By Ervand Abrahamian
Iran: A Modern History
By Abbas Amanat
Yale University Press, 979 pp., $40.00
For most Americans Iran is a riddle wrapped in a bundle of incomprehensible and highly inflammable contradictions. For decades, before the creation of the Islamic Republic in the late 1970s, Iran was admired in the US as an indispensable ally, a favored arms customer, and even a policeman in the Persian Gulf. It is now portrayed as an implacable opponent and looming threat incessantly scheming to expand its influence from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. For decades its shah would make annual visits to the White House to extend and receive flatteries. The present Supreme Leader would not stoop to visit any foreign country, let alone the Great Satan.
For decades, modern-looking men with clean-shaven faces, sporting silk ties and wearing Italian suits, had led Iran. They could converse in fluent French and, even more conveniently, in English. They were sometimes criticized for being autocratic, but they were at least “our” autocrats. The country is now led by turbaned and gray-bearded clerics aided by stubble-faced technocrats deeply distrustful not only of US foreign policy but also of many aspects of secular culture—except nuclear technology.
What is more, for decades the US considered Iran to be an oasis of stability in a region of instability. Then, in a brief fifteen months between 1977 and 1979, Iran experienced a dramatic upheaval: the replacement of the monarchy with the Islamic Republic, which led to a radical transformation in the system and legitimacy of government and in the concept of the social order. The Islamic Revolution was accompanied by considerable violence, although not as much as the revolutionaries liked to claim, and by an impressive amount of mass participation—and it prompted nearly one million people to flee the country.
Thomas Carlyle, writing about 1789, declared that real revolutions were a “transcendental…Phenomenon of our Modern Time,” which would hopefully erupt only once in a millennium. He clearly exaggerated their rarity, but he had a point in doing so. Along with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, the Iranian Revolution can be listed among the few that completely reshaped their societies. Americans were mesmerized by footage of the very first revolution to be televised, and then outraged by nightly coverage of the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran, which lasted for 444 days.
Since 1980 the US has openly advocated regime change and even military strikes against Iran. The two countries enjoyed a brief détente in 2015, when President Obama signed the nuclear agreement and replaced talk of overthrowing the regime with calls for it to change its behavior. This interlude ended abruptly in 2017, when Donald Trump denounced the nuclear agreement and assigned CIA Director Mike Pompeo to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Trump’s decision on May 8 to withdraw from the agreement might indeed be destabilizing, but this may result in a much worse regime than the one currently in power. Pompeo shares with the neoconservatives of George W. Bush’s administration the notion that Iran is a fragile state that would collapse with a little prodding and bombing. They have even republished nineteenth-century maps portraying it as a mosaic of innumerable ethnic groups—almost all of which have long since been assimilated and now consider themselves as integral parts of Iran.
Any attempt at regime change in Iran would most likely lead to, if not war, then a continuing crisis that would drag the US deeper into military involvement in the Middle East—especially in Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon. An international crisis on that scale could be useful for the administration as a distraction from its broken domestic promises. But it would inflict great damage on the rest of the world.
Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat, a professor of history at Yale, is a majestic work that goes a long way in unraveling for an American audience the country’s enigmas and apparent contradictions. In some ways it is comparable to Fernand Braudel’s The Identity of France and Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. (Hourani was Amanat’s mentor at Oxford.) Braudel and Hourani belonged to the grand Annales tradition of stressing the importance of continuity and persistence in social and political history, which they considered a matter of gradual evolution rather than of sudden changes.
The book covers over half a millennium of history, including four separate regimes: three dynasties—the Safavids (1501–1666), the Qajars (1797–1925), and the Pahlavis (1925–1979)—and the Islamic Republic, as well as a long interregnum between 1666 and 1797 when Iran ceased to exist as a political entity. The story is complicated by shifting borders, especially in the Caucasus, and by ethnically diverse rulers: the Safavids originated from a Sufi order with Turkmen and Kurdish followers in Azerbaijan; the Qajars from a Turkic tribe from the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea; and the Pahlavis from a Turkish-speaking military clan holding land as a fief in Mazandaran on the Caspian’s southern coast.
