A basic window of exposure to the dual nature of the Iranian psyche
By Mark Dankof
June 27, 2002
Sandra Mackey's The
Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation (1996, Plume)
Let not this body live if there is no Iran
-- Ferdowsi, 10th century Persian poet, in chiseled script on his tomb near Tus.
Events of September 11, 2001 necessitate further acquaintance in the Western world
with the best literature on the Middle East generally and the nation of Iran specifically.
Any attempt at the development of a compendium of such works for the American reading
public will, of necessity, include Sandra Mackey's 1996 work, The
Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation.
The Preface and Introduction provide an excellent sketch and overview of the panoply
of issues and problems presented by any informed, responsible consideration of the
past history of Iran. This is accompanied by thoughtful reflection upon the derivative
implications for contemporary political and cultural problems in that country, especially
in its relationship to the Western powers.
In these initial pages of the book, Mackey reminds the reader of a series of facts
and strands in the history of the Iranian landscape, some of which the present American
political leadership and its counterpart in the mainstream electronic and print media
would prefer to be lost to the public in a convenient case of utilitarian amnesia.
Three points made in the Preface and Introduction are worth special emphasis because
they provide the framework for the comprehensive material which follows, taking the
reader from the initial days of ancient Persia under the Achaemenid kings to the
present post-Khomeini period in Iran. They include:
1) Mackey's case that the geopolitical realities of Iran make it a nation of ongoing
importance to the United States in the post-Cold War period;
2) that Iran is a mosaic of tribal and linguistic configurations whose existence
has provided tremendous difficulty historically for central governments in Tehran
as well as for outside foreign interventionists, notably Russia, Britain, and the
United States; and most critically of all, that
3) the dual identity of modern Iran is linked both to the zenith of the power
of pre-Islamic, Achaemenid Persia, as well as to its Islamic roots located both in
the 7th century advent of Islam in Iran through Arab invasion, as well as to the
16th century when Shiite Islam officially became the state religion of Iran.
In regard to the geopolitical realities of Iran and its continued importance to the
United States, Mackey states that Iran "constitutes the great strategic prize,
or the great strategic peril, of the industrialized West (Preface, xx)." Her
succinct reasoning may also have applicability to the larger, unstated agenda inherent
in the current conflict in Afghanistan:
Iran's resources alone elevate it to a position of vital necessity to the West.
For no amount of political change can alter the basic truth of the twentieth century-the
great industrialized countries that dominate the international community run on oil.
Sixty-four percent of the world's known oil reserves lie below and around that shallow
saltwater lake known as the Persian Gulf. Iran, the most populous nation of the
Persian Gulf, occupies its entire eastern shore and straddles that strategic choke
point known as the Strait of Hormuz.
The world's industrialized giants also live by natural gas. Again Iran not only
claims the second largest reserves of natural gas in the world, but also lies adjacent
to central Asia, where perhaps as much as 212.8 trillion cubic feet of gas await
development by Western companies for the hungry European market. That gas will move
through pipelines, the strategic and economic equivalent of nineteenth century railroads.
The routes must cross Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, and-Iran (Preface, xx-xxi).
Five years later, Mackey could have added, Afghanistan, where Unocal and other Western
oil and natural gas companies, formulating in consortiums, have concluded that oil
and natural gas pipelines from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan need a direct
route from the "stans" to the Arabian Sea, a linear line which would place
them through the heart of Afghanistan, including the cities of Herat and Kandahar.
And in this complicated geopolitical arena, the Iranian
links to the Hazara and the "Cyprus Group" factions in the Northern Alliance
may be of critical importance to the West, and to its recently concluded consortium
arrangements like CentGas where Unocal and other companies desire to tap the natural
gas reserves of Dauletabad field in southeastern Turkmenistan, where a certified
25 trillion cubic feet of gas reside for the shrewdest players with the most strategically
This strategy is not without political, military, and moral risk, both to the indigenous
of the region as well as to Western, Russian, and Chinese players in the natural
resources auction. For historical perspective on the inherent dangers of such a
game, Mackey reminds the reader that the United States, Western European powers,
and the Arab oil states bankrolled the presently demonized Saddam Hussein as a counterweight
to Khomeini's Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988.
That Hussein is now considered a major strategic threat to the West in terms of
bioterrorism, suitcase nuclear weaponry, and developed networks of terror in the
United States and Europe is now acknowledged publicly, minus the historical perspective
on the identities of his original handlers.
