Iran's past and future

In a new history, Homa Katouzian traces the links between Iran's imperial past and its political future, writes Nahid Siamdoust.

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In a new history, Homa Katouzian traces the links between Iran's imperial past and its political future, writes Nahid Siamdoust.

The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran

Homa Katouzian

Yale University

Press Dh125

As Iranians of all ethnicities, creeds and political persuasions prepare to celebrate their most important holiday - the Persian New Year - they leave behind 12 months that shook the Islamic Republic like none since its inception 30 years ago. The unrest that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in June was peaceful at first, and contained what many regarded as pregnant glimmers of hope that reform towards greater freedoms and rights was under way. But soon the security organs of the Islamic Republic began to forcibly suppress the budding aspirations of what came to be known as the "Green Movement", often brutally. In the violence that ensued, dozens of people lost their lives.

One of these was Mohsen Ruholamini, a 25-year-old computer engineering graduate with an open face and hair to his neck. He was the son of a man Iranians would refer to as a hezbollahi, literally "one belonging to the party of God", but more precisely, an insider of the Islamic Republic's regime. Mohsen's father, Abdol-Hossein Ruholamini, is a high-ranking health ministry official, and a senior political adviser to Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Mohsen the son, it seems, had differences with the way the Islamic Republic was being governed, and had taken to the streets to express his discontent. He was arrested, tortured and beaten to death in the notorious Kahrizak prison, which was later shut on the orders of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mohsen was the most high-profile son of an Islamic Republic official to have been killed. Whereas old-guard revolutionaries like the election contenders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi had openly spoken out against Khamenei's regime, Mohsen's father continued to declare his allegiance to the supreme leader after his son's death. In a televised interview on Iran's official Press TV, a visibly pained father with a constant, self-protective smile, says: "Our Mohsen was 25 and in his short life - he was searching for truth. He was very curious, it was always very difficult to intellectually satisfy him, he wasn't easy to convince, like many of the kids in the younger generation who are way ahead of us. We have fallen far behind even compared to our own versions of 30 years ago at the time of the revolution."

The father's homage sounds like a silent admission and respect of his son's quest, but his story is also a chilling re-enactment of an ancient Persian tale that for many scholars embodies a quintessentially Iranian tragedy. Unlike Oedipus, who kills his own father, the mythical Iranian hero Rostam slays his long-lost son, a pattern that recurs repeatedly in the 3,000 years of Iranian history deftly narrated by Homa Katouzian in The Persians - from kings who kill their own sons and find themselves without heirs to today's ageing Islamic revolutionaries, who have no trouble eliminating their own ideological and even biological offspring.

The protest movement that followed the elections electrified observers on all sides. Some believed the end of the Islamic Republic was nigh: Iran's most prominent Islamic intellectual, Abdol-Karim Souroush - a former Islamic Republic official who now lives in exile - condemned the Supreme Leader in an open letter, writing that "We are a fortunate generation. We shall celebrate the disappearance of religious despotism."

Several leftist writers outside Iran dismissed the Green Movement as little more than an uprising engineered by foreign forces; others, like the Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi, countered angrily that such theories reflected the "colonised minds" and "moral bankruptcy" of people incapable of imagining the Iranian people standing up against both foreign domination and domestic tyranny. For Homa Katouzian, an eminent Iranian academic at Oxford University, the escalating conflict in Iran between the state and its society was no surprise. As he argues in The Persians, the country's history has been composed of short intervals dominated by dictatorship and absolute rule, which have been punctuated by episodes of rebellion and chaos. Iran, according to Katouzian, is a short-term society, one where the structures of power, however firm, rarely last more than a few generations. Describing the roots of what he calls the "Pick-Axe Society" (named after the Persian word given to a building that is knocked down and replaced by its owner), Katouzian draws a contrast with Europe's "long-term society", in which powerful classes developed and retained authority over the course of several centuries. The total power wielded by Iranian kings, and the absence of independent rights for the landholding class - or anyone else - meant, as Katouzian writes, that "Up to 150 years ago, a man leaving his house didn't know if he'd be vizier by night or cut into four pieces and hung in four different corners of his town."

