The permanence of Persia


February 15, 2009


Books | Iran

The remarkable perseverance of Iran’s cultural identity

By David Morgan

Iran is now widely spoken of as a “regional superpower”. That status owes a good deal to the operation of a law that Michael Axworthy mentions in his book, the law of unintended (though in this case, predictable) consequences: the American elimination of its two hostile neighbours, the regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran’s influence with Shia militias in Iraq, with Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and worries over its nuclear programme, mean that understanding the country and its people is a matter of far more than academic interest. That means trying to understand a history which Iranians perceive – not without good cause – as stretching back continuously for 2,500 years.

By the halfway point of Axworthy’s history of Iran, he has reached the eighteenth century: he has dealt with twenty-two centuries, and has three left for the second half of the book. This lack of balance means that Empire of the Mind is not an ideal textbook. One would not go to it for the details of what happened during the Seljuk or Mongol periods. But for a more general reader who wants to understand Iran, it is the most useful, readable and informative book currently available. It combines an outline knowledge of the political events of those long centuries with an appreciation of what makes Persian culture distinctive: the significance of the Sufi approach to Islam, or of the major role played by poetry in the culture, for example. Some of this poetry has influence beyond Iran’s borders. As Axworthy remarks, Rumi is currently the bestselling poet in translation in the United States; though he also comments that “it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery”. Axworthy’s chapter on the period between the Arab conquest in the seventh century ad and the Safavid takeover at the beginning of the sixteenth is light on events but much fuller on the great poets who flourished during those times. This is important if one hopes to understand how Iran ticks. Axworthy quotes a passage from Roy Mottahedeh’s great book The Mantle of the Prophet (1985 – still the first point of reference if one wants to make sense of the mullahs, and much else about Iranian history and culture): “Persian poetry came to be the emotional home in which the ambiguity that was at the heart of Iranian culture lived most freely and openly. What Persian poetry expressed was not an enigma to be solved but an enigma that was unsolvable”.

That ambiguity expresses itself in many forms. It continually vexes Western politicians as they attempt to comprehend the inscrutable workings of the regime. Axworthy’s title perhaps offers a helpful hint: Iran is an “Empire of the Mind” – its identity (“iraniyyat”, “Persian-ness”) and the remarkable perseverance of that identity, is much more cultural than political or even geographical in essence.

The most influential part of the book is no doubt likely to be its chapters on modern Iran. But Axworthy tells us much that is well worth knowing about the earlier periods. His account of the troubles after the death of the Achaemenid King Cambyses has a deliberately familiar ring: “An Iranian revolution, led by a charismatic cleric, seizing power from an oppressive monarch, asserting religious orthodoxy, attacking false believers, and drawing support from economic grievances – in the sixth century bce”. The Greco-Persian wars are presented from the Persian perspective rather than from the “democracy versus autocracy” point of view that Western education has inculcated for so long. Anyone interested in the evolution of Judaism and Christianity would benefit from Axworthy’s pages on the pre-Islamic Persian religion of Mazdaism/Zoroastrianism. Alexander the Great gets a deservedly unenthusiastic press. The excellent pages on Shi’ism with which the chapter on the Safavids starts should prove very helpful to those who are baffled by the current divisions in the Islamic world – and some knowledge of the imposition of official Shi’ism on Iran by the Safavids, supplemented by what we are told about the religious developments of the eighteenth century, is essential to understanding the Islamic Republic. His suggestion, however, that the move to Shi’ism was “a deliberate political act” is anachronistic. Bernard Lewis once wrote of the Nizari Isma’ilis (the “Assassins”) that “when modern man ceased to accord first place to religion in his own concerns, he also ceased to believe that other men, in other times, could ever truly have done so, and so he began to examine the great religious movements of the past in search of interests and motives acceptable to modern minds.” Much the same applies to Shah Isma’il Safavi and his imposition of Shi’ism.