The other historic piece of the puzzle, completely suppressed by Western governments
and the mainstream media was the utter devastation wrought by Iraq on Iran over eight
years, to the tune of a million and a half casualties. For Mackey, the Iranian border
town of Abadan provides the reader with a microcosmic glimpse of the suffering and
destruction brought upon the Iranian nation:
Abadan is a hell in which the fire has finally gone out. An Iranian town separated
from Iraq by the creeping marshes of the Shatt al-Arab, it wears the awful scars
of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War. Over seven years after that war ended in 1988,
the grayish brown water of the Karun River crawls more than flows through half-sunken
hulls of rusting landing craft and broken debris of shell casings and missile parts.
Miles back from the river's bank, steel skeletons of what were once buildings
bare their nakedness in the grim devastation around them. In this atmosphere of
appalling tragedy, they silently wait for the labor of people from whom the last
ounce of energy has been drained.
Walking among the ghosts that haunt the ruins of Abadan are the United States,
Western Europe, and the Arab states that line the western edge of the Persian Gulf.
For they all played a part in its destruction. In September 1980, when the Iranian
Revolution was spewing its condemnation of the West and those branded as its lackeys,
Saddam Hussein ordered the forces of Iraq across the Shatt al-Arab and into Iran.
With the invasion, a grim satisfaction suffused the West, Saudi Arabia, the United
Arab Emirates, and tiny Kuwait. The Iraqi dictator had seemingly plugged the flowing
river of passion that had surged out of Iran since 1979. Over the next eight years,
Arab money and Western technology, weapons, and military intelligence fed Saddam
Hussein's war machine in the name of containing Iran and the ideology of a politicized
Islam. Less than two years after the terrible war finally ended in a thinly disguised
surrender by the Islamic Republic, the West and its Arab allies paid the price of
employing Iraq against Iran (Preface, xvii-xviii).
The ethnic, tribal, and linguistic diversities of Iran are then underscored by
Mackey as a second major consideration to be understood and appreciated by the reader
as well as the Western policy maker in the region.Utilizing the imagery of the Persian
carpet as a microcosm of Iran itself, the author proceeds to describe Iran as a "complex
pattern of ethnic groups, languages, religions, and regions" (p. 2) with a "...
diversity bred by location." Placed between the steppes of Asia and the Fertile
Crescent, Iran serves as the "stepping stone between East and West."
The open corridor of the Iranian plateau attracted waves of nomadic tribes; it
also attracted a series of invaders including the Arab, Turk, and Mongol. Some of
the invaders were "digested by the culture they had challenged" but some
were "never completely absorbed." Mackey traces the original Iranians to
the Persians who settled about one millennium B. C. on Iran's high central plateau,
descendants of an Indo-European group that originally migrated out of central Asia,
known as the Aryans. It is for this group that Iran, "the land of the Aryans,"
would be named.
In contemporary times, the Persians are the largest and most important group in Iran,
comprising approximately 50 percent of the Iranian population. They all speak Farsi
and almost all adhere to the Shiite branch of Islam. But the author reminds the
reader of the 12 million Azerbaijanis who speak Turkish rather than Farsi, and of
the 6 million Kurds who have never assimilated into the larger Persian culture and
who have posited a continuous challenge to Iranian governments for most of the last
Mackey discusses the role played by large, historically nomadic tribes which also
"strain against the authority of the Iranian state" (p. 4). These number
as many as 400, including the 1 million Baluchis of southeastern Iran, the 700,000
Lurs from the central Zagros Mountains, and the 1 million Bakhtiari in the southern
Zagros, all of whom share language and religion with the Persians. Other significant
groupings include the 1.2 million Turkomans emanating from the eastern shore of the
Caspian Sea who speak a Turkish dialect and follow Sunni Islam, and the approximately
1 million Qashqais of central Iran who speak a Turkish dialect and ignore religion.
