Ervand Abrahamian

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Iran: A Mod­ern His­tory by Ab­bas Amanat


A Mod­ern His­tory by Ab­bas Amanat. Yale Univer­sity Press, 979 pp., $40.00

For most Amer­i­cans Iran is a rid­dle wrapped in a bun­dle of in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and highly in­flammable con­tra­dic­tions. For decades, be­fore the cre­ation of the Is­lamic Repub­lic in the late 1970s, Iran was ad­mired in the US as an in­dis­pens­able ally, a fa­vored arms cus­tomer, and even a po­lice­man in the Per­sian Gulf. It is now por­trayed as an im­pla­ca­ble op­po­nent and loom­ing threat in­ces­santly schem­ing to ex­pand its in­flu­ence from the Mediter­ranean to the In­dian Ocean. For decades its shah would make an­nual vis­its to the White House to ex­tend and re­ceive flat­ter­ies. The present Supreme Leader would not stoop to visit any for­eign coun­try, let alone the Great Satan.

For decades, mod­ern-look­ing men with clean-shaven faces, sport­ing silk ties and wear­ing Ital­ian suits, had led Iran. They could con­verse in flu­ent French and, even more con­ve­niently, in English. They were some­times crit­i­cized for be­ing au­to­cratic, but they were at least “our” au­to­crats. The coun­try is now led by tur­baned and gray-bearded cler­ics aided by stub­ble-faced tech­nocrats deeply dis­trust­ful not only of US for­eign pol­icy but also of many as­pects of sec­u­lar cul­ture—ex­cept nu­clear tech­nol­ogy.

What is more, for decades the US con­sid­ered Iran to be an oa­sis of sta­bil­ity in a re­gion of in­sta­bil­ity. Then, in a brief fif­teen months be­tween 1977 and 1979, Iran ex­pe­ri­enced a dra­matic up­heaval: the re­place­ment of the monar­chy with the Is­lamic Repub­lic, which led to a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion in the sys­tem and le­git­i­macy of govern­ment and in the con­cept of the so­cial or­der. The Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion was ac­com­pa­nied by con­sid­er­able vi­o­lence, al­though not as much as the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies liked to claim, and by an im­pres­sive amount of mass par­tic­i­pa­tion—and it prompted nearly one mil­lion peo­ple to flee the coun­try. Thomas Car­lyle, writ­ing about 1789, de­clared that real rev­o­lu­tions were a “tran­scen­den­tal . . . Phe­nom­e­non of our Mod­ern Time,” which would hope­fully erupt only once in a mil­len­nium. He clearly ex­ag­ger­ated their rar­ity, but he had a point in do­ing so. Along with the French, Rus­sian, and Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tions, the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion can be listed among the few that com­pletely re­shaped their so­ci­eties. Amer­i­cans were mes­mer­ized by footage of the very first revo­lu­tion to be tele­vised, and then out­raged by nightly cov­er­age of the hostage cri­sis at the US em­bassy in Tehran, which lasted for 444 days. Since 1980 the US has openly ad­vo­cated regime change and even mil­i­tary strikes against Iran. The two coun­tries en­joyed a brief dé­tente in 2015, when Pres­i­dent Obama signed the nu­clear agree­ment and re­placed talk of over­throw­ing the regime with calls for it to change its be­hav­ior. This in­ter­lude ended abruptly in 2017, when Don­ald Trump de­nounced the nu­clear agree­ment and as­signed CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo to desta­bi­lize the Is­lamic Repub­lic. Trump’s de­ci­sion on May 8 to with­draw from the agree­ment might in­deed be desta­bi­liz­ing, but this may re­sult in a much worse regime than the one cur­rently in power. Pom­peo shares with the neo­con­ser­va­tives of Ge­orge W. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion the no­tion that Iran is a frag­ile state that would col­lapse with a lit­tle prod­ding and bomb­ing. They have even re­pub­lished nine­teen­th­cen­tury maps por­tray­ing it as a mo­saic of in­nu­mer­able eth­nic groups—al­most all of which have long since been as­sim­i­lated and now con­sider them­selves as in­te­gral parts of Iran.

Any at­tempt at regime change in Iran would most likely lead to, if not war, then a con­tin­u­ing cri­sis that would drag the US deeper into mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in the Mid­dle East—es­pe­cially in Afghanistan, Syria, and Le­banon. An in­ter­na­tional cri­sis on that scale could be use­ful for the ad­min­is­tra­tion as a dis­trac­tion from its bro­ken do­mes­tic prom­ises. But it would in­flict great dam­age on the rest of the world.


