Key Points from Iran: A Modern History

By Abbas Amanat

Iran perhaps is one of the most invaded and most revolution-prone countries in world history, a debatable merit with lasting consequences. In between the Islamic conquest and the rise of the Safavid state, Iran survived more as a cultural than a unified political entity, in part because of geography and ecology, but also because of the prevalence of the Persian language and high culture.

The name Iran, as is often noted, is derived from the Iranian term Aryanum, the land of the Aryans, the branch of Indo-European pastoralists who settled in the Iranian plateau some four thousand years ago and gave their name to the land.

For many centuries Persia was the name of the country to the outside world, and Persian a reference to its people, language, and culture, while the term Iran was consistently used by Iranians in reference to their country. It was only in 1935 that the Iranian government adopted Iran instead of Persia as the official name of the country, a choice that made uniform the nomenclature but effectively obliterated beyond recovery the historical and cultural memory that the old name invoked.

Crystallized into a stern and exclusionist legal tradition, Islamic law emphatically prohibited playing or listening to music for leisure, and reproducing any images of humans and living things in any form; it denounced any preservation and celebration of “pagan” myths and festivals of the pre-Islamic past; and even more intrusively, it banned, at least in theory, social practices such as wine drinking, singing, mixing of the sexes, same-sex affection, recitation of lyrical poetry, and most, if not all, forms of social leisure. Despite political defeat and the relatively swift conversion to Islam, it can be argued that Iran never was fully won over by the predominant culture of normative Islam, perhaps less even than Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia. It converted to Islam at its own pace and on its own terms, and with paradigms and practices it improvised along the way.

The persistence of messianism as a distinctive feature of Iranian religious culture is most evident in the long list of Persian prophetic and crypto-prophetic figures. The prophetic paradigm stood in contrast to the authority of the religious establishment, which spawned jurisprudence (fiqh) and regulated the life of the faithful. The ulama, the men of religious learning, held sway over interpretation of scripture. The jurists (foqaha; s. faqih) stood at the top of an informal hierarchy in Shi‘i Iran that also included the lower-rank teachers of the madrasa, preachers on the pulpit, reciters of Shi‘i elegies, and even lower, the seminarians, mosque custodians, and presumed descendants of the house of the Prophet. The jurists were distinct for their legal conservatism, scholastic outlook, and elitist demeanor. These jurists were also known by their judicial status as mojtaheds (often inadequately translated as “doctors of law”). They were qualified to issue legal opinions (fatwas) to be abided by their “followers” (moqalleds). In making their opinions, the mojtaheds exercised limited human reasoning (ejtehad; lit. “striving”) to utilize the sources of Islamic law. Since the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of following (taqlid; lit. “emulation”) gave the mojtaheds great legal, moral, and social latitude over the community of believers. What made the ulama especially conscious of themselves as a relatively coherent group was their self-assumed mission to preserve the “kernel of Islam” unmolested against the ever-present threat of heresy. Any sort of nonconformity or innovation contrary to mojtaheds’ understanding of the shari‘a was viewed as reprehensible. They were equipped with weapons of denunciation (takfir) and censure, which they freely used to mobilize the faithful and to call on the government to come to their aid.

The practice of “temporary marriage” (popularly known as siqeh), as sanctioned by Shi‘i law, gave women some agency through their choice of partner, as well as duration and terms of the marriage. Although open to many abuses, such as prostitution, temporary marriage essentially functioned as an accepted form of cohabitation, which offered some security to women and the right of inheritance to their children. For women of lower classes, such as daughters of peasants in the households of landowning families, temporary marriage with men of higher status served as a form of social mobility.

Isma‘il’s ferocity and the atrocities committed by his unruly Qezilbash hordes were followed soon after by a systematic and enduring program of Shi‘i indoctrination.

But no matter how eagerly the Qezilbash chiefs and the Arab ulama resisted the indigenous Persian element’s rise to prominence, they could not evade the dictates of a transforming state. The paradigm shift from a messianic crusade to a bureaucratic state appeared inevitable. The shift did not happen overnight, yet Isma‘il managed to strike a fragile equilibrium among the restive Qezilbash and their Persian rivals.

The Ottoman Sunni jurists considered the massacre legitimate, and even furnished the necessary license for an anti-Safavid campaign. The eternal reward for killing one Shi‘i, a fatwa by the mufti of Istanbul declared, was equal to killing seventy Christian infidels.

Mulla Sadra’s theory of movement of the substance (haraka jawhariyya, often translated as “transubstantiation”), arguably his most significant philosophical contribution, was a novel departure. His theory of substantial movement in part modified the influential Sufi monistic theory of the “unity of being” (wahdat-e wujod). The belief in the essential origin of all beings, celestial and terrestrial, and their ultimate union, had long been opposed by conservative jurists and theologians. Mulla Sadra further advanced the idea of “unity of being” by arguing that in the substance of all things created, of which humanity holds the highest rank, there is an innate cosmic dynamism without which all things cease to exist. This elemental movement transforms the quality of all things at all times from one state to another, without their substance ever changing. As the created being separates itself from its divine origin, in its downward journey toward matter it acquires material contingents, making the world as we see and experience it. The same intrinsic dynamism in an upward movement then transforms the substance of material things until ultimately they reach their original celestial state.

The greatest divergence from the Safavid concept of authority, however, was Nader’s extraordinary—and as it turned out, quite impolitic—call to relinquish Shi‘ism as the religious creed of Iran, at least in the way it was practiced under the Safavids. This was one of three conditions he set forth in Moghan for his acceptance of the crown of Iran. His declaration also called for total loyalty to himself and the abandoning of any sympathy for the house of the Safavids and hope for their future restoration. Instead of the Safavids’ Twelver Shi‘ism, which in his view had long been divisive internally and offensive to Iran’s Sunni neighbors, Nader proposed the relatively improvised Ja‘fari creed (after the Sixth Shi‘i Imam, Ja‘far Sadeq, who died in 765). Devoid of anti-Sunni exclusivity, messianic longing, and juristic tradition, Nader’s Ja‘fari brand seemed to be a diluted form of the Safavids’ state-dominated creed. More than two centuries of religious conflict, which had facilitated the Afghan invasion, must have persuaded Nader, whose own career, oddly enough, had been built on expelling Sunni invaders, to see the ills of an exclusionist form of Shi‘ism. He hoped that declaring the Ja‘fari creed would persuade the Ottomans to comply with the terms of his peace proposal, which called for the establishment in Mecca for the Shi‘i pilgrims of a fifth platform around the Ka’ba (lit. rokn, “pillar”), adjacent to that of the Hanafis, which was to be taken as recognition of Shi‘ism as a legitimate Islamic creed.

The growing volume of foreign imports from industrialized Europe and the export of cash crops, such as tobacco and opium, tilted the economic balance in favor of big merchants, large landowners, and European firms. Less privileged sectors of society, such as guilds, retailers, and peasants, bore the brunt of the changing economy. Chronic visitations of famine and pandemics worsened their lot.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Shi‘i ulama had to reinvent themselves to regain the ground they had lost since the fall of the Safavids. They were no longer functionaries of the state, nor were they bookish scholars in the secluded seminaries of Isfahan and Najaf endlessly debating the minute details of Shi‘i hadith and brandishing hefty glosses and commentaries on the works of earlier jurists. The Usuli Shi‘i mojtaheds’ answer to the crisis of the post-Safavid era was to come up with a new legal approach to shari‘a that stressed the methodology of jurisprudence (or roots of jurisprudence, usul al-fiqh) as the key to a broader legal application of the principle of ejtehad. The sole authority to exercise ejtehad, or legal judgment based on sources of Islamic law and through limited use of deductive analogy, distinguished the Shi‘i ulama, and more distinctly the Usuli mojtaheds, from their contemporary Sunni counterparts. For mojtaheds, the study of jurisprudence (fiqh) was the most authentic articulation of Islamic shari‘a, and they, as jurists, were the only experts qualified to interpret Islamic law. The Usuli jurisprudence in effect equipped the mojtaheds with claims for collective representation on behalf of the Hidden Imam. The Hidden Imam, or the Lord of the Age, was the Shi‘a reference to the Islamic Mahdi, whose advent from the world of the invisible according to the Shi‘is was expected to trigger the End of the Time. Such self-assumed authority offered doctrinal grounds for the mojtaheds to demand that their followers, or more specifically, their “emulators,” seek their legal and moral opinion and follow their expert advice in all matters of shari‘a. The doctrine of emulation (taqlid) obliged Shi‘i believers to follow an individual mojtahed of their choice in all issues of Islamic law. Any qualified Shi‘i mojtahed could issue independent legal opinions (fatwas). More important, given their social implications, these opinions were to exert, at least in theory, an unprecedented degree of control over the beliefs and practices of followers.

The Babi doctrine interpreted Resurrection not as an apocalyptic destruction of the material world but as the eclipse of one revelatory cycle and the dawn of the next. Relying on a long history of millennial speculations, the Bab utilized the familiar metaphor of seasonal changes to explain the nature of cyclical progression. The “tree of prophethood,” as he called it, blossoms in the spring, gains strength in the summer, bears fruit in the fall, and dies in winter, only to be reborn in the next seasonal cycle. It is the same tree and yet it is different every year as it grows with time. The sense of historical relativism embedded in this notion of prophetic renewal acknowledged historical change. It allowed for the potential for human innovation and promoted a forward-looking perspective, concepts that defied the essentially regressive worldview of the Shi‘i orthodoxy.

Like most non-Western reform-minded writers of the late nineteenth century, he laments the lack of modern education and Western-style schools and secular curricula, for which he blames the conservative clerical establishment. He held the Qajar elite, along with the ulama, responsible for Iran’s chronic weaknesses and its curse of being subordinate to superior powers. Domestic culprits aside, there was little blame on the Western powers’ territorial and economic exploits. Typically, he does not foresee a chance of the West respecting Iran’s sovereignty or caring for its well-being, so long as the state and the people are in their “deep slumber” and do not wake to care for themselves.

The incident marked the beginning of a popular movement that eventually came to be recognized as the Constitutional Revolution (Enqelab-e Mashruteh), a transformational experience with major consequences for twentieth-century Iran. The previously described episode highlights most, if not all, of the elements that would shape the revolution: merchants and artisans resentful of an inefficient and intrusive state; the lower- and middle-ranking mullahs of various shades calling on the mojtaheds to come out in support of the people; the Qajar state’s desperate reactions to demands for popular participation and eventually for a constitution; and finally, the large size of the urban population (fig. 6.1). To these groups were added in due course the Western-educated elite, who joined the indigenous radical elements and helped shape the parliament (Majles) and frame the modern constitution.

the Constitutional Revolution remained a turning point in the history of Iran above all because it marked a step forward on the path to sociopolitical modernity. Under the veneer of Western liberalism and constitutional order, the revolution tried to offer indigenous answers to a distinctly Perso-Shi‘i problem of social justice that had long been present in the milieu of Iranian dissent. In effect, the revolution sought to secularize Shi‘i millenarian aspirations by incorporating such modern concepts as nationalism, the rule of law, limits to state power, individual rights, and people’s representation. The revolution juxtaposed these principles with the ancient vestiges of kingship and the clerical establishment. The civil war of 1908–1909 between the constitutionalists and the royalists was the climax of a revolutionary struggle, for it weakened Qajar rule and relegated, at least temporarily, the conservative clergy to the political wilderness. The turmoil caused by the revolution, however, was compounded by the European threat of military occupation before and during World War I, which brought an abrupt end to the constitutional experiment and dampened revolutionary aspirations.

