States of Mind: The Idea of Iran

States of Mind: The Idea of Iran

Thirty years after the Islamic revolution, Iran teeters on the brink of a different kind of revolt. Four books shed light on an ancient nation’s many incarnations.


Horst Faas/AP ImagesCelebrations at Persepolis marking the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire

In the world of celebrity dissidents, Akbar Ganji may be Iran’s most famous. A slight man with a tuft of hair atop a mostly bald head, he is perhaps best known for the seventy-three-day hunger strike he endured in 2005, near the end of his six-year detention in Tehran’s hilltop Evin Prison. Ganji was born in 1960, and like many men and women of his generation, he agitated against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from a tender age. After serving in the young Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard during the grueling Iran-Iraq war, he served as an attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Turkey, where, among other things, he was encouraged to spy on restive Iranian students in Ankara. But as he journeyed deeper into Iran’s political interior, Ganji grew increasingly disenchanted with what this new Islamic Republic had become. The values for which the revolutionaries had ostensibly fought, from freedom of thought and expression to the freedom to participate in fair and transparent elections, had been smothered. More and more, this regime made it clear that it would not tolerate critics.

Ganji eventually left government and became a journalist. By the mid-1990s he was publishing courageous investigative essays in reformist newspapers, Kiyan and Sobh-e Emrooz the most prominent among them, about the excesses, financial and otherwise, of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s regime. Most notable were Ganji’s dispatches about a series of ghastly murders of dissident intellectuals during the presidency of Rafsanjani’s successor, the incongruously smile-prone and mild-mannered Mohammad Khatami; Ganji’s reporting eventually implicated high-ranking officials within the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies.

The state Ganji had once defended with his life locked him up in Evin in 2000 on multiple charges, ranging from spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic to endangering national security. By the fifth year of his sentence, Ganji was penning what he called letters “to the free people of the world.” In the second of these letters, dated July 2005, he referred to the country’s all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is more or less elected for life, as a sultan, urging him to step down and calling for a new, secular constitution. That same year, Ganji began his stubborn hunger strike, and soon enough images of the rail-thin prisoner on the brink of a premature death, his eyes rolled back into their lids, landed in e-mail accounts worldwide–including my own. His plight was taken up by various crusaders from the international human rights movement, while the coiners of the phrase “axis of evil” anointed him a hero (“America stands by you,” at least one Bush-era White House press release declared). Having served his prison sentence, Ganji left Iran in 2006–supposedly for a short trip. He has not returned, instead joining the growing ranks of Iranian dissidents based in think-tank havens like Washington, DC.

Ganji recently published a slim volume born of his time in prison. Immodestly called The Road to Democracy in Iran, it opens–chillingly–with the words “Today, June 29, 2005, is the nineteenth day of my second hunger strike.” The book is not a collection of prison notes, however, but rather a sketch of a future Iranian state, one that would have the most basic human rights principles at its core. This is not Ganji’s first prison manuscript. In 2002 he penned the opening notes of his six-part “Republican Manifesto,” in which he lamented the trampling of individual rights in contemporary Iran and made his best case for a secular democracy. Ganji’s touchstones are Karl Popper and Immanuel Kant. He may owe more to the Age of Reason than to the Koran.

Like many Iranians of his generation, Ganji was at one time an ardent follower of the late Ali Shariati, a fiery and charismatic figure who put forward a reading of Shiism that evoked Marxism and shades of revolutionary Third Worldism. Shariati flourished in the heady climate of early 1960s Paris, as France’s turbulent war with its Algerian colony raged. He collaborated with the Algerian National Liberation Front in its revolutionary struggle, was coddled by Marxist scholars, translated Sartre into Farsi and cavorted with Frantz Fanon. He returned to Iran in 1965 and soon thereafter began delivering rousing lectures to budding revolutionaries at Husseinieh-e Ershad, a blue-domed religious institute in central Tehran that has since become inextricably tied to Shariati’s image. Shiism, Shariati told his listeners, has a core set of values that stands to resolve many of society’s ills. He distinguished this original Shiism from the pernicious faith he saw propagated by the clerics around him, what he contemptuously referred to as “Safavid Shiism,” after the Safavids, who established Shiism as Iran’s state religion in the sixteenth century. Cassettes of Shariati’s lectures were distributed en masse, and Shariati, inadvertently or not, became a primary intellectual architect of the Islamic revolution to come. He was arrested in 1974–accused of being everything from a Wahhabi to a Communist to a SAVAK collaborator. Upon release he traveled to England, where he subsequently died of a heart attack (his supporters believe he was eliminated by the shah’s secret police).

The Road to Democracy in Iran testifies to Ganji’s movement away from Shariatism toward a firm belief that religion cannot possibly survive as the foundation of a modern democracy. Nor can culturally specific conceptions of rights, whether African, Confucian or Islamic in nature. “We are not relativists,” he writes. Rather, a chastened Ganji insists that democracy can only be rooted in a universal recognition of the most basic human rights–perhaps most prominent, the right to shape one’s fate. Ganji goes on to ponder the role of the intellectual in bringing about this brave new order (“We must struggle”), but in the same breath he warns that “human rights will not be achieved through academic polemics.” He decries the more fundamentalist readings of religion, though he stresses that modernity and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. (Kant’s dictum of religion existing only within the confines of reason seems most fitting here.) In one chapter, Ganji singles out for criticism the pains and injuries, both physical and psychological, that women endure in the name of Islamic tradition and history: rape, coerced sexual relations, mandated hijab and even limits on their mobility. Being a Muslim, he insists, “means accepting the essence, and not the historical aspects, of the religion.”

Though seductively pithy, Ganji’s manifesto occasionally gets bogged down in abstractions, vagaries and clichés. The “West enjoys cultural and spiritual hegemony,” he writes in one of many unexplained non sequiturs. Indeed, his habit of invoking clashes between “western civilization” and Islam runs the risk of reinforcing the very polarities he frequently criticizes. He denies that he is an essentialist but then goes on to locate modernity exclusively in the West and reduces Islam to its premodern forms. And though he points out that religion is amenable to myriad interpretations, he doesn’t summon any concrete examples of what a progressive Islam could look like.

In one crucial respect, Ganji and the clerics who rule the Islamic Republic today are coevals: both share a firm–and occasionally maddeningly chauvinistic–belief in Iran’s unique destiny. “We do not believe that historic change occurs in leaps,” Ganji writes. “We must make it clear that we are against war, against foreign intervention in Iran, and against solutions imposed by outsiders.” For the clerics, Iran’s unique destiny is, at least in part, linked to the country’s Islamic lineage. Disenfranchised Iranian monarchists in and around Los Angeles are in the destiny business too: they tend to carry on about how one of the country’s first rulers, Darius I, once laid claim to the largest empire the world has known, stretching at its peak from Macedonia into Egypt and east to the Indus River. They point out that despite a procession of Muslim Arab conquests in the seventh century, the Persians managed to hold on to their language, even enjoying a poetry renaissance in the centuries that followed, with Sa’di, Hafez and Rumi among its luminaries. For their part, nationalists of all stripes stress that Iran was the source of one of the most influential critiques of the West–the late twentieth-century intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s concept of gharbzadegi, or intoxication with all things Western. Despite their points of divergence, these stories testify to the remarkable endurance of the very idea of Iran, less a cultural, religious or geographical entity than a remarkably resilient state of mind.

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.

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.

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.

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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