The chapters on modern Iran are very well-informed and characterized by common sense. Axworthy does not generally take sides, though he administers praise and blame where he thinks it is due. During the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, the shadows of Russia and Britain loomed large. Axworthy is a former British diplomat, but that does not mean that Britain gets off lightly. Britain is often blamed for the coup which brought Reza Shah to power in 1921. That incident has perhaps still not been fully explained, but Axworthy is surely right to say that there is no convincing evidence of a “plot”: “The coup of 1921 and its aftermath”, he sums up, “came about as a result of a temporary coincidence of interests”. Still, it is one of the events that has contributed to the Iranian perception, widespread to this day, that everything that went wrong was the fault of the British, except what was the fault of the Russians. I am not sure he is right to dismiss this notion of British influence as early as he does: “From 1953 onwards it was plain to all that the US was now the dominant external power in Iran”. In the early 1970s, a highly educated Tehrani woman remarked to me that “Of course, it’s you British who decide everything that happens here”. I demurred: “Wouldn’t you say that, these days, the USA is the dominant power?”. She did not even blink. “Well, maybe, but it’s you British who tell the Americans what to do.” As Axworthy observes, with some justice, “Tehran in the 1970s was a strange place”. On the other hand, it probably was the British who, initially, told the Americans what to do about Prime Minister Mossadeq after his nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in 1951. Axworthy’s discussion of the 1953 coup is very even-handed, though the now fashionable view that the overthrow of Mossadeq was and has remained utterly crucial in damaging the prospects of good relations between Iran and the West is not entirely convincing. Even the much (and often justly) maligned Muhammad Reza Shah gets a fair crack of the whip: “The Shah’s rule was a mixture of failures and successes; neither all one nor all the other”. The life, career and character of Ayatollah Khomeini are perceptively described, though I doubt that his rise to a dominant position in the Shia hierarchy was as surprising as depicted. During her extensive travels across Iran in the 1960s, the late Professor Ann Lambton often asked the peasants, “Who is the marja-e taqlid?” (the supreme religious authority in Iranian Shi’ism). They always said, “Khomeini”. The causes and consequences of the 1979 revolution are lucidly discussed, and another common misperception corrected: “The revolution of 1979 was not solely and perhaps not even primarily a religious revolution”. An eyewitness in Tehran during the Revolution watched all the massive anti-Shah demonstrations without ever seeing a mullah. But the religious contribution and Khomeini’s effective leadership “lent cohesion and a sense of common purpose to disparate elements, even those that were not overtly religious at all”. Those who are responsible for formulating policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran should read Axworthy’s final chapter, “From Khatami to Ahmadinejad”. It is refreshingly sane and well-informed, notably on the nuclear issue. He is no fan of the regime, but he suggests that “the declaration by Iranian religious leaders against ownership of nuclear weapons should be given some credence”, although without implying that this should in any way be taken on trust. He suggests, very plausibly, that a nuclear capability rather than actual possession of nuclear weapons may be Iran’s aim. He makes the unpopularity of the Ahmadinejad government, because of its economic failures, very clear, and helpfully sheds light on the (probable) limits of the President’s power (some commentators in the West have trouble with the idea that the man with the title of President is not necessarily the man in ultimate charge). While giving the Islamic Republic credit for some significant domestic achievements, he shows that one result of three decades of rule by the mullahs has been that Iran is now the least religious major country in the Middle East.

There are of course a few slips and points with which to disagree. The Khwarazmians were not a tribe; Tabriz was not the Seljuk capital; I do not think the contemporary writers’ figures for the numbers massacred by the Mongols are “credible”. It is a pity that Axworthy’s dislike of Mani and Manichaeism should have tempted him into including several pages of irrelevant polemic about St Augustine of Hippo. But none of this detracts from the fact that this is a fine book, and a worthy successor to the author’s 2006 biography of Nadir Shah, the eighteenth-century Shah of Persia. It deserves a wide readership.

Michael Axworthy
A history of Iran
333pp. C. Hurst & Co. £20.
978 1 85065 871 9