The history of Iran extends over a two-thousand five hundred year period. This era brought about great achievements in the areas of science, the arts and letters, literature, philosophy, and law. Prior to the Islamic conversions of the seventh century AD, the Iranians practiced the Zoroastrian religion. It was during the Sasanian Dynasty in the latter part of the Seventh Century A.D. in which Islam was introduced in Iran. However, Shia Islam did not become the official religion of state until the period of the Safavid Kings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries A. D. Indeed, by the nineteenth century as a result of colonial pressures, strict adherence to superstition, and inept leadership, Iranian society experienced a downward trend both economically and politically.
Iranians have a very strong sense of class structure. In the past they referred to their society as being divided into tiers, or tabagheh, which were identified by numbers: the first tier corresponded to the upper classes; the second, to the middle classes; and the third, to the lower classes. Under the influence of revolutionary ideology, society is now perceived as being divided into the wealthy; the middle classes; and the mostazafin, a term that literally means disinherited. In reality, Iranian society has always been more complex than a three-tier division, because each of the three broad classes is subdivided into several social groups. These divisions have existed in both urban and rural areas.
The post revolutionary upper classes consisted of some of the same elements as the old elite, such as large landowners, industrialists, financiers, and large-scale merchants. They remained part of the upper class by virtue of having stayed in Iran and having retained a considerable part of their wealth. For the most part, however, such persons no longer had any political influence, and in the future the absence of such influence could impede the acquisition of new wealth. The element of the upper classes with greatest political influence was a new group, the senior clergy. Wealth was apparently no longer an attribute of authority, as the example of Khomeini demonstrated. Religious expertise and piety became the major criteria for belonging to the new political elite. Thus, key government administrators held their positions because of their perceived commitment to Shia Islam. They were part of the new political elite, although not members of the old social elite.
After the Revolution of 1979, the composition of the middle class was no different from what it had been under the monarchy. There were several identifiable social groups, including entrepreneurs, bazaar merchants, professionals, managers of private and nationalized concerns, the higher grades of the civil service, teachers, medium-scale landowners, military officers, and the junior ranks of the Shia clergy. Some middle- class groups apparently had more access to political power than they had had before the Revolution because the new political elite had been recruited primarily from the middle class.
Prior to the Revolution, the middle class was divided between those possessed of a Western education, who had a secular outlook, and those suspicious of Western education, who valued a role for religion in both public and private life. In general, the more secularly oriented tended to be found among those employed in the bureaucracy, the professions, and the universities, while the more religiously oriented were concentrated among bazaar merchants and the clergy. Among entrepreneurs and especially primary and secondary school teachers, the secular and religious points of view may have had roughly equal numbers of proponents. Since the Revolution, these two outlooks have been in contention. The religious outlook has dominated politics and society, but it appears that the secular middle class has resented laws and regulations that were perceived as interfering with personal liberties. The middle class was divided by other issues as well. Before the Revolution, an extremely high value had been placed upon obtaining a foreign education. The new political elite, however, regarded a foreign education with suspicion; accordingly, many members of the middle class who were educated abroad have been required to undergo special Islamic indoctrination courses to retain their jobs. In some cases, refusal to conform to religiously prescribed dress and behavior codes has resulted in the loss of government jobs. As a result of these tensions, thousands of Western-educated Iranians have emigrated since 1979.
Members of the urban lower class can be distinguished by their high illiteracy rate, performance of manual labor, and generally marginal existence. The lower class is divided into two groups: those with regular employment and those without. Those who have regular work include domestic servants, bath attendants, porters, street cleaners, peddlers, street vendors, gardeners, office cleaners, laundry workers, and bakery workers. Thousands work only occasionally or seasonally at these or other jobs. Among the marginally employed there is much reliance on begging. In the past, some members of this group also resorted to prostitution, gambling, smuggling, and drug selling. Since the Revolution, there have been severe penalties for persons convicted of moral offenses, although newspaper reports of the uncovering of various crime rings would indicate that the new codes have not eliminated such activities. At the time of the Revolution, it was estimated that as much as one- third of the population of Tehran and one quarter of the population of other large cities consisted of persons living on the margins of urban society. Life was typified by squalid slums, poverty, malnutrition, lack of health and educational facilities, and crime. In 1987 there was no evidence of measures undertaken by the new government to alleviate conditions in the urban slums.
The early years of the 70s were characterized by the gradual increase in the number of Iranian immigrants in America. The year before the revolution marked the beginning of extraordinary increase in the number of immigrants. This increase corresponds with the number of Iranians who went to America for a short time. The number of Iranian passengers rose from 35088 in 1975 to 83194 in 1976 and to 130545 persons in 1978. It seems that many of the Iranian who predicted the occurrence of social upheavals visited America to study the possibility of emigration. In 1979 it was difficult to leave Iran, nevertheless 6513 persons made a trip there. Only a small portion of this group went to America.
. Apart from very new changes, the embryo of the Iranian community was definitely conceived in 70s and many of the actual geographical, social and demographic aspects took shape during the same decade. Only two thirds of the Iranians who lived in Los Angeles and Orange County at the end of the 1970’s had arrived in America during the second half of that same decade.
In 1980 the Census Bureau announced that the population of Iranian community in America was a little more than 128,000. It was concentrated first in California (35%), then in New York (8%) and then Texas (6%). These states have the highest number of institutes of further education where the Iranian students were studying. The political structure and tribal network founded by the early immigrants assure us that the growth of Iranian community and its identity are closely related with these states, particularly California. In 1980 only half of Iranians of California lived in Los Angeles. Since 1980 the Iranian community of America have been recognized as an educated and middle class community. According to these statistics more than 54% of Iranians between 25 to 64 years of age had gone through a university, and more than half of them had either specialized professions or were directors.
The emigration of Iranians to the U.S. began in earnest in 80s. The annual emigration of those who were born in Iran and who declared Iranian as their nationality has increased every year since 1981, reaching 15000 in 1986. This year was the climax of emigration of Iranians. As the number of students and visitors of America decreased, so did the number of Iranians fulfilling the conditions for permanent residence. While the immigrant Iranians who had stayed in the U.S. for years yielded to their destiny eventually, and decided to stay, the newcomer Iranians had arranged their status for entry into America in advance.
More than 136000 Iranians emigrated to America between 1980 and 1989. In 1990, the Census Bureau identified 226,000 Iranians in America. As a result of changes in the demographic composition of immigrant Iranians since the second half of the 80s, certain transformations could be observed. For example the proportion of Iranian men to Iranian women decreased from 61.4% to 56.5%. Thus we see that the ratio of women immigrants has clearly risen. Many reasons could be suggested for this state of affairs. Firstly many Iranian women who waited for a much longer period than men to adapt themselves, raised families in the U.S. Secondly, many of women immigrants entered American territory as spouses of Iranian men residing in America. In 1990, for the first time in the history of Iranian community in the U.S., the number of women exceeded that of men immigrants. This trend is continuing today.
The climax of Iranian immigrants was reached early in 90s. The community, which had a nostalgic feeling and yearned to return home, expressed its cultural identity through literature, philosophy, and arts of exiles. Residents who had turned refugees in the 80s stepped into the stage of multilateral bonds and obligations. While a larger number of Iranians were taking final steps for Americanization, the new generation of Iranians had to absorb a culture which obtained meaning through memories of parents. The border between being Iranian and American was the threshold of their houses. Cultural duality among Iranians, as in many other immigrants, in a country where ethnic genuineness is a part of social and political structure and which does not disappear with passage of time is converted into a factor of psychological bond; now we can say that Iranian-Americans are a reality.