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The Persians: An Interview with Homa Katouzian (Part Two)


05 Oct 2010 17:04Comments

Part 1 | Part 2 Pseudo-modernism, conspiracy theories, the Green Movement.

rezakhan+horseback.jpg[ IDÉ ] Dr. Homa Katouzian was born in Iran and teaches Iranian history and literature at St. Antony's College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. He is the editor of the journal Iranian Studies and author most recently of The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran (2009). Katouzian has been researching Iranian history, society, and literature for more than 40 years and has authored some 30 original books in English and Persian. Katouzian, furthermore, is not a mere bystander and witness to the Iranian scene, but also an important participant through his seminal intellectual contribution to the understanding of Iranian history and society. His ideas have played a crucial role in shaping Iran's post-revolutionary intellectual milieu, providing a critical vocabulary through which Iranian intellectuals can articulate their grievances with respect to entrenched traditions of political authoritarianism and arbitrary rule. And this constitutes only part of his intellectual legacy, which also embraces considerable contributions to Iranian literature and literary criticism.

In this interview, he discusses the broad strokes of his thinking about Iranian society and history, covering a wide and very diverse range of subjects including the political and sociological roots of arbitrary rule in Iran; the legacy of Reza Shah, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and the 1953 coup d'état; the 2 Khordad Reform Movement; and, more immediately, the aftermath of the June 2009 election and the Green Movement. If the oft-quoted remark of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," contains the slightest grain of truth, there are few better points of reference for understanding Iran's current predicament than the life and work of Dr. Homa Katouzian.


You dedicated your second book, The Political Economy of Modern Iran (1981) to Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh -- the man who famously nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and was overthrown by a coup d'état orchestrated by the CIA and MI6. You have also written a seminal contribution to the historiography of that era, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (1990) and coedited Mosaddegh's memoirs in English. In your view, what remains of Mosaddegh's legacy today and was the coup of 1953 really Iran's single best hope for secular democratic government as some writers like Stephen Kinzer have since alleged? Also, what do you believe are the main reasons for his and the National Front's elision by the leadership of the Islamic Republic and official historiography?

It was just after the Revolution of February 1979 that, before submitting it to the publishers, I pointedly dedicated the book to Mosaddegh "for his belief in democracy and long-life struggle for its realisation." That was very much intentional, because in those circumstances very few Iranians cared at all about democracy and liberty (contemptuously describing it as Western or bourgeois democracy if it was mentioned at all). And if any credit at all was given to Mosaddegh and his legacy, it was to "his anti-imperialist struggle."

Whereas, you will find, that despite my praise of his commitment to democratic government as well as clean politics, I was critical of the fact that Mosaddegh did not oblige his rightist and communist opponents to observe civil and criminal laws, and he did not settle the oil dispute in the best way which was possible and realistic at the time -- above all, by eventually turning down the World Bank's offer of mediation, being fearful that not just the communists and rightists but even some of his own supporters would call it a "sell-out."

In fact I concluded my political biography of Mosaddegh by saying that he was much better cut out for the leadership of the opposition than government, and that he should not have accepted the premiership: In fact, he had refused the offer of premiership time and again even a few months before he accepted it with great reluctance, for he himself knew where his points of strength and weakness lay.

Incidentally, I have been, and still am, vehemently attacked personally for such critical assessments by many Mosaddegh worshipers, including some of his relatives, and this says something about the chances of bringing democracy to Iran even by those who claim to espouse it.

As only a very few of Mosaddegh's supporters, notably Khalil Maleki, kept pointing out, without the settlement of the oil dispute, which would have ended the unequal foreign conflict, and the establishment of law and order on democratic lines, which would have removed a growing sense of insecurity around life and properly at home, neither Mosaddegh's government nor the existing weak and incipient parliamentary democracy would have survived in the long run.

This is not to condone the 1953 coup. On the contrary, it is to say that, if those conditions had been met, that coup would simply not have happened.

As for the Islamist historiography, to put it in a nutshell, Mosaddegh was a "liberal" (to them, a highly pejorative term) and therefore did not agree with Ayatollah Kashani's view that he should establish an Islamic government. That was what caused the rift between them, and ultimately led to Mosaddegh's downfall. You may find it difficult to believe, but according to one of the variations on this theme, Mosaddegh himself was actively involved in planning the 1953 coup.

