Looking at Iran’s Past to Understand Its Future

Roham 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 Franz 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.

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.



  1. “Historians still debate the role of the United States and Britain in organizing that coup”. Hahahahahahaha. Of course you can’t say a man came to power through a coup supported by the U.S. and then make him champion of the people. So you try to imply that they had nothing to do with it. Even CIA has confessed to it, but your interests are in denying the facts. That is understandable, along with the ignorance of the students educated by Mr.Roham Alvandi and the state of the foreign press in Iran ,who want to Whitewash the crimes of their governments, however, this article getting permission to print here is not Understandable, given the fact that @lobelog has so many objective Analysts who can see through and prove it’s lies. This Article is a bunch of half truths and lies.

  2. The “10.5%” growth figure from 1963 through 1977 is somewhat exaggerated — in fact, following the oil price hikes of 1971-1973 the mismanaged economy created inflation that went over 40% to say nothing of the logjams that ensued as a result of uncontrolled imports.

    While it’s true that the Shah was was not taking daily orders from Washington on his domestic and foreign initiatives, his psychological dependence on the West (arising from the 1953 coup and and the 1941 ouster of his father) was evident during the waning days of his reign when the U.S. and UK ambassadors were constantly at his side while the White House tried to reassure him of support short of underwriting a massive crackdown on the revolution.

Comments are closed.