A History of Iran; Empire of the Mind.

Michael Axeworthy, Basic Books, 2008.

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan

The division between nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples and settled, crop-growing agriculturalists, created a tension that drives history. Nomadic wealth was in livestock, which meant it was moveable and they could escape threats or attack. By contrast peasant farmers were vulnerable, especially at harvest time, when the accumulated value of a year’s work could be lost. In happy times trade (meat and wool for grain) between the two meant peace although coercion always was possible. Nomads had the upper hand.


The cyclical pattern of dynastic rise and fall and nomadic invasion provides the background story in this history. Each time the same pattern occurs. Historians note the cohesiveness of the nomads in these cycles as a kind of solidarity or group feeling that would later form into an identity – Iranian-ness. Another pattern emerges that is illuminating for contemporary history in the region. Each time conquest is completed it was necessary to consolidate support. This was achieved through giving patronage to the bureaucracy, city dwellers and the ulema (scholars who interpreted the religious texts). Large building projects and more displays of wealth would lead to a weakened dynasty and soon a new invasion was welcomed. Each time this occurs it is the learned class of Persian scholar-bureaucrats that kept the language and culture intact.


Yet another pattern of historical import is found in the split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. This occurred early in the Muslim era. The child of The Prophet’s daughter and his cousin Ali separated from the ruling Umayyad caliph, the fourth since The Prophet’s time (the caliph was Sunni). Husein, the grandson of The Prophet (he was Shi’a), preferred to practice a pious and moral lifestyle in contrast to the caliph’s rule, which depended on conquest and courtly power. The Umayyad caliphs were descended from on of the ruling families of Mecca and it was precisely this power that The Prophet had opposed following The Revelation (written as the Quran). “The conflict between arrogant, worldly, corrupt authority and earnest, pious austerity was established as a cultural model for centuries, down to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and to the present day”.


Over the centuries the two communities weave in and out of power and prominence and give rise to various other sects (for example Ismailia, Assassin, Fatimid and so on). By the time of the Mongol invasion in the tenth century, Sunni Muslims were ascendant, especially so under the Ottomans. Other elements of religiosity come into the story from the earliest times, such as Mazdaism, Zoroastrianism, Sufism, Judaism and Christianity.


The rise of a strong Iranian empire toward the end of the fifteenth century under the Safavids, and especially shah Abbas, marks the start of what we know as the Iran of today. Because the Ottoman Empire (Sunni) to the west was hostile to Shi’a Muslims there was a shift toward the Persian shrine cities. I visited one of these cities in eastern Iran, Mashad, when I travelled across to Afghanistan and India in the late 1960’s. Under Abbas such cities (Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad) developed a more robust governmental system and an institutionalized Shi’ism that we see in contemporary Iran. Much great architecture and poetry comes from this period when the Persian language was dominant from Istanbul to Delhi and Samarkand. This is also the time when gunpowder was predominant in warfare, yet in the relatively safe heartland of the Iranian plateau the great cities remained unwalled and the traditional cavalry and archers dominated the military class.

By 1700 Persia was a soft-centered state in a world that was becoming much harsher. Revolts against Safavid rule, starting in Kandahar and spreading to other cities and territories, weakened the empire. A military leader (Nader) emerged successful for a time, once again extending Persian power to the east, against Moghul India and the west, against the Ottomans. This period parallels the rise of the military states in Europe that would result in the Napoleonic Empire; but the accompanying transformation of state administration and supporting economy, based on trade, did not occur in the Persian context. The breakup of the Persian military state, in the second half of the 18th century, into smaller warrior-led territories laid the foundation for the modern day Afghanistan and gave it, the now familiar to us, tension between the nomadic tribal lifestyle and the more settled town and village lifestyle.


It is in the context of 18th century Persia that the role of the Ayatollah emerges in Shi’a practice. The old debate between tradition and reason – should the ordinary Muslim read and interpret the holy text himself, following the tradition of the Emams; or should authoritative interpretation, based on reason and scholarly training guide the believers? The latter group prevailed and a hierarchical clerical system evolved the role of the grand ayatollah.


The European wars and rivalries of the 18th and 19th centuries affected Persia through shifting alliances with either France or Britain and continual struggle with Russia to the north in what was known as the Great Game. Russia and Britain particularly interfered in Persia as colonialism and industrialization expanded their reach. One result was that neither Britain nor Russia could assume control over Persia but it also kept Persia stagnant throughout this period.

1905 marks the date of the first Russian Revolution but it also marks the start of protests in Teheran that led to the establishment of a Constitution (1906) along western principles of governance. The Constitutional Revolution was led by the united forces of the merchant class and the clerical class (ulema), but limped along until 1911. German militarism was rising in this period, provoking a series of European alliances of which the most famous was the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia. The British navy, at this time threatened by the new German class of warship, decided to switch from coal to the more efficient and less bulky oil. The British government bought the majority share in the new Anglo-Persian Oil Company (1914). The First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution left Persia ostensibly without power in the new world order, post WW1. Persia, like Egypt, was not represented at the Treaty of Versailles and was treated much like the protectorates set up in Palestine and Iraq. Under British quasi-supervision a Persian military officer, Reza Khan, gradually undertook reform of the army in the manner of Ataturk in Turkey. By 1926, assuming the name Pahlavi, Reza Khan was crowned Shah. He expanded industry, transportation and the army and introduced education where it had been absent. His modernizing and westernizing was also secularizing. The oil industry, however, remained largely in British control with Iran only receiving 16% of the profits (20% after 1933). Reza Shah was not popular, provoking opposition from both the merchant class and the clerical class.


