In Washington, the hawks and vultures are beginning to gaze at Iran with greed-filled eyes. The British attack dog is barking and straining at the leash. And the Israeli ambassador to the United States has helpfully suggested that the onward march of the American Empire should not be brought to a premature halt in Baghdad. Teheran beckons, and then there is always Damascus. The only argument summoned by the blood-mottled “doves” is that the occupation of Iraq should be sufficient to bring the Iranian mullahs to heel. Naturally, this latter view does not satisfy the would-be Shah or his followers in Los Angeles. The Young Pretender is appearing regularly on the BBC and CNN these days, desperate to please and a bit too eager to mimic his father and grandfather. Might the empire put him back on the Peacock Throne? And, if so, how long would he last?
Neither party appears to be aware of all the recent traumas suffered by Iran or the fact that this is a nation and a people with a historical memory, something its poets have helped to preserve. But Iran has not forgotten that it was the United States and Britain that utilized king and cleric to bring about the regime change fifty years ago that destroyed Iran’s fledgling democracy.
When Ahmad Shamlu–the most gifted of modern Iranian poets–died in 2000, more than 100,000 people, young and old, marched in dignified columns behind his funeral cortege while crowds lined the pavements to sing his poetry and emphasize that hope was still alive. At various times Shamlu, whose life mirrored the ups and downs of Iranian politics, had described his country as “a land where no birds sing, where spring never comes…a prison so huge that the soul weeps tears of shame at its own impotence.”
It was not always thus. There were short periods in the history of twentieth-century Iran when breakthroughs appeared possible. On each occasion the mass movements for change were either usurped or defeated. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 shook the corrupt and degenerate Qajar dynasty, whose kings had virtually sold the country to the tobacco and oil interests of the British Empire. A parliament (Majlis) came into existence. It was accompanied in some regions by a peasant revolt against tax collectors and landlords, the only indigenous mainstay of the monarchy. Pro-democracy newspapers appeared, and Iranian intellectuals began to relish the modernist breezes blowing from Paris and Petrograd. Their relations with the clerics, some of whom had supported the constitutional upheaval, became increasingly tense. The court exploited these divisions and after a few years monarchist landlords, courtiers and state bureaucrats effectively sidelined the revolutionary democrats in the Majlis.
Not everything remained the same, however. In 1910, a young mullah named Ahmad Kasravi observed Halley’s comet from the roof of his house in Tabriz. He was seduced by the “star with a tail.” His curious mind did not rest till he had understood the mysteries of the universe and embraced “godless science.” Kasravi decided to enter the citadel of reason. His celebrated books and essays were carefully constructed polemics against ignorance and the Shiite orthodoxy that encouraged it. His plea for wide-ranging reforms (including rights for women) angered the clerics. The mullahs accused him of heresy and apostasy, and in 1946 he was brought to trial for “slandering Islam,” but his detractors did not wait for the verdict. He was shot dead in open court, an early martyr in the struggle against obscurantism.
The Shah and his British advisers had crushed the Constitutional Revolution, but the death agony of the dynasty could not be long postponed. The last Shah of the Qajar dynasty was soon removed by a military coup led by Reza Khan, a semiliterate officer of an old Cossack regiment, which had been created by czarist Russia and officered by Russians to protect the Qajar ruler and Russian interests. Following the 1917 revolution, the regiment lost its officers, who were replaced by locals. In 1921 the Soviet government denounced the “tyrannical policy” of the czars, canceled the Persian debt and renounced all concessions and extraterritorial privileges that had been accorded to the ancien régime. These unilateral renunciations highlighted the imperial depredations of the British and encouraged nationalism even inside the old Cossack regiment. That same year Reza Khan marched his troops to Teheran and took control. He was appointed minister of war. Four years later, he ordered the Majlis to abolish the Qajar dynasty.