Who was who

Interview with Dr. Abbas Milani about his Book, "Eminent Persians"


Who was who
by Farrokh_Tehranzadeh

As the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution approached, Abbas Milani realized that very little, if any, attention had been given to the entire prerevolutionary generation. Political upheavals and a tradition of neglecting the history of past regimes have resulted in a cultural memory loss, erasing the contributions of a generation of individuals. Eminent Persians seeks to rectify that loss [excerpt here]. Consisting of 150 profiles of the most important innovators in Iran between World War II and the Islamic Revolution, the book includes politicians, entrepreneurs, poets, artists, and thinkers who brought Iran into the modern era with brilliant success and sometimes terrible consequences.

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Why was the title chosen as “Eminent Persians” instead of “Eminent Iranians?”

Well there are two reasons for it. One, it has nothing to do with the politics of the term. It has to do with poetic echo of the term. The title, Eminent Persians, is a borrowing that’s from a famous book in English called “Eminent Victorians.” It’s by Lytton Strachey and it is a mini biography of Victorian figures – a dozen of them - and I had read the book. It’s a very wonderful book and I loved the title. And Eminent Persians simply had in my mind a better echo, and for a title one of the things you look for is an echo.

Secondly, I generally believe that “Persian,” which was what we were called in all the Indo-European languages before that infamous decision of 1935 by Reza Shah to change it. It’s a much better way of referring to us. It has 2500 years of history behind it. It has a very rich legacy in the Indo-European culture, and to separate ourselves from that tradition, from that legacy, I think is much more costly than the more accurate precision you would get if you had called it “Iranian.” I understand the difference between “Iranian” and “Persian” and certainly there is something to be said for precision. But in a title, I think, we are given some poetic license to go with something that sounds, first of all, more beautiful, as I think Eminent Persians is, and secondly the reason that I told you.

As some would argue that the book leaves out many notable Iranians, can you elaborate on the decision making process that led to the selection of the 150 individuals featured in your book?

First of all, a nation, a generation, obviously has more than a 150 eminent people. So the notion that the only eminent Iranians are these is not what the title is intended to give. There are obviously many people who deserve to have their lives written about. Unfortunately, because we are part of a culture where there is a dearth of scholarship in people’s lives, we don’t have any other source. There are very few other books that are written to try to cover the lives of these people. You know, people in poetry, people in literature, people in economy, people in architecture… very few of them have had anything written about them. So, because there are no other sources, because there are no other books, it becomes a much more contested issue on who is in this book.

But having said that, in having said that I absolutely agree that there are many many many eminent Iranians who are not in the book, the criteria which we tried to use, and it’s not a criterion I developed alone, I developed this criteria with the help of an advisory board that had some very prominent Persians in it and they helped both develop the measure that we will use and helped use that measure to come up with about three hundred fifty names from a larger list that had been compiled of about 900. The measure was that a person had to have done something that was new in style, in substance, in method of operation, and in their different fields.

There are twenty three different fields or professions about which we have in each category some people and so we tried to use that measure; the measure of innovation and it is by no means indication of approval of what that person has done to be included in this book. In other words if we have a business man, for example, who was known for certain kind of a corporate raiding, raiding corporations, raiding banks and owning them through monies that he got from the bank itself, that doesn’t that I approve of this person’s way of doing business. So, it wasn’t a measure of moral judgment, it wasn’t a value judgment, it was simply a kind of an empiric judgment that they have done something that is new.

Now, even if you have a consensus on using this as a measure, obviously different people using the same measure might come up with a different list of a hundred fifty. But you know, with that board, we tried to look at these names as impartially as we could manage as bereft of political prejudgment or aesthetic prejudgment as we could manage and reduced the list to the 150 that you saw.

Can you tell us who the members of that advisory board were and perhaps about their research background?

One of the nice conditions for writing this book was that, first of all, the board had absolutely no control over the content of the book, and the board never saw the manuscript before it went to the print, because I wanted to have complete authorial independence. And the other one was that the people who are on the board can not put their own name on the board. So, anybody who is in that list and was on the board it was my decision and my decision alone. Some of them tried to dissuade me from putting them on the list and I decided that they really do deserve to be on the list and I wasn’t going to allow them to do that. And because some of them were on the board, and are not in the book, I don’t think I would like to mention all of them, but I can tell you some of the people who were on the board and whose names are in the introduction that I have written to the book.

For example Ebrahim Golestan, very kind and advised on matters cultural and aesthetic, Farhang Mehr advised in the matters relating to the bureaucracy, Siavash Arjmand helped with matters relating to the economy. Akbar Lari was on the board. He helped with the construction business. We had Abolfath Ardalan who helped with the military. We had Mehdi Samii who helped with matters of finance and banking. We had someone help us with painting. We had someone else help us with medicine and we had someone help us with music and those people I am not at liberty to mention their names. But I can tell you that like Golestan and Farhang Mehr and the other people that I mentioned, these are each truly eminent prominent successful people in their respective fields with incredible unimpeachable unquestionably positive reputation. People who are known to know the field they are talking about and have clear and learned judgment.