Reformist literature of the late Qajar era and the Constitutional Revolution lamented illiteracy and the absence of modern educational institutions and was critical of madrasa curriculum and its deficiencies. It also called for a change in Persian script, one instance of a broader preoccupation shared by reformers in many non-Western societies. The Persian highly stylized shekasteh handwriting common in the Qajar era, though undeniably an art form, was viewed as cumbersome for the demands of public education. The lack of modern sanitation and modern medicine, malnutrition, and the absence of an effective public health system to combat outbreaks such as cholera and to control diseases such as smallpox and trachoma were other sources of grievance. Glaring scientific and industrial shortcomings in comparison with “civilized” countries were the cause of profound concern. Images of decay and deprivation in Iran were contrasted not only with idealized notions of Western material advances but also with an idealized vision of Iran’s ancient past. Only on the model of Western powers, it was argued, and the modern rule of law and constitution could Iran overcome its rampant maladies. The reformist literature of the nineteenth century was generally oblivious to Europe’s colonial ambitions, and when it wasn’t, it often implied that falling under Western imperial might was an inevitable fate of the weaker nations.

A major theme in Akhundzadeh’s works, inspired by the simplicity of Molière’s plays, was the contrast between the hold of old beliefs and practices, the “superstitions,” in Muslim societies and the potency of modern civilizational forces, especially the modern sciences and medicine. More so in his unpublished polemics, Akhundzadeh internalized the positivist critique of Islam and its incompatibility with the demands of the modern world. In fictional correspondence dated 1863 between Kamal al-Dowleh, an Iranian skeptic writing from Tabriz, and his interlocutor, an Indian Shi‘i prince residing in the holy cities of southern Iraq, Akhundzadeh offered a daring criticism of Shi‘i beliefs and institutions. He held Islam, its scripture and doctrine, and more pointedly, the Shi‘i beliefs and teachings responsible for Iran’s current state of affairs and the root cause of the decline of the Persian civilization. In Voltairean fashion he ridiculed the idea of divine inspiration, the tales in the Qur’an, and the force of bigotry and unreason that the Islamic religion and the disastrous Arab conquest of Iran had unleashed on his countrymen. Like Kermani, he also lamented the loss of the great civilization of pre-Islamic Iran. Drawing historical and sociological comparisons with his own time, he chastised Islam for its antirational and unenlightened principles, including the ignorance, arrogance, and superstitions of the religious authorities and for their condoning of slavery, torture, and the mistreatment of women. With lesser intensity he also held the Qajar state responsible for corruption and mismanagement, and he attacked the undeserved privileges of the elite.

To appease detractors within the ulama camp, the constitution stipulated that all laws (qanun) legislated by the Majles were to remain within the bounds of political order, and thus outside the sphere of the shari‘a. In reality, however, it subverted the accepted universality of the shari‘a in some key provisions. In contrast to Islamic law that discriminated between Muslims and non-Muslims, the constitution recognized equal rights for all citizens. It further secured freedom of the press and publication, and freedom of association, so long as they were not against principles of Islam. Freedom of expression in particular was seen by the opposing ulama not only as a clear breach of restraints that Islam placed on individuals but also as sanctioning the spread of un-Islamic ideas and heresies. Article 1 of the 1907 Supplement to the Fundamental Law specifically declared Twelver Shi‘i Islam as the official religion of Iran, and article 2 specified: At no time must any legal enactment of the Sacred National Consultative Assembly [Majles Moqaddas Showra-ye Melli], established by the Imam of the Age and His Majesty the shahanshah of Islam and the whole people of the Iranian nation, be at variance with the sacred principles of Islam or the laws established by His Holiness the Best of Mankind [i.e., Prophet Mohammad].2 This, of course, was not merely lip service; it reflected the framers’ serious dilemma of how to reconcile the will of “the people of the Iranian nation” as a source of the constitution’s legitimacy with the ancient pillars of authority: Shi‘i Islam and Iranian kingship. After much bickering over the language, to appease Nuri and the mashru‘eh opposition who were battering the constitutionalists from their sanctuary near Tehran, the Majles approved, after several drafts, that a committee of five mojtaheds and experts of Islamic law would oversee the compatibility of legislation with preconditions laid out in the shari‘a. Though in reality the committee never convened and was forgotten after 1910, compatibility with the shari‘a remained an issue that would reemerge seven decades later during the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The press and the telegraph, both modern means of communication in the public space, elevated the Majles in the eyes of the people to a sacred institution, as the epithet “sacred” (moqaddas), attached to the full name of the Consultative National Assembly, denoted. The Majles became the embodiment of lofty goals of the constitution, expected, quite unrealistically, to dispense social justice; to ensure peace, prosperity, and security; and to defend the country against foreign intrusions—all goals far beyond the frugal means of the Majles and the competence of most of its deputies. Yet despite inexperience and inefficiency, the Majles’ record was still impressive enough to alarm its opponents and ensure continued animosity.

In April 1909 a strongly worded Anglo-Russian memorandum warned the shah that unless he restored the constitution and removed its enemies from his court, he stood to lose the two powers’ already-sinking confidence in him—a warning that appeared to the shah’s opposition as a green light to capture Tehran. In reality, it was meant to encourage the shah to restore some semblance of a constitutional regime in order to stop the constitutionalists’ advances.

Despite months of repeated Russian and British warnings that jointly and individually demanded that the nationalists stay away from the capital, a force of nearly three thousand Bakhtiyari and Gilan fighters engaged for two days in a mopping-up operation inside the capital. Colonel Liakhov and his troops surrendered, only to be commissioned, ironically, back into service by the nationalists, even though they momentarily faded out of the revolutionary limelight. Mohammad ‘Ali Shah himself and an entourage of five hundred, including his hated army chief, Hosain Pasha Amir Bahador Jang, negotiated his way to the Russian legation, where he took refuge under the joint protection of the two powers. Conscious of European sensitivities, the nationalists quickly secured diplomatic missions and assured the safety of foreign residents, even before marching to the ruins of the Majles building, where on July 15 they officially announced the abdication of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah from the Qajar throne. With a discipline that impressed even the mostly hostile European press corps, the Bakhtiyari tribesmen and a contingent of the Armenian fighters from Gilan restored order in the capital, set up a rudimentary headquarters, and soon declared Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s minor son, Sultan Ahmad (1898–1930), as the new shah. The elder of the Qajar tribe, ‘Ali Reza ‘Azod al-Molk (1847–1910), became his regent. By any account, the success of the nationalist forces was impressive. There was no looting, revenge killing, or retaliation. Even more remarkable was the level of cooperation between the heterogeneous rank and file of Gilani and Bakhtiyari fighters, who could barely communicate with one another in Persian.

More symbolic, and more daring, were the trials held shortly after the nationalists’ victory. To the Supreme Council’s credit, a national amnesty was declared, and there were hardly any vengeful killings. Only a handful of reactionaries were arrested and tried. Of the five who were executed by order of a special tribunal on specific charges of murdering constitutionalist protesters in the sanctuary of ‘Abd al-‘Azim during the final days of the old regime, the most prominent was Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri, the relentless opponent of the constitutionalists. The tribunal held as proof of its verdict Nuri’s fatwa to the effect that killing the protesters in the sanctuary was lawful. It hence underscored the new regime’s wishes not to punish anyone for ideological orientation. In the final months of the so-called Minor Tyranny, as the period of the civil war came to be known, Nuri had abandoned his earlier call for mashru‘eh in favor of the old absolutist order and avowed support for Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s suppression of the constitutionalists. With peculiar zeal he orchestrated clerical petitions from the growing number of clergy in Tehran and elsewhere expressing loyalty to the Qajar regime and warning the shah of any compromise that might result in restoration of the constitution. Hanged by the gallows in Tupkhaneh Square in front of a dazed public witnessing the unprecedented execution of a mojtahed, one of the most prominent Shi‘i jurists of his time, the execution was emblematic of changing times. It seemed as though the kingship and the clergy, the two pillars of the ancient Iranian order, were cracked, if not shattered, by contingencies of a modern revolutionary movement. Another encouraging sign of change was the diversity of voices in the public sphere. The growth of the press and publications, the emergence of parliamentary factions and political parties, the first audible pleas of women protesting society’s misogynistic norms, and a greater sophistication in cultural and political discourse were evident and seemingly irreversible. By the end of 1909 there were half a dozen dailies and a growing number of book titles catering to a larger readership. In the following months and years, despite major upheavals, the number of newspapers multiplied, and although many of them were short-lived, they demonstrated not only a new relish in the freedom of expression—even freedom to slander—but also the potency of the press in fashioning the country’s nascent public opinion.

Fearful of dire consequences, the Iranian government succumbed to the threat of brute force. To appease St. Petersburg, the Iranian minister of foreign affairs arrived in person to the Russian legation and offered a formal apology on behalf of his government. Yet there was no end to the demands of the two powers or their shared desire to dismantle Iran’s young democracy. Almost immediately after the so-called satisfaction was given, on November 29 the Russian government served a second ultimatum to Iran, this time openly backed by Britain. In a rare expression of international bullying, the second ultimatum required Iran to immediately fulfill three conditions or else face Russian military occupation, and in effect an end to its national sovereignty. It demanded that Morgan Shuster be dismissed from his post of treasurer general together with his American colleagues. It also demanded that, in the future, the Iranian government not engage the service of foreign nationals without the consent of the two powers. Most outrageous of all, the ultimatum demanded that the Iranian government pay “indemnity” for the “expense of the present dispatch of troops” to Iran, the amount and manner of which was to be determined later. This demand was made at a time when Russia had landed more troops in Gilan and Azarbaijan provinces to reinforce its so-called zone of influence. The two powers in effect blatantly required that Iran reimburse the cost of the violation of its own sovereignty to an aggressor who, as it turned out, went on a rampage of massacres and maltreatment of defenseless Iranians. The second ultimatum, even more than the first, raised a storm inside and outside the Majles, leading to a nationwide movement of outrage, speeches in mosques and the Majles in support of Shuster, and telegraph messages of solidarity from the provinces. The Shi‘i clerical condemnations of the Europeans’ nefarious designs on the constitutional regime and the oppressed Iranian nation were headed by Mohammad Kazem Khorasani and his colleagues in Najaf . They called for the boycott of Russian and English goods in the bazaar, the revival of armed revolutionary anjomans, and the elimination of the royalists.

