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500 Years of Tumult and Still Counting
By Nayan Chanda

Iran is again in the news as the Trump administration makes threatening noises about throwing out the hard-negotiated nuclear agreement and re-imposing sanctions. Iran: A Modern History will be a sobering read to anyone interested in finding out what makes Iran tick. Abbas Amanat’s history reminds readers of the incredible passion and boundless energy that have driven this ancient civilization over the millennia and enabled it to rebound time and again from external challenges. If dealing with unpredictable North Korea is a challenge for the US, confronting the battle-hardened Iran that emerges from these pages could prove to be an even harder task. It certainly would further set back the hope of Iranian youth for change, because Amanat so eloquently argues that American pressure would only help strengthen the Islamic clergy’s hand.

 

Yale historian Amanat’s absorbing history takes readers from the battlefields of Anatolia, where the Safavid dynasty rose through many vicissitudes, through to trysts with democratic experiments to the 1979 theocratic revolution ushered in by Ayatollah Khomeini. He begins in 1501 when a messianic teenager from the Safavid family of Shah Isma’il I, who was mocked by the Ottoman emperor as a “Shia kid,” led thousands of his supporters in red headgear into battles and conquered a vast landmass from the shores of the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf and created the first Shiite state. The memory of bitter defeat and personal losses he suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks and many subsequent battles still shape relations between Iran and Turkey. With a keen eye for detail, Amanat paints an absorbing portrait of the most important Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I, a sophisticated ruler with great curiosity about the West, who created the foundations of imperial power with a formal military armed with artillery and guns, but who himself always carried a personal weapon and often killed offenders in the presence of foreign envoys.

 

Looking at Iran’s long, tumultuous history, Amanat finds an enduring trend in the interplay between the country’s center — Iranshahr — and its periphery. “Caving under pressure, the crumbling central authority was overridden periodically by a new and more dynamic peripheral power.” Whether it is messianic Shah Isma’il from the north or Karim Khan Zand from southern Fars province or Mohammad Khan Qajar from Astarabad, northeast of Iran, they came from the periphery. Even the founder of Iran’s last ruling dynasty, Colonel Reza Khan, at the time the commander of the Cossack Brigade, was chosen by the Majelis (parliament) from the Caspian province of Mazandaran. The reign of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was upended by a charismatic Iranian cleric sitting in Paris arousing supporters with his taped messages.

 

Amanat places Iran’s turbulent history into the broader world context, from the Little Ice Age climate challenge in the 17th century to New World silver and commodities transforming economies to technological innovation opening up new opportunities. Tobacco — a New World import — gained such popularity with the water pipe that by the late 19th century nearly a quarter of the Iranian population were smokers. The Shah’s attempt to grant a foreign power a tobacco monopoly as a cash cow triggered a revolt. The Tobacco Protest of 1891, which brought together a coalition of citizens, merchants and ulama to nearly topple the government, paved the way for the Constitutional Revolution 15 years later and proved to be the first shot in the emergence of an Islamic opposition.

 

Popular protests involving merchants and a section of the clergy joined by westernized liberals led to the promulgation of the 1906 constitution. This was unique in the Middle East because of its grassroots origin. Although the democratic gains were later thwarted and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 abrogated the 1906 constitution altogether, Amanat notes that the attempt “to secularize Shi’i millenarian aspirations by incorporating the modern experiences of nationalism with such concepts as the rule of law, limits to state power, individual rights, and people’s representation” remained a turning point. It marked a step forward on the path to socio-political modernity that remains the goal of the country’s youth.

 

In his last chapter on society and culture under the Islamic Republic, the author carries his account forward to beyond the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini. While politically the country is in the doldrums after the crushing of the massive street 2009 protests that were dubbed the “green movement” (for their adoption of the color), his survey of the literature, art and movie scene in Iran points to a bubbling below the surface. Amanat notes the continuity of the dream of modernization as displayed by the country’s emergent youth population rejecting the regime’s Islamification, cultural repression, failed economic policies and international isolation. “Although the Green Movement was crushed,” Amanat concludes, “the hope for change is unabated: there is hope for a more open, more fair, and more tolerant state that allows for its citizens to flourish, their potential to materialize, and the revolution to bear unspoiled fruits.”

 

Among many fascinating details in the book, the scandal involving the founder of the hallowed Reuters news agency is amusing and instructive of how little things change. In 1870, British-German entrepreneur Baron Julius de Reuter, who had made a fortune by setting up a news service supplying daily market data across Western Europe, turned to Iran for a lucrative business deal. By greasing the palms of high officials and holding out the promise of huge cash gains for the Shah, he managed to get exclusive rights not only to build telegraph and railway lines but also mining and agricultural development. But when the news of the sweeping concessions for a 70-year period leaked out, there was public outrage. In the indignation that ensued when the “outrageous swindle” was exposed, the Shah was forced to annul the concession. The fact that Czar Alexander II personally told the Shah of his objections to letting the British build railways up to the Caspian Sea also weighed on the decision to cancel. But Reuter had by then built enough support among officials to obtain, for his successor, the right to issue bank notes on behalf of the Persian government and a monopoly to develop the country’s mining resources. Readers will recognize in the Reuter scandal many contemporary efforts at modernization through the efforts of favored foreign investors, crony entrepreneurs and local oligarchs.

 

This history of Iran, which runs to 1,000 pages, makes publishing history not only because of the grandeur of its ambition — presenting half a millennium of history in a flowing narrative — but also by virtue of the author’s success in providing a vivid account with rich literary flavor. The book’s value has also been enhanced by many rare illustrations and maps. Given the size of the book, though, readers would have benefited from the addition of a simple chronological outline.

 

Nayan Chanda is founding editor of YaleGlobal Online and a Global Asia Editorial Board member. 

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