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Iran: The Challenges of History with an Attitude

Iran: The Challenges of History with an Attitude

Thursday, 15 February, 2018 - 07:30
A general view of Tehran in this February 22, 2010 Reuters file photo
London - Amir Taheri
By Abbas Amanat

Throughout the history of writing history, that is to say since Herodotus put pen to paper, Iran has always attracted and at the same time repelled those who for a variety of reasons took an interest in its complex character as a major actor in world events over millennia. Often, the interaction of that fascination and rejection made it difficult if not impossible to construct an objective narrative of the Iranian story. As a result, Iran was, and, as the author of this hefty oeuvre professor Abbas Amanat admits remains subject to a method of scrutiny that he labels “history with an attitude.” In practice, this means that those who write about Iran also write about themselves at least in the sense of how their generation or contemporary scholarship views historic events.

Let’s say it at the outset that thanks to the easy flow of its prose, Amanat’s book, focusing on Iran’s history from the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty in 1501 to the present day, is a delight to read especially for the general reader. The use of the term “modern”, however, injects some ambiguity as Amanat himself admits. Did Iran enter the modern world with the Safavids? More importantly, perhaps, are we sure Iran has entered the modern world which means different things to different people. A fruit of the Enlightenment, the concept of modernity is based on the linear vision of human history as a progressive continuum from a low point to higher and higher ones.

Amanat does not involve himself in the complexities of the question of modernity.

However, he implies that the modern world started with the emergence of the so-called “Gunpowder Empires”, new actors in history using the WMD of the day to expand through warfare. Since Iran under the Safavids became an early victim of “Gunpowder Empire” in the shape of the Ottomans under Sultan Salim, one could argue that it entered the modern times, especially since the Safavids ended up acquiring and deploying modern artillery.

Later, under the Qajars, who succeeded the Safavids after the long and bloody parenthesis of two more dynasties, continued Iran’s incursion into modernity with a number of physical and institutional reforms. Under the Pahlavis, who succeeded the Qajars, the pace of modernization accelerated with emphasis on turning Iran into a Western-style nation-state and, perhaps, a model for the entire Persianate cultural sphere.

Amanat’s narrative follows the predominant view of Western, and to some extent even Soviet, scholars of Iranian history in the past five centuries. Thus his book has the added interest of telling the reader how modern scholarship, dominated by Western academics and researchers, sees Iran. The advantage of that method is its genius for rationalization and simplification.

For example, we are told that the Safavid Dynasty, founded the young warrior Ismail, introduced Shiism to Iran and imposed it as a religion of the state by the sword. This means ignoring the fact that Shiism, in its many different versions, had always had a presence in Iran half a millennium before the Safavids.

One might also wonder how Shiite the Safavids actually were?

They produced no theological text on the subject and were obliged to import their clerics from the Shiite parts of Lebanon. The native Iranian Shiite clergy, especially in cities such as Shiraz and Isfahan, did not share Shah Ismail’s peculiar vision.

In any case, one might ask whether or not Shiism was nothing but an ideological prop for Ismail? Shah Ismail liked to call himself Kay-Khosrow, after the Iranian pre-Islamic mythological king who remains the perfect model of kingship in the Persianate sphere even today. The founder of the Safavids did not name his sons after any of the Shiite “saints” Ali, Hassan and Hussein. His son and successor was named Tahmasp, after another pre-Islamic mythological prince and warrior. Ismail’s favorite son’s name was Alqas which means “revenge.” Three of the 12 Safavid kings were named Abbas, after the Prophet’s uncle and the ancestor of Abbasid who became mortal enemies of Ali and his descendants. Only the very last of the Safavids on the throne in Isfahan was called Sultan Hussein.

Shah Ismail was proud of his Christian mother Martha, a Byzantine beauty, who refused to convert to Islam let alone Shiism.

Amanat repeats some of the old chestnuts in circulation about the Safavids, notably the claim that the Qizilbash (Red Cap), Ismail’s elite troops, boiled the corpses of Ottoman soldiers and devoured them while getting drunk.

The standard Western scholars’ view of the Safavids, masterfully expressed by Amanat, ignores Iran’s schizophrenia, a nation that does not feel comfortable with Islam but is, at the same time, reluctant, to abandon it. The fact that Islam, in its different versions, has been used in dynastic wars, and is today used by the Khomeinist movement, in the political arena, cannot hide the fact that religion has and still is used as an instrument of political power rather than the other way round.

The Safavids’ praetorian guards, the Qizil Bash, spoke Turkish while the king’s mullahs, imported from Lebanon, spoke Arabic. Thus the two pillars of the new state couldn’t directly communicate with the kings subjects.

The Western academia’s shortcut of “Iran became Shiite under Safavids” does not tell the whole story.

Amanat’s account of the Iranian story under the Qajars also suffers from received ideas that are hard to dispel.

