How Iran Thinks

With a new nuclear deal on the way, attention is again turning to Iran. Four recent books, plus the deal itself, suggest that America and Europe are blind to the regime’s motivating spirit.

A portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini projected on the Azadi (Freedom) Monument in western Tehran on the 43rd anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution in February 2022. Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

A portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini projected on the Azadi (Freedom) Monument in western Tehran on the 43rd anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution in February 2022. Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

March 7 2022
About the author

Ze’ev Maghen is chair of the department of Arab and Islamic studies at Bar-Ilan University. His latest book is Reading the Ayatollahs: The Worldview of Iran’s Religio-Political Elite. He is also the author of John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage.

There is a well-known Persian children’s game in which a parent recites limerick-like poems while engaging in horseplay. One version, popular in the mid-20th century, had the father of the household seat himself on a carpet in the living room with one of his progeny standing to his right and the other to his left. The father would declaim:

There once was a cat (yek gorbeh bud)
Poor and miserable (bichareh bud)
A dog came and bit him in the belly (delash-o sag gaz gerefte bud)

(At this point the first child charges across the room and dives headlong into his father’s stomach.)

Next came a bear from behind and nearly killed the cat (khers az poshtesh taghriban koshtesh)

(The second son now bounds over and leaps onto his father’s back.)

But that cat, he rose, and he roared, and . . . turned himself into a lion! (gorbeh beh shir avaz shodeh bud)

(This being the signal for the father to get up and hurl his offspring this way and that onto the soft furniture.)

More than just child’s play, this post-dinner diversion harbored an obvious historical-ideological meaning—a meaning as relevant today as it was 130 years ago. Anyone looking at a map of modern Iran will perceive the lineaments of what the country’s inhabitants call “the sleeping cat.” This cat—the Iranian state—was indeed in miserable shape domestically and geopolitically by the reign of Naser al-Din Shah (1848-1897). What little authority this Qajar king still possessed over his realm was retained by a method that a 20th-century Iranian intellectual would dub “positive equilibrium”: the sovereign survived by parceling out large swaths of Persian territory and granting irresponsibly generous economic concessions to local potentates and foreign powers so that each would defend the capital and environs against the encroachments of his counterparts. Of the many forces that Naser al-Din Shah had to “buy off” in this manner, none was more menacing than Russia, the bear that jumped onto the cat’s back, or more influential than Britain, the (bull)dog that bit the cat’s belly.

Before ousting the last Qajar ruler in a bloodless coup, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), Reza Shah, had risen through the ranks to become commander of the only serious military force in the country, the Cossack Brigade, created with Russian assistance decades earlier by that same Naser al-Din Shah. While in this post, Reza is said to have engaged every morning in a ritual reading of the newspaper, his face waxing redder with each account of Iranian failure or humiliation until finally, in a fit of rage, he would stand up and rip the tabloid to shreds. Soon, this determined corporal would rewrite the headlines that had so dismayed him, and do much to turn the sleeping cat into a rising lion.

Assisted by a cadre of military comrades and nationalist intellectuals, the new monarch set about pacifying the countryside, developing infrastructure, implementing reforms in fields like education, sanitation, technology, agriculture, and women’s rights, and in general shoving Iran, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. He even gave his subjects three days to come up with last names for purposes of taxation, conscription, and general modernization (hitherto everyone had been known as “so-and-so son or daughter of so-and-so” or by a nickname reflecting his profession, town of origin, or infirmity). For all that Reza Shah has been depicted in post-revolutionary Khomeinist retrospect as the epitome of an incorrigible Westernizer, it cannot be denied that he raised Iran from a trampled and torn-apart virtual protectorate and a conspicuous consumer of European goods to the status of an essentially independent and self-respecting polity boasting border integrity and assiduously cultivating import-substitution industry. That the method employed to achieve all this progress was despotic was a price that even many liberal Iranian thinkers of the time were willing to pay.