A Mod­ern His­tory by Ab­bas Amanat, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Yale, is a ma­jes­tic work that goes a long way in un­rav­el­ing for an Amer­i­can au­di­ence the coun­try’s enig­mas and ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tions. In some ways it is com­pa­ra­ble to Fer­nand Braudel’s The Iden­tity of France and Al­bert Hourani’s A His­tory of the Arab Peo­ples. (Hourani was Amanat’s men­tor at Ox­ford.) Braudel and Hourani be­longed to the grand An­nales tra­di­tion of stress­ing the im­por­tance of con­ti­nu­ity and per­sis­tence in so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory, which they con­sid­ered a mat­ter of grad­ual evo­lu­tion rather than of sud­den changes.

The book cov­ers over half a mil­len­nium of his­tory, in­clud­ing four sep­a­rate regimes: three dy­nas­ties—the Safavids (1501–1666), the Qa­jars (1797–1925), and the Pahlavis (1925–1979)—and the Is­lamic Repub­lic, as well as a long in­ter­reg­num be­tween 1666 and 1797 when Iran ceased to ex­ist as a po­lit­i­cal en­tity. The story is com­pli­cated by shift­ing bor­ders, es­pe­cially in the Cau­ca­sus, and by eth­ni­cally di­verse rulers: the Safavids orig­i­nated from a Sufi or­der with Turk­men and Kur­dish fol­low­ers in Azer­bai­jan; the Qa­jars from a Tur­kic tribe from the east­ern coast of the Caspian Sea; and the Pahlavis from a Turk­ish-speak­ing mil­i­tary clan hold­ing land as a fief in Mazan­daran on the Caspian’s south­ern coast.

Amanat is too good an em­pir­i­cal his­to­rian to search for co­her­ence, logic, and struc­ture in this cul­ture. So­cial sci­en­tists, es­pe­cially an­thro­pol­o­gists, of­ten search for such co­he­sion; his­to­ri­ans are will­ing to ac­cept in­co­her­ence and hy­brid­ity as a fact of life. Amanat shows per­sua­sively that de­spite the ap­par­ent mish­mash of their his­tory Ira­ni­ans have a strong sense of cul­tural iden­tity—what some have termed “Iranism” or “Ira­ni­an­ism.” He de­scribes it as “na­tional,” “po­lit­i­cal,” and “his­tor­i­cal iden­tity.” It comes in part from the an­cient roots of the re­gion, go­ing back to the Sasa­ni­ans (224 CE–651 CE) and even the Achaemenids (550 BCE–330 BCE); in part from folk tra­di­tions rooted in the Zoroas­trian re­li­gion; in part from rich Per­sian lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially Fer­dowsi’s Shah­nameh (Book of Kings) and mys­tic Sufi po­ets such as Hafez, Sa’di, and Rumi. Then there is Shia Is­lam, which has been ob­served in Iran since 1500. Fi­nally, there have been ex­ter­nal pres­sures from im­pe­rial pow­ers—first from Bri­tain and Rus­sia, known col­lo­qui­ally as the “north­ern” and “south­ern” neigh­bors, and more re­cently from the United States. These ex­ter­nal threats have cre­ated a strong sense in the na­tion that it is in per­pet­ual dan­ger of ei­ther sub­jec­tion or oc­cu­pa­tion.

