Axworthy has written a scholarly history of twentieth-century Iran, doing justice to a country with a complex history. So much detail is on offer that I occasionally had to digest certain sections and chapters multiple times. For anyone interested in political structures and systems of governance, Iran is an intriguing case study.
Persia, latterly Iran, has had, and continues to have, a convoluted and complicated relationship with democracy. As to what degree the Islamist revolution in 1979 was democratic or theocratic, Axworthy neatly channelled the old proverb “the voice of the people is the voice of God” to sum up the matter.
After Khomeini had installed himself as the Supreme Leader, he implemented a system whereby only the Supreme Leader could decide who was eligible to get elected to the Iranian parliament, the Majles. There were debates between Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries, who took over in 1979, about what they would rename Iran as. Before it became the Islamic Republic Of Iran, the two other options were the Democratic Islamic Republic Of Iran and the People’s Democratic Republic Of Iran. The revolution was democratically legitimate as 98% of the 15,000,000 people who voted gave direct authorisation for the country to be an Islamic theocracy. Doubtless it is my Western bias at play, but I remain baffled when countries vote themselves into theocratic and autocratic systems of governance. I wonder what the percentage would be were a free and open vote to be permitted in 2017.
The first constitution in Iran in 1906 was dominated by Shia Islam whilst also having a democratic element in the form of the elected parliament and an autocratic part in the form of the Shah. Dissenting voices were present, if not always heard, during this time. Ayatollah Taleghani, who vigorously opposed the Shah, said “may God forbid autocracy under the name of religion”. It is noteworthy that Iranian theologians understood the danger of autocracy.
In 1911 the Majles was beginning to gain traction and influence in society and people such as William Schuster were attempting to direct Iran down a Western style democratic path. This effort to democratise Iran was met with resistance from the autocratic and theocratic wings that were themselves vying for power. Concurrently, Russia viewed this new move as a threat to a country close to their border. This was a time when the British were busy snaffling Iran’s supply of oil for themselves. Whilst the constitution was technically in effect at this point, Iran was in reality run by scores of local regional leaders and this internal division permitted foreign influence to take hold.
By 1915, there was constant war in Persia. The Russians, British, Kurdish, Jangali, Ottomans and Germans were all active in the region at various different points in time. When the communist Tudeh movement sprang up in the 1940s, the Russians moved in to Northern Iran to support them which sparked a war with the Allies. The Shah eventually managed to maintain enough control so that Iran could remain a sovereign country.
The Majles became the solitary vent for those Iranian citizens who tried to clutch to the idea that they could determine their own future. Meanwhile, the Shah began to exert a stronger grip on power too. Reza Shah governed from 1926 until 1941 and oversaw a huge amount of development in Iran. He changed the name from Persia to Iran in 1935 and was primarily a militarist, overseeing the doubling of the Iranian army. School attendances in Iran increased from 50,000 in 1922 to 450,000 in 1938. The Hijab was banned and the country was largely secular. This irritated the Ulemas who had updated the religious Shia texts for each generation and believed that society was changing too quickly.
In 1941, Reza Shah refused to expel the German forces who were extremely influential in Iran at the time. This resulted in the Allies invading Iran. They replaced Reza Shah with his son Mohammed Shah who ruled until the revolution in 1979. The British wanted to maintain control over the Iranian oil supply and used Reza Shah as their puppet to keep the black gold flowing from Iran to the United Kingdom.
The 1949 assassination attempt on the Shah had quashed any remaining hopes that Iran would become a more open society as he began to repress the Iranian people to an increasingly higher degree until the revolution. From 1963 until 1976, Iran underwent a huge economic boom, with an average growth rate of 8% per year. The GDP increased from $200 in 1963 to $2000 in 1976. Essentially the Shah bought the Iranian people whilst he tightened the noose of social repression.
The population exploded from 19,000,000 in 1956 to 33,000,000 in 1976 and car production rose from 7,000 a year to 109,000. Coal production saw a similar jump from 285,000 tonnes per year to 900,000 tonnes per year. This economic spurt meant that the Shah could significantly improve life for ordinary Iranians and won him many followers. Inevitably, power corrupted him. He became paranoid that the English would try to have him executed. His regime was endemically corrupt. Iran wanted change. His personal military, the SAVAK, reduced the number of books in circulation from 4,000 to 1,000. He locked up 4,000 people in jail, many of whom without trial. Amnesty International’s 1979 report identified that at least 900 of these people were tortured.
The beginning of the end for the Shah came in January 1978 when an article was published alleging that the main opposition leader Khomeini was gay. This created shockwaves and people began huge protests across the country. The Jaleq square massacre, in 1978, resulted in innocent protestors being killed which sparked further outrage and culminated in mass protests of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people. The situation became uncontrollable as members of the SAVAK were thrown from the rooftops of buildings for trying to keep a lid on things. Khomeini returned from isolation in Paris to institute the revolution.
There have been 49 democratically elected Prime Ministers of Iran since 1906 yet there remain serious doubts over just how democratically legitimate any of them actually were. Until the 1979 revolution, the Prime Minister was very much subservient to the Shah. Different Prime Minsters had tried to wrestle varying degrees of power from the Shah.
Iranian Prime Ministers constantly sought to consolidate democratic power in Iran. Perhaps the best example of this was Mohammad Mosaddegh who governed from 1951 until 1953. He fought British imperialism and nationalised the Iranian oil companies, cutting off all diplomatic ties with the British in 1952 and sparking a trade boycott with Britain. He also tried to limit the power of the Shah by removing his name from military barracks which stymied his constitutional capacity to govern. Mosaddegh fought the autocratic and theocratic forces in Iran and, concurrently, British imperialism. He was a reformer who pushed Iran in a democratic direction.
