Better than the past
What recent history has taught Iranians
By Nikki Keddie
April 25, 2003
Paper delivered at a UCLA program in February
2003 on "Iran Today in Historical Perspective." It summarizes
some of the points made in my forthcoming Modern Iran: Roots
and Results of Revolution (Yale University Press, September,
\In early 2003 the situation in Iran appears as one
of crisis, multiple uncertainties, growing opposition to the ruling
elite, and continuing arrests and crackdowns carries out by elements
of that elite. Some people are predicting that basic changes will
happen very soon, some think they will take some years, while others
are pessimistic, except perhaps in the very long run. I early learned
that nearly all specific predictions about Iran are most likely
to be wrong, and so will here confine myself to looking at some
of the ways that Iran has changed fundamentally since 1890, as well
as pointing to some cultural continuity, leaving it up to others
to make predictions based on these factors.
One major element in Iranian political history since
1890, and in particular in its movements of resistance and revolt
between 1890 and 1979 has been the often effective political alliance
between the bazaar, or traditional bourgeoisie, led by its large
merchants, and the clergy or important parts of the clergy. This
alliance was central to the successful movement against a British
monopoly tobacco concession in 1891-92, to the revolution of 1905-11
which gave Iran parliamentary constitutional rule, even though the
constitution was subsequently more honored in the breach than the
observance, and the alliance reappeared in force in the revolution
of 1978-79 and lasts as the underpinning of the ruling elite until
While this alliance may seem natural or obvious to
many Iranians, it is not a significant feature of any other Middle
Eastern country nor, to my knowledge, of any other Muslim country.
This is in part due to the great predominance of Muslims in the
Iranian bazaar class, whereas in other Middle Eastern countries
minority populations often predominated, especially in the modern
period where they could take advantage of their ties to the West.
The clerical role in politics is due not to Twelver
Shi'ism itself, which was predominantly politically quietist
after the disappearance of the twelfth imam, but to its special
development in Iran after the Safavid dynasty established Shi'ism
as the state religion in the early sixteenth century. While the
early Safavids controlled the leading clergy, there developed a
largely autonomous clerical institution led by mojtaheds (today
mostly called ayatollahs), who were empowered to give judgments
on a wide variety of matters that were binding on their own followers.
The clerical institution, unlike those in many Muslim
countries, also kept most of its financial independence of the government,
collecting religious taxes and managing growing inalienable endowments,
or vaqfs. Clerical autonomy was furthered by the location of most
of the leading Iranian clerics outside the borders of Iran, in Ottoman
Iraq. While clerics mostly supported the government, they also represented
grievances held by their constituents, especially from the bazaar.
Bazaaris thus effectively appealed to clerics to denounce the Tobacco
concession and, in 1905, to challenge the monarch's mistreatment
of bazaaris and favoring of foreigners.
The Failing Clerical-Bazaar Alliance
The situation in 1978 was more complex, as much modern class development,
politics, and education had occurred especially under the Pahlavis.
The old alliance reappeared, however, as the government had effectively
suppressed many leftist and liberal nationalist oppositionists,
and it was far more difficult to suppress mosque sermons and networks.
The more modern groups came to think they could trust Khomeini to
set up a modern liberal government, especially as this was the image
of Khomeini that he put forth in 1978-79 under the influence of
his young non-clerical Paris advisers.
From 1979 to today, however, as the core of the ruling
elite has become more limited and challenged by opposition, the
government continues to follow policies that really favor only those
clergy who are in or allied with state or quasi-state institutions
and elements of the bazaar who are involved in trade. The great
majority of the population do not fall into either of these groups,
and while some follow their ideology, most have come to see that
the bazaar-clerical alliance, which may have played a positive role
a century ago in limiting foreign intervention in Iran and allowing
constitutional rule, is since 1979 overwhelmingly a factor of repression
and an obstacle to modernization and democracy.
The repressive aspects of the government are well
known, with continued jailings, executions, limits on dress and
behavior, institutionalization of a second class status for girls
and women, and so forth. Less well known are economic aspects of
the Islamic regime, which ironically arose from a combination of
elements of doctrinaire leftism with clerical control. Royal and
emigré properties were confiscated and put under the control
either of the state or of large new foundations, the largest of
which is the Foundation for the Dispossessed.