In his heart-wrenching account of the suspension of the mashruteh, Shuster himself called the destruction of the democratic experience in Iran “a sordid ending to a gallant struggle for liberty and enlightenment.” Reflecting on his short experience he further wrote: That the Persians were unskillful in the practical politics and in the technique of representative constitutional government no one could deny; but that they had the full right to develop along particular lines of their customs, character, temperament and tendencies is equally obvious. Five years is nothing in the life of a nation; it is not even long as a period for individual reform; yet after a bare five years of effort, during which the Persian people, with all their difficulties and harassed by the so-called friendly powers, succeeded in thwarting a despot’s well-planned effort to wrest from them their hard-earned liberties, the world is told by two European nations that these men were unfit, dangerous and incapable of producing a stable and orderly form of government.5 This was the judgment of an American in 1912, just before the disasters that befell Iran during World War I—before the British attempt to turn Iran into a semi-protectorate in 1919, and years before the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II, before the brazen Soviet attempt to snatch away Iran’s territory and subvert its government, and before Shuster’s own country conspired in 1953 with Britain to deprive Iran of economic sovereignty over its natural resources and its democratic aspirations.

Despite staging an earnest liberal movement with urban support, the Iranian constitutionalists never really succeeded in defining the relationship between the religious and the political spheres. Nor did the geopolitical contingencies of European powers allow for the natural growth and fruition of this experience. From the outset, the Constitutional Revolution faced not only opposition from the Qajar regime and the affiliated clerical conservatives but also the growing hostility of the great powers, which together eventually brought the movement to a standstill.

For some, the experience of the Constitutional Revolution proved that Western powers would not allow the establishment of a free and democratic regime and that domestic political players were incapable of maintaining it. For others, the mashruteh liberal democracy was an imported commodity, even an “ailment” devoid of imagined “authenticity.”

In the seven decades following the Constitutional Revolution, the Pahlavi era (1921–1979) transformed the politics, society, and economy of Iran. In the aftermath of World War I and the upheavals of the postwar period, Reza Shah’s authoritarian rule, boosted by oil revenue and a consolidated military, helped centralize the country, create modern administrative and educational institutions, co-opt the old elite, nurture a nationalist ideology, and conduct a relatively independent course of foreign policy. These were achieved at the expense of democratic aspirations and individual and political freedoms that were at the core of the constitutional experience. Westernization also deepened the rift between the Pahlavi state and the retreating clerical establishment.

The arrested growth of the private sector, the widening gap between living standards in the city versus the countryside, and the rise of the state’s reliance on independent income through monopolies on commodities and oil revenue were the most significant legacies of the first Pahlavi era. While the state became less dependent on its citizens and the meager revenue it could extract through taxation, it sped up military and police spending to safeguard the increasingly unpopular regime. To maintain its presence in nearly all economic sectors meant that the state should become the largest employer in the country by far. These patterns persisted through the whole of the Pahlavi era and beyond, with few exceptions—a curse on the modern Iranian political economy that continues to the present.

By 1928 the oil revenue reserve had reached six million tumans ($3,518,000), a hefty sum that was meant to be devoted to economic development but was instead appropriated by the state to consolidate the military and pay for the growing bureaucracy. The sugar monopoly was imposed in 1927 to pay for the construction of the railroad, followed in 1929 by a monopoly on the sale and export of opium, and thereafter on tobacco and other commodities. As a sign of the changing times, control of the commercial markets faced no resistance from the bazaar, in stark contrast to the Tobacco Protest of 1891–1892 or the protests against government price controls on the eve of the Constitutional Revolution. This was another cause of the bazaar’s reluctance to abandon the small-scale patterns of patronage and networking in favor of investment in modern financial and industrial sectors. A weakened bazaar and the relative worsening of the affairs of the bazaar merchants meant that the middle and lower ranks of traders and guilds suffered. The ensuing growth of conservatism in the bazaar surfaced in a firmer alliance with the conservative clergy, the other losing sector in Pahlavi society.

The schoolchildren who learned geography, history, and Persian literature as well as modern sciences internalized a different perspective of the world from that of their parents, one that gave prominence to secular knowledge and material progress. Yet the shift from instructing elites to a system of public education, part of a trend that revolutionized literacy worldwide, often reinforced uncritical learning. It rewarded uniformity and obedience and punished imagination and diversity. The prevailing pedagogical culture, to the extent perceived by its framers, militated against the body of knowledge in the sciences and humanities that was supposed to open intellectual horizons and change worldviews.

Despite restrictions on preaching in the mosques and donning clerical attire, the state never dismantled the clerical hierarchy or the institution of the madrasa, the waqf, and other means of revenue. Remarkably, in the early Pahlavi era, although the number of madrasas decreased, Qom acquired greater visibility as a clerical center. A majority of moderate ulama succumbed to the diminishing status of their class with a mix of resignation and remorse (the latter for not fighting hard enough for Qajar survival). They viewed Reza Shah and Pahlavi modernizing as an inevitable, even a necessary, evil, so long as the residue of their clerical power remained in place. Unlike the Sunni clerical institutions in other Muslim lands, which for centuries were under the aegis of the Ottoman state, the Shi‘i Iranian ulama had maintained their institutional independence even after the demise of the Qajars. Even if they lost Pahlavi patronage, and the unwritten contract with the state was about to be abrogated, their group solidarity was not entirely lost. As it turned out, the immediate hardships imposed on them added to overall clerical resilience and their rebound after Reza Shah.

The new Pahlavi legal reforms, primarily based on the Napoleonic Code, adopted the French system to reasonable dictates of the Shi‘i shari‘a, and did this perhaps more effectively than many other Muslim countries in the twentieth century. Under Davar’s supervision, a council of legal experts, consisting of middle-ranking mojtaheds and state administrators of madrasa background who were familiar with European law, reviewed the French codes in a relatively short period of time, refashioning them according to Islamic contingencies. The 1927 Penal Code and the subsequent 1931 Civil Code replaced, in stages, the mojtahed-run shari‘a courts. The new codes featured all the deficiencies of a state-dominated bureaucratic system, yet the Islamic provisions in the system proved vital for the state’s legitimacy.

The Allied occupation of Iran in September 1941 was a rude shock to most Iranians. Facing the soldiers of the Red Army, the British Indian army, and soon after American military personnel seemed almost a surreal reversal of two decades of Pahlavi assurances of Iran’s reclaimed sovereignty and the might of Iran’s Imperial Armed Forces. The shock was transient, but the consequences were not. The occupation triggered one of the most eventful episodes in Iran’s modern history and revealed persistent themes in the country’s recent past: the struggle for democracy, foreign intervention, and grave tensions within the polity and between the center and the periphery. Disruption of the economy, political instability, tribal rebellions, secessionist movements, frequent imposition of martial law, and growing hatred toward foreign powers were the darker outcomes. On the other hand, a national movement for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, the opening up of the political space, greater freedom of the press, parliamentary politics, and a nascent labor movement were promising developments.

The AIOC—the forerunner of today’s British Petroleum (BP)—ran the Iranian oil industry not unlike a colonial plantation, exerting the hierarchy of class-conscious English society and preserving a culture of colonial privilege. Iran’s other major contribution to the workforce was cheap labor, mostly Bakhtiyari herdsmen and the Arabic-speaking population of Khuzestan working under harsh conditions and with exploitative wages and poor living standards.

Furthermore, the AIOC condescendingly viewed Iranian subordinates in its employment as incapable of holding managerial posts and unable to grasp the company’s bookkeeping—which the Iranians viewed as shady and full of dishonest accounting practices. It moreover brazenly defended its treatment of the Iranian workforce. Stubborn and shortsighted—almost cynical—it turned a deaf ear to Razmara’s repeated pleas and to the United States’ mediation efforts behind the scenes. The US interest in the negotiations was perceived by AIOC as likely to allow Americans an eventual foothold in the Iranian oil industry. American oil companies—themselves not models of fairness and integrity—had negotiated new contracts with the government of Venezuela on a fifty-fifty profit sharing basis, and in 1950 they were about to do the same with Saudi Arabia, where ARAMCO, a conglomerate of giant American oil companies, had been operating since 1933. ARAMCO had received, in exchange for the fifty-fifty deal with Saudi Arabia, a 50 percent tax break from US Congress (known as the “golden gimmick”). The AIOC refused to consider any of that and quietly urged the Americans to keep the Saudi deal a secret until the Iranians agreed to their far less favorable terms.

Outraged by the Iranian action, the British government also lodged complaints with the International Court of Justice at The Hague, demanding that Iranian oil nationalization be declared illegal and thus void under international law. In response, Iran lodged its own counterclaims and sent representatives to defend its case. The Iranian oil nationalization thus rapidly developed into an international crisis, with important security and strategic repercussions that soon invited US intervention. At the time, Iran supplied more than 20 percent of the world’s total oil production, and the imminent cutoff of such a vital source threatened to disrupt the Western economies that were coming out of the postwar recession.

Initial impact aside, the long-term effect of the embargo on the British market was minimal. Yet its effect on the Iranian economy was substantial throughout Mosaddeq’s premiership. Issuing national government bonds to compensate for the loss of income could barely avert a financial crisis. A later increase in the volume of currency issued by the Mosaddeq government only intensified the inflationary trend. It became apparent that nationalization, though a brave move expressive of national sentiments, was a formidable task, if not an untenable one. By early 1952, oil production had come to a complete standstill—for the first time since 1909—threatening with bankruptcy the government that aimed to liberate Iran from the yoke of economic hegemony.

The street slogan “We sacrificed our lives, we write with our blood: either death or Mosaddeq,” voiced by ordinary people, saw in Mosaddeq not merely a political leader but a savior of the Iranian nation. Mosaddeq’s victory was a serious blow to British and American hopes to see a compromising premier in his place. Both powers had actively sought out Qavam and backed him as an alternative to a coup or direct military action. Moreover, the July 21 uprising displayed the power of the urban lower and middle classes as a counterforce to the politics of the elite; this was a victory for Mosaddeq, who mustered such sentiments despite the Tudeh Party’s long-standing claims to be the party of the masses. Though Tudeh leadership still criticized Mosaddeq, during the uprising its rank and file embraced the National Movement en masse with Mosaddeq as their leader. If a further providential sign was needed, it came with news of Iran’s victory at The Hague on the same day: July 21, 1952. The ICJ agreed with Iran that the court lacked jurisdiction in the Iranian oil dispute since AIOC was a nonstate entity operating under an Iranian license; therefore, the court could not hear the case, as the British government had urged. This was the position initiated by Karim Sanjabi (1904–1995), a French-educated lawyer and a loyal member of Mosaddeq’s inner circle, who was a member of the delegation representing Iran in the court. The chief lawyer hired by Mosaddeq’s government, the Belgian Henri Rollin, skillfully argued Iran’s case. In June 1952 Mosaddeq himself attended the final court sessions to personally present Iran’s case and offer moral support to the defense team. The vote was perhaps the most constructive international victory for Mosaddeq and his allies, having reversed the International Court of Justice’s earlier injunction and vindicated the position Iran had taken all along.