The unpredictability and insecurity of life in Iran established a continuing cycle of conflict between the temporary powers of the state and the disenfranchised members of the society it ruled: without rights and legal protections, he argues, Iranian society could never develop long-lasting institutions or customs; the tyranny of kings never met gradual challenges from landholders or aristocrats - it was instead overthrown in periodic upheavals and rebellions.

Katouzian suggests that the demand for citizen rights failed to materialise in Iran for a variety of reasons, including the distance between rural villages in an arid country and the inherited concept of the monarch's Divine Grace. Ancient Iran provides a few challenges to Katouzian's theories - Cyrus the Great established the world's first human rights charter 2,500 years ago, while the Sassanid Empire, which ruled from the third century until invading Islamic Arab tribes toppled it in 644.

The advent of Islam in the seventh century, though culturally gradual, was the biggest rupture in Iranian history. To this day, many Iranians define their worldview based on this dividing line - though three decades of Islamic rule have multiplied the number who look with pride to the pre-Islamic past, often showcasing their allegiance by wearing Zoroastrian symbols as jewellery. That prior cultural identity is so ingrained that despite the immense political and financial state machinery used to promote Islamic rather than pre-Islamic culture, Iranians still regard the Persian New Year as their biggest holiday.

But Katouzian's description of the assimilation of Islam also lays bare the fallacy of regarding it as a monolithic faith that was imposed on Iranian culture: Iran changed the face of Islam as much as Islam changed the face of Iran, in part through the contributions of Persian figures like the poet and polymath Kharazmi, the founder of algebra, Avicenna, the father of modern medicine, and Omar Khayyam, the astronomer whose Rubayiat took English and Parisian poetry clubs by storm in the late 19th century.

After centuries of invasion and chaos, finally in the 16th century the Saffavid kings brought some stability to the land. Their high art made Persian a fashionable tongue in European courts, and their enforced Shi'ism transformed Iran into a religiously unified country only about 500 years ago. With the 1906 constitutional revolution, the country's leadership was finally bound by a legal framework, but clear rules to succession were only formulated in 1979, with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the helm.

What 30 years ago seemed to many a great experiment in "neither East nor West" - as the country's motto goes - combining republican ideals, Islamic spirituality and guidance, and independence from Western influence, today seems more like a repetition of a proto-monarchical structure that Iranians are too familiar with, only this time the emperor is wearing different clothes. Whether or not Iran's theocratic and increasingly military regime has enough of a social base to ensure its survival through this most unsettling of crises is not a question Katouzian poses or even tries to answer. After all, the Islamic Republic is but a tiny fraction of Iran's history. What the author's work does show, however, is that 20th century introduced seismic changes for Iran's conceptions of government and authority. Within the last 100 years, Iranians went from being subjects with non-existent rights to forcing the powerful Qajar kings to cancel concessions at the turn of the 19th century, orchestrating the constitutional revolution against all odds, and finally staging one of the 20th century's most stunning revolutions, unseating a mighty king and replacing him with an exiled and ageing ayatollah who preached cultural authenticity and independence.

Today, Iranians may disagree over the virtues of the Islamic Republic and whether it has produced any degree of "just rule" - a concept Katouzian discusses at length - but few would disagree that it is increasingly ruling Iran with an iron fist. The government has banned the activities of the biggest reformist political party, whose members were drawn from the young cadre that helped solidify the Islamic Republic in its beginnings, executed two protesters (including a 19-year old) and sentenced six more to death. In the short-run, this violence and repression will prolong its survival. But if Katouzian's 3000-year history of Iran - especially its account of the last century - is taken to heart, it should be clear an iron fist alone will not do for too long.

Nahid Siamdoust is a D.Phil. candidate in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford University. She covered Iran's June 2009 elections for TIME Magazine.