Amanat is too good an empirical historian to search for coherence, logic, and structure in this culture. Social scientists, especially anthropologists, often search for such cohesion; historians are willing to accept incoherence and hybridity as a fact of life.Amanat shows persuasively that despite the apparent mishmash of their history Iranians have a strong sense of cultural identity—what some have termed “Iranism” or “Iranianism.” He describes it as “national,” “political,” and “historical identity.” It comes in part from the ancient roots of the region, going back to the Sasanians (224 CE–651 CE) and even the Achaemenids (550 BCE–330 BCE); in part from folk traditions rooted in the Zoroastrian religion; in part from rich Persian literature, especially Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings) and mystic Sufi poets such as Hafez, Sa’di, and Rumi. Then there is Shia Islam, which has been observed in Iran since 1500. Finally, there have been external pressures from imperial powers—first from Britain and Russia, known colloquially as the “northern” and “southern” neighbors, and more recently from the United States. These external threats have created a strong sense in the nation that it is in perpetual danger of either subjection or occupation.
This cultural identity has been further reinforced by such crises as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, which established a parliamentary monarchy, the military occupations of World War I and II, the CIA coup of 1953, the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s. Iranians may have drawn different lessons from these traumas, much as Americans have different understandings of their Civil War, but they have shaped the nation and its people.
Amanat’s book, the product of a lifetime of research, follows the Braudelian tradition of looking for “deep history” in the longue durée, with reference to geography, economy, society, and culture. But it also contains political stories—about shahs and their foibles and eccentricities, ministers and their politicking, tribal chiefs and their bitter wars, colonial powers and their rivalries, and the contingencies that led to and followed from the two major upheavals of the twentieth century, the Constitutional Revolution and the Islamic Revolution. Braudel called discrete events like these “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.” But although the political surface may have been unimportant to Braudel and his strictest followers, it is essential for the understanding of modern Iran, since political events such as the Allied occupation in 1941 and the coup of 1953 have had a deep effect on the country.
Amanat gives much credit to the cultural, economic, and social factors that have helped create contemporary Iran, but he tends to give short shrift to the importance of the state—the central government with its ministries, departments, and civil servants—which was created in the 1930s with the help of the Iranian equivalent of the Chinese Mandarin class: accountants and scribes whose genealogies reached back to the Safavid Dynasty. The state has had a crucial part not only in helping instill a common identity in the population but also in holding the country together at times of crisis. In the 1980s Iran suffered a drastic fall in oil revenue as well as a major invasion from Iraq, war, and widespread urban destruction. Despite all this, it was able to persist because of planning and central management—budget cuts as well as rationing and welfare programs reminiscent of those developed by Western democracies in World Wars I and II. It is worth noting that Ayatollah Khomeini, despite all his vehement rhetoric against the monarchy, did not dismantle the Pahlavi state. He merely took it over and expanded it.
A grand history covering over five hundred years will inevitably rely on secondary sources, especially for periods not within the author’s own field of research. This creates problems for Amanat, whose previous work has mostly been on the nineteenth century, since many of the secondary sources on modern Iran—especially in English—are heavily colored by the cold war. Primary sources often contradict accepted accounts. For example, Amanat writes that Ja’far Pishevari, an old Bolshevik from Baku, helped found the Communist Tudeh Party in 1941. In fact, the young Western-educated Marxists who founded the party had little time for the likes of Pishevari. The Tudeh is blamed for a bread riot that brought down Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam’s cabinet in December 1942. In fact, the young Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, instigated that riot to undermine Qavam, who had been threatening his authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Amanat accuses Pishevari of establishing a “secessionist” movement in Azerbaijan in 1946 under the umbrella of the Red Army. In fact, Pishevari merely set up a provincial government and fully intended to participate in national elections. This was precisely why the Shah was adamantly opposed to Pishevari: he feared the presence in parliament of a solid bloc of deputies controlled by Pishevari’s provincial government. It is also why Qavam, when he returned to power in 1946, was willing to deal with Pishevari, since he hoped to balance leftist deputies from Azerbaijan against rightist and pro-British deputies from the south. Once the Shah sent the army to crush the provincial government against Qavam’s advice, his days as prime minister were numbered.
