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States of Mind: The Idea of Iran | The Nation

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States of Mind: The Idea of Iran

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Two recently published books, The Quest for Democracy in Iran, by Fakhreddin Azimi, and A History of Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian, portray the 1905 revolution as the natural outcome of years of successive rulers pandering to the West while paying little heed to their populations at home. The humiliation born of Iranian military defeats at the hands of the Russians and the British, amid a Great Game that rendered Iran little more than a piece on the chessboard of Europeans, was not insignificant. For Azimi, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut (and no relation to the author of this review), all Iranian history after 1905 is an attempt to fulfill, partially accommodate or circumvent the ideals of a constitutional movement that placed popular representation at the fore of its priorities. He traces how at various moments public alienation and resentment have been articulated or expressed and finally, how "a culture of confrontation" emerged. His book goes a long way toward recuperating a history of Iranian democracy that has been expunged by Orientalists who wonder aloud if there is something about Muslim lands that makes them inhospitable to democracy or, alternatively, those who have dismissed periods of hectic parliamentary activity as mere chaos.

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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During the nineteenth century, Iran stagnated under the nepotistic Qajar clan. Vastly out of touch with their population, these hereditary rulers invested little in the country--most of which was rural or pastoral. They ruled through favoritism, bribery and endemic corruption. The Qajars took lavish European trips while the Russians and the British exercised power over the country's natural resources. The 1872 Reuter Concession, which gave the British extensive rights to Iranian natural resources, was, like the concession to the British for tobacco some years later, widely opposed. Slowly, large segments of the population grew emboldened, especially as the Qajar rulers proved incapable of meeting the most basic demands: Iranians' control over their land and a modicum of popular representation.

In 1905 two respected members of the Tehran bazaar were bastinadoed at the order of the governor of Tehran. Their crime was overcharging for sugar. The bazaar shut down after protesters occupied it out of solidarity with the merchants. Led by two clerics, Sayyed Abdallah Behbehani and Sayyed Muhammad Tabatabai, the protesters next sought sanctuary in the shrine of Shah Abd ol-Azim, south of Tehran, and later in the garden of the British legation north of Tehran. The assembled, estimated at 14,000 strong, issued a series of demands, among them the removal of the country's Belgian customs chief. Importantly, the garden was also where protesters made their first demands for a representative house--what they termed a House of Justice.

From there, reformist thinkers, members of the clergy, religious minorities, men and women alike all played a role in a nascent constitutional movement in progress. By August 1906 the increasingly disempowered Qajar ruler, Muzaffar al-Din Shah, caved in to demands for what would become Iran's first parliament. By October of that year an elected assembly convened and drew up a constitution that provided for strict limitations on royal power, an elected European-style parliament with a Majlis-i Shawra-yi Milli (National Consultative Assembly), along with a cabinet subject to confirmation by the Majlis. The shah signed the constitution on December 30, 1906, and died five days later. The 1906 constitution curtailed the powers of the shah and his ministers, granted limited suffrage to adult men and guaranteed a significant degree of freedom of the press.

Enter the Pahlavis, who supplanted the Qajars as Iran's ruling family some two decades later. Azimi's account of gruff Reza Khan, a member of the Cossack brigade who engineered a coup with the aid of 3,000 men and eighteen machine guns, reads like a nineteenth-century Russian novel. Now at the helm, Khan rechristened himself Pahlavi, after the name of the ancient pre-Islamic language that would become modern Persian. He was Iran's very own Atatürk. Though uneducated and of modest stock, he fashioned a modern, centralized bureaucratic state, built up an impressive army, launched a national university system and even went so far as to ban visible signs of traditional life--from head scarves to tribal clothing--in his ardent quest to catapult Iran into the modern age. It was only when he flirted with Nazi Germany that a joint Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941 replaced him with his son, for the British and Russians were keen on preserving their access to Iran's oil reserves and its critical land corridor. From Azimi we learn a great deal about the nature of governance under the last shah, Reza Khan's son: the court as a theater of deference, cultivated opportunism and duplicity. As the country became a dumping ground for foreign goods and a playground for their manufacturers, Iranians at the bottom of the social ladder suffered. The shah, intensely paranoid, considered some of his ministers his enemies. His own people--immature, unruly, fickle--were an afterthought. Vain and self-obsessed, he was the head of the regime but also its Achilles' heel.

Abrahamian, a professor of history at the City University of New York, does an impressive job of recounting the story of the White Revolution, this last shah's botched attempt at modernization via a series of broad-ranging economic and social reforms in 1963. Though the reforms, from the redistribution of lands held by traditional elites to extending the right to vote to women, were designed to pre-empt a red revolution, they oddly paved the way for an Islamic revolution. Many of those who lost their traditional livelihoods in the land-redistribution schemes ended up in the cities, contributing to the birth of a vast underclass. The clergy, too, were unhappy, as many from their ranks had depended on religious endowments based on landownership for their livelihoods. Some were displeased that women had been afforded the right to vote, while others complained that Iran would be subject to greater foreign influence with these reforms. In 1963 a 61-year-old contrarian cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini was placed under house arrest for publicly criticizing the White Revolution. The shah, it seems, was also unaware that rapid modernization would bring with it a set of fresh demands from the populace. He could not, and simply did not, keep up. Reading Abrahamian, one gains an acute sense of the potent cocktail of factors that finally led to the regime's collapse.

It is Azimi who is best on Iran's past decade, tracing the failures of a reform movement that came of age under former President Khatami in the 1990s, its inability to meet the demands of the chorus of women and young people who voted him into office. The reformers' exalted slogans about civil society, human rights and liberalism grew increasingly anemic, painfully out of step with more pressing needs. Suddenly, the ascendance of the plain-speaking neo-Khomeinist Ahmadinejad starts to make sense. Ahmadinejad's impressively staged campaign films depicting himself as a man of the people (one features him spinning about confusedly in Tehran's baroque mayoral mansion when he was serving as the city's mayor, climaxing with his refusal to live there and his return to his humble home in north Tehran); his narratives about the urgent need to redistribute wealth; and his many trips to far-flung villages throughout the country to open hospitals, cut ribbons at schools and memorialize the occasional martyr all seem seductive, if not sheer marketing genius. But still, just as Tocqueville predicted in the context of another popular revolution, the postrevolutionary state ends up as tightfisted as its predecessor and as mired in clan politics, clientelism and corruption.

In just 100 years, Iran's population has shot up to 69 million, from fewer than 12 million. And Tehran, once a sleepy capital of 200,000, is today an overcrowded, hyperpolluted steel and concrete metropolis of 6.5 million. At the turn of the nineteenth century, one foreign observer wrote of Iran, "There are no cities in Persia, and likewise no slums; no steam driven industries, and therefore none of the mechanical tyranny that deadens the brain, starves the heart, wearies bodies and mind with its monotony." Indeed, in those days the average Iranian's greatest fears were likely to include highway robbers, famine, pestilence, disease and jinn. Today fears are more likely to be kindled by rising unemployment, double-digit inflation, the pressure to get into college or American saber-rattling.

Azimi's book is a thinly veiled call for those millions of Iranians to revisit the central ideas of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution. But such a call should not, he implies, be linked to Americanization, narratives about the end of history or blanket neoliberalism. He is quick to remind us that the Iranian people have risen to the occasion of instigating two street revolutions in the last century. Here, on the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Pahlavi's peacock regime, it may be useful to remember that both of these revolutions were, in large part, a response to foreign meddling--the culmination of years of Iranian insistence that the idea of Iran, ethereal as it is, is one well worth fighting for.

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