Ousted by the allies in 1941 on the pretext of harboring Nazi sympathies—sympathies partially tied to the “Aryan Thesis” that made Germans and Persians ethnolinguistic cousins and that was all the rage in both countries at the time—Reza Shah was replaced by his twenty-one-year-old son Mohammad Reza Shah. In awe of his father, and having spent his teenage years in Switzerland at an elite boarding school, the new king was prepped to take up where the dynasty’s founder had left off. His career, and his overthrow in 1979 by the Islamist movement that now rules Iran, is at the center of four books published in the past decade which I will consider here. These books offer much in the way of fresh insights and original research, correcting some of the misconceptions that plague commentary about the country. And yet, for all their merits, they fail to grasp fully why the shah fell, what motivated the revolutionaries, and by extension, what motivates the current regime. For if we want to be able to make sense of the revolutionary ideologues who now rule Iran, we have to understand the political and cultural order they rebelled against, and why they rose up against it.

By looking at what these four works get right and, more importantly, what they get wrong, we can also better understand why so many Western experts and policymakers so consistently misread the Islamic Republic, its sensitivities, its hierarchies of honor and shame, holy and profane, just and unjust—and why academics are so ill-equipped to figure out a society that doesn’t conform to their own ideas of secular rationalism. With the U.S. about to conclude a second nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, if press reports are to be believed, it’s worth considering how this regime came to be, and what makes it tick.


I. The Last Shah


As the Council on Foreign Relations scholar Ray Takeyh has shown better than any previous author in The Last Shah, Mohammad Reza’s reign began with an impressive geostrategic victory: with a little help from astute advisors at home and a determined postwar American administration, the fledgling Iranian sovereign induced no less a megalomaniacal expansionist than Joseph Stalin, at the zenith of his power, to pull his troops out of the northwestern province of Azarbayjan (not to be confused with the neighboring Soviet Republic of the same name), where they had supported local socialist secessionist movements. The cold war had begun, and Tehran was poised to reap the benefits.

Mohammad Reza’s next major challenge came from within, in the person of the charismatic prime minister Mohammad-e Mosaddeq (in office 1951-3), perceived ever since in popular imagination—and in much scholarship—as Iran’s fatefully foregone hope for true democracy.

Takeyh sets the record straight, demonstrating more effectively than any writer to date that Mosaddeq was, to the contrary, a highly unstable personality with dangerous dictatorial tendencies. (He also quashes once and for all the myth that the CIA and MI6 were primarily responsible for the 1953 coup that removed him.) The shah, argues this author, though no friend of democracy himself, was ultimately better for Iran than the prime minister. Indeed, Mohammad Reza eventually realized the very dream that Mosaddeq had failed so badly to achieve: not just oil independence, but oil hegemony for Iran. (Remember when we switched the limousine-like sedans we used to drive for the cramped, sardine-cans-on-wheels that we squeeze into today? That was because of the shah.)

Surrounding himself instead with one-dimensional, sycophantic technocrats, the shah soon became the lonely autocrat, a one-man-show.

The second Pahlavi sovereign got so good at his job, Takeyh maintains, that he felt he could dispense with the independent aristocratic elite whose corruption, bickering, and jostling for advantage threw a spoke into his rapidly rotating wheel of progress—even though it was just these aristocrats who had been the agents of his success, and had saved his throne on more than one occasion. Surrounding himself instead with one-dimensional, sycophantic technocrats, he soon became the lonely autocrat, a one-man-show. When the Middle East-wide, and worldwide, revolutionary fever of the second half of the 20th century finally caught up with him in 1979—another significant connection Takeyh makes—Iran’s ruler faced it bereft of the crucial assistance he needed to weather the storm.


