Review: “Revolutionary Iran. A history of the Islamist Republic” by Michael Axworthy.

Axworthy has written a scholarly history of Twentieth Century Iran. He does justice to a country with one of the most complex histories in the world by unearthing painstaking detail on how various internal regimes have functioned down the years. There is so much detail to learn that sometimes getting through a chapter requires multiple readings to fully digest it all. For anyone interested in political structures and systems of governance you could not find a more varied and fascinating case study than Iran. I am still trying to understand to what extent it can be described as democratic, theocratic or autocratic! These are the main themes I want to discuss here. Axworthy’s book is absolutely vital for anyone wishing to learn about Iranian history from the 20th Century onwards.


Democracy in Iran:


Persia, and latterly Iran, has had a convoluted and complicated relationship with democracy. They have been partially democratic to fluctuating degrees. Axworthy sums it up best when he quotes the old proverb “The voice of the people is the voice of God” to describe Khomeini’s Islamist power grab in February 1979. Iran became a theocracy with a democratic afterthought post revolution.

When Khomeini installed himself as the Supreme Leader – he decided who could get elected to the Iranian parliament- the Majles. There were debates among Khomeini and his revolutionaries who took over in 1979 about what to rename Iran. 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. There was no doubt that they believed they were instituting a democracy in some way, shape or form. The revolution was legitimate too – 98% of the 15m who voted – gave direct authorisation for the country to be an Islamic theocracy.

The first constitution in Iran in 1906 integrated Shia Islam, an elected parliament and the Shah. Therefore, we can conclude that there was a theocratic, democratic and autocratic element in the government of Iran from the outset. Even during the process which created the Majles, under therule of the Shah, there were dissenting voices. Ayatollah Taleghani, who vigorously opposed the Shah, said “may god forbid autocracy under the name of religion”. It is noteworthy that an Iranian theologian understood the danger of one system ruling over another. In some ways, this is symptomatic of the macro picture – you have these strong internal forces battling with each other to rule the country.

In 1911, the new Iranian parliament, the Majles was beginning to gain traction and influence in society. William Schuster was attempting to push Iran down a Western style democratic path. The concept was met with resistance from the autocratic and theocratic wings that were themselves vying for power. Externally, Russia saw this new move as a threat to a country very close to them. Simultaneously the British were busy pillaging Iran’s oil supply for themselves. Whilst the constitution was technically in effect now, Iran was effectively run by scores of local regional leaders. 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 times. When the communist Tudeh movement sprang up in the 1940’s, the Russians moved in to Northern Iran, which sparked a war with the Allies. The Shah eventually managed to maintain enough control so Iran could remain a sovereign country.


Shah Autocracy:


As the Majles had become the vent for those Iranian citizens trying to clutch to the idea that they could determine their own future, the Shah held a much more dominant influence on the country. Reza Shah governed from 1926 until 1941 and oversaw huge development in Iran. He changed the name from Persia to Iran in 1935 and was primarily a militarist, overseeing the doubling of the 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 updated the Shia religious texts for each generation and believed that society was changing too quickly.

When Reza Shah refused to expel the German forces, who were extremely influential in Iran in 1941, the Allies invaded and took the country over. They replaced Reza Shah with his son Mohammed Shah who ruled until the revolution in 1979. The British wanted to keep the oil for themselves and envisioned Reza Shah as the man to keep the black gold flowing from Iran to the United Kingdom.

The 1949 assassination attempt on the Shah quashed any remaining hopes of Iran becoming a more open society. He began to repress the Iranian people to an increasingly higher degree until he was deposed by the revolution. From 1963 to 1976, Iran underwent a huge economic boom – averaging a growth rate of 8% per year. This allayed the concerns of people whilst they simultaneously felt the noose of social repression tightening. The GDP increased from $200 in 1963 to $2000 in 1976.

The population exploded from 19m in 1956 to 33m in 1976 as car production rose from 7,000 a year to 109,000. Coal production saw a similar jump from 285,000 tonnes a year to 900,000 tonnes. The economic spurt meant that the Shah could significantly improve life for ordinary Iranians. With the largely secular modernisation of Iran, the Shah won many followers.

However, like all dictators, power corrupted him. He was paranoid about the English trying to execute him. His regime was endemically corrupt and everyday Iranians knew this. They 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 900 of these people were tortured.

The beginning of the end for the Shah was in January 1978 when an article was published alleging that the main opposition leader Khomeini was gay. This was a shock and people began huge protests across the country.

In the Jaleq square massacre in 1978, innocent protestors were killed. This sparked further outrage and culminated in mass protests of between 500,000-1,000,000 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 returns from isolation in Paris to institute the revolution.


