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Water Supply and Sanitation

In the mid-1980s, polluted water supplies remained one of the main reasons for the high incidence of parasitic and gastrointestinal diseases. Tehran and other large cities had chlorinated water systems, but contaminated water has continued to be a major problem in the smaller towns and villages. The disposal of waste also remained unsatisfactory. Tehran in 1986 still did not have a sewage system serving the entire city. Most of the other cities had only partial sewage systems, and in small towns and villages there were none at all.


Religious and social traditions profoundly influence attitudes toward welfare. There is a general belief that fate determines living conditions, but most Iranians feel an obligation to help the needy in accordance with religious tenets. This idea has been reinforced since the Revolution by the persistent exhortations of the clergy to help the poorest people in society, the mostazafin. The giving of alms (zakat) is one of the mandatory obligations of the Islamic faith. As a consequence, donors of real property and monetary bequests are anxious that their names be attached to their gifts. Charitable donations may be distributed at any time, but Friday, the day of congregational prayers, is regarded as a particularly appropriate day, and even those of modest means regularly distribute food to the poor.

There is a long history in Iran of wealthy individuals' bequeathing part of their estates in the form of perpetual endowments, vaqfs, for a specified charitable purpose (see Religious Institutions and Organizations , this ch.). The last dynasty established the Pahlavi Foundation, which funded programs ranging from low-cost housing projects to the preservation of national relics. After the Revolution, the government took over administration of the Pahlavi Foundation and renamed it the Foundation for the Disinherited (Bonyad-e Mostazafin). Some of its former programs, such as granting scholarships and operating cooperatives, have been continued, but others were redesigned or dropped entirely in favor of new projects that are in accord with religious ideology.

Government-funded social insurance programs have not been as important as the private vaqfs. The first workers in the country to benefit from a public retirement program were government employees. Legislation during the 1960s and 1970s provided for the extension of social security benefits to broader categories of employees, but by the time of the Revolution less than 10 percent of the total work force was actually covered by social security. The government of the Islamic Republic has said that extending coverage to all employed persons is one of its priorities, but as of 1986 no information was available about what measures may have been adopted to extend coverage.

The first public housing projects were built in the 1960s in the southern part of Tehran. These were developments of small, single- family homes that were sold to the occupants at subsidized cost over several years. Public housing projects expanded to other cities during the 1970s. After the Revolution, the Republic continued to budget funds for the construction of low-cost public housing, although prior to 1985 its efforts in this area focused primarily on the provision of interest-free, long-term loans to encourage private construction on public land.

Since 1985 the government has built low-cost public housing, particularly in Tehran and in large cities that suffered considerable damage during the war, such as Ahvaz and Dezful. Priority for such housing has been given to widows of men killed during the war.

This housing is an example of the kind of social program that the revolutionary regime felt ideologically committed to provide as a way of assisting the less fortunate, the mostazafin. Other examples of concern for the poorer elements of society were the construction of elementary schools, bathhouses, and health clinics in villages and low- income urban areas and the emphasis on religious charitable giving to the disadvantaged. This concern for the deprived members of society was a traditional element of Islam that had been neglected to a considerable degree under the shah but which was being emphasized by the revolutionary government.

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The most complete analysis of Iranian society prior to the Revolution is Iran Between Two Revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian. Roots of Revolution by Nikki R. Keddie is an excellent study of the cultural tensions between the secularized middle and upper classes and the religiously oriented bazaar class, and it examines the relationship of this social conflict to the Revolution. The background of Shia clerical opposition to secular state policies is thoroughly examined in Shahrough Akhavi's Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran. The most detailed study of social class divisions is Iran: Dictatorship and Development by Fred Halliday. A detailed analysis of several important policies implemented during the early years of the Republic is The Reign of the Ayatollahs by Shaul Bakhash. A fascinating fictionalized account of how the secularized classes have reacted to the Islamic Republic is Sorraya in a Coma by Ismail Fassih. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of December 1987

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Iran Table of Contents