II. The Fall of Heaven


The inability to delegate and insistence upon ruling instead of merely reigning that Takeyh perceives as a shortcoming, Andrew Scott Cooper sees as a strength: Mohammad Reza’s hands-on approach to monarchy got things done for his country. To Cooper, the shah is something very different from the corrupt autocrat of most histories, whose disastrous mistakes supposedly smothered democracy and brought about the revolution. Indeed, in The Fall of Heaven, Cooper’s 2016 history of the decline and fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, there is little that has traditionally been held against this despot that isn’t deftly turned into a virtue, or at worst a well-intentioned miscalculation. The abolition of the multiparty system in 1975, itself largely nominal by that time, and the inauguration in its place of the single Rastakhiz (“Resurrection”) party to which all citizens were obligated to pledge allegiance, is presented as a (botched) stepping-stone toward democracy—a claim doubly audacious since, as Takeyh had shown, Rastakhiz’s own leaders admitted that it was a bad joke from day one. Cooper does not scruple to attribute the refusal of Iran’s Westernizing monarch to rule constitutionally to “his skeptical attitude to the 1906 constitution, which he regarded as a European invention imposed on Iran by former colonial powers.” The shah’s innumerable affairs with married women and regular visits to Paris prostitutes were evidence of his “boundless energy,” and usefully cleared his head to attend to matters of state. Even the king’s leisurely helicopter rides (and those of his siblings) over a capital city choked to a stand-still by some of the worst traffic jams in history are depicted by this creative and sometimes credulous author as his majesty’s noble attempt to help alleviate that same congestion.

These impressive feats of legerdemain aside, however, Cooper is no cheap apologist. The Fall of Heaven is a stunning achievement, and will go down in literary-scholarly history as the book that did more to rehabilitate the Pahlavi family’s reputation than any volume published before or since the revolution. Cooper accomplishes this formidable task—punching a corridor through decades of pervasive and unrelenting vilification—primarily by amassing, organizing, analyzing, and presenting in vivid color an unprecedented amount of detail surrounding the final years of the monarchy. On top of play-by-play accounts of the political ins-and-outs, the economic ups-and-downs, the burgeoning unrest and the frantic diplomatic maneuverings, Cooper can tell us for any given date of 1978 what pop song topped the charts, which jewels Queen Farah Diba was wearing, whose child was killed in a hit-and-run accident, what TV series garnered the highest ratings, whether the king had indigestion (and what he took for it), which night-club was the hottest in town, and what the weather and pollution levels were like. Who knew, for instance, that on November 5, 1978, as the Khomeinist tidal wave crested and began to break over the Land of the Lion and the Sun, Fiddler on the Roof was playing to a full house at the Goldis movie theater in Tehran?

Cooper’s broad and meticulous sweep allows him to put a human face to Iranian society on the eve of what may plausibly be called the first genuinely popular revolution in modern times.

Such an accumulation of detail may seem frivolous; it is anything but. Cooper’s broad and meticulous sweep allows him to put a human face to Iranian society on the eve of what may plausibly be called the first genuinely popular revolution in modern times. It also allows him to put a human face to the royal couple—Mohammad Reza and his wife Farah Diba—painting them convincingly as benevolent, idealistic, patriotic, hard-working, fragile but fortitudinous, beleaguered but long-suffering, intelligent and generally likeable. Finally, this author’s wide grasp facilitates the assembly of an incomparably variegated collage of factors that, so he maintains, together contributed to the uprising of 1979. Beyond the usual suspects—a regime that educated the hell out of its subjects but denied them political participation; rapidly rising but no less rapidly disappointed economic expectations; the alienation and radicalization accompanying mass urbanization—Cooper adduces: a milk shortage, an egg shortage, a power outage, a cholera outbreak, a heatwave, a UFO sighting, an earthquake, a tax increase, the kidnapping and murder of a young boy, drought (on the one hand), unseasonably heavy rains (on the other), “a slew of disaster movies” that “emphasized failure of leadership, loss of control, and public panic,” the fact that according to the Asian zodiac 1978 was the Year of the Horse when people are prone to ”let loose” and “ignore the consequences of their actions,” and, to top it off, a plague of locusts.

The present writer admits to entertaining doubts about the “coalescence of causes” approach to historical convulsions. I remain convinced that people make history, and on the rare occasions when the particular person typing these lines does anything at all important, I tend to feel like I do it for one reason. Extrapolating to the relevant macrocosm, I’m basically with Ruhollah Khomeini, who famously remarked that “the Iranian people did not make the Islamic revolution to lower the price of watermelons” but rather did so “for the sake of throwing off the foreign yoke and restoring their kidnapped culture and creed.” (That’s two reasons, but they are closely related). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the human will, independent and focused though it may be, is nourished, guided, and battered this way and that by the context surrounding it, and for this reason Cooper’s litany is highly enlightening. Ironically, the only one of our four authors who is not Iranian digs more deeply into daily Iranian reality than any of his colleagues.