Amanat writes that bills for the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II were settled by the West but never settled by the Soviets. But the Soviets settled theirs in 1953–1954, while the US—according to recently released CIA documents—was still haggling with the Iranian government over its bills in the mid-1970s. Amanat blames the Soviets for causing a crisis in 1944 by suddenly demanding an oil concession in northern Iran. However, their demand was prompted by the leaked information that Standard Oil, led by Herbert Hoover, was secretly negotiating an oil concession in southeastern Iran, and Shell was doing the same in the northwest, near the Soviet border. George Kennan, who was stationed in Moscow and hardly pro-Soviet in his sentiments, blamed the Western companies for having caused the crisis.
Amanat accuses the Tudeh of organizing demonstrations on July 15, 1951, to protest the arrival of Averell Harriman, whom President Truman had sent to mediate the oil dispute between Iran and Britain. At least ten people were killed and scores were injured. But the Tudeh had announced the rally weeks earlier to commemorate the general strike in the oil industry on July 16, 1946. Harriman just happened to arrive on the day of the rally. The violence—according to British embassy sources—was initiated by right-wing organizations, including the local Nazi Party, working closely with the CIA.
Amanat provides a fairly balanced account of the Anglo-Iranian oil crisis of 1951–1953, which culminated in the coup of August 1953 against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s government. In 1951, the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British firm that had been paying Iran royalties of less than 20 percent of its profit. Iranians were upset that Britain was receiving more than Iran in tax revenue from the AIOC, and that the company had not fulfilled its promises from a 1933 agreement to increase wages and build schools and hospitals. Iranians also hoped to gain full sovereignty and national independence by obtaining exclusive control over their main natural resource. After the nationalization of the AIOC’s assets, Mossadegh was elected prime minister, and both MI6 and the CIA worked covertly to oust him and replace him with someone who would be amenable to demands from Western oil companies.
In August 1953, an uprising orchestrated by the spy agencies and led by General Fazlollah Zahedi succeeded in removing Mossadegh. Because public opinion toward AIOC, which soon changed its name to British Petroleum, was so unfavorable, major American, British, and French oil companies—including BP, Shell, Gulf, Texaco, Standard Oil, and others—formed a consortium, allowing them to negotiate better terms with the Iranian government.
Documents released by the State Department after Amanat’s book was written reveal that the US was deeply involved not only in the coup but in Iranian politics as early as 1951.* It is not surprising that the State Department delayed the release of these documents for over forty years. Loy Henderson, the American ambassador in Tehran, constantly pressured the Shah to replace Mossadegh with a politician who would be more pliant on the oil issue. He vetted the curriculum vitae of eighteen candidates selected by MI6, including Qavam and Zahedi. Henderson vetoed one mild-mannered American-educated diplomat acceptable to the Shah on the grounds that he was “as obstinate as Mossadeq on the oil issue,” and he actively participated in supplanting Mossadegh with Qavam in July 1952, which led to the July 21 uprising that brought a triumphant Mossadegh back to power.
Henderson was furious that the Shah was unwilling to use force to keep Qavam in power, and he intervened decisively in February 1953 when the Shah was about to leave for Europe. Henderson convinced the Shah to support the coup by hinting that if he did not do so he would be replaced on the throne by one of his brothers. (The Shah later thanked him for having “saved” the monarchy.) Henderson also helped implement the coup on August 18 and 19, 1953. While the CIA is expected to carry out “cloak and dagger” missions, ambassadors are supposed to keep out of the messy internal politics of their host countries.
The recently released documents also contain a considerable amount of new information on the CIA’s operations in Iran. They show that during the Truman administration the CIA desk on Iran was run by Allen Dulles, Kermit Roosevelt, Richard Helms, and Donald Wilber—the men who implemented the coup during the Eisenhower administration. Their assessment of Iran was more closely aligned with MI6’s than with that of the National Security Council’s. They systematically—and, one could say, cynically—exaggerated the “Communist danger” in the country. In doing so, they contradicted their own field reports and National Intelligence Estimates. An NIE filed on August 12—five days before the coup was scheduled to occur—dismissed the Tudeh as “not a serious threat” since it was confined mostly to Tehran, lacked arms, could not survive a military crackdown, and had no intention of staging a coup. This NIE concluded that there might be a possible danger if the party could gain a majority in parliamentary elections, but another NIE placed Tudeh support at 2.3 percent of the national electorate.