Iranian Prime Ministers:


There have been 49 democratically elected Prime Ministers of Iran from 1906 to present day. There are many question marks over just how legitimate these elections were. Until the 1979 revolution, the Prime Minister was very much subservient to the Shah. This was always explicit. Different Prime Minsters tried to wield varying degrees of power with the Shah. Invariably they would lose.

We can see the Prime Ministers in Iran seeking to consolidate power as leaders as the push of democratic forces exerting themselves in the triumvirate of political systems. The best example of this was the famous Mosaddegh who governed from 1951 to 1953. He pushed back against the British imperialists to nationalise the Iranian old companies, cutting off all diplomatic ties with them in 1952. This sparked a trade boycott with England. He also tried to limit the power of the Shah by removing his name from military barracks and attempting to kerb his constitutional capacity to govern. Mosaddegh tried to fight the autocratic and theocratic forces in Iran and, concurrently, the British. He was a reformer who tried to push Iran in a self-ruling direction.

Churchill desperately wanted him overthrown so they could retain their plundering of Iran’s oil. Roosevelt in America 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 and give complete control back to the Shah. However, it is important to dispel the myth in the West that a democracy was overthrown. It wasn’t. The Shah still had most control and the theocrats were also working away under the surface. That being said, it was a disgraceful act to overthrow him. Chiefly from the British who were operating out of pure greed. What right had they to Iranian oil? None. The incident was a turning point which left the country under more of a dictatorship.

From 1953 onwards until the revolution, almost all the 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 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. The regional percentage was suspiciously in line with the national average.




Whilst the powers of the Shah and the Majles were colliding and scrapping for supremacy, there was the ever present strain of Shia Islam vying for power under the surface. Khomeini was the main leader of the religious opposition during 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, leading many protests against him.

Once in power, theocracy replaced autocracy, in the main, and democracy was marginalised. However, all three forces were (and still are still are) present. The role of the Supreme Leader can be seen as autocratic and theocratic.

The Islamist regime cracked down on the somewhat free press and civil society once they began governing. 580 Iranian citizens were killed in the first year after the revolution for sexual and dissent offences. The post Tudeh lefist organisation, the MKO, fought with Khomeini for influence in society. The administration killed between 2,000-7,000 of the MKO to try to stamp their voice out. It is a shocking example of how any wayward voices were crushed with power. The regime used the harshest elements of autocracy to enforce their policies on the population.

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 is the largest clampdown on opposition parties in modern Iranian political history – far more so than the Shah.


The Iran – Iraq war:


Axworthy has an interesting theory about the opaque border between the two countries as not being as big a contributory factor to the war as some other historians deemed it. He viewed it more through the lens as Saddam Hussein being an opportunist and trying to take advantage of a volatile new regime after the revolution. The Iraqi tyrant 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 the element of surprise they had. Even more fortuitously and ironically, the Shah had invested heavily in modernising the Iranian air force. Despite the regime’s initial misgivings about the intentions of the 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.


Iranian culture:


Although primarily a history book, there are some fascinating insights into the political influence that Iranian literary and cultural forces exerted. Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry about feminism in Iran in the 1960’s reflected the changing the increased Westernisation and potential move in a more progressive direction at the time.

Ahmad Salu’s poem that wrote about “this dead end” highlighted the growing repression in Iran at the time.

In the first year of the 1979 revolution after Khomeini has consolidated power, the annual literary festival that was scheduled in October and November was cancelled. Again, underscoring the repression that the theocratic government was to unleash on Iranian citizens. Denying them their freedom.

In February 1980, 38 writers, scholars and journalists wrote to Khomeini to tell him that the new 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 give Rushdie an award for one of his books. The incident was frightening in that it showed the lengths that the Iranians would go to repress free thought.




One the benefits of Shia Islam is that it has the potential to be flexible. The fact that the Ulemas can update old religious texts for new generations proves that it can be somewhat adaptable to an ever evolving world. It will permit reformers and this is something the West needs to be open to and work with. This is not to say that the Iranian theocratic state is the way of the future. It most certinaly isn’t.

However, it does indicate a path forward. Think of Mohammad Khatami, who served as President from 1997 to 2005. He opened 740 newspapers and journals. His rhetoric about liberalizing Iran was welcome. Likewise, Mohsen Kadivar’s wide reaching vision of believing that human rights and democracy are compatible with historical Islam, if not in Koranic Islam. Surely these are signs that indicate a path to a potentially more secular future? Yes, Kadivar was cheated out of the 2009 election and one can despair at this. 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 get into power in the future. As with its history, Iran’s future remains extremely complicated. Axworthy has written an erudite and essential history which will benefit anyone wanting to get up to speed.


About Mick Gilbride

This entry was posted in Book, Books, Democracy, History, Iran, Iranian revolution, Michael Axworthy, Persia, Repression, Shia Islam, The Shah, theocracy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s