III. Moods of Self-Assurance and Insecurity


Louis XIV’s famous quip, L’etat c’est moi (“the state—is me”), rarely rang as true as it did in Iran of the 1960s and 70s. Flush with eleven-figure oil revenues and spoiled rotten by U.S. support that had gone from conditional to unconditional, Mohammad Reza neutered the government apparatuses, military command structures, and traditional pillars of the Persian state—court, bazaar, and mosque—that he saw as so many obstacles to his imperious charge in the direction of the “Great Civilization.” The king became the only game in town, his picture on the wall of every home and business, his decisions the only ones that mattered. Thus, an intimate biography of the man on the throne is essential to an understanding of the state of the Iranian nation in the decades immediately prior to the Khomeinist debacle. In his 2012 The Shah, Abbas Milani—a Stanford political scientist and Hoover Institution fellow—provides us with the best example of such a biography.

Milani chronicles the initially reluctant sovereign’s rise to power with an apposite mixture of objectivity, sympathy, and drama. He masterfully interweaves the personal and political, offering probing analyses of Mohammad Reza’s ambitions and inhibitions, phantoms and phobias, worldviews and prejudices. He covers more widely and perceptively than any earlier scholar the experiences and influences of the prince’s formative years, and arrays before the reader the alternating moods of self-assurance and insecurity, tenaciousness and irresolution, optimism and depression that helped make his reign something akin to a non-stop roller-coaster ride. Milani aptly points out that “many of [the shah’s] weaknesses as a leader were his virtues as a human being,” referring, inter alia, to this embattled ruler’s unwillingness to spill gallons of his countrymen’s blood in order to stay in power.

The king made use of authoritarian methods to propel Iranian society forward—which set that society on a direct collision course with those same authoritarian methods.

No work details and dissects to the same degree the myriad challenges facing this well-meaning monarch on the foreign and domestic scenes (not the least of which was the rampant corruption of his own family), challenges which—by exploiting the cold war, dispersing petrodollars, repressing Communists and clergymen, and generally playing his cards right—he faced down successfully for almost four decades. His inability to face down the final challenge Milani ascribes to a paradox: the king had made use of authoritarian methods to propel Iranian society forward in the direction of literacy, industry, professionalism, research, technology, consumerism, capitalism, nationalism, intellectualism, secularism, and individualism—all of which set that society on a direct collision course with those same authoritarian methods. (Or as Takeyh puts it, the shah “built the modern middle class, but refused to grant it a voice in national affairs.”) Indeed, Milani asserts, monarchy itself as an institution, and the squelching of political participation it inevitably entails, was fast becoming an anachronism by the mid-20th century, especially in the countries that Mohammad Reza held up to his subjects as models, and to whose universities he sent thousands of college students.


IV. Reasons for Ruination


Whereas from Milani we learn about the general from the particular—about the situation in the country from the personality of its ruler—the Yale historian Abbas Amanat, in Iran: A Modern History (2012), takes the reader on an oceanic voyage in the opposite direction. One of the many advantages of this impressively ambitious magnum opus is the historical depth and topical breadth it brings to bear on the issues that have preoccupied us so far, and that preoccupy all who think about contemporary Iran: Mohammad Reza’s record as leader, and the reasons for his ruination.

Amanat, one of the premier Iranologists of our time, whose vast and diverse erudition is matched only by the humanity that permeates his texts, is uniquely qualified to construct the stage upon which the 20th-century showdown between Pahlavism and Khomeinism would be played out. By the time we reach the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah—some 500 pages into the book—we have been exposed repeatedly to an interlocking network of patterns and trends that have functioned as the matrix of Iranian history for centuries, sometimes millennia. Many of these are couched in terms of dichotomies: centripetal versus centrifugal forces, tribal versus sedentary existence, antinomian heterodoxy versus a state-supported clerical establishment, Persian versus Arab, Turk versus Persian, Russian versus British, religion versus nationalism, tyranny versus just rule.