Iran possesses 500,000 Arabs, concentrated in the southwestern province of Khuzistan,
the only speakers of Arabic in Iran. Gilakis and Mazanderanis, numbering approximately
2.5 million, live in their folk culture on the Caspian Sea's coastal plain. Added
to these tribalisms are the influence of religion in Iranian culture, comprising
not only the state religion of Shiite Islam, but pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, Christianity
(Eastern Orthodox Assyrians, Protestants, and Armenians), Judaism, and the ostracized
Bahai faith, considered by the Shiites to be a dangerous, heretical sect within their
Finally, it is Mackey's third major introductory point which serves as the thesis
which weaves and threads throughout the entire narrative of 410 pages. She posits
an identity struggle within the soul of every Iranian, between the apex of power
in ancient Persia under the Achaemenid dynasty on the one hand, and the powerful
grip on the Iranian psyche held by Islam since the 7th century, an Islam given a
specific Persian twist in the Shiite version of the faith. The author explains this
dichotomous struggle within the Iranian quest for definition and being on pages 5
Yet the final element in the great paradox of division and unity among the Iranians
is the dual nature of that very identity to which almost every Iranian so emotionally
adheres. The Iranians are a people claiming two complex and interlocking traditions.
One comes out of ancient Persia, the other out of Islam. Like a tormented Janus,
Iran has survived since the seventh century with its Persian and Islamic faces sometimes
relaxed in harmony but as often creased with tension.
In the twentieth century, the traditions of Persia and Islam became swords with
which the Iranians have fenced in an often deadly struggle over control of Iranian
culture and government. In important ways, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as well
as the ideology and behavior of the Islamic Republic represents an intense, sometimes
brutal, contest between two powerful traditions competing for possession of a nation...
In the nineteenth century, Shia Persia met the Christian West. Until 1979, it
was an uneven encounter in which Western nations sought individually and collectively
to use Iran as a pawn of their own interests. Concurrently, the Iranians confronted
the deeply disquieting challenge of creating a modern civilization. In this weaving
of Iran and the West, tradition and modernization, the threads of Iranian identity
knotted. On its most basic level, twentieth-century Iran, its revolution, and its
future can be understood as the great cultural contest between the Iranians' Persian
and Islamic identities. Each of those identities has possessed its own icon-Muhammad
Reza Shah and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In terms deeper and more relevant than the free license given to Western technology
and Western popular culture, the last shah of Iran sought to achieve his personal
vision of Iran by exorcizing that part of Iranian identity that dwells in the Shia
branch of Islam. Through neglect and repression, Muhammad Reza Shah abandoned Iran's
Islamic traditions and institutions in favor of a shallow resurrection of the glories
of ancient Persia.
With this third premise as the foundational thesis of the entire narrative, the
reader can then delve into the wealth of material presented in thirteen (13) chapters
divided into four (4) parts. Part One is invaluable for its presentation of the material
on pre-Islamic ancient Persia and the subsequent invasion of Islam in the seventh
century. In discussing the 1200 years between the founding of the Persian Empire
and the arrival of Islam in the 7th century A. D., Mackey covers the four major dynasties
of the pre-Islamic Iran-the Achaemenid, the Selucid, the Parthian, and the Sassanian.
Key to the contribution of this span of time is what the author refers to as the
"three predominant themes" developed and handed down by these empires to
subsequent Iranian generations down to the present. They are the "concepts
of a powerful king ruling in the name of justice, the continuity of a distinct culture,
and a sense of nationhood rooted more in cultural identity than in either government
or territory" (p. 14).
Mackey's material and insights regarding the central importance of Cyrus the Great
to Iranian history as the pivotal king of the Achaemenid dynasty is critical, along
with her developed arguments and proffered information for the centrality of the
Zoroastrian religion in "laying down the cornerstone of Persian civilization"
In a cosmic dualism posited by the conflict between Ahura Mazda the Creator who
is goodness and light, and Ahriman who is wickedness and death, Zoroastrianism emphasizes
the free will of each individual in making the decision to stand with Ahura Mazda
or Ahriman, in a realm where good works, good thoughts, and good deeds should be
undertaken by men and women who "have been set at the center of a flawed world
to serve as perfecter and redeemer" (p. 16).
