An Evaluation of the Implementation Process and Outcome of Iran’s 1961-1971 Land Reform Program: An Anthropological Perspective

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Mashahd, Iran

2 A PhD Candidate in Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Mashhad, Iran


The 1961-1971 land reform in Iran was one of the transformative processes with implications for the contemporary Iranian politics, and the country’s economic and social conditions. The initial idea behind the implementation of the new policy was to facilitate the central government’s dominating control over all corners of Iranian society even in the remotest provinces from towns to countryside. One of the objectives of the authors has been the analysis of the consequences of the land reform program, which was distinctly successful in putting an end to the usage of such terms as feudal, lord, nobleman, and major landowner. However, one cannot ignore the shortcomings in its implementation, which will be the main focus of the present paper. By emphasizing the issues related to domination and authoritarianism, the existing historical data about the land reform program are collected and analyzed within the framework of the anthropological model of Joel S. Migdal. It is useful to explain the interface between state, and different social actors in all aspects of social practice and life experience.
The anthropology of the state is a transcendence of the tendency in social science research to see the state as an organic, integrated, and separate actor from society. As a result, some analysts have been concerned with the dynamics of the current struggles for domination in societies, where the components of the state have played different roles in almost every aspect of life at various levels. These conflicts are not just about who controls the top leadership positions in the government. Also, these struggles do not always take place between principal social forces (e.g., government, social classes, civil society, etc.) Instead, the struggle for domination is taking place different levels and in various areas. Different units of the government are not only connected, but each of them is a social force which interacts with other social forces in collaborative or confrontational manners. Political anthropology emphasizes the pressures faced by the officials at different levels of government. These pressures are wielded at multiple levels depending on the type and degree of government’s domination and social actors’ resistance.  One has to make a distinction between the governmental and the non-governmental actors in order to avoid total concentration on the role of the government agencies at the expense of the other vital components of society which might exert influence in socio-economic and political spheres.
A key objective of the authors is to answer three research questions:
1. What factors led to the failure of the Pahlavi land reform program? 2. Why and to what extent did these factors affect the implementation process of this program? 3. How did the shortcomings of the implementation of the land reform program might be explained by an anthropological perspective to analyze forms of domination of the state? Using Migdal’s classification, the shortcomings of the land reform program will be examined at four levels (Trenches, Dispersed Field Offices, Agency’s Central Offices, Commanding Heights). In the hypothesis, it is claimed that the sustained power struggle present in a complex network composed of a myriad of national and subnational actors led to a fundamental disruption in the implementation of the land reform program.
This research has been done by an analysis of the official documents which recorded the history of the land reform program in Iran, and a qualitative content analysis of the oral narration of the history of land reform, as well as the memoirs and reports published by the main stakeholders (i.e., politicians, bureaucrats, landowners, farmers) concerning the program. There were clear shortcomings  evident at the Migdal’s four levels: a) At the level of trenches, due to the power struggles between farmers, landowners and the government; b) At the level of the ‘dispersed field offices’, including cooperatives and the land reform offices, due to the rival actors striving to get the capability of exerting influence on decision making for the purpose of safeguarding their own personal and/or group interests at the expense of the interests of the society as a whole; c) Conflicts at the level of  the ‘Agency’s Central Office’, due to attempts for organizational domination; d) At the highest level of leadership (‘Commanding Heights’), the obstacles created due to the Shah's efforts to make himself as the dominant power within the state and  to establish political balance in society. These disagreements and conflict of interests recurrently made  Iran’s  political environment fragile, volatile and unpredictable. The reasons for these shortcomings, which hampered the efforts to successfully implement the land reform program in Iran, should not be explored entirely by the application of a government-centered approach. Rather, a comprehensive approach which considers all levels of government from the lowest to the highest strata,  as well as the network of the non-governmental stakeholders who were competing for dominance should be examined for a better understanding of the intricacy of socio-political reality in the pre-revolution state–society relations in Iran.


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Volume 51, Issue 2
September 2021
Pages 614-589
  • Receive Date: 08 September 2020
  • Revise Date: 10 August 2021
  • Accept Date: 12 September 2021
  • First Publish Date: 12 September 2021