Give this republic a chance
July 9, 2002
This time of the year, I tend my vegetable garden. And, per force, as I bend
to weed, I recall from my modest study of French literature the candid refrain by
Voltaire that one should tend one's garden. I take solace in that. Every summer,
I also recall the beginnings of my love for growing vegetables and gardening in general,
for which I am forever indebted to Theodore L. Eliot, one of the last in the breed
of American diplomat-experts on the Iranian-speaking world.
One summer, in the early 1980s, when I was a resident director of the graduate dormitory
at The Fletcher School, Mr. Eliot, the Dean of the school, and his wife went on vacation
and entrusted to me the care of their garden, especially the tomato plants. The fruit
of the vine was to be the wage of my labor. That summer I also learned to take delight
in the struggle that was life, to witness the maturation process, to weed and enable,
to prune and pluck, to help along the development of a seedling to seed again.
In the past twelve years, every spring, in anticipation of my communion with the
earth, I think through and concoct elaborate engineering and biological ways to reduce
the need for weeding. This year I am experimenting with covering the uncultivated
part of the garden with black mesh-cloth, which helps the soil retain heat and moisture
but denies the weeds the light which they need to thrive.
That solution however results in an unsightly view. In years past I had covered the
cloth with compost and at times with commercially available mulch. This year I decided
to let go of the mulch and opted for the rustic look, straw. I procured the last
remaining bundle of hay at the nursery and strewed it over the garden, overcome by
with the great sense of satisfaction that finally by trial-and-error I had discovered
the best and most attractive way to manage my patch.
I then left for vacation, to the land of the Franks. In Paris, only a few other things
still thrilled more than spending time in the parks. There was the Viaduct des Arts
and its elevated promenade bordered by rows and rows of plantings. There was also
a visit to my favorite restaurant in all of the world, L'Escargot Montorgueil, on
My companion's passion for tapestry and embroidery, on the other hand, could only
be satisfied by a visit to her favorite yarn shop in all of the world, Tapisserie
de la Bucherie, on a tiny elevated alley called Haut Pave. On the way back from the
yarn-erie, we parked ourselves at a sidewalk table at Le Metro, opposite the Maubert
Mutualite station, and ordered our obligatory afternoon coffees.
Earlier in the day, we had been to the flea market at Clignancourt. The uniformed
police, organized into neighborhood watch bands of three and four, patrolled the
narrow and overcrowded alleys that separated the tiny stalls. The purposeful and
searching look on the faces of the police gave hint that something ominous was about
In one split second, the crowd stirred and the four-some police detail descended
on a Black teenager with brute force, grabbing him by the neck. While he was being
beaten into submission, a few angry Blacks and North Africans surrounded the detail,
trying to reach and spring loose the teenager but they were soon dispersed by a generous
dose of pepper spray. The arrested teenager, a wanted pickpocket, was led to a van
and taken away.
In contrast to the hustle and bustle and stench of the outer ring
of the flea market, the inner sanctum of this locality was a calm and manicured place.
Its alleys were wider, cleaner, and lined with boutiques that easily rival any row
of posh galleries or antique stores elsewhere. No fleas here, only butterflies. Not
a cop in sight.
I stopped at a carpet shop called "Le Prince," where a small three-weave
saddle bag had beckoned me in unmistakable Turkmen, begging to be sprung from amid
the Persian carpets that surrounded it. In a moment of unrequited cynicism, I felt
like asking the proprietor about his dynastic pedigree, but then I realized princes,
home grown and from all over, are a dime-a-dozen in France.
My companion and I finished our coffee and began to ponder the direction by which
we would next make our way to the fabulous greens at the Jardin du Luxembourg. There
is always something unreal going on at this place. On this afternoon, a colony of
bees had been stirred into flight. The apiary police, in their bonnets and face-nets,
cordoned off a section of the park and went to work. The ensuing detour brought us
to the little replica of the Statue of Liberty. There in the shade of this monument
stood a young oak tree, all of five-to-six feet high, planted here in January 2002
by the President of the French Senate in memory of the victims of September 11.