Mosaddeq, sensing the changing international climate, offered a conciliatory counterproposal. In exchange for the British government complying, at least in public, with the principle of nationalization, he consented to arbitration by the International Court of Justice on the amount of compensation to be paid for the AIOC’s installations and other investments, but not for future losses of oil revenue. He further offered AIOC partnership with Iran—but not a monopoly—in the production and distribution of Iranian oil, at a percentage negotiable by the two sides. Under normal circumstances, this Iranian counterproposal would have provided viable grounds for an amicable agreement, but this was not to be the case, for the two Western powers obviously were not negotiating in good faith. By March 1953 the new Eisenhower administration was convinced that the only plausible course for the United States was to remove Mosaddeq by means of a military coup. John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles (1893–1969), the director of the newly organized Central Intelligence Agency, were architects of a foreign policy that came to be known as the Eisenhower Doctrine. It was designed primarily to contain what seemed to Americans as the impending communist threat. Among countries neighboring the Soviet Union, Iran proved particularly crucial because of its long borders with its northern neighbor, its massive oil reserves, access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and its powerful Tudeh Party. The climate of communist phobia in the United States marked by the Red Scare and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee further vindicated in the Americans’ eyes the undertaking of preemptive measures in a contentious case such as Iran.

The downfall of Mosaddeq brought to an end the eventful postwar era, a revolution of sorts that was aborted by familiar forces of conservative opposition and foreign intervention, but also by errors of judgment that proved destructive. In this and other respects, the Mosaddeq era resembled the Constitutional Revolution. In many respects, it was a follow-up to that unfinished revolution, resurfacing a generation later. Mosaddeq’s dilemma, and his tragedy, was that in the outset he tried to fulfill national aspirations while remaining committed to the principles of constitutionalism and democracy. Yet his disturbing display of autocratic conduct toward the end of his premiership may be seen as a conundrum, a vacillation between two modes of constitutional liberalism and radical populism. Mosaddeq and his colleagues also exhibited another dichotomy familiar to the constitutional period: they paid homage to Islam as a source of Iranian identity and courted religious authorities while also hoping to preserve the ideals of a secular society, freedom of the press, and equality before the law—notions that were in contrast to the conservative outlook of the Shi‘i establishment and its radical allies. Mosaddeq’s vision and frame of reference were in part the Shi‘i tradition of Iran. For the greater part, however, he was a man with a secular mind-set that he and his cohorts hailed as a necessary framework for individual rights, division of powers, and liberation from economic hegemony and foreign intrigue. This was a difficult balance to maintain.

In the following years as the CIA’s covert involvement became more apparent, the fall of Mosaddeq came to be seen by most Iranians as a flagrant intrusion by Western powers into Iran’s sovereignty and economic destiny. The shah’s authoritarian rule, evident shortly after the coup, further convinced his opponents of the United States’ malicious designs to impose on Iran a dictator subservient to its strategic interests. The fall of Mosaddeq turned into a traumatic memory that in the coming decades produced a narrative of victimization. It reinforced not only xenophobic suspicions but also pushed the Pahlavi opposition forces toward an anti-Western—more specifically, anti-American—discourse.

The second Pahlavi era was marked by royal politics of self-aggrandizement, especially in the 1970s, and this image was enhanced by the growth of oil revenue, the rise of a subservient technocrat class, and the unprecedented expansion of security forces and the secret police apparatus. Iran’s visibility as a regional power friendly to the United States and the Western world, and episodes of choreographed populism, also contributed. Mohammad Reza Shah’s White Revolution of the early 1960s in reality came to fruition in the mid-1970s with greater industrial growth, infrastructure development, institution building, implementation of a planned economy, greater professional expertise, and educational and legal advances for women. These crucial transformations also triggered contesting visions of modernity. The shah’s image of progress, patterned on a Westernizing model similar to his father’s, was questioned by a small but influential circle of secular dissidents and intellectuals—many with roots in the Tudeh and the National Movement of the postwar era. They began to question wholesale subservience to the West and the regime’s positivistic ideas of progress. With the uprising of June 1963, a turning point in Iran’s shift to Islamic activism, this laymen’s critique of repression, nepotism, and the perceived “moral decline” of society increasingly took on an Islamic veneer. Not only young radical clergy but also revolutionary Marxists and Islamist guerrilla organizations critical of the predominant Westernism began calling for resistance to the Pahlavi regime and eventually for its violent overthrow. Islamic militants, mostly under the aegis of Ayatollah Khomeini, were the ultimate beneficiaries of anti-Pahlavi discourse.

On paper Iran’s nationalization of its oil industry was recognized, and in 1954 the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), which had been formed under Mosaddeq, became the partner in a fifty-fifty profit-sharing agreement with a new holding company, Iranian Oil Participants Limited (IOP), which consisted of eight major American, British, and European oil companies. These partners replaced the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s monopoly. The pattern roughly resembled the ARAMCO consortium of Saudi Arabia, with a similar sharing arrangement. Although the new agreement was a far cry from the objectives of the National Movement, and was unpopular with the general public, it was a face-saving measure for the shah and for the United States. Known as the “seven sisters,” these oil companies held 60 percent of the newly formed consortium. They were Standard Oil of California (later Chevron), Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (later Mobil), Texaco (later Chevron), and Gulf Oil (later Chevron), each holding an 8 percent stake; Royal Dutch Shell, with 14 percent; and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (later Total), with 6 percent. Taking over from AIOC, the newly renamed British Petroleum (BP) held the remaining 40 percent of the consortium’s shares. The consortium was responsible for the exploration, production, and international distribution of Iranian oil and controlled production levels and the pricing structure. Admittedly operating within a smaller area under concession in Khuzestan than had the former AIOC monopoly, Iran nevertheless remained on the receiving end of the production process, with the National Iranian Oil Company in charge of domestic distribution and overall supervision of the operation, a position that proved mostly a formality, at least in the earlier years. IOP held full control over all operations, did not open its books to outsiders, did not allow any AIOC representation on its board, and kept a low political profile while maximizing profits. This was a victory for the big oil companies in tightening their monopoly not only over Iranian oil but also over more than 80 percent of world oil production.

Among the Shi‘i authorities, animosity toward the Baha’is was deep, in part because of doctrinal reasons but also, in the twentieth century, because of a paranoiac fear of Baha’i infiltration of government and society and of their presumed success in converting Muslims over to their “deviant path.” Through intermediaries Borujerdi demanded that because the clergy, with himself at the helm, supported Tudeh purges, in return the shah should repay them by eradicating the Baha’i menace.

Since as early as the Babi persecutions in the Qajar period, Baha’is had been routinely demonized as enemies of Islam. With the new campaign against them, however, the nature of the accusations shifted to a higher level: they were accused not only of doctrinal enmity to Islam but also of being politically disloyal to the country. These claims set the ground, starting in the 1960s, of accusing the Baha’is of being agents of British colonialism, and soon after of being agents of American imperialism and international Zionism, charges that after the 1979 Islamic Revolution had serious repercussions for the Baha’i community in Iran.

A crowd of supporters buoyed by Falsafi’s hate campaign organized a vigilante takeover of the Baha’i center in Tehran. In Shiraz the mob attacked the house of the Bab, the holiest site for the Baha’is and the Azalis in Iran, and all but destroyed it. As a sign of the government’s solidarity with the anti-Baha’i campaign, but in reality a weak attempt to control the situation, in May 1955 General Nader Batmanqlij, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, dispatched troops to occupy the Baha’i center in Tehran. The general personally climbed to the roof to strike the first symbolic blow, demolishing the center’s dome (fig. 10.2). Under pressure from Western governments and facing international criticism (and from Baha’i communities worldwide), the shah began to back off, having sensed the looming repercussions of the campaign getting out of hand. By the end of Ramadan, the most egregious persecutions had subsided. Yet the ban on Baha’i communal activities remained in force. They continued to be banned from government employment, at least officially, and the Baha’i center in Tehran was converted into the headquarters of the Tehran military command and army counterintelligence, the nucleus of what later became the Organization for Security and Intelligence, or the Savak.

By the early 1960s Savak, under the shah’s sponsorship, had begun to earn a reputation for efficiency and discipline, but also for fear mongering and ruthlessness, purposefully cultivating an image even darker than its reality. Among Savak’s new targets were independent political figures, the younger generation of intellectuals, members of the former National Front, leaders of student demonstrations, and outspoken clergy. When the shah ousted Teymur Bakhtiar in 1961, Savak was brought even more tightly under his direct control. Accused of conspiring against the Pahlavi regime in the outset of a new episode of anti-Pahlavi resistance, the general was forced into exile in Geneva, where he began organizing an anti-Pahlavi front together with an exiled Tudeh leader and Ayatollah Khomeini, the emerging de facto leader of the antiregime clergy in Qom. Bakhtiar consequently fled to Lebanon, and then to Iraq, where a Savak agent assassinated him in August 1970. The ouster of Bakhtiar was the last significant military hurdle in the shah’s path to absolute power. He was also the first of the top brass to fall victim to the shah.

An attempt against his life in 1949, from which he miraculously escaped, and soon afterward the arduous course that ended with the coup of 1953 transformed the young shah from a reactive maneuverer into a shrewd, even devious, manipulator. Especially after the tumultuous Mosaddeq years he learned to dominate the political stage at the expense of any independent voice within or outside his immediate reach. The bitter experience of the Mosaddeq years washed away whatever faith he might have had in the democratic process or in what his more liberal-minded advisers urged him to adopt. The experience made him suspicious of popular participation at any level and of genuine debate on any political issue. Although he offered his early support for the oil nationalization campaign, after July 1952 he found himself marginalized and unwanted. From his perspective, Mosaddeq’s course not only aimed to overthrow him and eliminate the monarchy but also would bring the country to the brink of chaos and eventually the throes of communism. His flight to Baghdad and then to Rome in August 1953 after the failure of the first coup to oust Mosaddeq, and his return under the shadow of a second coup staged with active help from American and British agents, was a tormenting memory, even though he presented it to his people as a patriotic victory over unspecified enemies.

With the American presidential election campaign under way, and viable prospects for a Democratic victory, there was growing concern in Tehran about what the implications of John F. Kennedy’s presidency would be for the Pahlavi regime. Kennedy was openly critical of the Republicans’ foreign policy in the developing world, and he questioned outright military aid to oppressive regimes that ignored economic development and democracy. He considered economic and political reforms as alternative means of saving non-Western societies from the lure of socialist-inspired revolutions. The collapse in Cuba of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in early 1959 and Fidel Castro’s rapid shift from a nationalist revolutionary to a committed Marxist made his points all the more glaring. At the time, perhaps no other country besides Iran fit Kennedy’s disapproval of the US granting of unconditional military largesse and moral support. It was therefore quite plausible that beyond Latin America Iran would become a priority for the new administration.

The Shi‘i upper ranks viewed the shah as an imperfect but viable partner, and in the course of the 1953 coup most of the upper and middle ranks, Khomeini included, had sided with Kashani and Borujerdi in their tacit support for the shah, being fearful of the Tudeh takeover. With the introduction of the shah’s reform program, however, that view began to change. The up-and-coming clerics with radical views and their students in Qom clearly were disgruntled with the Pahlavi state on ideological as well as material grounds.