Amanat tackles the tenure of the “King of Kings, Light of the Aryans” (Mohammad Reza’s self-chosen moniker) with all these tensions in mind, while simultaneously illuminating the political, economic, social, and especially cultural mise en scene of the period. We do not get the shah as a willful individual, as a volatile jumble of psychological traits, as with Milani, but the shah as one actor among hundreds of others, in what sometimes feels like a non-fiction Persian version of War and Peace. The dense tangle of processes that eventually led to the fall of the monarchy cannot be easily untangled here, but it should be said that unlike Tolstoy, Amanat does not present the tragic denouement of 1979 as the inevitable result of an amalgam of impersonal forces. The hundreds of authors, artists, ambassadors, academics, activists, and agitators, together with no few vendors, workers, thugs, and other ordinary Iranians who contributed to this momentous event are more often than not introduced by name, their dreams and activities fleshed out, and these many human threads woven together into a kaleidoscopic revolutionary tapestry.

Amanat’s presentation is painfully balanced: he rakes the post-revolutionary regime over the coals for its many human-rights violations, but criticizes the Western supporters of Iraq during its war with Iran in the same breath, and no less fiercely. He takes Mohammad Reza to task for curtailing liberty and stifling creativity, but overall—as with Takeyh, Cooper, and Milani—appreciates much of what the ill-fated Pahlavi sovereign did for Iran, depicting him as a driven reformer with high ideals who transformed his country so profoundly that even the Islamists could not turn back the clock.

Certainly, one must be careful not to overdo such revisionist rehabilitation. It is one thing to debunk Amnesty International’s ridiculous claim— popularized with most effect by Reza Barahani’s powerful but unreliable 1977 Crowned Cannibals—that over 100,000 political prisoners were tortured in the shah’s jails. It is quite another to claim—as does Ervand Abrahamian, the highly regarded scholar who literally wrote the book on the subject—that torture as a method of repression virtually disappeared from the Iranian scene under the Pahlavis, re-emerging with a vengeance only with the onset of the Islamic Republic. The shah was a more benevolent dictator than the image conjured up for the West by the various shrill (and ungrateful) Iranian Students Associations that regularly marred his visits to Europe and the United States; but no small number of atrocities were carried out in his name and with his knowledge. Even Cooper, the Pahlavis’ biggest fan, saddles the king with the ultimate responsibility for decades of state-sponsored prisoner abuse, including not a few extrajudicial murders.

Women in today’s Iran may have to cover their hair, but they vote like maniacs and there are more of them in the universities and in a whole slew of prestigious professions than their male counterparts.

Still, to read these four authors, Iran’s final monarch did far more good than harm. He took a particularly ignorant populace (tellingly, Jewish academicians concluded that even Persian Jews were less knowledgeable than their co-religionists anywhere on the planet) and increased their literacy level sevenfold in less than two decades. He used the endless supply of black gold that percolated up through the Khuzestan flats not just to purchase tanker-loads of state-of-the-art weaponry (useless, in the event, as they had been for his father), but also to build schools, roads, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, universities, vocational colleges, sports centers, airports, sea-ports, factories, research laboratories, parks, zoos, commercial centers, chemical plants, railroads, theaters, galleries, and museums by the thousands. He divvied up latifundia all over the country, compensating the owners fairly and doling out hundreds of thousands of acres to the peasantry. (The fact that these peasants often preferred migration to shantytowns on the edge of big cities to farming their newly acquired plots was a worldwide problem, and not Mohammad Reza’s fault). He protected minorities—Jews, Bahais, Sunni Muslims—and, though a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist himself, energetically promoted women’s causes. The last achievement was one that Khomeinism could not roll back: women in today’s Iran may have to cover their hair, but they vote like maniacs and there are more of them in the universities and in a whole slew of prestigious professions than their male counterparts.

The king made Iran into a respected player on the international scene, encouraging and inspiring other third-world countries by example, to say nothing of financing their development projects. Though easily irritated by independent thinking among his subordinates, he tolerated more societal dissent than is generally acknowledged, and his “liberalization program” of the late 1970s, as Takeyh points out, actually saw that tolerance increase just before things got really hairy. When the revolutionary tsunami finally hit, thousands of oppositionist intellectuals and activists were of sound enough body and mind to surf on it all the way to victory.