This cul­tural iden­tity has been fur­ther re­in­forced by such crises as the Con­sti­tu­tional Revo­lu­tion of 1905, which es­tab­lished a par­lia­men­tary monar­chy, the mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tions of World War I and II, the CIA coup of 1953, the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion, and the dev­as­tat­ing Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s. Ira­ni­ans may have drawn dif­fer­ent lessons from these trau­mas, much as Amer­i­cans have dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ings of their Civil War, but they have shaped the na­tion and its peo­ple. Amanat’s book, the prod­uct of a life­time of re­search, fol­lows the Braudelian tra­di­tion of look­ing for “deep his­tory” in the longue durée, with ref­er­ence to ge­og­ra­phy, econ­omy, so­ci­ety, and cul­ture. But it also con­tains po­lit­i­cal sto­ries—about shahs and their foibles and ec­cen­tric­i­ties, min­is­ters and their pol­i­tick­ing, tribal chiefs and their bit­ter wars, colo­nial pow­ers and their ri­val­ries, and the con­tin­gen­cies that led to and fol­lowed from the two ma­jor up­heavals of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the Con­sti­tu­tional Revo­lu­tion and the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion. Braudel called dis­crete events like these “sur­face dis­tur­bances, crests of foam that the tides of his­tory carry on their strong backs.” But al­though the po­lit­i­cal sur­face may have been unim­por­tant to Braudel and his strictest fol­low­ers, it is es­sen­tial for the un­der­stand­ing of mod­ern Iran, since po­lit­i­cal events such as the Al­lied oc­cu­pa­tion in 1941 and the coup of 1953 have had a deep ef­fect on the coun­try. Amanat gives much credit to the cul­tural, eco­nomic, and so­cial fac­tors that have helped cre­ate con­tem­po­rary Iran, but he tends to give short shrift to the im­por­tance of the state—the central govern­ment with its min­istries, de­part­ments, and civil ser­vants—which was cre­ated in the 1930s with the help of the Ira­nian equiv­a­lent of the Chi­nese Man­darin class: ac­coun­tants and scribes whose ge­nealo­gies reached back to the Safavid Dy­nasty. The state has had a cru­cial part not only in help­ing in­still a com­mon iden­tity in the pop­u­la­tion but also in hold­ing the coun­try to­gether at times of cri­sis. In the 1980s Iran suf­fered a dras­tic fall in oil rev­enue as well as a ma­jor in­va­sion from Iraq, war, and wide­spread ur­ban de­struc­tion. De­spite all this, it was able to per­sist be­cause of plan­ning and central man­age­ment— bud­get cuts as well as ra­tioning and wel­fare pro­grams rem­i­nis­cent of those de­vel­oped by Western democ­ra­cies in World Wars I and II. It is worth not­ing that Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini, de­spite all his ve­he­ment rhetoric against the monar­chy, did not dis­man­tle the Pahlavi state. He merely took it over and ex­panded it.

A grand his­tory cov­er­ing over five hun­dred years will in­evitably rely on sec­ondary sources, es­pe­cially for pe­ri­ods not within the au­thor’s own field of re­search. This cre­ates prob­lems for Amanat, whose pre­vi­ous work has mostly been on the nine­teenth cen­tury, since many of the sec­ondary sources on mod­ern Iran—es­pe­cially in English— are heav­ily col­ored by the cold war. Pri­mary sources of­ten con­tra­dict ac­cepted ac­counts. For ex­am­ple, Amanat writes that Ja’far Pi­she­vari, an old Bol­she­vik from Baku, helped found the Com­mu­nist Tudeh Party in 1941. In fact, the young Western-ed­u­cated Marx­ists who founded the party had lit­tle time for the likes of Pi­she­vari. The Tudeh is blamed for a bread riot that brought down Prime Min­is­ter Ah­mad Qavam’s cabi­net in De­cem­ber 1942. In fact, the young Shah, Mo­ham­mad Reza Pahlavi, in­sti­gated that riot to un­der­mine Qavam, who had been threat­en­ing his au­thor­ity as com­man­der-in-chief of the armed forces.

Amanat ac­cuses Pi­she­vari of es­tab­lish­ing a “se­ces­sion­ist” move­ment in Azer­bai­jan in 1946 un­der the um­brella of the Red Army. In fact, Pi­she­vari merely set up a pro­vin­cial govern­ment and fully in­tended to par­tic­i­pate in na­tional elec­tions. This was pre­cisely

