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Iran: The Tough Landlord

3 minute read

“Landlords are shifty poltroons,” says Iran’s reform-minded Premier Ali Amini.

“Being one myself, I know how to deal with them.” Amini’s method: a land distribution program aimed at transforming Iran’s 16 million peasants from semifeudal serfs into farmer-owners. Premier Amini fortnight ago embarked on a program that will sell off Iran’s 25,000 privately owned villages (two-thirds of all farm land) to peasant cooperatives. As an added twist of the screw, the government will get even with rich landowners who for decades have cheated on their taxes; compensation for expropriated lands will be based on the niggardly profits their owners have reported on their tax returns. Among the biggest landholdings to be redistributed: Ali Amini’s own Massachusetts-sized estate.

Last week Iran’s powerful landowners struck back. In the classic ploy by which extreme right and left wings join forces to overthrow a moderate regime, the reactionary landlords hitched up with the Communist-infiltrated National Front Party in an attempt to bring down Amini’s regime by mob violence.

Penciled Mustache. The conspirators enlisted Iran’s volatile students, who were already excited by a crisis of their own: the sacking of five secondary-school students on the official pretext that they had penciled whiskers on a picture of the Shah. (In fact, secret police said they were ringleaders of an outlawed Communist Party cell.) In Teheran and Shiraz, tough, rock-hurling students touched off the fiercest street fighting since 1952, when an earlier coalition of extremes maintained weepy Mohammed Mossadegh in power.

Last week the students chanted Mossadegh’s name again—largely because the sonorous, hypnotic word is still a favorite all-purpose battle cry. About 6,000 students battled for four days (with time out for a Moslem holiday), wounded 90 soldiers, and took a brutal beating: 400 students injured, two killed.

The biggest surprise to Iranians was not the riots but the swift and decisive way in which Liberal Amini put them down. Student violence is particularly perilous in Iran, where half the population is under 18 and the new middle class is bitterly disaffected by the nation’s erratic, corruption-stunted progress toward democracy. At one point, Amini picked up the phone and told a fellow landowner: “I know you’ve spent $75,000 trying to overthrow me. Please continue, and I’ll clap you in jail.” Said a Teheran politico: “If Amini had wavered for a moment, he’d have fallen.”

Support from the Shah. A French-educated intellectual and onetime (1956-58) Ambassador to Washington, Premier Amini, 54, has already vigorously pruned back Iran’s crooked, overstuffed bureaucratic and military hierarchy, on occasion has irked the sensitive Shah, who controls the security troops and secret police.* By ordering them into action at Amini’s request, instead of allowing his government to be swept into limbo like four others in the past five years, the Shah belatedly demonstrated support for his Premier’s far-reaching reform program. The Shah also exiled General Teymour Bakhtiar, a tribal potentate who had been waiting in the wings to replace Amini.

Premier Amini still faces the test of free elections, which have not yet been scheduled. Meanwhile, Amini jokes about his adversaries, the landlords and anti-reform politicos. Says he: “I need a big Noah’s ark to load with these 2,000 people and send them off into the Persian Gulf. We ought to do this to save the nation from revolution, which is inevitable if the reforms are not carried out.”

* The Shah was probably responsible for the arbitrary arrest of Abol Hassan Ebtehaj, one of Iran’s top economic planners (TIME, Jan. 26). Amini has strongly hinted that he considers Ebtehaj innocent of any wrongdoing.

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