How was it that with all of the eminent people amongst us we still experienced a revolution that, as a consequence, virtually undid all that they had done for Iran?

That’s a good question. One of members of the board, Mehdi Samii, more in jest than seriousness, but more than once told me that if Iran had a 150 eminent Persians, there would have been no revolution. But the reasons, I think are many and they are very much the subtext of the book. The book really has a very clear structured subtext to it and the purpose of it, of the subtext of it, besides the explaining that question “how could the revolution happen and why did it happen?” and I think there are several reasons.

One was authoritarianism and that authoritarianism went into a crisis in 1977. It was a kind of a perfect storm. The economy suddenly nosedived, because the price of oil came down. The Shah decided to liberalize precisely when the economy was going down. We know for two thousand years, from the time of Aristotle that authoritarian regimes are most in danger when they try to open up the system. This is an old adage in political philosophy. Nevertheless, precisely at the time when the economy was nose-diving the Shah decided for reasons essentially international, having to do with the Carter administration, to open up the system and then it’s these two, this combination was a recipe for disaster.

There was the added issue of his own health. He had deteriorating health. He was under chemotherapy. He was taking medications that led to paranoia, indecision, depression, and anybody who study that period will tell you the whole edifice of power, the whole military the whole bureaucracy was to a great extent dependent on the leadership and the command they received from the Shah. When he was unable to lead, the system basically had a very difficult time to operate. And because of that authoritarianism the middle, the social democrats, the reformist, the national front, and the secular opposition that could have saved the system as a sort of a loyal opposition was wanted. There is no such a loyal opposition. And the only force that had been allowed to organize mobilize train were the clergy. The only political group. The only institutionalized socially cohesive group that was allowed to organize and mobilize and train cadres and collect money for itself was the clergy.

So, when the system went into a crisis, when there was no secular opposition because there had been political oppression it is today self evident that the clergy would seize power, as they in fact did. That’s one, I think, big reason. Very closely related to that is a second reason and that’s the Shah’s belief that the main danger to his regime came from the left, and in that battle the clergy were his allies. So while he brutally oppressed the left and eliminated the center, he allowed and in fact encouraged the clergy to take a more prominent role in society. He thought that by exiling Khomeini and imprisoning some of the more radical elements like Rafsanjani the rest of the bodies of the clergy would be his supportive. He proved to be wrong.

Finally, I think the third reason is that there was a kind of a pact, an unwritten pact, between the Iranian industrialist, the rich, and the Shah and the pact was that they would not participate in politics and defer to the Shah the matters that were political. He would thus in return ensure the security of their investments. And by the time the Iranian industrialists realized that their investments were in jeopardy, by the time they realized that there is a revolution on the horizon it was too little and they mad a very very feeble effort at organizing any attempt to save the system. It’s one of the big, I think, uncovered stories of this revolution how the Iranian industrial bourgeois class made very little attempt to save the day for itself.

Now, part of the Iranian bourgeois class, industrial class, rich class were the bazaaris who were against the Shah, and they were against the Shah because they represented a traditional form of mercantilism and the Shah from 1960’s and certainly into 70’s was supporting a kind of industrialism that was moving the center of gravity in the Iranian economy away from the bazaar up to the northern parts of Tehran. The bazaaris were not going to sit down and take this. They mobilized. They aligned themselves with the clergy and unfortunately the rest of the middle class, the rest of the opposition, also made the grave mistake of thinking that they can align themselves with someone who had clearly undemocratic and anti-modern ideas and win a democratic revolution in that alliance. That proved to be a delusion. That combination created, I think, what can only said to be a perfect storm that led to the revolution of 79.

As many of the individuals featured in your book were educated in the west, particularly in the US, would you examine the US’ past approach to being involved with them, and in the light of President Obama’s stated desire to engage in dialogues with all, including the adversaries, what change should there be in US’ involvement with the eminent Persians in the future?

The US clearly had a major role in Iran. Its role changed in the course of the Shah’s rule. While in the 50’s the US enjoyed enormous power in Iran, the Shah in the words of one of the US ambassadors “was a ward of the US,” in mid 60’s to 77, I think, the Shah enjoyed considerable more autonomy and independence in his actions, and in an ironic sense that independence helped his undoing; not in the traditional conspiratorial sense of the word, but in the sense that during the Kennedy era under pressure from the US the Shah undertook a series of reforms.