Despite some reform efforts by Khatami and the new
parliament, the Foundations remain essentially untaxed and accountable
only to Leader Khamene'i, which makes them even more than usually
subject to nepotism and corruption and discourages private sector
competition in the many branches of the economy they control. They
are paralleled by large traditional religious foundations, such
as that of Mashhad, which similarly controls numerous agricultural
and industrial enterprises and is by far the largest economic unit
in Khorasan province.
The fact remains that very few private banks or industries
can be formed to compete with such protected units. Private capital,
as often in the past and in other countries in the global south,
heads for trade and real estate, which have fewer barriers and promise
quick returns. While Khatami had a five year plan for 2000-2005
that addressed some of these problems, as well as growing unemployment,
little of it has been realized, as it would hit the self-interest
of bazaaris, and of all traders, speculators, and many clergy involved
in the current economy.
The foreign investment provisions of the Islamic Republic's
constitution make it virtually impossible for foreigners to invest
in Iran and repatriate reasonable profits. While some new interpretations
have meant that there is some foreign investment much more is needed,
and again attempts in a freer direction have met with considerable
resistance by the institutions placed above the parliament. Suspicion
of foreign control of the economy has a historical basis, but Iran
has veered too far in the opposite direction.
Greater freedom and incentives for local and foreign
productive investment will not alone meet Iran's problems; they
will have to be accompanied by increased job creation and welfare
for the poor and unemployed. The point here, however, is that the
clerical-bazaar alliance, while effective in the past in mobilizing
mass movements, has proved disastrous in managing an economy that
could benefit all Iranians.
Reform vs. National Strength
A second historical trend that has come to fruition under the Islamic
Republic is the increase in numbers and maturity of many of those
whose ideas have been key elements in movements for change. In the
early twentieth century, reformist thinkers tended to focus on one
or two elements that they thought accounted for the advancement
of the West and Iranian backwardness, and advocated the adoption
of these elements. Among these, one of the first was nationalism,
which several Iranian thinkers interpreted in terms of the so-called
"scientific racism" that was rampant in the West between
the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.
Racist theories confused language with race, and had
a hierarchy of language groups, with the Indo-Europeans at the top,
and did not much note that Indo-Europeans ranged from dark South
Asians to blond Scandinavians. By a contingency lucky to those who
held this theory, Persian is an Indo-European language, and this
was used to bolster the common nationalist tendency to deprecate
those who had at various times conquered and ruled the Persians
as being responsible for Iranian backwardness--namely the Turks,
Mongols and especially the Arabs.
Along with denigration of the Arabs went, for the
educated new middle and upper classes, a deprecation of Islam and
of Shi'ism, including its practices and clergy. There thus emerged
a dual culture, with a westernized class with modern education and
values, and a larger group encompassing mostly the bazaaris and
popular classes, with more traditional cultural values, that came
increasingly to be identified as the proper Islamic ones. Also,
that half of Iran's population for whom Persian was not the first
language often were and felt discriminated against.
The westernized groups also had, early on, certain
cure-alls, one of which was a constitution and parliamentary rule,
and another of which was reducing the role of foreigners in Iran.
Both of these were important elements in creating a modern Iran,
but neither was sufficient. Russian and British intervention and
control after the parliamentary government tried to set up an efficient
tax-collecting and budget system with the help of U.S. adviser Morgan
Shuster in 1910-11 showed that parliamentary government was not
To have independence, Iran needed a strong military.
This it got in the interwar rule of Reza Shah (r. 1925-1941), who
also introduced other elements of modernization, like tariff autonomy,
protected industries, new public education for both sexes including
a university. His positive achievements were marred by often brutal
methods, including forced settlement of tribes who had no way other
than migration to adequately feed their flocks, and forced unveiling
of women at a time that many found this as shocking as we would
forced public nakedness. A number of intellectuals early joined
Reza Shah, thinking national strength was more important than democracy
The CIA Plot and Removal of Mosaddeq
After a wartime and postwar period when the constitution was essentially
followed, there came the 1951-53 oil nationalization period under
the very popular Mosaddeq, who was overthrown primarily owing to
a CIA plot, though both the Birtish and local elements were involved.
