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Give this republic a chance
I will

July 9, 2002
The Iranian

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 rue Montorgueil.

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 to happen.

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 -- ousted.

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 peacock throne.

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 totalitarianism.

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 of yore.

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 state's idealogy.

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 itself!

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, 2001).

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Guive Mirfendereski

By Guive Mirfendereski

Mirfendereski articles' index


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