Some of these reforms he had talked about before, like the land reform, long before Kennedy came the Shah had talked about it, some of them were under direct pressure from the US. And the entire package was mush pressured. Much pressure came by the Kennedy administration for the Shah to engage in these reforms and those reforms were intended to be a kind of a structural pattern of change where the economy would change, feudalism would end, there would be a rise of urban middle class, there would be rise of a technocratic middle class, and as feudal base changes, as the aristocracy is essentially pushed aside the Shah would form an alliance with these new forces. The peasantry that had received the land, essentially the new landed gents et al. small bourgeois class on the countryside the industrial class in the city the middle class in the city, and the requisite for this political alliance was the Shah would create more of a democratic polity. That was the package that was being pushed by the Kennedy administration.

The Shah undertook the economic changes. Created the middle class. In fact created it at an incredibly rapid pace. Created an incredibly modern infrastructure. Increased Iran’s GDP GNP,… every indicator. But as his power grew, as his money increased from oil his willingness to listen to American advice also lessened. Add to that the Nixon years, where the administration was not interested in pushing the Shah to reform, you have an economic structure, a social fabric, that has radically changed and a Shah that still wants to rule it in the way his father ruled in 1935 exemplified by his rather incredible decision to order the creation of a one party system. That was not going to work. There was incongruence between the social fabric and the style of rule. In that sense the US played a very important rule in creating this disharmony.

Add to that the fact that the Carter administration came and first pushed the Shah towards human rights, and then when it became clear that the situation is much more potentially dangerous than they ever imagined, they failed to develop a coherent policy that would work. Just at the time that Shah needed support the most help and support from the US, that help and support was not coming because the US administration didn’t have a cogent policy. They were all over the map. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. They were giving him contradictory advice. And the Shah as I said earlier was depressed, was sick, was paranoid and the combination again couldn’t have been worse.

So, that’s the old regime, and as for what the US policy should be on this one, I have written extensively about this in different articles and my suggestion has always been that the US should talk to Iran but should always have the human rights issue and democratic rights of Iranian people in mind in those discussions; not for a regime change by the US, but cognizant of democratic change by the people of Iran for the people of Iran and of the people of Iran. So in that sense if Obama can do this, I think he will both benefit both the US and Iran, and if he doesn’t do this, I think he will make the same mistakes that the Bush and Clinton administration made.

While the media and some not-so-eminent Iranians seem to be out doing each other in presenting a negative image of Iranians these days, your decision to author such a book is commendable. Aside from that, your other book The Persian Sphynx didn’t read like a collection of researched facts. Within those lines, your individual personality also was present throughout that book. what were the personal or emotional factors that may have been involved in conceiving the idea and writing the Eminent Persians?

I think part of the reason that the image of Iran has suffered is the behavior of the Iranian regime. What they have done. What they have said. Beginning from taking diplomats hostage to engaging all manner of perfidy in Europe, assassinating Iranians in Europe, two dozen of them have been assassinated by this regime. Calling for the destruction of Israel, all of these things are very important elements, very important reasons why the image of Iran has suffered. And because of these failures, needless to say, those in the west who had an agenda, who wanted to isolate Iran, who wanted to destroy the image got the very good chance to do this. But if we are to look at this historically and I think fairly, we have to say that the regime in Iran had a great deal to do with this.

But in writing the book, both Eminent Persians and The Persian Sphynx, you know you can never separate yourself from what you write. A French critic said many years ago that all writing is autobiographical. Roland Barthes said all writing is autobiographical. And even when you make every effort, as I have tried, to stay out of this picture; to allow the facts to speak for themselves and not allow your personal likes, prejudices, preferences, or experiences to color the narrative, it eventually does. It does intrude. It eventually rears its head. And to that extent, I am guilty as charged! My effort was to minimize that. My effort was to work in the language and style of scholarship rather than in the language and style of public advocacy or public diplomacy. But I think if we do speak the truth, we do try the language of scholarship truth shall be much on side. Because it is the forces of despotism and darkness that want to obfuscate and want to change the truth and so...That’s it!



To Alborzi : Oh really?

by Gimme a break (not verified) on

"One of the big mistakes that the shah made, was his absolute power, the nation was not able to function."

But through absolute uncompromising power is exactly how mullahs have been able to rule for the last 30 years and there is no end in sight for their absolute Machiavellian rule.

Believe me if mullahs are EVER confronted with the same scenario as the Shah, they will certainly run much faster than the Shah out of Iran, of course they will not hesitate to kill as many people as they can first.


Dear Alborz

by Fatollah (not verified) on

I apologize to have offended you once, it's by mistake! I am sure you'll understand.



Abbas Milani's much anticipated work, entitled...

by alborz on

"The Shah and Shiism, Contours of A Troubled Relationship" will reveal a yet to be discussed aspect of the events leading up to the 1979 revolution.

In a recent talk at Standford, and part of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, he spoke of how this yet to be released work is the culmination of 10 years of research and his other writings.




That was the big mistake

by Alborzi (not verified) on

One of the big mistakes that the shah made, was his absolute power, the nation was not able to function. He was coward all along, the guy abandoned his country before and this time he left his loyal subjects in jail to be executed.

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If Khomeini and Cyrus were both Persians then Obama must be a white man.