Mohammad Reza Shah's cooperation with this plot and subsequent increasing
autocracy colored both popular and intellectual attitudes towards
The Leftist and nationalist opposition tended to see
him, with exaggeration, as a mere tool or puppet of foreigners,
with the U.S. taking the dominant role formerly occupied by the
British. The 1960s and 1970s were a period when oversimplified and
highly ideological solutions were in vogue among opposition movements.
The secular leftist parties followed either a Soviet
or Maoist type of line, with emphasis on anti-Americanism and eventual
worker and peasant rule. Two leftist groups, the Marxist Feda'iyan-e
Khalq and the Left Islamic Mojahedin-e Khalq justified individual
assassinations, dubbed "Urban warfare," in the prevailing
situation of dictatorial controls. Nationalists were split between
those who tried to revive the Mosadeqqist oppositional National
Front and those who felt more could be accomplished by working with
In a situation of dictatorship and jailings, with
little leadership from secular parties, who could not express open
opposition, it is not surprising that effective opposition took
an Islamic form. This comprised both the strong attacks on the government
by Khomeini, who was exiled during 1964-79, and more modernist and
even leftist readings of Islam, especially by Ali Shariati, the
Freedom Movement, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq.
New Thinkers in the Post-Revolutionary Iran
While Khomeini's new view of Shiism as endorsing rule by a top jurist
was not voiced during the revolution, it came out when the new constitution
was drafted by a largely clerical group. In the early period after
the revolution there was a strange semi-alliance between Khomeini's
followers and the so-called Islamic left, which dominated early
parliaments and favored measures like extensive land reform. Such
parliamentary measures were, however, overwhelmingly vetoed by the
clerical Guardian Council, which represented the interests of the
clergy and the bazaar bourgeoisie.
In time, most of the intellectuals in the former
Islamic left radically changed their views, including those in the
Students following the line of the Imam who took over the U.S. embassy
and held its occupants hostage for 444 days. Also changing their
ideas since the early days of the revolution were the leading oppositional
thinker of the 1990s including Abdolkarim Soroush, and, to some
degree, President Mohammad Khatami himself.
Soroush, Khatami, and a whole series of new thinkers,
both clerical and secular, and including many women who have fought
effectively for increasing women's rights, have presented many talks
and writings that try to make room for many Islamic values and their
adherents, while retaining Iranian identity and placing a new value
on democracy and power for democratically elected legislators. The
range of these new writings and talks makes them difficult to summarize,
but they reflect a double disillusionment--with the effects
of Islamic government and with the failures of communism. Instead
of following a single ideology like Islamism or Marxism, the new
thinkers tend to be suspicious of ideology.
Reflecting advances and changes in the educational
system, where Western philosophy is widely taught not only in secular
higher schools but also to budding clerics, the new thinkers are
often well acquainted with both Western and Islamic thought. This
gives them a basis to reinterpret Islam not in the manner of former
Islamic modernists, who tended to find everything they liked in
Islamic texts, but rather to stress the spirit of Islam and the
need to distinguish between its fundamental teachings about God
and ethics on the one hand and the rules of Islamic law on the other,
which reflect particular times and should change with the times.
Some like Soroush go further, distinguishing between essential Isam,
which is unknowable, and its interpretation, which is all that humans
can do and which changes with time and circumstance.
There are also brave secular oppositional thinkers
like Akbar Ganji, who has called the rulers fascist and blamed them
for killing many oppositionists, and got jailed for it or Professor
Hashem Aghajari, who said that imitation of leaders was for monkeys,
not people, whose lawyer is appealing his death sentence. Their
sentences do not mean that oppositionists have been silenced, as
recent student demonstrations show.
The point stressed here, however, is that the opposition
has learned from history, and its thinkers are putting forth ideas
both more sophisticated and more attuned to appeal to Iranians than their predecessors.
In the realm of women's rights, thinkers and publications have found
ways to bring together those who take a secular feminist approach
and those who base their ideas on new interpretations of Islam.
The overwhelming support for democratic reform expressed in four
elections and the flowering of intellectual reform efforts, which
now go to the Internet when most reformist newspapers are banned,
give hope that Iran's historic future can be better than its recent
Keddie is professor of history at University of California,
Los Angeles (UCLA).
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