why the Shah was adamantly op­posed to Pi­she­vari: he feared the pres­ence in par­lia­ment of a solid bloc of deputies con­trolled by Pi­she­vari’s pro­vin­cial govern­ment. It is also why Qavam, when he re­turned to power in 1946, was will­ing to deal with Pi­she­vari, since he hoped to bal­ance left­ist deputies from Azer­bai­jan against right­ist and pro-Bri­tish deputies from the south. Once the Shah sent the army to crush the pro­vin­cial govern­ment against Qavam’s ad­vice, his days as prime min­is­ter were num­bered. Amanat writes that bills for the Al­lied oc­cu­pa­tion of Iran dur­ing World War II were set­tled by the West but never set­tled by the Sovi­ets. But the Sovi­ets set­tled theirs in 1953–1954, while the US—ac­cord­ing to re­cently re­leased CIA doc­u­ments—was still hag­gling with the Ira­nian govern­ment over its bills in the mid-1970s. Amanat blames the Sovi­ets for caus­ing a cri­sis in 1944 by sud­denly de­mand­ing an oil con­ces­sion in north­ern Iran. How­ever, their de­mand was prompted by the leaked in­for­ma­tion that Stan­dard Oil, led by Her­bert Hoover, was se­cretly ne­go­ti­at­ing an oil con­ces­sion in south­east­ern Iran, and Shell was do­ing the same in the north­west, near the Soviet bor­der. Ge­orge Ken­nan, who was sta­tioned in Moscow and hardly pro-Soviet in his sen­ti­ments, blamed the Western com­pa­nies for hav­ing caused the cri­sis. Amanat ac­cuses the Tudeh of or­ga­niz­ing demon­stra­tions on July 15, 1951, to protest the ar­rival of Averell Har­ri­man, whom Pres­i­dent Tru­man had sent to me­di­ate the oil dis­pute be­tween Iran and Bri­tain. At least ten peo­ple were killed and scores were in­jured. But the Tudeh had an­nounced the rally weeks ear­lier to com­mem­o­rate the gen­eral strike in the oil in­dus­try on July 16, 1946. Har­ri­man just hap­pened to ar­rive on the day of the rally. The vi­o­lence—ac­cord­ing to Bri­tish em­bassy sources—was ini­ti­ated by right-wing or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the lo­cal Nazi Party, work­ing closely with the CIA.

Amanat pro­vides a fairly balanced ac­count of the An­glo-Ira­nian oil cri­sis of 1951–1953, which cul­mi­nated in the coup of Au­gust 1953 against Prime Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Mos­sadegh’s govern­ment. In 1951, the Ira­nian par­lia­ment voted to na­tion­al­ize the An­gloIra­nian Oil Company, a Bri­tish firm that had been pay­ing Iran roy­al­ties of less than 20 per­cent of its profit. Ira­ni­ans were up­set that Bri­tain was re­ceiv­ing more than Iran in tax rev­enue from the AIOC, and that the company had not ful­filled its prom­ises from a 1933 agree­ment to in­crease wages and build schools and hos­pi­tals. Ira­ni­ans also hoped to gain full sovereignty and na­tional in­de­pen­dence by ob­tain­ing ex­clu­sive con­trol over their main nat­u­ral re­source. Af­ter the na­tion­al­iza­tion of the AIOC’s as­sets, Mos­sadegh was elected prime min­is­ter, and both MI6 and the CIA worked covertly to oust him and re­place him with some­one who would be amenable to de­mands from Western oil com­pa­nies.

In Au­gust 1953, an up­ris­ing or­ches­trated by the spy agen­cies and led by Gen­eral Fa­zlol­lah Za­hedi suc­ceeded in re­mov­ing Mos­sadegh. Be­cause pub­lic opin­ion to­ward AIOC, which soon changed its name to Bri­tish Petroleum, was so un­fa­vor­able, ma­jor Amer­i­can, Bri­tish, and French oil com­pa­nies—in­clud­ing BP, Shell, Gulf, Tex­aco, Stan­dard Oil, and oth­ers—formed a con­sor­tium, al­low­ing them to ne­go­ti­ate bet­ter terms with the Ira­nian govern­ment. Doc­u­ments re­leased by the State Depart­ment af­ter Amanat’s book was writ­ten re­veal that the US was deeply in­volved not only in the coup but in Ira­nian politics as early as 1951.* It is not sur­pris­ing that the State Depart­ment de­layed the re­lease of these doc­u­ments for over forty years. Loy Hen­der­son, the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador in Tehran, con­stantly pres­sured the Shah to re­place Mos­sadegh with a politi­cian who would be more pli­ant on the oil is­sue. He vet­ted the cur­ricu­lum vi­tae of eigh­teen can­di­dates se­lected by MI6, in­clud­ing Qavam and Za­hedi. Hen­der­son ve­toed one mild-man­nered Amer­i­can-ed­u­cated diplo­mat ac­cept­able to the Shah on the grounds that he was “as ob­sti­nate as Mos­sadeq on the oil is­sue,” and he ac­tively par­tic­i­pated in sup­plant­ing Mos­sadegh with Qavam in July 1952, which led to the July 21 up­ris­ing that brought a tri­umphant Mos­sadegh back to power.