In fact it was only the group of young and militant Fada'iyan-e Islam (who sometimes resorted to assassinating people they thought were undesirable) who demanded the establishment of an Islamic government, which Mosaddegh and Kashani had neither promised nor even wanted. It may amuse you to know that in the very early days of Mosaddegh's premiership, Kashani published a statement in his own handwriting in which he said that those who were demanding the expulsion of women from government offices, making hejab compulsory, and shutting down the liquor shops were either stupid or agents of Britain.

It was not just Kashani but also a few of his secular associates as well, notably Baqai, who fell out with Mosaddegh, not in May 1951, but as late as January 1953, and the reasons for that were both personal and political. It had absolutely nothing to do with religion and religious government. In fact, the Fada'iyan went on vehemently attacking both Mosaddegh and Kashani until the 1953 coup, in which they actively participated. Kashani and his people also supported the coup for a while but fell out with the new regime not long afterwards.

In recent years, it seems you have moved towards reassessing the initial years of Reza Shah's ascendancy in the aftermath of the coup d'état of February 1921. This period has traditionally been rife with polemic and bias, comprised of those who heartily endorse Reza Shah's authoritarian program of modernization from above and others who decry his kleptomania and violent efforts to blunt the power of the clergy and extirpate public signs of religiosity and piety, such as his much-resented banning of the veil. It seems you have tried your best to get out from under the all-too familiar diatribes and hagiographic retelling of that period. What should the present generation take from the Reza Shah period in terms of both its achievements and excesses?

Putting aside inevitable variations in nuance and tone, my view of Reza Khan/Reza Shah has not undergone basic change since I wrote The Political Economy of Modern Iran more than 30 years ago. If you go back to the 1970s you will find that -- putting aside the official propaganda, which hardly anyone took seriously -- virtually the whole of Iranian society was convinced that Britain had brought Reza Khan/Reza Shah to power and that he was their paid agent and puppet for exploiting the country.

I wrote in that book that, although some British military and diplomatic personnel then stationed in Iran had played an important role in the 1921 coup that brought Reza Khan to power, the British government had not been a party to it. In my later studies, I produced massive primary evidence (largely official British documents) to prove this and, besides that, to show that there was no British hand at all in Reza Khan's later accession to the throne. For that and my other myth-breaking arguments, extremist Islamists have described me as an "agent of the British espionage service" (amel-e servis-e jasusi-ye ingilis) and a "marked agent of imperialism" (amel-e neshandar-e amperialsim). Even a small number of Mosaddegh worshipers joined the chorus.

In fact, I wrote in that same old book that if Amir Kabir had survived, Iranians were likely to have become convinced that he was a Russian or British agent, and if Reza Khan had been assassinated in 1923, they would have said forever that he would have led Iran to the millennium had not the British arranged for his assassination! (Incidentally, there is much in all this that is characteristic of Iranian history and society: the alienation of society from state, cult of worship of martyrdom, conspiracy theory of politics, and so on.)

In fact the comparison is quite apt (putting aside Reza Khan's "kleptomania," as you describe it). Answering a question on whether Iran would now be a developed country had Amir Kabir survived, I said in a recent interview that Reza Shah managed to do ten times as much as him (since he had much more time and money, and the times were better for Iran), but Iran is not yet a developed country. This is not to mention the fact that almost 40 years after Reza Shah's abdication Iranian society experienced an anti-Western revolution and 98 percent of its members voted for an Islamic republic.

Even if this was the work of Britain and America, as conspiracy theorists of all hues believe, the question is how they managed to convince 98 percent of a supposedly advanced country to do that. Would they be able to do something similar in a small advanced country such as Norway or Finland?

