 1980s, the vertical integration of social groups into the state produced ‘unruly’ forms of corporatism. In the 2010s, government austerity led to distributional conflicts in which state actors actively came to support labor and socio-economic protests. Unruly corporatism in the 1980s and popular protests in the 2010s helped empower rival factions, who, in both cases, staged an effective political reconsolidation.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 217. Dynamics of Political Conflict in Middle Eastern States