Churchill desperately wanted him overthrown so the British could retain their stranglehold on Iranian oil. Roosevelt was worried that Mosaddegh’s socialist urges were pointing Iran in a more communist direction during the cold war. Both countries combined to overthrow him which gave control back to the Shah. However, it is important to dispel the myth in the West that a democracy was overthrown. It was not. The Shah still retained the most control and the theocrats also retained a modicum of influence. That being said, it was a disgraceful act to overthrow him. The British had no right to Iranian oil. The incident was a turning point in Iranian history and it ensured that Iran became increasingly authoritarian.
From 1953 until the revolution virtually all Iranian Prime Ministers were in the pocket of the Shah. He realised how much power Mosaddegh had accrued and what a danger he had become to his position and duly hired subservient characters from then onwards to ensure a repeat would not happen.
Post revolution, the Prime Minister had to kowtow to the Supreme Leader. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that Iran has ever really had a genuinely democratically elected Prime Minster. The Shah used to effectively handpick which Prime Minister he wanted and this same allegation is now being levelled at the Supreme Leader as he decides who can run for office. Certainly the 2005 election where Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani was riddled with inaccuracies and reports of corruption. Four years later and fresh allegations that vote rigging took place surfaced as the regional percentages were suspiciously in line with the national average.
As the powers of the Shah and the Majles were colliding and scrapping for supremacy, Shia Islam also vied for power. Khomeini was the leader of the religious opposition throughout this time and he pushed for Shia Islam to be the main force in ruling Iran. He fought bitterly against the Shah in the run up the revolution and lead many protests against him. Once he took power, theocracy replaced autocracy, in the main, and democracy was marginalised. However, all three forces were, and still are, present. The role of the Supreme Leader can be seen as both autocratic and theocratic.
The Islamist regime cracked down on what free press and civil society there was once they were in power. 580 Iranian citizens were killed in the first year after the revolution for sexual and dissenting offences. The post-Tudeh lefist organisation, the MKO, fought with Khomeini for influence in society and the administration killed between 2,000 and 7,000 of the MKO in an attempt to wipe them out in a shocking example of how any wayward voices were crushed with power. Fast forward to 1988 and the regime massacred approximately 5,000 MKO and Tudeh leftists in their attempt to further kill off these movements. It was the largest clampdown on opposition parties in modern Iranian political history.
Axworthy has an interesting theory about the opaque border between the two countries as not being as big a contributory factor to the Iran -Iraq war as some other historians thought that it was. Axworthy thinks that it was mainly started due to Saddam Hussein being an opportunist and trying to take advantage of the volatile new Islamist regime after the revolution. The Iraqi tyrant had also resented the Iranian backing of the Kurds in Northern Iraq and sought revenge for this.
Initially the Iranian regime blamed the 45,000 Iraqi ground troops in Iran as a US conspiracy and tried to downplay the situation. This gave Iraq the initial advantage. Luckily for Iran, the Iraqi air force was inept and unable to exploit their surprise attack. Even more fortuitously, the Shah had invested heavily in modernising the Iranian air force. Despite the regime’s initial misgivings about the intentions of these pilots, once they employed their superiority in the skies, it enabled the Iranians to deal several decisive blows to the invading Iraqis.
The war also cemented relations between Iran and many other countries. Syria began obtaining its oil from Iran, not Iraq, in 1982. The Iranians never forgot this show of loyalty and are repaying it now by propping up then ruler Hafez’s son Bashar Assad. Iran also despised how the Americans supported Iraq economically and militarily during the war. This soldered the previous ill feeling between the two countries and ratcheted up tensions previously only seen during the hostage crisis.
Although primarily a history book, there are some fascinating insights into the political influence that Iranian literary and cultural forces exerted. An excellent example of this was Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry about feminism in Iran in the 1960s and how it reflected the increased Westernisation and potential move in a more progressive direction at the time. Moreover, Ahmad Salu’s poem that wrote about “this dead end” highlighted the growing repression in Iran at the time.
During the first year of the 1979 revolution, after Khomeini has consolidated power, the annual literary festival that was scheduled for October and November was cancelled which underscored the repression that the theocratic government was to unleash on Iranian citizens.
In February 1980, 38 writers, scholars and journalists wrote to Khomeini to tell him that this new form of repression from the regime was becoming worse than that of the deposed Shah. Nine years later Khomeini put a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head for publishing the Satanic Verses. Ironically, they had previously given Rushdie an award for one of his books.
One the benefits of Shia Islam is that it has the potential to be flexible. The fact that the Ulemas update old religious texts for new generations proves that it can be somewhat adaptable and flexible in an ever evolving world and will permit a degree of reform. This is something that the West needs to be open to working with.
Mohammad Khatami, who served as President from 1997 until 2005, opened 740 newspapers and journals and his rhetoric about liberalising Iran was welcome. Likewise, Mohsen Kadivar’s wide reaching vision of believing that human rights and democracy are compatible with historical Islam, if not Koranic Islam, was also promising. These remain signs of a path to a potentially more secular future. Granted, Kadivar was cheated out of the 2009 election yet, the point surely remains, that Iran retains a potential to have a future in which liberal values and Islam can live peacefully side by side. We live in hope that it is a matter of time before the Nobel peace winning Shirin Ebadi and her ilk begin to win more sway in Iran.
Alternatively, one can view the 2000 Majles elections as proof that the regime hardliners interpreted a move to democracy as an implicit threat to the theocratic Iranian state. They were afraid that the country would become secular and ensured that reformers would not take power. Iran’s future is as complex as its past. Axworthy has written an erudite and essential history which will benefit anyone wanting to get up to speed.