V. Economy or Religion?


So why did the tsunami hit at all? Why, in the end, did the country choose Islamist rule instead? If so many impressive accomplishments can be laid at Mohammad Reza’s door—and they indubitably can—then why did his people, whom he had benefited so greatly, give him the heave-ho in such a peremptory and humiliating fashion? For many, the answer revolves around the bottom line. Despite the dazzling economic success story that was Pahlavi Iran—between 1957 and 1977 the standard of living among the Persian populace rose no less than 500 percent—many Middle East specialists persist in seeking the underlying causes of the Khomeinist revolution in economic woes of one sort or another. Scores of analysts have proffered such confident assertions as the following, from the pen of the astute student of Islamism Nazih Ayubi, drawing on the no-less-astute Iran expert Fred Halliday:

The revolution was the outcome of a complex and painful process of rapid and uneven economic development. The main reason why it occurred was that “conflicts generated in capitalist development intersected with resilient institutions and popular attitudes which resisted the transformation process.” (Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, p. 387)

Takeyh himself opens his study with a question, “Why did Iran have a revolution in 1979?,” and an answer: “The immediate causes can be easily summarized: the economic recession of the mid-1970s had halted the shah’s development projects and created expectations that the state could not meet.” (This is the well-known but discredited “J-curve” theory, which states that an economic boom followed by a sudden downturn tends to cause revolution and unrest.) To his credit, Takeyh contradicts his own assessment at the very end of the book: “The economic recession of the mid-1970s is sometimes casually blamed for the revolution, but the Iranian people were frustrated with the shah’s dictatorship even when the economy was performing well.”

The main problem with such claims is that the various processes they blame for engendering discontent and consequent unrest in Iran—including “inflationary pressures,” “rising expectations,” and the catch-all urbanization and its manifold consequences—were in no way unique to Iran, and were in many if not most cases more moderate versions of simultaneous developments in other third-world polities where no comparable revolutions ensued. One of Amanat’s arguments, for instance, is not only questionable in itself, but could be applied just as well to any other country in the developing world:

Since the beginning of the Pahlavi era, the Iranian population had improved in every generation physically, hygienically, and medically, from the frail, malnourished, and diseased population at the turn of the 20th century . . . to a relatively healthy, sanitary, and better nourished people in the last quarter of the century. The need for greater quantities and greater varieties of food, home appliances, electronics, and cars thus was bound to become a burden for a government anxious to keep its population economically content. (p. 655)

None of this holds water. The citizens of Iran did not bare their chests to the bullets of the largest and best-equipped army in the region, overthrow their sovereign, and put an end to a millennia-old monarchical tradition, all for the lack of a toaster oven. The Washington Post had it right way back in 1978: “Rarely would contemporary history appear to provide such an example of a people’s ingratitude towards a leader who has brought about an economic miracle of similar proportions.”

The citizens of Iran did not bare their chests to the bullets of the largest and best-equipped army in the region all for the lack of a toaster oven.

Though no amount of counterargument will eliminate the widespread post-facto imagining of Iranian economic distress (which somehow went unnoticed before the revolution), if we seek to isolate the sui-generis ingredients that went into making the Khomeinist upheaval of 1979, we must look elsewhere. Admittedly, this additionally rules out factors like irritation on the part of the educated classes at the lack of opportunities for political participation: such irritation, too, existed in spades in other countries, and although secular democracy-seekers had kept the embers of Iranian dissidence glowing for years, it was not they who ignited the conflagration. The central motivations for the mass revolutionary action of 1978-9 must be sought in factors more specific to Iran, or at least more unique to the situation in the country at the time.

Where shall we look? Here our masters all fall short. Ask the average Joe who was compos mentis 40 years ago why the Iranians rose up against their ruler. (Mind you, not your average Iranian Joe: Persian-speakers are conspiracy freaks of a caliber beyond anything one finds in the West, and they are convinced to a man that the U. S. was behind the whole thing. Even the shah thought so.) Anyone who paid attention at the time—and who was not an academic and could therefore think straight—was cognizant of the simple truth that the king got canned because he had spat on his people’s most hallowed traditions. He and his coterie of “Westoxified” sophisticates had mocked their rituals, stripped their women, insulted their clergymen, blasphemed their god, replaced their sacred paragons with pagan nymphomaniacs, gotten drunk on their solemn holidays, razed their mosques (sometimes building banks and stadiums in their place), and made common cause with heretics and infidels—all in the name of progress.