This brings us to the core issue of the meaning and implication of modernization. Apart from the central objective of demolishing arbitrary rule and establishing government based on law, in which all the supporters of the Constitutional Revolution, i.e., virtually the whole of the society, were united, the main hope and dream of the emerging modern middle classes was to go for modernization and development. However -- putting aside a few sophisticated intellectuals -- they paid little attention to the country's existing capacities, be they social, political, cultural, economic, or whatever. And because the triumph of the Constitutional Revolution resulted in instability and disorder rather than stability and democracy, they lost hope in constitutional monarchy and increasingly began to wish for the rise of a dictator who, in their mind, would turn Iran into, say, France within a short period of time. This is what I described as pseudo-modernism: they just scratched the very surface of modern society without understanding its history, logic, and sociology, i.e., what it meant, and how and why it had come about. "Just give me France or America here and now," you can hear them saying even at present.

They found their dictator in Reza Khan and presented to him their blueprint for "modernization." The results are well known and I have documented them at length in my latest book, The Persians.

We don't have sufficient time here to discuss the results of Reza Shah's approach to modernization and development, which I must emphasize had been largely determined by the modern elite even before he came to power. But the fact remains that the country was nowhere nearly developed at the time of his abdication in 1941, when he had very few friends left in the country -- and not even by the time his son was overthrown in 1979, who, on the basis of the same vision of modernization, and thanks to large amounts of free oil rents, had done a hundred times more than his father.

Contrast this with a country such as South Korea, which between 1960 and 1980 managed to become a developed country under a dictatorial regime. It was not dictatorial government that prevented real and lasting modernization under Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah. Most of the countries that are now modernized developed under dictatorial or absolute governments, not democracy.

Dictatorship is government by the minority in which, however limited they may be relative to democracy, there is rule of law and participation in decision making. Dictatorships, I repeat, are governments by the minority, but not just by one person alone, which is arbitrary rule (estebdad).

This takes us back to the comparison between Amir Kabir and Reza Shah. We do not know what Amir Kabir had thought of the system of arbitrary rule, but in any case it was given to him. Whereas the modern intellectuals following him, such as Malkam Khan, had hit upon the discovery that the root cause of backwardness and injustice in Iran was the age-old arbitrary government (and its dialectical opposite, social disorder), not least by observing the fate of men like Amir Kabir himself.

And that is how government by law as opposed to government by fiat became the desideratum and password for all those who campaigned for the Constitutional Revolution.

Thus, by far the most important reason why neither Reza Shah nor his son managed to modernize and develop Iran was not that their regime was dictatorial, but that in the latter parts of their rule (Reza Shah, from around 1930 to 1941, and Mohammad Reza Shah, from 1963 to 1977), they turned from dictators to arbitrary rulers, having restored the age-old system of estebdad and short-term society -- which would never allow Iran to become an advanced modern society. Most modernizing countries began with or went through a period of dictatorship before they became fully developed. But there has been no such experience under arbitrary government anywhere in the world.

Moving on to a very different era in Iran's contemporary history, prominent reformist figure Alireza Alavi-Tabar, in an interview recently published in Professor Ali Mirsepassi's Modern Democracy in Iran (New York University Press, 2010), has stated that your work was amongst the most influential intellectual influences upon reformists based at the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran during 1990s -- a period of much intellectual activity and the flourishing of a critical consciousness of sorts amongst one-time stalwart revolutionaries, many of whom fought and witnessed firsthand the devastation wreaked by the eight-year conflict with Iraq. Such high-profile figures as Saeed Hajjarian, Mohsen Armin, Behzad Nabavi, Abbas Abdi, and Mohsen Kadivar were linked either directly or indirectly with the Center, and it's fair to say that many of the themes in their writings share a common concern with many of the arguments found in your own work. How do you see the broader intellectual impact of your work on the contemporary intellectual milieu inside Iran, particularly that of the reformists and the intellectual class which advocates publicly on their behalf?

The reformist movement which began to emerge from about 1990 very soon began to take notice of my theories via The Political Economy of Modern Iran, Mosaddegh's biography, and the historical and theoretical essays and essay collections which I began to publish directly in Persian. I was personally absent from the scene but was nevertheless exerting growing influence in the thinking and attitude of these men and women.