It was here that I felt for the first time the depth of the abidding love affair
that has been the Franco-American relations -- through the thick and thin of history
-- from the time of the birth of the American republic, to the codification of the
French political thought and theory in the American constitution, to the gifting
of a majestic tree by President Jefferson (which was blown over in Versailles by
the storms in 2000), to the American civil war, and through other wars, and down
to the sight of lady liberty in the Seine and New York harbor.
Whenever at Jardin du Luxembourg, for some inexplicable reason, I always think of
Bois de Bologne, where a French anarchist attempted to assassinate Mozzafar ed-Din
Shah Qajar during his European tour in 1900. I again made the non-sequitur association,
and it led me to make a few observations about the essence of Iranian monarchy since
the advent of the Qajar dynasty. Commanding a tribe and a specific geographical part
of Iran, Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar was the last Iranian dynastic king who gained his
crown by conquest, meaning by subjugating his enemies by contract or violence.
Crowned in 1796, Aqa Mohammad Khan was murdered in 1797. He had no issue, and was
succeeded thus by his nephew, Fathali Shah, who ruled for thirty-six years and died
of natural causes in 1834. Fathali Shah was succeeded by his grandson, Mohammad Shah,
who ruled from 1834 until his death in 1848.
Nasir ed-Din Shah became king next and was the first among the Qajar kings to be
the son of a predecessor-king. He ruled for 48 years and was murdered in 1896. Without
a doubt, Nasir ed-Din Shah's kingship represented the apogee of Qajar rule, when
Iran began a slow but steady pitch toward western forms of modernization not experienced
in Iran since the time of Shah Abbas Safavi (1587-1629).
Nasir ed-Din Shah was succeeded by his son Mozzafar ed-Din Shah, who died in 1907
of natural causes, but not before he consented to curbs on his sovereign powers in
two basic laws that formed the Iranian constitution. During his rule, for the first
time, kingship in Iran became a matter of express contract between the king and the
people under God.
Mozaffar ed-Din Shah's son and successor, Mohammadali Shah, was deposed in the course
of a civil war in 1909. He had the distinction of being the first Iranian king to
have his departure from Iran prompted and negotiated by foreign powers. Mohammadali
Shah's successor was his son, Ahmad Shah, who ruled in name from 1909 to 1925. He
was deposed by the act of the Iranian parliament, who then vested Reza Khan (Pahlavi),
the king's prime minister, as the new dynastic king of Iran.
Some are of the view that Reza Khan had intended to turn Iran into a secular republic,
styled after what Kamal Attaturk was doing in the neighboring Turkey. Somehow Reza
Khan perished the thought of republicanism. For what he intended to do in Iran, vanity
and practical statecraft each required a kingship and this is believed to have been
pressed upon him by foreign governments and his Iranian constituencies alike.
Later, his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi would write (in Mission for My Country,
1961, p. 166) that Reza Shah worked hard to create a modern balance between "Church
and State," he "did not dispossess the clergy," and all the while
kept Iran "an Islamic state, as our Constitution provide[d]."
Reza Shah was the second Iranian monarch whose demise was expedited by foreign powers.
He abdicated and was sent into exile in 1941. His son, Mohammad Reza then became
king; he was overthrown by a republican revolution in 1979.
A straight averaging of the Iranian kingship from the time of Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar
to the end of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi -- from 1796 to 1979 -- in all, nine kings
in the course of 172 years -- results in the average of 19 years per king. Of the
nine monarchs, however, two were murdered while in office, three died of natural
causes, and the last four were all deposed. More than 60 percent were -- in effect
Since the death of Mozaffar ed-Din Shah (1907) until the demise of Mohammad Reza
Shah (1979), Iran was ruled by four monarchs and on the average each of their rule
was four years less than the average of 19 years for the period between 1796 and
1979. Not a single one of the last four Iranian monarchs left office under normal
circumstances, which yields an ouster rate of 100 percent for the last four kings.