Zoroastrianism possesses a strong social content, where religion is "not
only spiritual but political" (p.17). On pages 23 and 24 of the narrative,
the reader is given a synopsis of the blending of Zoroastrian theology with Persian
concepts of justice and sacred kingship rooted in "the farr-the sign of divine
favor." The presence of the farr, or its perceived absence, would prove critical
in the Persian evaluation of any leader, from Cyrus, Darius, and Abbas I to Shah
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini:
In embracing and strengthening existing religious beliefs, Zoroastrianism increased
the expectations of leadership by speaking forcefully to the moral conduct of government
and politics. Since Zoroastrians regarded their place on earth as part of the continuing
renewal of the whole Creation, the faith conferred on the king, as representative
of the state, the obligation to rule in the interest and defense of good. Consequently
for the Persians, the title "King of Kings" expressed less the relationship
of the Persian king to the minor kings within the empire than to the nature of kingship
By the time of Cyrus, the king was regarded as the instrument of God on earth.
His right to rule came from righteous conduct, the outward sign that the "divine
force" shone upon him... . But in Zoroastrian epistemology a king, like any
other man, might abandon divine guidance. Acting through his own free will, he could
turn to malignant spirits and demons. Yet this ability for the king to turn from
the light to the darkness also carried with it the denial of his legitimacy to rule.
Only by presiding over the order of a just society could the king maintain the farr,
the sign of divine favor, which confirmed his inherent right to rule.
It was this sacred principle of kingship which linked monarchy and religion as
the dual forces of power, the symbolic manifestations of God's will. From this theory
of sacred kingship, the Zoroastrian concept of a leader's engagement in the mystical
liberation of humankind was firmly planted in the Iranian political consciousness...
As a result, justice is the single most important concept in Persian political
culture. The force of the idea is not diminished by the fuzziness of exactly what
constitutes justice. Rather than a structured guarantee of individual freedom, the
Iranian concept of justice is the preservation of balance and order in a society
aligned on the side of good. Because the concept of justice is as much a mystical
as a concrete bond between ruler and the ruled, Iranians feel justice more than define
Zoroastrianism, however, would be "fatally implicated" (p.38) in the
disasters wrought on Persia during the Sassanian dynasty (208-637) and the reigns
of Ardeshir, Shapour I, and Khosrow I. While the Sassanian epoch would initially
provide a renaissance of Persian culture, the charisma of kingship, and the Zoroastrian
religion, it would later degenerate into a monarchial obsession with control and
power, the introduction of an extreme social stratification in Persian society, and
an alliance between the king and Zoroastrianism which no longer served the noble,
cosmic battle between good and evil, but which allowed "the state to exercise
its will and religion to protect its position" (p.38). In this regard, the
increasing irrelevancy of Zoroastrianism to the Persian quest for justice and divine
kingship set the stage for the introduction of Islam in Iran in the 7th century.
It is in the final two chapters of Part One where Mackey discusses the invasion of
Islam into Iran in the 7th century, the Persian modification of the Arabic version
of Islam, and the subsequent ramifications for issues of God and State in the entire
history of Iran to follow. The historical particulars of Mohammad's rise in Mecca,
his alleged revelation from the angel Gabriel, and the socio-political dimensions
of his revelation in regard to his public criticisms of the Quraysh, the clan of
mercantile families among Meccan merchants, are all covered in great detail.
Subsequently, the author weaves into the historical narrative an explanation for
the eventual successful exportation of Islam into Persia through Arab military invasion-the
exhaustion of the Sassanian Persian empire after centuries of warfare with Byzantium.
In their last stand at Istakhr in Fars in 648-49, the Persians were pummeled in a
siege that ended in the slaughter of 40,000 people and the Arab desecration of Persepolis
in a desecration of the great Persian symbol of Achaemenid glories past, faintly
reminiscent of the earlier, more vast destruction wrought by Alexander the Great
circa 332 B. C. By 651, the Arab conquest of Persian territories under an Arab state
was achieved for reasons articulated on pages 47 and 48 of the narrative:
When the Arab armies challenged Sassanian Persia, no great feudal lords in command
of their own armies came forth to defend the empire against the Arabs as they had
once defended it against Rome and Byzantium. The explanation was that they no longer
claimed a stake in the political system. In the latter years of the Sassanian era,
an increasingly imperial court presiding over a bureaucracy commanded by minor aristocrats
undercut the position, authority, and income of the regional kings who had pledged
their allegiance to the King of Kings in return for just rule.
By the time the Arabs arrived, the traditional deference between king and subject
people that had once held the periphery of the empire to the center was gone, leaving
Sassanian Persia vulnerable. Economic grievances followed political grievances...