The documents also show that the CIA was active in elections to the Majlis—the Iranian parliament—for both the Seventeenth Majles (1952–1953), which did its best to undermine Mossadegh, and the Eighteenth Majlis (1954–1956), which ratified the new oil concession with the consortium of Western companies. Reporting on parliamentary elections, an embassy official wrote without any apparent irony that the British had become unpopular in Iran because of their deep involvement in national politics. The terms “electoral collusion,” “alternative facts,” and “deep state” may have not existed then. But they were an essential part of the CIA toolkit.
The main problem facing Amanat is how to explain the sudden upheaval Iran underwent in 1979 while maintaining his Braudelian emphasis on continuity, persistence, gradual transformation, and what Braudel called “glacial absorption.” Braudel himself came close to admitting that he had trouble with the French Revolution. Amanat tries to solve this problem by describing how Shiism was intellectually transformed in the 1960s and 1970s from a conservative, apolitical faith into a highly politicized ideology that competed with Marxism by trying to outdo it in radicalism.
This transformation can best be seen in the annual Muharram commemorations—the high holy days in the Shia calendar. For centuries, Shias had commemorated the death of Imam Hussein—the grandson of Muhammad, who was killed at the field of Karbala on Ashura, the tenth day in the month of Muharram, in 680—much in the same way that Christians had always observed Christ’s Passion on the Cross before Easter. Traditional Shia belief teaches that Imam Hussein had willingly gone to his certain martyrdom in order to carry out the divine will. In the 1960s, radical clerics started insisting instead that Imam Hussein, despite the odds, had been willing to take up arms against the Umayyad Caliphate and die because of the Caliphate’s oppression and exploitation. It was even speculated that he had calculated that he had a good chance of winning and overthrowing the Caliphate, which he viewed as illegitimate and contrary to the spirit of Islam. Some even described Imam Hussein as a precursor to Che Guevara. A popular slogan during the 1978 protests was “Make Every Day Ashura, Every Month Muharram, Every Place Karbala.”
During these decades the meaning of Shia phrases shifted as well. Imam, which Shias traditionally reserved only for the Twelve Divine Successors to the Prophet, changed from meaning “infallible leader” to something akin to a Weberian “charismatic” leader like Khomeini; Shaheed from “religious martyr” to “revolutionary dead hero”; jihad from a battle sanctioned by clerical leaders to an armed struggle launched by political militants; Inqelab from an upheaval associated with chaos (Fitnah) to a revolution with modern associations of historical progress; Maktabi from a bookish believer to a militant activist; and, most important of all, Mostazafin from the meek to the oppressed masses.
Parallel transformations took place with interpretations of the Shahnameh. In the past, it had been read as an epic honouring Persian kings. It was now read as a work that portrayed kings as unjust, devious, immoral, and sociopathic, if not psychopathic. The heroes became the common folk and valiant figures willing to sacrifice themselves for a just cause. Only Western Orientalists continued to interpret the epic as a grand tribute to the monarchy.
Amanat skillfully describes this dramatic transformation in Shia discourse. However, he tends to shy away from any class analysis and leaves the impression that the transformation was entirely ideological. In fact, the dramatic change was initiated, developed, and popularized predominantly by a new class of high school–and college-educated engineers, doctors, teachers, technicians, civil servants, and professionals born into mercantile families for whom Shiism was an integral part of life. This new class had been exposed in school to the radical interpretation of Shiism expounded by Ali Shariati—a Sorbonne-educated intellectual who can be seen as the real ideologue of the revolution. Shariati, more than anyone, articulated the aspirations, grievances, resentments, and worldview of this educated class known in Iran as the “new” or “religious” rowshanfekran (intelligentsia, literally “the enlightened ones”).
It is the importance of class—which Amanat often mentions in passing but rarely credits with agency—that makes Georges Lefebvre, the great Marxian historian of the French Revolution, more relevant than Braudel for understanding contemporary Iran, especially the 1979 overthrow of the monarchy. The future of Iran will continue to be shaped by the politics of class difference, but it is extremely unlikely that this will lead to another revolution. Carlyle was right to say that real revolutions are exceedingly rare. n