The young Ruhollah (Ruh-Allah means “the Spirit of God,” a Qur’anic title for Jesus and a relatively rare first name for the children of Shi‘i clergy) was brought up by his mother, and after his mother’s premature death, by his paternal aunt, a woman of strong character who left her footprint on the young boy. He received a typical elementary maktab education in Khomein from female and male instructors, including his older brother, but not modern schooling. In the years following the Constitutional Revolution, Khomein, like most small towns, was untouched by modern education, even though the young Ruhollah may have learned rudiments of arithmetic, calligraphy, and some Persian poetry.

A blend of Shi‘i jurisprudence, speculative mysticism (as opposed to mysticism of the Sufis and the Sufi orders), and Islamic ethical and revivalist awareness thus characterized Khomeini’s training. Yet despite his interest in speculative mysticism, he remained loyal to the jurist tradition that carried a certain element of clerical entitlement, especially among high-ranking mojtaheds. He not only inherited this conservative, pedantic, text-oriented legacy but also shared a sense of communal loyalty to fellow jurists that was reinforced by isolation under Pahlavi rule.

In his judgment, attacks on Shi‘i beliefs and rituals were comparable to the attacks the Wahhabi “savages of Arabia” had long leveled against Shi‘ism. Holding nothing back, he was among the first to call upon believers to physically eliminate Kasravi for his blasphemy; it was not mere coincidence that members of Fada’iyan-e Islam assassinated Kasravi in March 1945 shortly after the publication of Khomeini’s book.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Khomeini began to question a number of issues of domestic and foreign policy. Starting with marginal issues—such as the mingling of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and the performing of dances—he soon moved on to more substantive concerns, such as the passing of the first land reform legislation in 1959 and the opening of informal diplomatic relations with Israel and economic collaboration with the Jewish state. In 1962, when the government tried to introduce the elected provincial councils sanctioned by the 1906–1907 Constitution, mostly the shah’s window-dressing to compensate for closing other political channels, Khomeini was at the forefront of clerical opposition, objecting even to the hint of women’s right to vote. He argued that the voting regulations failed to specify the male gender—and hence exclude women—from the electorate. Along with other ayatollahs in Qom, he also objected to dropping the oath of allegiance to the Qur’an for the provincial councils’ delegates, an omission seen in Qom as a concession to the Baha’is and their election to the councils rather than as a symbolic delinking of religion and politics. In his telegram to the premier Asadollah ‘Alam in October 1962, Khomeini further threatened that on these and other issues contrary to shari‘a, he would not remain silent, and that, in response, the government would face severe clerical opposition.

He contrasted these excesses of the regime with the frugal and selfless clergy of Qom. He “advised” the shah, as he put it, in the strongest terms to abandon Israel, to listen to the marja‘s, and not to deviate from the path of Islam so as to avoid the sad fate of his father, whose abdication brought joy to Iranian hearts. Touching upon such sensitive themes in an emotionally charged environment, Khomeini’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by the loud weeping of the mournful audience. For the first time a copy of the recorded tape of his speech soon traveled across Iran and resonated with the people in the bazaars and streets of the poorer neighborhoods. The powerful call for defiance quickly bore results, leading to a bloody uprising in the capital and some provincial cities. In the early hours of June 5, two days after his Fayziyeh speech, Khomeini was arrested by security forces, brought to Tehran, and detained in the Officers’ Club, where Mosaddeq had been detained, before being sent off to jail. On the same day, June 5, as the news of Khomeini’s arrest reached the public, Iranian cities witnessed a violent uprising. As if the crowd had anticipated the arrest, tens of thousands of protesters holding makeshift placards of Khomeini’s portrait and shouting slogans against the shah poured into the streets near the bazaar and other neighborhoods of Tehran, smashing shop windows, burning down banks and cinemas, and attacking bus stations, police stations, and government buildings. Among other places, the Pepsi bottling facility, the Iran-US cultural center, and Iranian broadcasting services were attacked and burned down. The crowd, aroused by devout supporters of Khomeini from among the gang leaders (lutis) of Tehran’s wholesale vegetable market, armed with sticks and knives, began to move in the direction of the Marmar royal palace in central Tehran, where the shah’s office was located.

Khomeini was held in an army barracks in Tehran for nearly two months before being put under house arrest for another eight months. A handful of mojtaheds in major cities, many Khomeini’s supporters and students, were temporarily detained. The gang leaders responsible for the Tehran uprising were tried and hanged, and all physical signs of destruction in Tehran were quickly removed or restored. Yet the psychological wounds inflicted by the revolt remained unhealed. Khomeini, seemingly unrepentant and untarnished, returned to Qom in March 1964. He was spared the death sentence and released from detention after the other marja‘s in Qom, including Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari, pleaded with the shah, cautioning him of the dire consequences of executing a major figure like Khomeini. There was no love lost between Khomeini and the other ayatollahs in Qom. What was at stake, however, was clerical prestige and their glaring display of ineffectiveness before the state were one of their cohort to be detained or eliminated, an unprecedented event, save for the 1909 revolutionary trial and execution of Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri. In March 1964 the coming to office of a more appeasing government under Hasan-‘Ali Mansur (Mansour, 1923–1965) was instrumental in Khomeini’s release. His appointment generated further hope for reconciliation. Khomeini, relying on his growing popular support in and out of the bazaar, was determined to carry on his crusade even if, as he stated, it were to cost him his life. As if retreating from the Fada’iyan-e Islam agenda of the 1950s (whose supporters no doubt were crucial in the June uprising), Qom, under the spell of Khomeini, demanded implementation of Islamic laws and abolition of the White Revolution’s anti-Islamic decrees, which in reality meant reversing the land reform program, and especially returning waqf properties to their trustees. Honoring the demands of the Shi‘i clergy also meant annulling women’s right to vote, the possible enforcement of hijab, and allowance of ta‘ziyeh passion plays and other mourning ceremonies that the regime had deemed superstitious and barbaric. In a speech in Qom a few days after Khomeini’s arrival, Mansur also called for dissolution of the Majles and the Senate, accused the Pahlavi state of being in cahoots with Israel and “the agents of Zionism,” and called for an end to corruption. More vociferously than on earlier occasions, he also accused the Baha’is of perceived charges of occupying positions of power and collaborating with Israel. Most important, the declaration called for the implementation of article 2 of the 1907 Supplement to the Iranian Constitution, which stipulated the creation of a five-member mojtahed body to oversee the legislation of the Majles. The Pahlavi state and its projected reform program could not remotely honor any such demands.

He further condemned the mingling of boys and girls, especially in mixed schools; attacked as distorted the history textbooks portraying the clergy as detrimental to the prosperity of the country; and above all, called on the clergy, the armed forces, statesmen, and businessmen of Iran to beware of the impending decline and loss of Islam. Calling on the Najaf Shi‘i ayatollahs and heads of Islamic nations, including the shah, he warned: “Since we are a weak nation and don’t have dollars, does it mean that we should be pummeled under the American boots? America is worse than Britain and Britain is worse than America and the Soviet Union is worse than both of them; each is worse than the other and each more evil than the other. Yet today we are faced with America.” The focus of this vitriolic attack was the US president Lyndon B. Johnson, whom Khomeini believed to be “the most spiteful toward our nation than any human being because of the wrongs he inflicted on the Islamic nation. The Qur’an is his enemy; the people of Iran are his enemy. The government of the United States should know that in Iran he has been debased and scandalized.”5 This fuming rhetoric left little room for compromise. A week later, coinciding with the ratification in the Majles of the American loan, the Iranian special forces surrounded Khomeini’s house in Qom. He was whisked out of the city directly to Tehran airport and put on an airplane that took him to Turkey, where he spent a year in exile in the city of Bursa, known for its Islamic loyalties. Accompanied by his son, Mostafa, and clad in civilian clothing, he visited mosques and shrines in the ancient city (fig. 10.5). Later on, moving to Najaf, he kept a distance from the city’s clerical politics, although he was by no means isolated. He remained in exile for the following thirteen years, writing and teaching but also preserving his network of supporters and followers throughout Iran. Through his devout students and bazaar contacts he collected religious dues and redistributed funds among his former and current students and for other religious causes

By the mid-1970s Iran had developed a substantial domestic market for cars and related industries, household goods, clothing, food and drinks, furniture, and construction material, and the balance of the public and private sectors promised a viable mixed economy for a developing nation that still was heavily relying on oil revenue for its public investment. The critics on the intellectual left and later the extreme left, some still carrying the incurable Tudeh bug, belittled much of Iran’s industrialization as a mere “assembly” (montage) of useless products that had been imposed by Western consumer culture and were for the benefit of a “dependent bourgeoisie.” Often looking up to the smoke-belching, inefficient, labor-intensive, centralized Soviet and Eastern European industrialization model, such criticism later was picked up by the Islamic radicals and became part of the rhetoric of the 1979 revolution. Yet it is fair to say that in later years, the state industrialization program became overambitious and out of control, leading to waste, corruption, and nepotism—at times it was devoid of any meaningful relation to the state’s preconceived master plan.

The growth of the industrial sector barely satisfied the domestic markets’ growing demand for goods and services. Imports of all sorts from Europe, the United States, and Japan flooded Iran’s markets, mostly at the expense of the bazaar sector and associated small-scale manufactures and wholesalers. As the larger import-export and industrial businesses gradually moved out of the bazaar district into more fashionable areas, the bazaar’s demographics began to change, especially in Tehran but also in larger provincial centers. In due course the bazaar came to house mostly small merchants, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers of small industries catering to the poorer and more traditional sectors of the population. The change in its function was not necessarily detrimental to the bazaar, despite the government’s unfavorable attitude toward the bazaar merchants for harboring antiregime, and particularly pro-Khomeini, sentiments. Undeniably, demographic changes turned these old centers of commerce not merely into bastions of conservatism but also into important components, financially and otherwise, of the growing Islamic activism.

Between 1971 and 1977 Iran’s annual budget further grew sixfold from $8 billon to $48 billion, an upsurge substantially due to direct and indirect oil receipts. Shortly before the October 1973 war between Egypt and Israel that led to the Arab OPEC members’ oil embargo and triggered a rapid rise in oil prices, a barrel of Persian Gulf light crude traded at the exploitatively low price of $1.95, a price that was the outcome of many negotiations in previous years. Soon after the October war, however, the price jump stunned even the oil producers; by 1975 it had reached nearly $11 per barrel in the European spot market and even higher prices in the United States. By not taking part in the Arab embargo against the United States, Iran stood to benefit not only financially but also politically. In contrast to the unfavorable image of Arab oil producers in Western media, which stereotyped the Arab sheiks as greedy plunderers with undeserving riches, Iran was seen, at least by those who could differentiate Iran from its Arab neighbors, as something of a friend—still greedy and unfair, no doubt, but not hostile and uncompromising.

Despite voices of dissent—for instance, George Ball (1901–1994), US undersecretary of state in the Kennedy administration, who criticized the shah’s autocratic rule on a number of occasions—the US polity and public opinion overwhelmingly viewed Iran as America’s indispensable ally in the Middle East and the shah as a modernizing agent for his people. Friendly relations with Israel also contributed to Americans’ favorable attitude toward the shah, especially after 1973. The shah’s affinity with Israel was primarily grounded in common geopolitical and strategic concerns, but undeniably it helped ingratiate the shah to his American allies.