. Socially the rigid ordering of classes which had taken place under the union of
the king and the Zoroastrian priesthood had drained from society any concept of the
Zoroastrianism, the religion of Iran for a thousand years, rotted among its stultified
rituals and arcane liturgies... . When the Arabs arrived carrying Muhammad's message
of the equality of all believers, the remaining Zoroastrians declined to defend the
fire temples and the faith against an invading army promising justice. In the end,
Sassanian Persia fell to the Arabs because the king had lost the farr, the sign of
divine favor... . With the Arab occupation of historic Persia, Iranian history broke
in half-Islamic and pre-Islamic.
Mackey then proceeds to discuss one of the greatest paradoxes in history--the
burgeoning disdain and resentment of the Arabs in Persia coupled with the ongoing
impact and acceptance of Islam in Persia, despite its Arabic origins and military
exportation. This paradox would become best embodied in the 10th century Persian
poet, Ferdowsi, born in 935 near Mashhad in northeastern Iran. Undertaking a commission
from the Mahmud of Ghazan, Ferdowsi proceeded to spend the next thirty five years
penning the sixty-thousand line Shahnameh, the Book of Kings.
The Shahnameh takes the reader through a linear line of a thousand years of history
from the Achaemenids to the Sassanians, from the beginning of the Iranians to the
intrusion of the Arabs. Mackey refers to the work as the poet's articulation of
the "cosmic struggle over the complexity of the cultural conflict between pre-Islamic
Iranian identity and Arab Muslim religious beliefs... . written in the context of
faith in Allah, the Shahnameh nonetheless resurrects Iranian identity within the
world of Islam by celebrating the history and mythology of Persian kingship"
And while the reader is encouraged throughout the narrative to see the development
of the Shiite version of Islam, expressed in the belief in Ali (an Arab) as First
Imam, Hossein, the martyred at Karbala in 680 as Third Imam, and Sufism and Twelver
Shiism (p. 77-78) as other Persian adaptations and revisions of the original Arabic
Sunni faith, the quoted, bitter words of Ferdowsi are striking in expressing the
unresolved psychic, spiritual, and political paradox of Iranian nationalism accepting
a foreign faith exported by sword as part of its ongoing identity:
Damn on this World, Damn on this Time, Damn on Fate,
That uncivilized Arabs have come to force me to be a Muslim (p. 63).
This paradox would never depart the Iranian consciousness. The reader learns in
subsequent pages about the importance of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century
in recovering reconstituted Iran's rough borders under the pre-Islamic Sassanian
Persia. Under Ismail (1501-1524) and later under Shah Abbas I (1588-1629), this
political recovery and military renaissance against foreign incursion took place
under the ideological banner of Twelver Shiite Islamic theology.
Ismail's employment of Twelver Shiism as the official state religion of Safavid
Persia is credited by Mackey with providing Iran the clear differentiation from the
Sunni Ottoman Empire that it needed, giving Iran the specific territorial and political
identity that had been sought since the 7th century Arab conquest. As she puts it,
"Through the Shia sect, the inhabitants of historic Iran could be Muslims within
a specific Iranian identity.
Shiism also gave a religious basis to the Iranians' instinct of self-preservation
and self-assertion" (p.85). Yet the 16th century Safavid dynasty, the foundation
of modern Iran, underscores the tension between king and cleric, between Persia and
Islam, which would repristinate itself in the tragedy of the Pahlavi dynasty and
the ongoing groping for political and cultural stability in post-Muhammad Reza Shah,
post-Khomeini Iran. Page 90 summarizes this "bedeviling dichotomy":
The Safavids had given Iran itself-a proud state with a clear sense of identity
built on the legacy of Persia and bound together by Shia Islam. But the Safavid
dynasty also bequeathed to Iran a bedeviling dichotomy. In Sassanian Persia, the
king and the Zoroastrian priests joined state and faith. In Safavid Iran, absolute
monarchy in its secular form ruled as the dominant feature of the state built on
Consequently, the king and the Shia clerics became dual poles in which political
power based on the traditions of Persian kingship weighed against the legitimacy
of the clerics derived from the theology of Shia Islam. At the same time, the king
and the clerics reflected more than the question of authority. They stood as symbols
of a whole culture in which Persia and Islam continually meet and mesh, repel and
Finally, Mackey organizes her discussion of the 20th century Iranian political
scene into an examination of the three (3) seismic political upheavals which occurred
in this time frame-1) The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911; 2) the Nationalist
Revolt of 1951-1953; and 3) the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She describes all three
manifestations as "parallel movements driven by the same core issues: opposition
to a corrupt, unjust king and resentment against the intrusion of foreign powers
into Iran" (p. 124).
