Looking at Iran’s Past to Understand Its Future

Roham AlvandiRoham Alvandi

by Gareth Smyth

Next month brings the fortieth anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flew back from exile in Paris on February 1, meeting such big crowds in Tehran that the 78-year-old cleric abandoned his station wagon for a helicopter. A public holiday is now marked every February 11 with rallies, marches, and speeches round the country.

Forty years of the Islamic Republic has not ended interest in the Pahlavis, the dynasty that ruled Iran from 1925 until the revolution toppled it. Elderly Iranians may be nostalgic, but young people are also interested in Shah memorabilia.

Remembering the Pahlavis is also a way of imagining an alternative. The Islamic Republic faces challenges that include stringent U.S. sanctions, tension with the Sunni-led Arab Gulf monarchies, youth unemployment, an ageing population, and environmental degradation with water shortages and desertification. Influential Americans talk of “regime change,” with National Security Advisor John Bolton touting the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), the mysterious cult-like group that once fought the shah and later allied with Saddam Hussein.

Can a re-examination of the pre-revolutionary period suggest what “regime change” might produce?

Late Pahlavi Iran

The Age of Aryamehr, a new collection of essays edited by Roham Alvandi, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, seeks to avoid writing the history of “late Pahlavi Iran” as prologue to the revolution. Instead, the contributors locate Iran in “the global history of these three decades” (the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s). The Age of Aryamehr includes essays on Iran’s international role, the emergence of “heroin counterculture” in place of opium use, the Empress Farah’s sponsorship of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the “dandy” prime minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, and the Shiraz Art Festival of 1967-77, which featured innovative Iranian and risqué Western theatre.

In his introduction, Alvandi points out that Iran’s average economic growth was 10.5 percent between 1963 and 1977, with non-oil GDP growing faster than overall GDP. He also presents the shah as a relatively autonomous ruler. Contrary to the notion, either at the time or subsequently, of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as an adjunct to America, his regime not only sought assistance from the Soviet Union over steel but developed a “nativist” philosophy of “the Great Civilization” (tamaddon-e bozorg). The title “Aryameh” (Light of the Aryans), conferred on the shah by parliament in 1965, reflected a notion of Iranians as an ancient and special people. The shah both developed a mixed market-state economy and claimed for Iran a “great-power status” that “troubled friend and foe alike.”

Famously, this included a nuclear program and even hints from the shah that he might want atomic weapons. “To pursue his geostrategic aims,” writes Cyrus Schayegh in his essay in the collection, the shah pursued a “fast-paced military build-up.” He sent troops to Oman in 1973-6, backed Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas against an Arab nationalist government in Baghdad, and threatened intervention in the 1977-8 war between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Alvandi takes issue with Marxists, Islamists, and others who have portrayed the shah as a tool of the West. Ironically, he points out, those who argued this at the time themselves followed Western thinkers. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, whose 1962 pamphlet Gharbzadegi (Westoxification) proved so influential, was greatly influenced by European thinkers. Ali Shariati, whose ideas of egalitarian Islam were absorbed by Khomeini, acknowledged in his lectures and writings a debt to the French-Algerian writer and activist Frank Fanon, whose Wretched of the Earth Shariati helped translate into Farsi in 1966.

Many Iranian intellectuals were alienated from the ideas of Western liberalism by the August 1953 coup that ousted prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who championed the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and restored the shah. Historians still debate the role of the United States and Britain in organizing that coup, but few doubt that it set back the cause of representative government, which had been kept at bay by monarchs since the demise of the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution. However, Mossadegh was opposed by most senior ayatollahs and by the Fedayan-e Islam, a militant group inspired by the Muslim Brothers and whose junior members included Khomeini. By the 1960s, Al-e Ahmad, once a supporter of the Moscow-allied Tudeh Party, championed Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, a leading clerical opponent of the Constitutional Revolution, as a defender of Iran and Islam against the encroaching West.