Despite growing publicity in the American press about violations of human rights, Iranian political prisoners, allegations of torture, military tribunals, and press censorship, American envoys to Iran and high-ranking politicians in Washington were, by and large, willing to turn a blind eye to such unpleasant realities. At most, they treated such issues as an unavoidable evil to be tolerated from a loyal and dependable friend. Even if objections were occasionally raised in private to trusted officials, such as the court minister Asadollah ‘Alam, or to the shah himself, they were often on specific issues that directly concerned the United States rather than any cautionary advice about the nature of the shah’s autocratic rule, the excesses of the secret police, the absence of credible elected bodies, press censorship, and the evident disarray in economic policies. These were seen by US administrations as issues related to the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, and hence outside the diplomatic mandate.

By the mid-1970s the shah had been able to carve out a strategic niche in the midst of a superpower divide on which the stability of the Persian Gulf and neighboring countries depended. Contrary to the conventional narrative articulated by his domestic and Western critics, and despite his many blind spots, the shah came to be seen by the two superpowers and by European powers as an experienced statesman and a crucial ally who built up a popular base at home, carried out domestic reforms, averted conservative opposition, thwarted his radical Arab neighbors, and worked toward stability and peace in the region. From the shah’s perspective, his compliance with US foreign policy objectives not only was inevitable, given his country’s perilous geopolitics, but also was beneficial to Iran’s stability and prosperity. Though always anxious to prove his loyalty to the West, he was skillful in appeasing his Soviet neighbor, too, often to his advantage. It could be argued that the shah’s latter years were the most stable in Iran’s foreign policy, considering Iran’s fateful geopolitics since the turn of the nineteenth century. In retrospect the shah’s stabilizing effect may be gauged by the aftershocks that the region witnessed after the collapse of the Pahlavi order and the revolution of 1979: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, destabilization of Pakistani politics, the rise of Saddam Hussein and the Ba‘athists as a regional menace, the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a petroleum empire, and subsequent Wahhabi-Salafi militancy.

By the mid-1970s repression at home and shortfalls in economic spheres cast a long shadow over the Pahlavi state, beyond even the reality—an image further blemished by perceptions of compliance with Western interests. The United States, in particular, came to be seen by the Iranian public—even beyond a cluster of liberal and leftist trends and clerical dissidents—as a selfish superpower that exploited Iran’s natural resources, kept the shah in power, and perpetuated repression. The burgeoning anti-Americanism of the 1940s and 1950s was later internalized by a wide spectrum of Iranian dissenters. The image of the United States as a hegemonic superpower was further blemished during the Vietnam War, which received extensive coverage in the Iranian press.

Yet aside from the favorable ambience created by the US cultural and educational commitments, the closer US association with the Iranian security and military exposed ordinary Iranians to another aspect of American presence. By the mid-1970s there were tens of thousands of Americans working in Iran, including a substantial number in the service of the government as military advisers, contractors, technicians, and skilled labor. Some were former military personnel of the post-Vietnam era who, in pursuit of handsomely paid jobs, moved to Iran. They were attracted to the country’s burgeoning military industry, such as the US-franchised Bell Helicopter plant in Isfahan operational by 1975. Others were employees of big corporations involved in large-scale construction, oil, communication, and technology projects. As far as the Pahlavi state was concerned, the American and European pool of expertise was a natural resource with which Iran could address shortages in homegrown skilled and technical labor force during the boom years of the Iranian economy. A majority of these military personnel and civilians serving in Iran were employed at far higher salaries than their Iranian counterparts who had mastered comparable skills and had similar experience. In turn, they enjoyed a standard of living higher than their Iranian counterparts. The economic disparity became a source of disgruntlement, soon to be compounded by notions of Americans’ cultural insensitivities. Instances of Americans’ condescending attitude toward Iranians in the workplace and in the street were amplified beyond proportion. Examples of rowdy, heavy-drinking, unrestrained young American men in particular publicized the imprudent Yankee stereotype in such traditional settings as in the city of Isfahan.

Complacency and a disconnection from the realities of Iranian society slowly eroded the foundations of the Pahlavi order. The shah’s all-embracing royal power began to be hollowed, first and foremost, because of his aversion to meaningful modes of pluralism and public participation. The memories of the pre-1953 years seem to have convinced him, as he declared even in public, that in Iran democracy could generate only discord and chaos. His resolve, his vision, and his people’s loyalty and compliance, he insisted, were viable assets for Iran’s progress toward “Great Civilization.” Such a vision, if it was to be believed, served as a potent excuse for applying all means of political control, without respect for contesting views that challenged his positivist vision and the arbitrary means of making it materialize.

Nearly two decades of state patronage had opened a wider and more exciting cultural space in Iran. Media, especially television, artistic venues, the press and book publication, and growing viewership and readership offered intellectuals and artists a broader market and greater recognition. These happened despite the shrinking political horizons and the state’s obsessive efforts to silence all forms of dissent or coopt willing partners. Voices of dissent survived, however veiled, in the state’s broadcasting network, cinema, and various cultural and public institutions. Insofar as giving Iranians a more articulate sense of themselves, the state was able to reap the fruits of a half century of Pahlavi nationalist policies. But as it remained closely identified with a vision of positivist progress and Westernizing modernity, it also set in motion a quest for “authenticity” and cultural sovereignty.

The state’s cultural policies were largely geared to absorb the intellectual left rather than the forces of religious dissent. The former could relay cryptic messages of dissent, as much as possible, and hope for better days. The latter enjoyed fewer forums and had to rely mostly on its own traditional venues. The closure of Hosainiyeh-e Ershad ironically diverted more energies and attention to mosques, Qur’an study classes, and inspirational preaching presided over by activist clergy who were not patronized by the state.

After fourteen years of exile in Najaf, Khomeini once more was about to reemerge as the most relentless critic of the Pahlavi state. He enjoyed support not only from among his clerical and lay followers but also within the general public, who hailed him as a champion of resistance. Yet by no means was he yet viewed as the sole leader of the protest movement, or even as the man at its forefront. Exiled but not forgotten, he patiently had waited out years in the social wilderness, perhaps with little hope of ever going back to Iran, let alone leading a revolution. For younger generations of Iranians, Ayatollah Khomeini was a figure of the opposition from the past who had returned to the political stage. An opportune moment seemed to have miraculously propelled him to the forefront of a powerful movement, and despite his best intentions, his image would soon be surrounded by an aura of sanctity.

Yet during his short stay in Tehran on New Year’s Eve of 1978, President Carter, at a banquet given in his honor, toasted the shah and declared Iran “an island of stability” in the troubled Middle East. A misstatement that was destined to gain some notoriety, it appeared in the official reports along with pictures of President Carter holding a glass of champagne and flanked by Princess Ashraf, who at the time was perhaps the most unpopular member of the Pahlavi family. Only two days prior to President Carter’s arrival (accompanied on the trip by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski), the American-Iranian Cultural Center building in Tehran, a hub of American-inspired cultural activities and English-language learning, was bombed by the Fada’iyan-e Khalq guerrillas. The opposition condemned the miscalculated American gesture as an affront to the Iranian people. But the apparent US insensitivity was topped only eight months later by a visit by the premier of the People’s Republic of China. Hua Guofeng’s state visit to Iran in September 1978 came at time when the revolutionary firestorm, of which Iranian Maoists were an integral part, was about to consume the Pahlavi regime. It was as if neither the United States nor the Chinese could yet grasp the force of the revolution in the offing.

That the 1979 revolution was destined to acquire an “Islamic” face is another debatable issue. Islamic, as it became blatantly clear, meant not merely respect for Islamic moral values in a secular constitutional framework. Nor did it mean merely honoring a national icon in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini. As the revolution unfolded and turned into an Islamic republic, it became painfully clear that Islamic meant something more: a radical state with theocratic underpinnings, or more accurately, a hierocracy headed by an authoritarian guardian jurist and buttressed by an oligarchy with militant clergy at its core. Utilizing modern means of ascendency and control, the republic’s clerical elite and subservient lay cohort quickly deployed weapons of intimidation and violence. They added to this concoction a generous dose of anti-Westernism and Islamist idealism,

Khomeini’s novel reading of the notion of guardianship of the jurist as the only legitimate alternative to “unjust” temporal rule was at odds with the traditional Shi‘i aversion toward political power, avoiding government offices, and, for the most part, engaging in state affairs (except the mostly hereditary post of serving as leaders of Friday congregational prayers in major cities). Shi‘i law generally held the position that in the absence of the Imam of the Age, any form of government, presumably even a government led by the jurists, is fundamentally “unjust” and therefore theoretically illegitimate. Only the savior Mahdi—in Twelver Shi‘ism, the Twelfth Imam who is considered to be in occultation—upon his return to the material world at the outset of a process that leads to the End of the Time will, with divine blessing, restore justice and equity to earth and establish the utopian society (or dystopian, if we consider its apocalyptic finale) that was lost with the death of the Prophet of Islam.

In Khomeini’s view the secular rulers are unlikely candidates to enforce Islamic law because: If the ruler is not knowledgeable about [Islamic] legal affairs, he is not fit to rule for if he would just follow ([taqlid] a jurist), his authority will be wrecked. And if he doesn’t follow [a jurist], he cannot enforce the Islamic law. It is an obvious fact [therefore] that “the jurists are rulers over the sultans” [al-fuqaha hukkam ala al-salatin]. If the sultans are obedient to Islam, they must abide by the jurists and ask them about laws and injunctions in order to enforce them. In that case the jurists are the true ruler, and therefore authority to rule [hakemiyat] must officially rest with them and not with those who because of their ignorance of the [Islamic] law must abide by the ruling of the jurists.

The men and women who were motivated through mosques and mourning associations were led to believe that Islam, and especially Shi‘i Islam, packaged as an ideological miracle pill for all of Iran’s ills, was not primarily a set of monotheistic beliefs, devotional acts, and moral principles, nor even loyalty to the House of the Prophet and belief in the coming of the Mahdi, but instead a religion of protest and political action against oppression and exploitation, monarchical power, and its global allies. It was among these awakened multitudes that Khomeini shrewdly managed to harness energies for his revolutionary cause. He repeatedly paid homage to what he called “our valiant Islamic nation” and invariably acted on a presumed mandate on behalf of the disinherited to further the “true” (rastin) objectives of his “dear Islam.”

A little over seven months after the founding of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini dismissed Mahdi Bazargan, the prime minister of the provisional government who had facilitated the birth of the new regime. Less than two years later, hard-line supporters of Khomeini not only forced out the relatively moderate first president of the Republic, Abol-Hasan Banisadr, and his allies but also wiped out nearly all the forces of the left. The republic, moreover, banned or marginalized all moderate clerical and secular voices and purged, jailed, or executed real or imagined supporters of the old regime. It forced hundreds of thousands of members of the middle classes into self-imposed exile. Conducting a “cultural revolution” of its own, the regime purged thousands from universities and research institutes and tried to redefine education and cultural discourse on its own terms. By all accounts, this was an impressive performance, irrespective of how oppressive and violent it turned out to be.