In many respects, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 provided a proleptic
view of what would engulf Iran in 1979 with competing indigenous political forces
expressed in terms of 1) an ancient Persian view of monarchy; 2) the advocates
of a constitutional legislature rooted in conceptions akin to Western liberalism's
notions of expressive democracy or republic; and finally, 3) the insistent agenda
of the Shiite ulama and mujtahids ("Islamic jurists") in underscoring the
importance of sharia (Islamic law) in providing the ultimate foundation of Iranian
political and societal governance.
All of this took place against the ubiquitous backdrop of British and Russian
intervention and competition in Iran, culminating in the 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement
which divided the nation into a Russian zone in the north and a British zone in the
south. Mackey's verdict on the Constitutional verdict on page 155 would be repristinated
in the tragedy of 1979:
The Constitutionalists lost the revolution because the traditionalists of the
ulama refused to allow the Iranians to adopt ideas and methods that could help address
the monumental problems that stood between Iran and the twentieth century. At the
other extreme, the modernizers who so enthusiastically embraced Western ideas failed
to recognize that modernization in an exclusively Western mode demanded the same
values and attitudes that underlay Western culture and advancement. In the Iran of
Persia and Islam these did not exist.
Mackey also advances the interesting thesis that the role of the United States
in deposing Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, with its infamous Operation
Ajax under the aegis of Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA, reinforced the tragic "bedeviling
dichotomy" of Pahlavi absolutism and the alternative Islamic theocracy under
the Velayat-e Faqih ("The Guardianship of the Jurist") of Ayatollah Khomeini
as he fully developed its ideology by the end of the 1960s.
Dismissing the Tudeh Communist Party of Iran as wedded to the Soviet Union and
devoid of broad-based nationalistic appeal in Iran, Mackey proceeds to depict Mossadegh's
budding coalition as a promising one gathered around the National Front (p. 196f),
a diverse collection of political groups dating to the late 1940s. The members of
this Front were overwhelmingly middle class, Western educated, and saw themselves
as the true heirs to the Constitutionalist movement of 1905-1911.
Young intellectuals like Mehdi Bazargan, Shahpur Bakhtiar, Karim Sanjabi, and
Allahyar Saleh, who would surface again in 1979 as a futile alternative to the Pahlavi/Khomeini
showdown, stood against absolute monarchy and the foreign domination of Britain through
the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Page 196 advances their basic agenda:
... their collective agenda echoed that of the Constitutional Revolution-a shah
that reigned rather than ruled; freedom of the press and assembly; open and honest
parliamentary elections; and civilian control of the military. Most of all, they
demanded that Iran be released from the grip of Britain.
Mackey goes into considerable historical detail about the events leading to the
demise of the National Front, and the rise and fall of Mohammed Mossadegh, including
his alliance with Ayatollah Sayyed Abol-Qasem Kashani. Kashani, who bucked most
of the hierarchy of the clerics to directly intervene in the Iranian political scene
over British and AIOC influence in Iran, would later desert Mossadegh over the latter's
view that Shiite Islam was but an element of a wider Iranian society.
The defection of Kashani and the non-participation of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and
the Shia hierarchy in Mossadegh's movement became absolutely critical when the Prime
Minister's July 1951 eviction notice to all British employees of AIOC began to backfire
on the Iranian economy. Described by the author as a man "possessing a magnificent
courage to challenge" and who "sadly lacked the capacity to construct"
(p. 200), the economic cataclysm created for Mossadegh an edge-of-the-ledge political
perch he could not survive when the powerful merchants, much of the army, many of
the court, and all elements of the National Front drawn to him solely on the basis
of his anti-British policies, deserted. This left the Tudeh Communist Party of Iran
as the strongest organized political force in the country, as described on pages
202 and 203:
Mossadegh initially tolerated the Tudeh's lawlessness in order to frighten the
United States into backing the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by
raising the Communist threat to the Iranian government. But the Tudeh now threatened
the National Front. Intent on keeping Mossadegh from compromising with Britain in
the interest of starting Iran's oil flowing again, mobs organized by the Tudeh roamed
Tehran waving the hammer and sickle and shouting slogans that smeared Mossadegh as
a feudal landlord playing stooge for the United States.
