Adam Shatz writes: At the end of the Second World War, an anonymous pamphlet surfaced in the seminaries of Qom, the bastion of Shia learning. The Unveiling of Secrets accused Iran’s monarchy of treason: ‘In your European hats, you strolled the boulevards, ogling the naked girls, and thought yourselves fine fellows, unaware that foreigners were carting off the country’s patrimony and resources.’ Iran, it proposed, should be ruled by an assembly of religious jurists headed by a wise man. In such a state, there would be no need for elections or a parliament, or even a standing army: a religious militia (basij) would ensure obedience to the law.
It’s unlikely that anyone outside Qom read The Unveiling of Secrets; even inside the seminaries few would have embraced its programme. Yet just three decades later the pamphlet’s author, Ruhollah Khomeini, helped launch a revolution against the monarchy and established himself as Iran’s supreme leader, with powers even the shah would have envied. The political landscape was transformed: the Shia of Iran, a minority in the house of Islam, had rewritten the script of revolution in the Middle East. James Buchan’s Days of God shows how a radicalised clergy took control of a popular uprising against a Western-backed dictator and set up the world’s first and only Islamic republic. Buchan tells that story as well as anyone has done, but Days of God is also an erudite reflection on three important questions: why there was a revolution, why it was Islamic and what its legacy has been. The Iranian Revolution was, Buchan argues, a revolt against Western-imposed modernisation in favour of an enchanted path to modernity. It had a spiritual aim that grew out of the history of Shiism, with its themes of martyrdom and redemption, but the attempt to infuse governance with divine authority ended up expanding – and ultimately sanctifying – the authoritarian state the clerics inherited from the shah. ‘In revolt against Pahlavism,’ Buchan writes, ‘the Islamic republic is also its continuation in turban and cloak.’
The Pahlavi dynasty was founded in 1926, when Reza Khan – a soldier in the Iranian Cossack Brigade who had come to power in a British-backed coup against the Qajar monarchy five years earlier – crowned himself shah. Although he and his son Mohammed styled themselves as heirs of Cyrus the Great, their dynasty was never more than a father-and-son operation, dependent on foreign patronage that they groaned about but could never quite shake off. Reza was an authoritarian moderniser in the Atatürk mould who forced nomads to become sedentary; disciplined rebellious ethnic minorities; built railways and roads; and created a modern army and bureaucracy. But his Westernising project, in particular his attacks on the veil, ran up against clerical opposition, and he could never overcome the perception that he was a stooge of the British. In fact he bristled at foreign interference and attempted to renegotiate the reviled 1919 agreement with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, but was outmanoeuvred at every turn. Finally, having declared Iran neutral in the Second World War, he was deposed by Soviet and British troops in September 1941.
Mohammed, the pampered, fragile son, was no fonder than his father of his patrons in the West but learned never to cross them, especially after the CIA-orchestrated coup against his prime minister, Mossadegh, in 1953. Dashing, fluent in French and English, with a worldly sophistication acquired from his years at a Swiss boarding school, Mohammed was a nationalist of a kind, but he made the mistake of imagining he could buy popular support in the absence of national independence. After the 1953 coup, he signed a better deal with British Petroleum that gave Iran 50 per cent of the profits. Though this fell short of Mossadegh’s plans for nationalisation, it underwrote a massive boom, and big, garish projects his father would have admired: dams, hydro-electric schemes, even an enormous steel mill financed and built by the Soviets, a token declaration of independence that soothed his ego. Iran’s population grew from 19 to 30 million, and Tehran became a modern metropolis. Economic growth earned the shah applause in the West, but it failed to win him the love he felt he deserved from Iranians, who turned against modernisation itself: they saw it as a form of imperialism, an existential threat to Iran’s own traditions. Obsessed with plots against the throne, he leaned more and more on the Savak, his intelligence services, which the CIA, Mossad and MI6 had trained in surveillance and interrogation. Those who objected to his friendships with the US, Israel and apartheid South Africa had a choice of exile in Berlin or Paris; or imprisonment in one of Savak’s prisons. [Continue reading…]