Early during the Second World War, after Britain and Russia allied against Germany, they jointly took over in Iran, saying it was to forestall any German takeover possibility. The Shah abdicated in favour of his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In 1943 Teheran was the site of the first conference of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. In addition to agreeing to open a Second Front against the Nazis, the allied powers agreed to quit Iran six months after the end of war. At this time the Iranian government returned to an elected leadership and the National Front leader Mohammed Mossadeq was elected Premier.


Following WW2 the oil question remained as a national issue, resulting in nationalization of the industry by Mossadeq and a Western boycott led by Britain and the US. A CIA-led coup restored Pahlavi rule and eventually leading to the creation of a re-organized oil industry with more revenue going to the government (50%) and US and British stakes in the new company, now called British Petroleum (BP). Iran was now run by the Shah and all opposition parties were suppressed, especially the National Front and the communist Tudeh, by the new secret police, SAVAK. The population grew substantially at this time (12 million in 1900; 19 million in 1950; 22 million in 1968; 33.7 million in 1976) as did the middle class. Wealth distribution, however, was unequal. Prompted by liberal feelings in the US (the era of the Kennedy administration) the Shah announced significant reforms known as the White Revolution (1960). These included land reform, female suffrage and literacy campaigns in the countryside. The US had been regarded previously (at the end of WW1) as a hopeful model and ally against British, French and Russian interference. The US was, after all, anti-feudal, anti-colonial, and a benevolent world leader. But by the time Pahlavi was courting US support, the clerics and merchants distrusted its involvement. As oil money poured in the Shah spent more on the military. The presence of more and more foreigners, mostly American and British, was noticeable. The contrast between cultures was also noticeable.


The Ayatollah Khomeini has been living abroad, as were many other intellectual and clerical leaders, but was actively writing and encouraging change in Iran to a more traditional way of living, one which always existed as an alternative source of authority based on Shi’a law. This is the central teaching of the author, Michael Axeworthy. Rising tensions between students and SAVAK, and clerics and SAVAK, increased throughout the 1970’s. Rising dissatisfaction of the poor working class added to the discontent. By January 1979, the Shah, ill with cancer, left Iran and Khomeini returned to lead a new revolution. But, says Axeworthy, the revolution was not a religious revolution. Many disparate groups came together in opposition to the Shah, united by their opposition, which Khomeini easily represented.


By March 1979, Khomeini easily won a referendum to set up a new government based on Islamic principles. The creation of Revolutionary Committees across Iran facilitated Khomeini’s leadership, as gradually all liberals and moderates were marginalized. By autumn a new constitution was set up creating a secular government but to be overseen by a Council of Guardians (twelve clerics and jurists) and all loyal to Khomeini. In November 1979, militant students seized the US Embassy, holding it for more than two years.


Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980, probably seeing an opportunity to defeat a weakened Iran. Eight years of war followed with the West supplying Iraq with arms, including chemical weapons. In 1988 a US warship, Vincennes, shot down an Iranian passenger jet killing 290 people, further dividing the two countries. It was at this time also that a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie was issued. Khomeini died in 1989 but succeeded in institutionalizing an Iranian Shi’a system of leadership but, says Axeworthy, Shi’ism “is bigger than the current Iranian religious leadership”, even Iranian Shi’ism.


The population continued to grow at a rapid rate, from 33.7 million in 1976, to 68.5 million in 2007. Some positive changes under the Islamic Republic’s rule include extended infrastructure (piped water, health services, electricity and schools) in to the most remote areas of the country. Iran now has a high literacy rate, including females. 66% of students admitted to university are female.


Several reform movements have occurred in Iran over the years since 1979. The election of President Khatami in 1997 and a strongly reformist parliament (Majles) in May 2000, resulted in 190 seats out of 290. This shows that there is a desire among the population for some kind of adjustment of government with respect to the relationship of religious leadership and secularism. Axeworthy points to some key missed opportunities the West (mainly the US) has had to readjust its relationship with Iran. For example, Iranians were deeply sympathetic with the victims of 9/11 and they supported coalition forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Since then, the election, probably unfairly, of Ahmedinijad as President, has introduced further animosity with the West.


The perception that  “nuclear armed Iran controlling a Shi’a-dominated Iraq, a resurgent Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a rising Sunni Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza … and other parts of the southern coast of the Persian Gulf” as an apocalyptic threat is unlikely. There is little enthusiasm, says Axeworthy, for such Iranian-style Islamic rule. It doesn’t look like a good time, under Ahmedinijad, for a rapprochement but despite him, there are others in a wider leadership circle in Iran who are more open. The nuclear weapons issue is pertinent here, but the difference between having the capability to produce (uranium 235 is required) and actual possession of nuclear weapons is also important. The only real utility of nuclear weapons is deterrence, and having the capability to produce versus possession of, is almost the same thing. The onus to use diplomacy before going to war is part of the West’s obligation to its own citizens, especially before sending their own sons and daughter to war.


The Epilogue tells the story of the almost certainly falsified election of Ahmedinijad in 2009 and the subsequent mass protests, and the story of the Jasmine Revolution. The losing candidate in the false election was Mousavi, whose campaign colour was green.


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