The symbiosis of the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards also worked well in the course of the war with Iraq, whereby the latter served as a parallel force to the regular army, however unprofessionally. In return, a vast treasure trove of “nationalized” industries and confiscated land and properties of the Pahlavi state and its elite soon came under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. The conglomerates of agricultural estates and other economic resources kept them content and in comportment with the wishes of the ruling mullahs. Even after the war, the Guards served as the single most effective guarantor of the regime’s survival. Parallel with the Revolutionary Guards and complementary to their mission of combatting so-called antirevolutionary forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Courts (dadgahha-ye enqelab-e Islami) were established immediately after the victory of February 1979. They were presided over by clerical judges appointed in most cases by Khomeini and functioned under the close supervision of his clerical allies. With singular ferocity the revolutionary courts exercised their version of Islamic justice. “God’s vengeance,” by which they often legitimized their verdicts, was clear and simple, irrespective of the complexity of the cases before them or a complete lack of viable evidence. Independent of Bazargan’s provisional government, the mission of the revolutionary courts was to eliminate the “enemy”: to imprison, confiscate, intimidate, and quash the “antirevolution,” which meant any voice or force deemed to be against the regime’s hegemony.

Article 14 made it a duty to display “noble conduct,” equanimity and justice toward all non-Muslims, and respect for “human rights” (hoquq-e ensani). Likewise, pledges for equal rights of all ethnicities, equal protection before the law, and protection of life and property of all citizens against illegal intrusions of all sorts (articles 19, 20, and 22) proved sheer rhetoric when thousands were illegally arrested and imprisoned on flimsy charges and their properties confiscated by order of the revolutionary courts. The ethnic Kurd, Turkmen, and Arab minorities were harassed, and many were persecuted and fell victim to the regime’s denial of their demands. Rights of women, which received some attention throughout the text, revealed familiar features of male superiority, as evident particularly among the clergy. The preamble to the constitution, which devoted a section to women, promised that “because in the idle-worshiping regime women sustained greater oppression, reclaiming their rights deserves a priority.” It is in the framework of the family, it further specifies, “that women will no longer be objects or tools disseminating consumerism and exploitation.” By “rediscovering their critical and precious duty of motherhood, women will be forebears in the active field of life [giving] so as to produce together with their male fellow warriors ideologically committed [maktabi] humans.” Discharging this duty “in Islamic perspective enjoys the highest value and blessing.” The trendy revolutionary language aside, the clerical framers of the constitution here defined women’s “function” as essentially the same as in traditional Shi‘i jurisprudence, where women primarily were recognized as reproductive units. Article 21 furthermore obliged the state to prepare suitable grounds for realizing all aspects of women’s rights “according to Islamic guidelines.” Among these rights, “qualified” women were granted custodianship of their children only when no other “legal guardian” could be appointed, so as to avoid women’s mental agony. In reality, this invariably meant giving priority to the divorced husband or male relatives of the deceased husband.

More detrimental to a manageable pattern of urban growth were the Islamic Republic’s promises to provide free housing for the poor, a remedy to the sprawling shantytowns that had grown around the capital and major provincial centers in the 1970s. Presided over in the early days of the revolution by two fiery mullahs, two self-styled housing organizations laid their hands on a vast number of privately owned houses, apartments, and plots of land in large cities. The seizure had no legal grounds, having occurred even before any ruling by the revolutionary courts. They invited the disinherited to apply for ownership and subsequently settled hundreds of thousands into confiscated properties. The prospect of free housing proved an incentive for the poor and lower-middle classes to migrate to larger cities. Far more than could have been realistically accommodated, there were so many applicants that the free housing scheme turned into a fiasco. Even the Revolutionary Guards were wary of how to maintain order and security. Multitudes of unlucky applicants had to settle for less in the poor neighborhoods that quickly swelled in the capital and provincial centers. In a short span, overenrolled schools, pressure on utilities, congested traffic, and air pollution became a fact of postrevolutionary urban life. Unregulated building permits granted to speculating building contractors aggravated the sprawl.

Beyond holding to the amenities and vital services, the new regime gradually adopted a haphazard privatization practice, whereby it parceled out some of its profitable assets to people with connections in very favorable terms as a reward for their loyalty—individuals and families the regime considered as its own, the insiders (khodi). The most obvious candidates were ayatollahs’ offspring and their cronies. The closer to the center of power, the better their chances were for building new business empires, ranging from manufactured goods, textiles, and food industries to banking, shipping, heavy industry, auto manufacturing, and import-export. Also favored as insiders were former members of the Revolutionary Guards, veterans of the Iraq-Iran War with notable loyalty to the regime, and families of the war martyrs who became clients of the powerful ayatollahs.

The ten-month-long coup de grace of 1981–1982 can thus justifiably be seen as the third stage of the revolution. While February 1979 brought down the Pahlavi ancien régime and the hostage crisis wiped out the “step-by-step” Bazargan model, the fall of Banisadr and the purging of the opposition—coinciding with mass mobilization for the war with Iraq—brought the greatest concentration of power into the hands of the hard-liner Khomeinists.

June 1981, Khomeini had denounced the National Front leadership as “apostates,” primarily for calling a rally to protest the passage by the Majles of the law of Islamic retribution (qesas). The law, which replaced the penal code of the Pahlavi era, instituted such ancient punishments as stoning married women for extramarital affairs, cutting off limbs for theft and other serious offenses, and determining life or death of murderers and other culprits by the mere consent of relatives of the victim, whom the new law defined as “custodians of the [victim’s] blood” (awliya-e damm). On a broader scheme, the National Front was being punished for holding Khomeini accountable for the climate of intimidation and terror. By the summer of 1982, most leaders of the National Front either had fled the country into permanent exile or had ended up in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. Not entirely devoid of potential middle-class support, the National Front nevertheless found itself in no position to withstand Khomeini’s rage or the terror of the club-wielding Hezbollah and their paymaster in the Islamic Republican Party. The Freedom Movement had been saved only barely by renouncing its old comrades in the National Front. This was a humiliating fate for a movement that had stood for national sovereignty and political freedom for three decades. Khomeini and his turbaned clique never really trusted or cared for the tie-wearing, liberal nationalists. Nor did Khomeini ever acknowledge Mosaddeq as a national leader or subscribe to his path. It was largely the misplaced hopes of the liberal nationalists in the early days of the revolution that made them believe Khomeini was their partner in democracy, an error they quickly began to regret. As Karim Sanjabi, the leader of the National Front, once said: “Now it is the mullahs’ slippers that replaced military boots.” Fearing for his life, in July 1981 Sanjabi went into hiding before leaving for Paris and soon after retiring in the United States.

By the end of 1983 an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed in battle, stunning losses for both countries. This was also reflective of the Iranian resolve to push ahead at almost any cost. Iraq’s huge advantages included billions of dollars of financial support from conservative Arab states wary of the threat of the Islamic Revolution. Saudi Arabia contributed as much as US$30 billion to Saddam’s war chest, while Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates contributed in excess of $8 billion each. The Iraqi army, moreover, received massive military hardware from the United States, France, Britain, and West Germany. The Ba‘athist regime enjoyed the general blessing of countries of the Western Bloc throughout the war and in contrast to a spirit of belligerence aimed at Iran. A surfeit of financial and military and moral support nevertheless kept the Iraqi positions only barely defensible. By early 1984 Iran had managed to gain the upper hand not merely by fielding greater numbers of troops or superior strategy but also by high morale and sheer sacrifice. Deceived by its momentary successes, however, soon the Iranian leadership, and above all Khomeini, had to face the harsh reality as the Iraqis’ revived spirit of resistance countered Iran’s repeated offensives inside Iraq. Military and civilian casualties, too, were quickly rising. As Iran shifted from defense to the offensive, the war had turned bloodier and the carnage heavier. Early in 1984, for the first time Iraqis began deploying chemical weapons against Iranian troops and later against Kurdish Iraqi civilians in the north. The use of mustard gas and nerve gas were flagrant violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibited the deployment of chemical and biological weapons. Yet the countries of the Western world did not condemn Saddam’s criminal act outright. In a ludicrous charade, the US administration and its European allies instead pointed their finger of blame toward Iran, if not as a chief culprit, at least as a co-offender of the chemical ban. Both the Reagan administration and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government surreptitiously facilitated, directly or through a third party, the sale to Iraq of material for production of chemical weapons, including a factory for manufacturing chlorine, the chief ingredient in producing chemical weapons. Thousands of Iranian soldiers died a painful death or were permanently injured after exposure to poisonous fumes. Though chemical weapons had limited logistical use, their effect on Iranian morale was lasting and helped slow down troop maneuvers. Gruesome scenes of victims of gas attacks with advanced skin burns, fatal respiratory problems, or total or partial blindness were eerily reminiscent of World War I chemical warfare. Use of deadly gases, however, did not substantially change the Iranians’ resolve to continue their offensive.

The downing of an Iran Air passenger Airbus on July 3, 1988, by the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, resulting in the loss of 290 civilian lives, was an ominous sign. The incident presumably was caused by the US cruiser mistaking the passenger airliner as an approaching Iranian fighter jet, a questionable judgment, perhaps, given Iran’s poor air force capabilities at the time and the USS Vincennes’s advanced radar and intelligence equipment. The incident, Iran’s first and only direct military engagement with the United States, reflected the growing tension that had built up between the two countries ever since the hostage crisis. The United States barely expressed regret for the incident, blaming it on the roguery of the Iran Air pilot. Eight years later, when the United States agreed to pay only minimal reparations to the victims’ relatives, this was interpreted as a further mark of the United States trying to humiliate Iran.

The humiliating end to the war, moreover, did not bring down the Iranian regime or even sap the revolutionary zeal of its leadership. In part, this can be explained by an effective purge of Iran’s political dissent throughout the war and after. Though never reaching the scale and ferocity of the police state in Saddam’s Iraq, silencing domestic opposition in Iran under the pretext of security and war priorities secured the regime enough synergy to last even after the demeaning final settlement. War, in effect, vastly helped the Islamic Republic consolidate its military, propaganda, and policing apparatuses; close constitutional loopholes; and increase ideological and economic control over society. In this respect, although the war was a net defeat with huge casualties, material ruination, and temporary territorial loss, it was a “blessing” in disguise, as was repeatedly acknowledged by the regime’s clerical leadership. Irrespective of what the regime claimed as its popular mandate, the experience of the war and memories of sacrifice, life in the trenches, bombing of the cities, rationing, and economic hardship were all ingredients for a trial by fire that contributed to shaping postrevolutionary Iran.