The Islamic Republic would follow the shah—albeit not with U.S. help—in crushing both the liberals and the left. While the left strongly opposed the shah, it shared his antipathy to the liberals, writes Alvandi:

Rather than demand that the shah should reign and not rule, as Mosaddeq had done, this new generation called for the overthrow of the monarchy and revolutionary change…this 1960s generation of Iranian anti-imperialists came to regard the older generation of Iranian liberal constitutionalists as “dangerously naïve…” They denounced Hasan Taqizadeh, a distinguished liberal statesman who had been one of the leaders of the Constitutional Revolution as Westoxified for calling on his compatriots to embrace the Enlightenment values of European civilization. They heaped scorn on political moderates…

Khomenei and the Left

In her contribution to Alvandi’s collection, Claudia Castiglioni, a professor of Iranian history and politics at Sciences Po, examines the views of the Western left on the 1979 Revolution. She pays close attention to Fred Halliday, the British professor who visited Iran in the summer of 1979 and wrestled with his commitment to Third-World revolution after witnessing the new authorities closing opposition newspapers. On his return to England, Halliday wrote that Khomeini was “dragging the country towards a bloodbath, the outcome of which no-one can predict.”

The left and the United States shared an underestimation of Iran’s Islamists and Khomeini in particular. Within Iran, the Tudeh party and assorted militant leftist groups (including Bolton’s MEK) supported Khomeini rather than more moderate leaders like Mehdi Bazargan. They believed that Khomeini represented anti-imperialism and that the clerics’ lack of political acumen and managerial experience would lead to their marginalization and replacement in power by leftists. It led to their own undoing, even to their deaths.

The scholar Ervand Abrahamian has also drawn attention—in several books, including Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (1993)—to Khomeini’s borrowing of language like mostazafin (“the oppressed”) and rituals like May Day from the left. As the 1970s developed, Khomeini drew from Shariati a fusion of Leninist egalitarianism with Shi’ite Muslim mythology.

To present Khomeini as a fundamentalist, Abrahamian argues, is seriously wrong:

…the term “fundamentalist” conjures up the image of inflexible orthodoxy, strict adherence to tradition, and rejection of intellectual novelty, especially from outside. In the political arena, however, Khomeini, despite his own denials, was highly flexible, remarkably innovative, and cavalier towards hallowed traditions. He is important precisely because he discarded many Shii concepts and borrowed ideas, words and slogans from the non-Muslim world. In doing so, he formulated a brand-new Shii interpretation of state and society.

The resulting egalitarianism in the Islamic Republic has been shown in the empirical work of Kevan Harris, in his 2017 book, A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran. Using data gathered in Iran, Harris has demonstrated how state policies have extended health care, reduced poverty, “leveled life chances between town and country and fused together a nation-state far more intertwined than under the previous regime.”

A Legacy of Assertiveness

Alvandi highlights the assertive regional policy of the shah, who began the nuclear program that proved so contentious when revived by the Islamic Republic. The shah’s commitment to make Iran an international power outlived his rule, writes Alvandi: “While the Pahlavi monarchy was relegated to history in 1979, the age of Aryamehr marked the return of Iran from the periphery to the centre of the global stage, whence it has never returned.”

This continuity explains why the most persistent critics of the Islamic Republic in Washington and elsewhere, while complaining of its “interference” around the region or its military capacity, never define what Iran’s legitimate national interests might be. They never pin down the reasons why America cannot accept the 40-year-old Islamic Republic.

If assertiveness in foreign policy existed under the shah, might it continue if the Islamic Republic no longer existed? Or is the real problem the anti-Americanism the Islamic Republic took originally from the left, which it then crushed? Confrontation and sanctions do not answer these questions.

“Iranians are in a jam because they made anti-Americanism part of the bedrock of their ideology,” an Iranian professor tells me. “The United States is insisting that Iran has to become a ‘well-behaved’ third-world nation.”