I had not been to Iran since 1977 and did not return until 2004, towards the end of Khatami's second term. In the words of one leading reformist intellectual, "Having read your works, we were relieved to learn that it was possible to analyze Iranian society and politics in ways that made sense, unlike the theories and explanations which we had been used to, and which could not resolve many social and historical puzzles which we faced." In the words of another, "Your work did not just make us see things in a sensible and realistic light, but also taught us realism and moderation in our political attitude and behavior."

I won't say any more on this, but you can see for yourself that the approach of most Iranian reformists, whether religious or secular, particularly those schooled in the social sciences, is now based on the theories, analyses, and methods which I have systematically devised and advocated in the last 40 years.

The political platform which swept reformist candidate President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 certainly echoed your critique of arbitrary rule in its demands for the rule of law and the impartial administration of justice. In your latest book, The Persians, you open a chapter with a quote by Khatami stating, "Arbitrary rule (estebdad) and chaos (harj-o-marj) are two sides of the same coin." Does this discourse find its origins in the intellectual developments preceding the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11)? One thinks, for instance, of the writings of Malkam Khan or Mostashar al-Dawleh's Yek Kalameh (One Word) -- or was there something novel about the demands for the "rule of law" (hakemiyyat-e qanun) and "legality/lawfulness" (qanunmandi) presented to the Iranian public by Khatami and his administration? What did you make of the reformists at the time of Khatami's electoral victory and what were the chief reasons for their failure to deliver on their campaign promises?

Indeed it does, and, as I mentioned, it was 47 years ago when I was alerted to the great importance of the issue, and it led to the theories, histories, and methods which I have been advancing in subsequent decades.

Khatami did not stop repeating those words in his speeches when he was president, the words themselves coming directly from my text "Arbitrary Rule: A Comparative Theory of State, Politics and Society in Iran" (BJMES 1, 24, 1997), which was quickly translated and published in Iran, and which I repeated in following books and articles.

In the rise of Reformism and election of Khatami, I saw a hope which I had not seen since I was 20 years old -- that there might be a chance after all for peaceful and continuous long-term development in Iran -- though I was by no means overoptimistic.

I saw better than Khatami's voters and many of the reformist intellectuals who backed him that (despite what they described as the "epic of the second of Khordad" -- i.e., the day of Khatami's first landslide victory), the opposition to Khatami's reform policies was well-entrenched and extremely strong, virtually in all the organs of the state.

That was the main reason for the eventual failure of those policies. But another very important reason for it was the fact that his own voters and supporters could not see this and -- in a typically Iranian fashion -- they expected him to deliver the moon.

Ultimately, Khatami did not succeed since, like the other two reformist Iranian leaders in my adult life -- Ali Amini (1961-1962) and Mehdi Bazargan (1979) -- he was despised by the ruling powers, while at the same time his actual and potential supporters were blaming him for failing to take them to the millennium.

As you know, Iranians have always been awaiting a savior or hero and, by definition, these must deliver the perfect society within a short period of time.

You have spoken much of the Iranian penchant for conspiracy theory, also famously satirized in Iraj Pezeshkzad's novel Da'i Jan Napoleon (My Uncle Napoleon), and dubbed by one of modern Iran's most longstanding statesmen, Hassan Taghizadeh, as the Iranian people's "melancholia epidemic." In your opinion, what is the provenance of this tendency to displace blame onto "foreign elements" and "hidden enemies," and why does it continue to play such a prominent role to this day in the public domain and even the privacy of people's homes?

I had always regarded the conspiracy theory of politics both as scientifically wrong and sociopolitically harmful, and first put it openly and extensively in writing in The Political Economy of Modern Iran 32 years ago, when the Revolution (most of the ideas behind which were of that type) was raging in Iranian streets as well as across the global media.

I not only attacked the conspiracy theory of politics as such, but also exploded a few epoch-making conspiratorial myths about modern Iranian history such as beliefs that the Constitutional Revolution and the downfall of the Qajars and establishment of the Pahlavis were all due to British conspiracy, or that the Shah was a paid agent of the United States, and that even his role in the oil price revolution of 1973-1974 had been ordered by "his foreign masters."

There are both long- and short-term causes for this extremely damaging sociopolitical affliction. Its very origins must be rooted in the endemic sense of insecurity, and near-total unpredictability of both individual and social life. And as part of that, feeling totally helpless in planning one's life -- for example in deciding upon a professional career -- with a longer view.

