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The Defeat of Iran's Revolutionary Economics
Photo by Kevin Matthews

The Defeat of Iran's Revolutionary Economics

Economist Sohrab Behdad, who was teaching in Tehran during the 1979 Revolution, says role of religion in Iranian economic policy is overstated.

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"There were no Islamic economists in Iran. There was nobody in 1976 who called himself an Islamic economist."

(Scroll to bottom of full story for a draft version of his talk.)

In 1976, when he was an assistant professor of economics at Tehran University, Sohrab Behdad accepted an invitation, received through the foreign ministry, to attend the First International Conference on Islamic Economics. The event was to be held in Saudi Arabia, and there were few takers, Behdad explained at an Oct. 4 talk sponsored by UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies. In the end, Behdad traveled with two other economists "who were not 'Islamic'" and "one Islamist who was not an economist."

"There were no Islamic economists in Iran," said Behdad, now an economics professor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. "There was nobody in 1976 who called himself an Islamic economist."

The notion of "Islamic economics" did not enter political and intellectual debate in Iran until just before the Revolution, Behdad said. When it did, it was influenced heavily by the concerns of the political left and not at all by a more conservative Islamic economics promulgated in other Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan. The notion finally died in Iran with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had given it essentially rhetorical support, following an economic slide accelerated by Western economic sanctions, war with Iraq, and a drop in oil prices.

Iranian and Iraqi theorists succeeded in making "Islamic economics … one of the great shibboleths of the Revolution" and in inserting their perspective in the language of the Islamic Republic's constitution. But their specific policy recommendations, which faced strong opposition from a clerical establishment that did not share their utopian views about Islam's mission in the world, were never implemented.

In the elections of June 2005, Behdad noted, neither Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nor his political opponents mentioned Islamic economics at all. Ahmadinejad was elected on a populist and fundamentalist platform that appealed to Iran's lower classes. The utter absence of this terminology in Iranian politics confirms that the ideas have long been dead, Behdad said.

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