Hen­der­son was fu­ri­ous that the Shah was un­will­ing to use force to keep Qavam in power, and he in­ter­vened de­ci­sively in Fe­bru­ary 1953 when the Shah was about to leave for Europe. Hen­der­son con­vinced the Shah to sup­port the coup by hint­ing that if he did not do so he would be re­placed on the throne by one of his broth­ers. (The Shah later thanked him for hav­ing “saved” the monar­chy.) Hen­der­son also helped im­ple­ment the coup on Au­gust 18 and 19, 1953. While the CIA is ex­pected to carry out “cloak and dag­ger” mis­sions, am­bas­sadors are sup­posed to keep out of the messy in­ter­nal politics of their host coun­tries. The re­cently re­leased doc­u­ments also con­tain a con­sid­er­able amount of new in­for­ma­tion on the CIA’s op­er­a­tions in Iran. They show that dur­ing the Tru­man ad­min­is­tra­tion the CIA desk on Iran was run by Allen Dulles, Ker­mit Roo­sevelt, Richard Helms, and Don­ald Wil­ber—the men who im­ple­mented the coup dur­ing the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion. Their as­sess­ment of Iran was more closely aligned with MI6’s than with that of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s. They sys­tem­at­i­cally—and,

*For­eign Re­la­tions of the United States, 1952–54: Iran, 1951–54, edited by James C. Van Hook (US Govern­ment Pub­lish­ing Of­fice, 2017). See also the CIA Elec­tronic Li­brary at li­brary/read­in­groom/search/site/Iran. one could say, cyn­i­cally—ex­ag­ger­ated the “Com­mu­nist dan­ger” in the coun­try. In do­ing so, they con­tra­dicted their own field re­ports and Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Es­ti­mates. An NIE filed on Au­gust 12—five days be­fore the coup was sched­uled to oc­cur—dis­missed the Tudeh as “not a se­ri­ous threat” since it was con­fined mostly to Tehran, lacked arms, could not sur­vive a mil­i­tary crack­down, and had no in­ten­tion of stag­ing a coup. This NIE con­cluded that there might be a pos­si­ble dan­ger if the party could gain a ma­jor­ity in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, but an­other NIE placed Tudeh sup­port at 2.3 per­cent of the na­tional elec­torate.

The doc­u­ments also show that the CIA was ac­tive in elec­tions to the Ma­jles— the Ira­nian par­lia­ment—for both the Sev­en­teenth Ma­jles (1952–1953), which

did its best to un­der­mine Mos­sadegh, and the Eigh­teenth Ma­jles (1954–1956), which rat­i­fied the new oil con­ces­sion with the con­sor­tium of Western com­pa­nies. Re­port­ing on par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, an em­bassy of­fi­cial wrote with­out any ap­par­ent irony that the Bri­tish had be­come un­pop­u­lar in Iran be­cause of their deep in­volve­ment in na­tional politics. The terms “elec­toral col­lu­sion,” “al­ter­na­tive facts,” and “deep state” may have not ex­isted then. But they were an es­sen­tial part of the CIA tool­kit.

The main prob­lem fac­ing Amanat is how to ex­plain the sud­den up­heaval Iran un­der­went in 1979 while main­tain­ing his Braudelian em­pha­sis on con­ti­nu­ity, per­sis­tence, grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion, and what Braudel called “glacial ab­sorp­tion.” Braudel him­self came close to ad­mit­ting that he had trou­ble with the French Revo­lu­tion. Amanat tries to solve this prob­lem by de­scrib­ing how Shi­ism was in­tel­lec­tu­ally trans­formed in the 1960s and 1970s from a con­ser­va­tive, apo­lit­i­cal faith into a highly politi­cized ide­ol­ogy that com­peted with Marx­ism by try­ing to outdo it in rad­i­cal­ism.