Revelations in November 1986 concerning an Iranian arms deal with the United States, using Israel as an intermediary, triggered a full-scale political scandal between August 1985 and March 1987 in Washington, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, with serious repercussions for the Reagan administration. The course of events that shaped the affair exhibited how the United States, despite a history of rancorous relations with Iran, was prepared to engage Iran by supplying it with arms and spare parts, albeit for its own covert operation. Even more troubling was the fact that despite the Islamic Republic’s public denouncement of Israel, it had no compunction in using Israel as an intermediary in the arms deal, all the while persecuting Baha’is in towns and villages of Iran on charges of espionage for the Great Satan and the Zionist entity. In the years leading to Iran-Contra, Iran was listed by the United States among the “rogue” states sponsoring terrorism and subject to an arms embargo and other sanctions. The secret arms deal thus promised to provide Iran with much-needed material in the war with the minor Satan, as Saddam ranked in the demonology of the Islamic Republic. Whatever the Reagan administration’s justifications for the arms deal with Iran, including raising funds needed for a covert operation against Nicaragua, facilitating the release of American hostages who were in the custody of the Hezbollah of Lebanon, and a goodwill gesture with the remote hope of rekindling relations with revolutionary Iran, the initiative eventually backfired. It blew up into a major embarrassment on several counts and received enormous publicity worldwide. In addition to breaching the arms sanctions against Iran, the White House security adviser stood accused of breaking a congressional ban on assistance to Contra forces fighting the Nicaraguan revolutionary regime.

At least three characteristics qualify the Islamic Revolution as a major revolutionary movement in modern times. First, it was based on mass mobilization and large-scale popular participation. It was unprecedented not only in Middle Eastern history but also in the sheer number of participants—perhaps one of the largest in modern history. The revolutionary movement was comprehensive and decisive in ousting the old political order and dismantling its associated political and economic elites. Second, in a remarkably short time, the Islamic Revolution managed to establish a new political order, nurture a new sociopolitical elite, and institutionalize its hierocracy despite serious domestic and external challenges. The incipient Islamic Republic violently surpassed all other real or potential contenders. In this respect it demonstrated a consistent drive toward greater monopoly of power. This was in common with most totalitarian regimes intolerant of dissent even within their own ranks. War in particular greatly contributed to the Islamic Republic’s grassroots support as much as to its ability to crush its opposition. Third, the Islamic Revolution offered a cultural program that included a curious mix of hard-line conservatism, anti-imperialist rhetoric, selective modernity, and conscious antisecularism. In practice, it showed no hesitation in employing modern means of repression, control, and propaganda. Nor did it show hesitation to adopt modern programs of economic development and social welfare, as long as they could be safely Islamicized. In this respect, too, despite many signs of anachronism, the Islamic Republic put into practice a program of social engineering with enduring results.

The steady growth of the Revolutionary Guard Corps in areas of defense, security, and economic activities exemplifies Khamenei’s purposeful patronage. In 1989, in the postwar construction era, a new economic arm of the Revolutionary Guard, known as Qarargah-e Sazandegi-e Khatam al-Anbiya (the Khatam al-Anbiya construction military base), gradually took over the most lucrative state development projects. In the following decades Qarargah, an expanding economic conglomerate with numerous subsidiaries, acquired a near monopoly over major engineering, energy transmission, oil and gas, hydrological, and telecommunications projects. Being an integral part of the Revolutionary Guards’ command structure and operating on a military model, the Qarargah may be compared to similar military-economic conglomerates elsewhere in Egypt, Thailand, and Myanmar. In the Islamic Republic the reciprocal arrangement between the clerical wing of the leadership, headed by the Supreme Leader, and the Revolutionary Guards, as the military guarantor of the regime, cannot be missed. In exchange for noninterference in the political sphere, the Revolutionary Guard is granted extensive economic monopolies to assure its institutional well-being and welfare of its personnel.

Drug addiction, in particular, became more widespread among the urban middle classes. While smoking opium was a declining recreational habit during the Pahlavi era, it gained a new lease on life under the Islamic Republic. More worrying, heroin addiction became dangerously rampant among youth. A ban on the cultivation of opium and the anti-addiction campaigns of the 1950s, one of the success stories of the Pahlavi era, had helped control opium addiction and drug abuse. With the rise of the Islamic Republic, however, it was as though the social stigma had been lifted and all moral barriers had crumbled. Even though the government of the Islamic Republic continued to enforce the ban on drugs and built up a substantial force to fight drug trafficking on its southeastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, opium and purified heroin continued to be smuggled across the Baluchistan border in large quantities, despite the Revolutionary Guards’ routine clashes with armed drug traffickers. By the 1990s heroin, as a cheap and accessible drug, was available not only on the street but also in high schools and at universities. Young victims from both sexes and every social class multiplied in large numbers, turning addiction into a major cause for the growth of underaged prostitution, both male and female, juvenile delinquency, and petty and organized crime. Addiction in Iran had deep historical roots, though perhaps not any more prevalent than in other societies exposed to rapid urban change.

An even more pronounced feature of the silent rejection of the Islamic Republic’s dystopia was a contagious urge among many, and especially among the educated classes, to leave Iran and settle elsewhere. A sense of entrapment in their own country, coupled with an unrealistic, almost philistine, perception of the world beyond, was responsible for the departure from Iran of hundreds of thousands to uncertain futures. Iranian émigrés in increasing numbers were to be found wandering in low-income neighborhoods in Istanbul and Izmir awaiting entry visas to the United States and European countries; in the shopping malls in Dubai and other UAE countries; in Greek port cities near the harbor preparing for crossing to other European destinations; in detention centers as far east as in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea; and as undocumented émigrés everywhere and many in detention centers and refugee camps. At no time in Iran’s recent history has there been such a desperate movement of the population. The closest, the immigrant workers to the Baku oil fields in the early decades of the twentieth century or to Kuwait in the 1960s, were temporary guest workers in much smaller numbers and invariably limited to unskilled workers from the Iranian countryside. The Islamic Republic remained altogether indifferent to this massive brain drain. Propelled by the growth in the numbers of university graduates and professional classes who were unable to find gainful employment at home or unwilling to bow to unwelcome social pressures, the by-products of Iran’s demographic revolution were to the regime more of a potential liability than a precious workforce necessary to build Iran’s future. It was as if the boundary lines between the self and the other in the Islamic Republic were drawn in such a fashion as to protect an elite minority, loyal to the regime but inferior in education and skills, at the expense of repelling a far larger segment of the population who were educated and skilled but ideologically uncommitted to the emerging Islamic order. “Commitment [ta’ahhod] over expertise [takhassos]” was a favorite slogan that cost the Iranian economy dearly.

Obsession with the human body, especially the female body, had a deep history in the Shi‘i jurisprudence, for it served as the regulatory principle for enforcing hijab, gender segregation, and other controlling practices in the Islamic Republic and in its courts, schools, offices, and prisons. Shi‘i jurisprudence viewed the vagina (rahem) as the primal unit for kinship and family loyalties and legal rights, and henceforth demanded from the male members of the family and clan that they safeguard it. The ayatollahs’ detailed descriptions in their books of “explication of problems” (tawdih al-masa’il), a dissertation-like requirement for acquiring marja‘iyat in the twentieth century, in part spelled out intricate rules conducive to such a defense.

Beyond enforcing a shari‘a-prescribed bodily code, the essentially misogynistic clerical culture of Qom embarked on a systematic rewriting of women’s civil and legal rights in the Islamic Republic. It reversed many of the achievements of the late Pahlavi era. Marriage and family laws were drastically rewritten along old patriarchal lines. Uninhibited polygamy was reintroduced, the age of marriage for females was lowered according to the dictates of the shari‘a, under most circumstances divorce was redefined as the sole prerogative of the husband, and children’s custodianship was primarily granted to the husband and paternal relatives. Compliance (tamkin) with the husband’s sexual desires and abiding by his patriarchal superiority, rules that were endorsed by legislation and backed by the shari‘a, turned women, at least on the surface, into objects of control and instruments of pleasure.

In June 2009 the Green Movement (jonbesh-e sabz) brought to the surface among the urban middle classes these undercurrents of discontent with the Islamic Republic and its devious ways. Triggered by the presidential election campaigns of two opposition candidates, Mir Hosein Musavi (b. 1942) and Mahdi Karrubi (b. 1937), who were running against the incumbent President Ahmadinejad, the Green Movement brought millions to the streets of the capital and provincial centers. They were the largest demonstrations that Iran has seen since the early days of the revolution three decades earlier. Both challenging candidates were among the regime’s insiders—Musavi being the former prime minister between 1981 and 1989, and Karrubi a ranking cleric who served a number of times as speaker of the Majles—they were hailed by the public and welcomed as realistic alternatives to Ahmadinejad’s presidency. What motivated the campaign rallies to transform into a mass protest movement, more than the relative credibility of the opposition candidates, was Ahmadinejad’s disastrous presidency, Khamenei’s flawed judgment, and the Islamic Republic’s fearful elite. The vote rigging in favor of Ahmadinejad that reinstated him in office was followed in succeeding days by the Supreme Leader’s endorsement of the rigged election. His approval, coming after an equally flawed inquiry by the Guardian Council, confirmed the regime’s audacity to enforce a lie. The subsequent clampdown on the rallies, mass arrests of protesters, barbaric torture in detention centers, and secret murders of detainees further displayed a willingness to use whatever means were at the regime’s disposal to crush any voice of opposition. The mass trials in front of television cameras, when large numbers of “leaders of sedition” (saran-e fetneh) were tried and given heavy sentences, were reminiscent of the Soviet-style trials of the Stalin era. The Green Movement, named after the green color adopted by the protesters, above all demonstrated popular demand for liberalization, democracy, and accountability. It revealed to the Islamic regime, to the international community, and to the hundreds of thousands who gathered in Maydan Azadi in Tehran, in Maydan Naqsh-e Jahan in Isfahan, and elsewhere in Iran the existence of popular dissent among the predominantly young middle classes (pl. 17.2). After thirty years of the regime’s Islamification, failed economic policies, international isolation, and ethnic, religious, and cultural repression, people had not sunk into submission. Although the Green Movement was crushed, the hope for change is unabated: there is hope for a more open and more tolerant state that allows for its citizens to flourish, to emerge from deacades of isolation, and for the revolution to bear unspoiled fruits.

The Pahlavi ideology was also facilitated via the discovery of a new source of legitimacy that relied on Iran’s ancient past. Though Iran’s national awareness and its sense of mytho-historical continuity had never faded, the new nationalist narrative of the Pahlavi era was keen to contrast the glories of distant past with the perceived decadence of the Qajar era. These notions of glory and decadence laid the foundation for a national memory that has lasted up to the present. Reza Shah’s resolute personality also contributed to transforming Iran beyond anything it has experienced at least since the rise of the Qajars. The material success of Pahlavi modernity demonstrated the importance of oil revenue as a transformative commodity. But unlike coal in nineteenth-century European industrialization, oil revenue proved a blessing toward the creation of a stronger state with an extracting economy rather than a resource for growth of the national bourgeoisie. Since 1953, oil revenue, irrespective of Iran’s share of the proceeds and its legitimate claims for control of its natural resources, further strengthened the state at the expense of its citizens’ political and civil rights. Undermining old political checks and balances, the monopoly of the oil income, which had sharply increased over decades, gave the Iranian state a unique opportunity to implement top-down modernization projects. It also provided the state with more tools of repression and control.


About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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