States of Mind: The Idea of Iran | The Nation


States of Mind: The Idea of Iran

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In A History of Iran Michael Axworthy, a former British Foreign Service officer and the author of a laudable biography of the eighteenth-century Iranian leader Nader Shah (sometimes referred to as the Napoleon of Persia), gallops at a brisk pace through 2,500 years of Iranian history. While the more seasoned Orientalist may swear by Richard Frye's The Golden Age of Persia for an authoritative, exhaustive chronicle of Iranian history, Axworthy manages to present a worthwhile introduction to Iran that not only captures the color of its history but also avoids the sweeping generalizations that mark much work on the Middle East. And though his voice can grow pedantic or tiresomely corrective at times--presumably because he assumes the worst of the Western reader, who may know precious little about Iran beyond the well-documented rants of its current president or, say, allegations surrounding its nefarious nuclear ambitions--his account of Iran manages to be a productively nuanced one.

About the Author

Negar Azimi
Negar Azimi is senior editor at Bidoun, an arts and culture magazine based in New York.

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Axworthy begins on the Russian steppes, where the Medes and the Persians lived off the inhospitably rugged land, battled the neighboring Assyrians and finally cobbled together an independent state that would become the basis for modern-day Iran. His tour d'horizon ends with a passing mention of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ongoing dispute with the United States and other former great powers over nuclear weapons. Occasionally, Axworthy's treatment is uneven (perhaps betraying the interests of an old Foreign Service hand). He devotes many pages, for example, to the Safavids, who ruled Iran from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century from their splendid blue-tiled capital at Isfahan, while giving short shrift to some of Iran's most influential twentieth-century thinkers, such as Shariati, Al-e Ahmad and Ahmad Kasravi, a nationalist turned critic of the clergy. But Axworthy does manage to recount a number of good stories, for Iranian history is thickly littered with the stuff of the best pulp fiction: madmen, feuding families, leaders with legendary sexual fetishes. There is Nader Shah, who in his delusional last years grew convinced that he could conquer the far-stronger Ottomans next door: in the end, his men burst into his harem while he was sleeping and cut off his arm and head. There was, too, an eighteenth-century ruler named Agha Mohammad Khan. Castrated at age 5 or 6 by a rival family, he grew to be a fierce warrior who happened to have a predilection for fine jewels.

From the third through the seventh centuries, Iran under the Sassanids--the final Iranian empire before the coming of the Arabs--was a place of extraordinary treasures. The Sassanid ruler Khosraw sponsored the translation of philosophical and literary texts from Indian languages, Greek and Syriac into Persian. The Zoroastrian religion, today perhaps most readily associated with Freddie Mercury, was thriving. Khosraw also commissioned the compilation of Persian history records and even presided over the drafting of an impressive astronomical almanac. When Islam came around from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the relationship between this syncretic Iranian culture and an Arab one proved dynamic. The influence of the Sassanids on the Arab Abbasid Empire, for example, was important--whether manifested in the form of administrative models or monumental architecture. Persians even served in the court of the Abbasids in their capital in Baghdad, while some of the more innovative interpretations of Islam were born at this time, influenced in large part by Iranian thinkers. As Axworthy notes, even as late as the fourteenth century, the great North African polymath and traveler Ibn Khaldun observed that the most important hadith scholars (those who study the words of the Prophet) were Persians working in the Arabic language.

In accounting for the famed Iranian distaste for foreign meddling, Axworthy focuses on several episodes. He recounts tales of the Russians and the Persians feuding over competing claims to neighboring Georgia, a part of the Persian Empire for many years. We also learn of an Iranian revolt following an exceedingly generous tobacco concession to the British in 1890: Nasser al-Din Shah, the first modern Persian monarch to visit Europe, handed the British exclusive rights to produce, sell and export Iranian tobacco. (Britain's commercial stake in Iran dates back to at least 1800, when the crown anxiously dispatched the East India Company to Iran just as Napoleon invaded nearby Egypt, nervous that the French monarch might extend the reach of his Eastern holdings.) Bazaars all over the country shut in protest; in 1891 demonstrators revolted in the traditionally protest-prone northeastern city Tabriz, and finally an esteemed ayatollah named Mirza Hasan Shirazi issued a fatwa against tobacco use from his seat in Samarra. It is said that even the Shah's wives in his overfull harem ceased their smoking as a result. The tobacco revolt, in all its forms, is often understood as one of the harbingers of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905.

Among the country's twentieth-century political leaders, it is Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh whose story Axworthy lingers over the most, emphasizing that his sorry fate provides critical insight into Iranians' current sensitivities to the West. In 1951 Mossadegh declared his intention to nationalize Iran's vast oil reserves, sending its British and American patrons into a panic that culminated in a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953, the bitter memory of which lingers to this day. It is not a stretch to ponder the ill-fated prime minister's influence on Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser some years later, as he lay claim to the Suez Canal, or even on Ahmadinejad, who before the United Nations General Assembly this past fall announced that the American Empire was "reaching the end of its road."

Axworthy depicts Mohammad Reza Shah, Mossadegh's successor, as the most unsubtle of American puppets. The vain Swiss-educated king had embarrassingly epicurean tastes, often traveled around the country by helicopter and encouraged his closest aides--even his prime minister--to kiss the back of his finely manicured hand in public. His delusions of grandeur were epic. In 1971, on the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, he hosted an extravagant party on the grounds of Persepolis for a smattering of world leaders and celebrities, from Yugoslavia's Tito to Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Organizers imported special trees and plants from Paris, Maxim's prepared the banquet and Lanvin designed the court's imperial uniforms, complete with fanciful epaulets. The shah was so insistent on privileging royalty in this lavish pageant that while Haile Selassie got prized seating, Georges Pompidou was left with second-rate placement (upon learning of the situation, he sent his prime minister in his stead). The entire affair cost an estimated $200 million (the shah's court insisted that it was a more modest sum). Axworthy also reminds us of the iconic image taken six years later of the shah, while paying a visit to President Carter, wiping his eyes as tear gas is used to dispel demonstrators protesting his reign outside the White House gates, most of them Iranian university students studying in the United States. That image, arresting as it was, offered an unforgettable glimpse of the impossibly vast gap between the leader and his populace that would ultimately spell his demise.

In the scrum of punditry about the democracy deficit in the contemporary Middle East, precious little attention is paid to Iran's Constitutional Revolution (1905-11), which, in addition to ushering in a constitution, brought with it a parliament and the country's first checks on monarchical rule. Although some years before, in the 1870s in Turkey, a group called the Young Ottomans had established a sort of national assembly in hopes of making the Ottoman Empire into something resembling a constitutional monarchy, that experiment died after only a few years. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution would have far longer-lasting effects.

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