The image of Qajars as a corrupt, retrograde and ultimately incompetent dynasty makes it difficult to study the impact of historic events, notably the rise of European imperialist powers, beyond their control. However, Amanat’s account has at least one welcome feature as it depicts the ups and downs of religious and political dissent in the Qajar era. Of special interest is Amanat’s account of the rise of the Babi movement and the formation of the Bahai faith and the repression meted out by the Qajars, an issue traditionally avoided by Western historians of Iran.

When we come to the Pahlavi era, Amanat tries, at times heroically, to veer away from the received ideas that have become shibboleths for many Western scholars writing about Iran. Conscious of the danger that he might be ostracized by the academic establishment that regards the Pahlavis with disdain, he raises his head from the parapet occasionally to assert that the two Pahlavis shahs did some good for Iran.

He writes: “In the Pahlavi era the Iranian population had improved in every generation [physically, hygienically, and medically, from the frail, malnourished and diseased population at the turn of the century- visible in many photographs of the period- to a relatively healthy, sanitary, and better nourished people.” Wow!

Amanat also debunks, albeit gingerly, the claim by anti-Shah Marxist and Islamist guerrillas that his regime killed “tens of thousands” of their followers. He states that the total number of Fedayeen of People executed or killed in armed action against security forces was 198 while the People’s Combatants lost 15. The killing of “tens of thousands” was to come much later, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Equally gingerly, Amanat sets aside the standard claim in Western academia that whatever the Shah did was in accordance with the wishes of the Western powers. He writes: “By mid-1960s neither the United States nor Britain could hold sway over his conduct.”

In his guerrilla style attempt at escaping from received ideas concerning Iran’s recent history, Amanat hits a big hurdle in the shape of the August 1953 events that led to the end of Muhammad Mussadeq’s two-year tenure as Prime Minister. The standard narrative in Western academia is that Mussadeq’s dismissal by the Shah was a coup d’etat plotted by the CIA and carried out by the Shah and his supporters in the military. Anyone who deviates from that narrative is branded a revisionist, almost as bad as Holocaust deniers, and ostracized in scholarly circles.

So, what should Amanat do?

Well, he describes the whole thing as “the working draft of a Grahame Greene novel”, a tongue-in-cheek way of questioning the received idea without incurring the wrath of tis peddlers in the academic spheres.
Amanat then has recourse to numerous qualifiers to indicate that he doesn’t quite share the standard narrative of the Mussadeq saga.

For example he writes: That the Shah, having dismissed Mussadeq “was, perhaps, preparing for abdication and permanent exile, perhaps in the United States where he might have bought a ranch.”

Amanat also dares to criticize Mussadeq. He writes: “His disturbing autocratic conduct may be seen as a conundrum between conservativism, liberalism and radial populism.” Perhaps! In any case, Mussadeq, seen by Amanat, wasn’t the liberal democrat overthrown by earth-devouring American Imperialism.

Yet, to ensure himself against attacks by the received-ideas wolf-pack, Amanat repeats the standard narrative at top speed, a regrettable diversion in an otherwise fair account of the events. During his 37 years as sovereign, the Shah appointed and dismissed 23 prime ministers, including Mussadeq twice.

Should we regard every one of those dismissals as a coup d’état? And why didn’t Mussadeq himself ever claim that he had been victim of a coup d’état? The reason was that Mussadeq, French-educated as he was, knew that the French term meant the violent change of a nation’s regime, head of state and constitution, none of which had happened in Iran.

Mussadeq’s dismissal may have been politically bad and morally wrong. But whatever it was, it wasn’t a coup d’état. Nor did the CIA would have been able to exert such a major influence on Iranian politics.

Amanat is refreshingly balanced in his account of the Khomeinist revolution and the record of the Islamic Republic in the past three decades. In a cool tone he relates the mass executions, the seizure of hostages and the fomenting of terror and oppression that have become key features of the Khomeinist system. At the same time, however, he notes that the Khomeinist regime has provided Iran with a measure of stability rare in today’s turbulent Middle East. To be sure, critics might claim that the stability which Amanat talks about may be stagnation or the calm of a graveyard.

One big mistake Amanat makes is his assertion that the Khomeinist revolution has brought the “Shiite clerical establishment to power.” This is certainly not the case. Khomeini was never one of the “top four ayatollahs of the time”, as Amanat asserts. Until he seized power, Khomeini was in the third-tier of the top Shiite hierarchy. To distinguish himself from the traditional hierarchy, he invented the title of Imam for himself to. In 1978, the Shiite clergy numbered around 250,000 of whom a small number took part in the revolution. Even today, none of the mullahs in senior positions in the regime can be counted among the top echelon of the clerical hierarchy.

Amanat's history with an attitude is a welcome contribution, although in some cases, attitude adjustment might improve things.

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