This trans­for­ma­tion can best be seen in the an­nual Muhar­ram com­mem­o­ra­tions—the high holy days in the Shia cal­en­dar. For cen­turies, Shias had com­mem­o­rated the death of Imam Hus­sein—the grand­son of Muham­mad, who was killed at the field of Kar­bala on Ashura, the tenth day in the month of Muhar­ram, in 680—much in the same way that Chris­tians had al­ways ob­served Christ’s Pas­sion on the Cross be­fore Easter. Tra­di­tional Shia be­lief teaches that Imam Hus­sein had will­ingly gone to his cer­tain mar­tyr­dom in or­der to carry out the di­vine will. In the 1960s, rad­i­cal cler­ics started in­sist­ing in­stead that Imam Hus­sein, de­spite the odds, had been will­ing to take up arms against the Umayyad Caliphate and die be­cause of the Caliphate’s op­pres­sion and ex­ploita­tion. It was even spec­u­lated that he had cal­cu­lated that he had a good chance of win­ning and over­throw­ing the Caliphate, which he viewed as il­le­git­i­mate and con­trary to the spirit of Is­lam. Some even de­scribed Imam Hus­sein as a pre­cur­sor to Che Gue­vara. A pop­u­lar slo­gan dur­ing the 1978 protests was “Make Ev­ery Day Ashura, Ev­ery Month Muhar­ram, Ev­ery Place Kar­bala.”

Dur­ing these decades the mean­ing of Shia phrases shifted as well. Imam, which Shias tra­di­tion­ally re­served only for the Twelve Di­vine Suc­ces­sors to the Prophet, changed from mean­ing “in­fal­li­ble leader” to some­thing akin to a We­be­rian “charis­matic” leader like Khome­ini; shahid from “re­li­gious mar­tyr” to “rev­o­lu­tion­ary dead hero”; ji­had from a bat­tle sanc­tioned by cler­i­cal lead­ers to an armed strug­gle launched by po­lit­i­cal mil­i­tants; en­qe­lab from an up­heaval associated with chaos (fet­neh) to a revo­lu­tion with mod­ern as­so­ci­a­tions of his­tor­i­cal progress; mak­tabi from a book­ish be­liever to a mil­i­tant activist; and, most im­por­tant of all, mostazafin from the meek to the op­pressed masses.

Par­al­lel trans­for­ma­tions took place with in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Shah­nameh. In the past, it had been read as an epic hon­or­ing Per­sian kings. It was now read as a work that por­trayed kings as un­just, de­vi­ous, im­moral, and so­cio­pathic, if not psy­cho­pathic. The he­roes be­came the com­mon folk and valiant fig­ures will­ing to sac­ri­fice them­selves for a just cause. Only Western Ori­en­tal­ists con­tin­ued to in­ter­pret the epic as a grand trib­ute to the monar­chy. Amanat skill­fully de­scribes this dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion in Shia dis­course. How­ever, he tends to shy away from any class anal­y­sis and leaves the im­pres­sion that the trans­for­ma­tion was en­tirely ide­o­log­i­cal. In fact, the dra­matic change was ini­ti­ated, de­vel­oped, and pop­u­lar­ized pre­dom­i­nantly by a new class of high school– and col­lege-ed­u­cated en­gi­neers, doc­tors, teach­ers, tech­ni­cians, civil ser­vants, and pro­fes­sion­als born into mer­can­tile fam­i­lies for whom Shi­ism was an in­te­gral part of life. This new class had been ex­posed in school to the rad­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Shi­ism ex­pounded by Ali Shariati—a Sor­bon­nee­d­u­cated in­tel­lec­tual who can be seen as the real ide­o­logue of the revo­lu­tion. Shariati, more than any­one, ar­tic­u­lated the as­pi­ra­tions, griev­ances, re­sent­ments, and world­view of this ed­u­cated class known in Iran as the “new” or “re­li­gious” row­shan­fekran (in­tel­li­gentsia, lit­er­ally “the en­light­ened ones”).

It is the im­por­tance of class—which Amanat of­ten men­tions in pass­ing but rarely cred­its with agency—that makes Ge­orges Le­feb­vre, the great Marx­ian his­to­rian of the French Revo­lu­tion, more rel­e­vant than Braudel for un­der­stand­ing con­tem­po­rary Iran, es­pe­cially the 1979 over­throw of the monar­chy. The fu­ture of Iran will con­tinue to be shaped by the politics of class dif­fer­ence, but it is ex­tremely un­likely that this will lead to an­other revo­lu­tion. Car­lyle was right to say that real rev­o­lu­tions are ex­ceed­ingly rare.

A peas­ant kiss­ing the feet of Mo­ham­mad Reza Shah Pahlavi dur­ing a cer­e­mony to dis­trib­ute land deeds, Is­fa­han, 1962

Armed mil­i­tants out­side the US em­bassy dur­ing the hostage cri­sis, Tehran, 1979; pho­to­graph by Ab­bas, who died in April, from his book Iran Diary: 1971–2002

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