Denying Iran access to the world economy and applying crippling sanctions on the population are not likely to produce such behavior and will instead only reinforce the regime’s anti-Americanism. And if the regime were to change, who is to say that those who take charge will not assert the same national interests as the current government. A look at the Pahlavi period suggests that regional and even global assertiveness is more ingrained in Iranian policy than regime-change advocates might care to admit.

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.

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  1. All of Iran will remember the Shah’s departure from Iran anniversary tomorrow more than Ayatollah Khomeini’s coup d’etat. If the Shah had not died we would not be where we are now.

  2. The Pahlavi puppets were used by London and Washington to impose their will on the region. They included the same old Ghajars that were washed off once as a stain on Iran’s long history.
    The truth is that the opposition has always been out of touch with the people. Nothing has changed.

  3. All garbage! To write about the Pahlavi dynasty by Alvandi is all rubbish giving all credits to Pahlavi for initiating progress in Iran in 20th century. To the contrary the Pahlavi dynasty and its cronies were dependent of the most corrupt ghajaries dynasty. During their ruling and reigning they didn’t do a damn thing to the benefits of general population. The family of corrupt dynasty and their corrupted support groups were a bunch of thief who were accumulating wealth and purchasing properties in EU for when they had to run away!
    During the most devastating earthquake in city of Ghazvin just north of Tehran the ruler and his family traveled to EU to ski while the entire nation was in mourning! Then the most respected wrestler of all time, Gholamreza Takhti, collected millions of donations in support of the affected people in that earthquake and he made a big positive difference in their lives!
    At the end the wrestler was accused of wrongdoing by the corrupt dynasty because he had embarrassed the hell out of the Pahlavi family and its supporters!
    During the Pahlavi’s rule 80% of the population was illiterate and no attempts were made to reverse that trend significantly! Of course the dynasty nad its supporters wanted a high level of illiteracy for their own survival! There were no freeways had been constructed durning their ruling crippling the domestic commerce and distribution food and goods throughout the country! These writers are fooling themselves but they can not fool those who lived through those time! This is not to protecting or favoring the short comings of the current regim but the facts have be said. Thousands of freeway miles have been constructed and the country has made great strides in general population literacy!
    Many stupid assholes from the dynasty and its supporters who escaped the country during the revolution are discrediting the people today because of their personal benefits have been jeopardized!

  4. The articles missed many important points. For examples, differentiating the wishes of 83 million Iranians (i.e., building a peaceful, progressive and prosperous Iran for all Iranians) from the wishes of the “Islamic so-called Republic system” that has only one goal from its inception i.e., to promote its version of Islam (Shiism) worldwide, initially in the Islamic countries, at any cost. Please study Khomeini’s school of thinking and their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.
    The supporter of the current criminal system of Iran always conveniently ignore explaining why this fascist system needs to have 6-7 parallel and independent militia and guerrilla forces inside of Iran to protect itself against unarmed, exposed and innocent Iranian people seeking basic human rights, justice, basic human dignity, welfare, etc. Those forces employ many criminals from Hezbollah and other terrorist groups who have a much easier time killing Iranians in street (when needed) than their Iranian counterparts.
    BTW, Trump is a businessman and he would make a deal with the criminal Islamic system without having any regards for the dismal social and political conditions of Iranian people. All Mullahs need to do is to change their anti-US nonsense rhetoric for a while and let Trump build his hotel and golf course in Qeshm island in Persian Gulf.
    It is the responsibility of Iranians to replace the current barbaric system with a secular democratic system that works toward the benefits of Iran and Iranians –Not the benefit of Islam and Shiism!

  5. Thanks for the realistic and scientific approach. However, note that establishment of Pahla dynasty was breach of constitution and essentially a ‘coupé d’ Etat’ bringing a dictatorship on power. So when RezaShah left for a forced exile no Iranian made an objection or cry. His son was fascinated by his father’s tilling system but didn’t dare to follow him until supported by another coupe d Etat’ ,this time thanks to US. The Islamic resolution was in fact a reaction to an 60 year old coupe d etat which was supported by overwhelming majority. No surprise that clerics found the upper hand in a nasty competition for power in such religious atmosphere.

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