I have written on a few occasions that not much more than a century ago an Iranian man leaving home in the morning could not tell whether, come the evening, he would be a minister, or be hung, drawn, and quartered. I have also written on a few occasions that in Iran a person may be a merchant this year, a minister next year, and a prisoner the year after. These are fairly moderate exaggerations, though by no means impossible, to make the point in a simple and clear way. When you cannot have much of a role in reasonably predicting your life, you would inevitably tend to attribute things that happen to you and the society to hidden hands, even to genies and fairies, as I used to say.

Much of this has been found in the perceived conspiracies of the Russians, the British, and the Americans in the last two centuries because of the varying degrees of influence which they used to have in domestic Iranian politics. The Russians had gone out of fashion in this respect but recently made a short comeback when some opponents of Ahmadinejad claimed that the presidential election of June 2009 and its aftermath had been a "Russian coup d'état" in Iran.

Many of those who had marched in the streets of Tehran to bring down the Shah later joined the Shah in claiming that the Revolution of 1979 had been an American and/or British conspiracy. But perhaps the British still have pride of place in this, since many ordinary Iranians at this very moment believe that the Islamic Republic is run by Britain.

Reza Shah used to see a British agent behind every tree, and his son firmly believed that Mosaddegh was an agent of Britain who had ordered him to nationalize Iranian oil. All this while the Iranian people were certain that Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah were themselves paid agents of Britain and, in the case of the latter, also of America.

To look at all the causes and consequences of such an approach to personal and social life would take volumes. Suffice it to say that it is a most crippling factor in both spheres, the social and the individual, because the person and society are convinced that what will happen to them is entirely out of their hands, and they are naught but helpless pawns in the games of others. That is why you often see them shaking their heads in resignation and quoting the (suitably corrupted) verse by Hafez: "May a hidden hand rise and do something" (dasti az gheib borun ayad o kari bekonad).

In your view, were the protests which erupted in the aftermath of the June 2009 elections a watershed moment or just another moment in the dialectic of state (dawlat) and society (mellat)? Is there a solution by means of which the much-feted Green Movement could break the cycle of chaos and arbitrary rule you have so eloquently analyzed over the course of your academic career? Is the Iranian "middle class" the answer, as some prominent commentators have contended?

The protestors made up a large part but not the whole of the society as had been the case in full-scale Iranian revolutions, e.g., of those in the 20th century.

Reformists and secularists had twice acted together by voting for Khatami in 1997 and 2001. This time they revolted in unison. If the Khatami experience had been a crisis of authority, this time it was a crisis of legitimacy, since the two Islamist poles began to cast doubt on each other's legitimacy, the one side accusing the other of instigating a coup, the other side claiming that they had been planning a "velvet revolution" with the aid of outside powers.

The Green Movement aroused a lot of hope, but the view that it was the "beginning of the end" was, as usual, a product of wishful thinking. The main problem facing the serious analyst is that it is not clear what the Green Movement now is, what its basic aims and objectives are, and how it intends to work for their realization. The only thing that is clear is that most if not all the opponents of the regime, verbally and/or otherwise, support the Green Movement, so that, once again, it is clear what the whole of the opposition do not want, but not what they want.

The Iranian middle classes have been the most important forces in revolutions and protest movements since the late 19th century. No doubt they will be again. But I cannot be highly optimistic about the consequences of their short-term ways and views (even for themselves), unless some important lessons of Iranian history and politics are learned and put to good use in deciding their agenda and future course of action.

Homa Katouzian teaches Iranian history and literature at St Antony's College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. He is the editor of the journal Iranian Studies and author most recently of The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran (2009), published by Yale University Press. Some of his other notable works include Iranian History and Politics: The Dialectic of State and Society (2003), State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and Rise of the Pahlavis (2000), Sa'idi: The Poet of Life, Love and Compassion (2006), Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Legend of an Iranian Writer (1991), Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (1990), and The Political Economy of Modern Iran (1981).

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral candidate in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Queen's College, University of Oxford, and Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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