The foregoing does not bode well for the restoration of monarchy in Iran. First,
the monarchy as an institution rubs against the trend toward the de-monarch-ization
of the Iranian political system, which trend ultimately produced the 1978 republican
revolution. Even if monarchy is restored, the institution will be shortlived for
a variety of reasons.
In the Iranian practice, monarchy is based on the laws
of property and invariably the monarchy's proprietary temperament will run counter
to the property interests of others in society and that asymmetry will invariably
create discord and conflict, which ultimately will be resolved in a zero-sum gambit.
Also, in the Iranian practice, monarchy is inherently unstable for the reason that
the rules of succession themselves are not clearly defined. To illustrate: When the
monarch has no issue, to whom shall the crown devolve? Will a female issue or relative
too be entitled to mount the throne? Without clear rules of direct descent and succession,
monarchy tends to become a tribal or family matter, with all of its in-bred seeds
of internecine conflict.
Moreove, in the Iranian practice, monarchy and participatory democracy have shown
to be inherently incompatible. This incompatibility has been brought about by four
seminal developments in contemporary Iranian political practice.
First, there is the culture of putsch by premiers. Nader Shah was supposed to be
Tahmasp Qoli ("Slave of Tahmasp") and the Safavi commander-in-chief under
the last of the Safavi kings and yet when the time came Nader deposed the last Safavi
king and assumed the monarchy. In recent memory, Reza Khan labored for years as a
functionary of the Qajar kingship and prime minsiter but ultimately took over the
Premier Mossadeq's hysterionics and shenanigans resulted in Mohammad Reza Shah leaving
Iran briefly in 1953 in the middle of a constitutional crisis. The appointment and
formation of Premier Bakhtiar's government in 1979 too produced Mohammad Reza Shah's
departure from Iran, from which he did not return. In a way, since the 1906 Constitution,
exigent populism, as represented by a parliamentary government, and the Court had
produced greater instability in Iranian monarchies than the earlier days of unrivalled
Second, in the Iranian practice from the time of the promulgation of the Constitution
in 1906 and removal of Mohammad Reza Shah in 1979, monarchy had become an elective
office. The historical evolution that produced this anomaly has its origin in Mozaffar
ed-Din Shah's agreement in 1906 to be bound by the Constitution.
Events of the day had presented him with two choices -- either to save his skin and
remain on the throne as a monarch with curbed prerogatives like the king of Belgium,
or to be driven from the palace. He wisely chose the former, but died of a heart
attack anyway. The Iranian kingship never recovered from Mozaffar ed-Din Shah's selling
out to a fickle but boisterous public pressure for intellectual constitutionalism.
The next significant erosion in the Iranian kingship occurred when the Iranian parliament
took the crown away from Ahmad Shah, the nominal Qajar king, and vested the monarchy
in Reza Khan and his dynasty. This event turned the institution of the Iranian monarchy,
once based on blood-line designation and hereditary succession, to a parliamentary
and elective office.\
Moreover, by this act, and in direct contrast with Ahmad Shah's truly constitutional
and passive stewardship of the Iranian kingship, the Iranian parliament postulated
two governing principles: first, the shah in the Iranian monarchy must have power
and authority and, secondly, if he is not up to the job then he may be removed by
the elected representatives of the people.
The Pahlavi kingship (1925-1979) was therefore an elective office, to which office
the dynastic founder, Reza Khan, had been appointed by the parliament, and to which
Mohammad Reza Shah succeeded as a matter of the Constitution. Implicit in that arrangement
was the notion that in Iran henceforth the monarchy was conferred by the people and
the people had the legal power to take it away as a matter of right.
That is what transpired in 1978-1979 as the Iranian public in a levee en masse overthrew
the person of the monarch and conferred the kingship of the country to the presumptive
leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. In the period from February 5, 1979
through February 4 1980, Khomeini courted the country in a manner of Iran's kings
The 1979 Constitution gave the country a new political framework, a republic; its
first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, held office from February 4, 1980 through June
22, 1981, when disagreements between the elected president and the anointed supreme
leader resulted in the impeachment of Banisadr and his removal from office by a pro-Khomeini
parliament. Banisadr's attempt at "putsch by premiers" had failed.