The final conclusion to this epic would be reserved
for 1979. The long-term aftermath of the short term success of the Dulles/Roosevelt
Operation Ajax in 1953, which eliminated the threat of a Soviet backed Communist
takeover in Iran, would be both tragic and legion. The United States would replace
Britain as the hated Western power destroying Iranian sovereignty and denying the
quest of both Islamic and Western oriented intellectuals for justice.
It would be the United States who would be linked to the most egregious complaints
of the masses against the Pahlavi regime from 1953 to 1979, beginning in earnest
with the aftermath of the Shah's failed White Revolution land reform policies of
June 1963, urged on him by John Kennedy. It would ultimately be the United States
held responsible for the excesses of the hated U. S. and Israeli trained SAVAK secret
police and the Shah's failed arms-for-oil policy which accelerated after 1973.
The perceived repression of the Pahlavi regime; its loss of the concept of the
farr, the divine favor visited on ancient Persian kings who ruled in the context
of social justice and communal good; and the political evisceration of Iran's Western
educated, political center in the wake of the tragedy of the National Front of 1953,
all paved the way for the sole emergence of Shiite Islam as the vehicle of political
expression and liberation of the Iranian masses. Largely unnoticed by the Western
intelligence community and policy makers, a series of nineteen lectures were being
delivered in Najaf, Iraq between January 21 and February 8, 1970, an ominous harbinger
of things yet to come:
Between January 21 and February 8, 1970, the great teacher of Qom who had led
the demonstrations against Pahlavi power in 1963 delivered in Najaf, Iraq, a series
of nineteen lectures in which he laid out the theological framework of the Velayat-e
Faqih, the Guardianship of the Jurist. The amplification of a theme first delivered
in Qom in the early 1960s, Khomeini's Velayat-e Faqih developed two major and interrelated
concerns of Shia Islam in Iran: the economic, political, and cultural invasion of
the West, and the issue of justice.
Its conclusion called for an Islamic government to replace the unjust Iranian
monarchy. In perhaps the most revolutionary document in Shiism, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini broke one of the sect's core tenets-all government in the absence of the
Twelfth Imam is profane. Contradicting this sacred tradition, Khomeini's arguments
for an Islamic state proceeded from a simple premise. Divine will established Muhammad's
just and sacred community on earth.
Upon his death, the future of that divinely inspired community fell to the Twelve
Infallible Imams beginning with the just and righteous Ali. In the absence of the
Twelfth or Hidden Imam, divine will permits neither injustice nor ungodly rule.
Thus, until the Twelfth Imam physically reappears, it is the most just and the most
knowledgeable among the mujtahids who possesses the religious as well as the political
authority to direct the Muslim community (p. 233).
Iranians is a magnum opus. Comprehensive in scope and scholarship, articulate
yet readable, its historical sketch and analysis of the most significant issues confronting
Iran from the Achaemenid dynasty to the post-Khomeini era is required reading for
any Western reader desirous of a basic window of exposure to the Iranian psyche occupied
by the dual tracks of pre-Islamic Persia and contemporary Shiite Islamic Iran.
These dual tracks are again manifest in the current conflict in Iran between Reformist
members of the Majlis and the clerically backed Council of Guardians and Assembly
for Discerning the Interests of the State (ADIS). They are reflected in the ongoing
tension between moderate President Mohammed Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the
leader of the Islamic Republic.
In these newly emerging disputes, old, repristinated
themes and scenarios reemerge in the political and ideological landscape of the enigma
and mystery of Iran. For the West generally, and the United States specifically,
they again embody the identity of Iran as the great strategic prize, or the great
strategic peril, of the industrialized West.
The Selected Bibliography at the work's conclusion is generally excellent and informative.
It would have been more well served had it included Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's
final work and response to his critics, entitled "Answer to History" (1980).
Mark Dankof is a Lutheran pastor pursuing post graduate work at Westminster Theological
Seminary in Philadelphia. In 2000, he was the Constitution Party's candidate for
the U. S. Senate in Delaware. Currently, he serves as a correspondent for the Lutheran
weekly, Christian News. He wrote this review for the Internet news service,
Global News Net (GNN). A free subscription to the latter may be obtained at