We should pause to admit that Milani, Cooper, and others don’t see it this way: they make much of what they claim was the second Pahlavi sovereign’s backpedaling of his father’s harsh secularizing policies, pointing to everything from the son’s oath of office, which included appeals to Allah and commitments to promote Shiism; the widely publicized visit paid by the new monarch to the hospitalized Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi, head of the seminary system in the holy city of Qom; mystical experiences in which Mohammad Reza claimed to have received blessings from this or that imam; his habit of carrying a mini-Quran into his breast pocket; and a significant increase in the number of new places of worship, and a partial easing of the restrictions on the veil, under his reign.

While there is truth to all of this, the broader picture tells a different story. Oaths of office and hospital visits are recognized by the genuinely pious for just what they are: lip service. While assertions of dream visitations by saintly figures can be a feather in the turban of a respected theologian, in the case of non-observant ignoramuses like Mohammad Reza Shah—who once boasted to a gathering of Muslim divines that “I say my prayers every night before bed,” a decidedly non-Muslim comment—such claims merely point to the claimant’s abject irreligiosity. And, one might add, the irreligiosity of those who record and build theories upon such empty gestures.

More importantly, while the father’s anti-clericalism and march toward modernization may have been gruffer, under the son these tendencies matured and expanded relentlessly, to a large extent due to Iran’s exponentially proliferating contacts with Europe and even more so the United States. There were, albeit, more mosques built during this period, but the mushrooming cinemas were the up-and-coming place to be. The veil, it is true, could now be worn, but it was scorned by refined society, and more and more women preferred bouffant hairdos and mini-skirts. As uncomfortable and un-moored as traditional members of Iranian society began to feel in the 1930s, they would feel so to a far greater extent in the 1960s, and if they did not, that was because they had grown accustomed to the direction the country had been taking for decades, not because that direction had changed or been reversed.

The few supposedly regressive features that characterized the reign of the second Pahlavi monarch in connection with religion were offset ten times over by the juggernaut of modernization that was the hallmark of the era. And while traditionalism would on occasion receive disingenuous royal support as a counterweight to radicalism, the shah and his governments were, if anything, more inclined toward socialism than Shiism. Above all, as all our authors readily admit, their lodestar was always the West. In the eyes of the vast conservative sector of Iranian society, Pahlavism was hedonism, plain and simple. In the eyes of the increasing number of students who subscribed to the lay theoretician Ali Shari’ati’s militant neo-Shiiism—young people for whom faith had become cool again, and for whom the imperative of the hour was “the return to ourselves”—Pahlavism was the contemptible, traitorous antithesis of religio-cultural authenticity.

Political Islam has been eulogized by untold analysts almost since its birth, the classic example being Olivier Roy’s 1992 L’échec de l’islam politique (“The Failure of Political Islam”), a book that, given all that has transpired since its publication, should long ago have been renamed “My Failure as a Middle East Expert.” Incurable rationalist-materialists that so many Western thinkers are, it is extremely difficult for them to credit the power of the spiritual or theological, and they accordingly search high and low for alternate motivations, especially economic ones, to explain the behavior of individuals and collectives. Such an approach both informs, and is informed by, schools of thought like Marxism and realpolitik, as well as no few social sciences. Immune to religious passions themselves, scholars and journalists simply can’t accept that these passions can motivate tens of thousands of people.

If there is one deficiency common to the four undeniably outstanding studies we have been reviewing, it is that whereas Ayatollah Khomeini and company were sure that they had risen in revolt because Westernization in Iran had gone too far, our authors are all convinced that the revolution occurred because Westernization had not gone far enough. A related argument has been advanced by the prominent postmodernist scholar Ali Mirsepassi in his 2019 Iran’s Quiet Revolution. Mirsepassi notes correctly that intellectuals close to the Pahlavi court, and the sovereign himself, sometimes coopted the anti-“Westoxification” discourse of leftists and Islamists in order to take the wind out of their sails and, at the same time, delegitimize democracy as a foreign implant. He then maintains, based on this paradox, that it was the Pahlavi rejection rather than the Pahlavi adoption of modernity that led to the dynasty’s destruction, a theory as creative and counterintuitive as it is utterly spurious.