Until the next president can be elected, the Interim Presidential Commission governed
the country from June 22, 1981, through August 2, 1981; Mohammadali Rajai resumed
the presidency on August 2, 1981, only to lose it and life on August 30, 1981. The
Interim Presidential Commission took charge again, from August 30, 1981, through
October 13, 1981.
Iran's third elected president in the span of 19 months, Seyyidali Khamenei, took
office on October 13, 1981, and after two full four-year terms he left office on
August 17, 1989, at which time the fourth elected president, Hashemi Rafsanjani,
took office and served out two consecutive 4-year terms. The fifth and current president
of the republic, Mohammad Khatami, took office on August 3, 1997, and is presently
in his second elected term.
Two observations are in order here. First, the republican revolution had sprung on
the political scene the theologians as political actors, distinct in appearance,
language, and training. If not a political party, they provided the modern-day analogy
to the days when the Iranian kingship grew out of tribal ascendancy. Second, with
the exception of the first two presidents, Banisadr and Rajai, the presidents have
been clergy since 1981.
In the twenty-two years of the Iranian republican government,
five presidents have served it. In its first year, one president was impeached and
ousted by parliamentary means, while another was assassinated. Regardless, presidential
succession was managed without disruption and peaceful transition of power, producing
the six subsequent presidencies without bloodshed.
A similar kind of experience is reflected in a recent slice of the American history.
John Kennedy was sworn into office as president of the United States in January 1960
and was assassinated in 1963. Lyndon Johnson served out the remainder of Mr. kennedy's
term and was elected president in 1964 for a four-year term. His successor, Richard
Nixon, was scandalized and in the process left office during his second elected term
under threat of impeachment. The remainder of his term was served by Gerald Ford,
who then was succeeded by Jimmy Carter, who was president when the Iranian republican
revolution ended the monarchy; he was followed by Ronald Reagan.
The republican government in Iran owes its stability so far to the coincidence of
interests and egos that govern the office of the supreme leader, a theological king,
and the presidencies of Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Khatami -- all three being
clergy, men of the same cloth. This has minimized the tendency of the elected president
to follow in the path of "putsch by premiers" and force a show down with
the supreme leader.
Into the foreseeable future, the nature of the political discourse and governance
in Iran will remain republican. What might change is the present dominance of the
presidency by the clergy. The Constitution does not require that the president be
a member of the clergy or of particular clerical school of thought. In a practical
sense, a secular person or a non-clergy may not be presidential material, because
secularism is for now the antithesis of Moslemhood and that runs contrary to the
However, there is no reason why a clergy with modernist ideas and secular tastes
cannot become president. In many ways Khatami was believed to be such an alternative
to dogmatic government; however, he too like the supreme leader was from the Qom-Tehran
school of theologians.
Regionalism and forces of reform that often developed in Iran's peripheral geographical
areas and challenged the kings of Persia will one day also provide the essence of
progressive thought and policy in the republic of Iran. Distinctive forms of social
thought and theory will spring up in seminary schools of Tabriz, Mashad, Isfahan,
Bushehr, and Rasht and provide the necessary checks and balances to the conservatives
of Qom and Tehran. Through it all -- more now than ever before -- an unresponsive
government, elected or anointed, is still ultimately subject to the people's sanction,
who can and will take it all away and confer it onto another.
The flight home from Paris was long, but comfortable.
The evening had wrapped itself around my vegetable garden and so I decided to take
a look at it in the morning. At dawn, coffee in hand, I opened the back door and
looked ... Splendor in the grass! The tall green blades of grass were blowing gently
in the breeze. The straw that was supposed to keeping down the weeds had sprouted
But unlike the tenacious crab grass, the weeding of the hey mulch proved easy, as
the roots rested in the puffy layers of the straw, gentle to extricate. I think,
I will give this method a chance. And, I think, I will give the Iranian republic
a chance, too. Indeed, il faut qu'on cultive son jardin.
Mirfendereski is the author of A
Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (New York and London: Palgrave,