Islam as the central propelling factor in the resistance movement to the shah receives extremely short shrift from Takeyh, Cooper, Milani, and even Amanat. The last scholar’s profound knowledge of Shiism is matched only by his dislike for it: for instance, he calls the premier intellectual pursuit of the ayatollahs in their seminaries “tedious” on no less than four separate occasions in his massive tome. The revolutionaries aver in no uncertain terms that they did it for Islam; but our four authors, and scores of their colleagues, claim to know better.

Certainly, there were other modernizing rulers in other Middle Eastern countries who antagonized their Muslim constituents, both before and after the Iranian revolution. Taking Islam seriously as a motivating and enabling factor means, however, familiarizing ourselves with this confession’s considerable inner diversity. Iranian Islam has been Shiite Islam for over 500 years, and Shiism is a revolutionary vehicle like no other. Thanks to the circumstances of its evolution, the slogan “Fight the Powers that Be” is virtually encoded on its DNA. Moreover, Shiite clerics are comparatively independent of temporal rulers, while enjoying the wall-to-wall obedience of their flocks. Not for nothing did Khomeinism succeed so spectacularly where other Islamist movements had succeeded only partially or failed: the creed on which it is based provided both the impetus and the instrument for its triumph.


VI. Missing the Point


That the most impressive of our experts persist in downplaying or ignoring the Islamic Republic of Iran’s driving forces can lead to misunderstandings of current affairs that are far from academic. Both nuclear negotiations and the sanctions, for instance, are premised on the assumption that Tehran is eager above all else to improve its country’s economy. While Ayatollah Khamenei and his minions doubtless care about trade and finances, they care much more about advancing their religious ideology across the Middle East, and like most religious believers, feel that spiritual concerns must ultimately trump material ones. It’s even possible that some might find the idea of suffering material hardships to achieve ideological goals appealing.

Likewise, President Obama’s negotiations with Iran sought to recognize the country’s “equities” in the Middle East, with the ultimate aim of creating a balance among Iranian, Saudi, and Israeli spheres of influence. Again, Tehran may not be immune to such realpolitik considerations. But ultimately the Islamic Republic is engaged militarily in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon to advance the Islamic Revolution. The idea that well-meaning Western diplomats can simply sit Iranian diplomats down with their Saudi, Emirati, and Yemeni counterparts and work out a compromise based on mutual interests completely ignores the theological aspect of Khomeinist foreign policy.

Both nuclear negotiations and the sanctions are premised on the assumption that Tehran is eager above all else to improve its country’s economy.

And all this is even more true when it comes to Israel. Economics and power politics simply fail to explain the conflict between the two countries, which share no borders and had cordial relations under the shah. While Shiism historically contains ample anti-Semitic currents, it is not indelibly anti-Semitic—but Khomeinism is. And it views Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East as an unacceptable offense, which must be eradicated at almost any cost.

But Israel is only the Little Satan. The Great Satan is America, the main driver of “Westoxification.” If I’m right that Iranians didn’t rise up en masse because of the rising costs of onions or because they wanted to drive nicer cars, but because they were passionately opposed to secularization and American influence, then the U.S. cannot make peace with Iran even if the nuclear deal succeeds. The Islamic regime doesn’t oppose America because it supports Israel or Saudi Arabia, but because it represents Western secularism. Unless mass-conversion to Islam is in America’s future, that’s not something that’s likely to go away.

Only several months have elapsed since the richest and most powerful country in the world, having spent $300 million per day for twenty consecutive years on the restoration of the various branches of the national economy and on the creation of a 300,000-strong national army, was sent ignominiously packing with its tail between its legs by a bunch of ill-equipped local amateurs wearing turbans, robes, and sandals. One hopes that the loss of Afghanistan will finally hammer home the truth that the loss of Iran so signally failed to do: it’s religion, stupid.

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