The first mammal

Going to bat for Mossadegh


The first mammal
by Ari Siletz

In moments of statistical introspection, I wonder if LA Dodgers fans
are generally Pahlavi supporters. The occasional Shah picture posted on
huge Westwood billboards, and the handful of TV stations time capsuling
pre-revolution Tehran are tempting bits of data. San Francisco Giants
fans, on the other hand, are likely pro-Mossadegh, though I lack the
evidence of billboards. Needless to say, Giants rule and Dodgers suck,
but it is nice occasionally to brawl with facts and reason. Two
meticulously researched books by Oxford scholar Homa Katouzian hit the
ball right out of the ballpark for the Giants.

The first book, Iranian History and Politics: The Dialectics of State and Society, develops the author's theory of "arbitrary rule," and establishes a foundation for understanding Mossadegh's uniqueness in Iranian history. The second book, Mussadiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran, specifically analyzes the events of the Mossadegh period, demonstrating how he personified a new paradigm in Iran's civilization.

Arbitrary rule should not be confused with dictatorship, Katouzian
says. "The distinctive characteristic of the Iranian state is that it
monopolized not just power, but arbitrary power--not the absolute power in laying down the law, but the absolute power of exercising lawlessness." I believe the umpire is a good example of a dictator. You can't argue with his decision, but neither can he change the rules of baseball. Katouzian cites the example, Henry VIII of England as a dictator whose society did not allow arbitrary rule. This dictator had the most unfettered power of any English king, yet he had to use threats, coercion, bribery, and at least one execution to become head of the Church of England, so that he could lawfully stand up to the Pope (Katouzian does not discuss motivation or methods, just that Henry VIII got the approval of Parliament).

Looking for examples of arbitrary lawlessness, on the other hand, I found this recollection by Farhad Diba of an encounter with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi:

"The Shah asked me what I was doing and I, very proudly, told him
about how well NCR [National Cash Register Company] was progressing in
Iran. When I reported that to my father the next day, he said "You are
a fool. Sure enough, within the year, NCR (which my father had
introduced into Iran and, over 25 years, it had grown into a large
business) was taken from us and given over to the Pahlavi Foundation."

In Iranian History and Politics..Katouzian mentions a few of the
countless examples of arbitrary usurpation of property by various
Shahs. The suspicion that the wealth may have been acquired by unjust
means in the first place gives Shahs a certain Robin Hood appeal. But
Katouzian's scholarship exposes the practice as a tragic reason for
Iran's economic backwardness: capital does not accumulate over the
generations, making it impossible for any large industrial or financial
enterprise to take root.

Under the arbitrary rule of its monarchs, Iran was a "short term
society," as Katouzian terms it, where few social structures were
allowed to stand long enough to evolve the sophisticated architecture
of modern institutions. In Europe, lords, barons, counts and dukes had
the brutal right of ownership to their land, making a feudal system
possible. Iran's khans had no ownership rights, only privileges that
could be taken away at the whim of the arbitrary ruler. In such a
system even feudalism has no incentive to grow, much less its Western
progressions: a powerful merchant class, large scale capitalism, and

Applying Katouzian's arbitrary rule theory, I figured out that the
spike in the price of oil in the seventies only created the illusion of
a modern economy in Iran. This period was in reality little more than a
shopping spree by the country's sole owner, the Shah. In the historic
pattern of economic insecurity of the wealthy, nothing had changed.

Applying the simple yet powerful theory again, I realized that
freedoms enjoyed by Iranian women and religious minorities during the
Shah should not be misunderstood as a modern appreciation of human
rights and dignity. True to Iran's historic pattern, all such freedoms
were privileges granted by the monarch, to be taken away at his
convenience. The Shah may have been a benevolent soul, but benevolence
is no substitute for guaranteed rights under a long term tradition of
law. Niceness is a character trait, not a social institution.

The arbitrary rule concept is developed into a solid theory in the
book Iranian History and Politics the Dialectic of State and Society.
Now the reader is ready for Mussadiq and the struggle for Power in
Iran, fully prepared to appreciate this leader's uniqueness in Iranian

The 1906 constitutional revolution was an attempt to put an end to arbitrary rule. At the time Mossadegh was in his early twenties, and for forty-five years he watched the revolution get torn apart by foreign interference in domestic politics. By the time he became prime minister, Mossadegh knew what to do to piece Iran's constitution back together. His nationalization of Iranian oil had far less to do with revenue than with eliminating foreign intrusion into Iranian affairs. His recalcitrance in coming to terms with the British should be assessed as serving his grand project˜protecting Iran's newly discovered paradigm of lawful leadership.

Mossadegh himself has been criticized for breaking the law when he
temporarily dissolved the majles. "How is that different from the
dictatorship of the Shah?" his detractors ask. Katouzian admits the
mistake, while explaining the complex mitigating circumstances. Yet his
arbitrary rule theory makes it unnecessary to decide whether Mossadegh
was a dictator. The reader has already learned that the term "dictator"
in the Western sense does not describe our Shahs at all. The Pahlavis
were not dictators, but arbitrary rulers. Mossadegh, dictator or not,
acted in the modern paradigm of the struggle between various interests
of society. For him, the primitive mellat [people ]vs. dowlat [state]
dialectic was an extinct theme.

As Katouzian explains in Iranian History and Politics, our numerous
rebellions had always been about the mellat overthrowing the dowlat.
Everybody vs. the "institution" of the arbitrary ruler. The upheavals
led to a period of chaos [fetneh/ahsoub] until a new arbitrary ruler
enforced order and began the cycle all over again. In Mussadiq and the
Struggle for Power in Iran it can be seen that the battles of the
Mossdegh era were of a fresh variety. We were fighting over which
interests in our society were going to dictate the rules. This gave a
totally new texture to the power game, which for the first time could
be termed "politics." Katouzian emphasizes that there was no Persian
word for "politics"; the modern meaning of the old word "siaasat" was
first adopted during the constitutional revolution.

Though the Shah appeared to win the day after the 1953 coup, he
could not hold back Iran's new paradigm, best archetyped in the
Mossadegh drama. In an unmistakable occurrence of Katouzian's mellat
vs. dowlat phenomenon, everyone rose against the Shah in 1979. Not a
single major element of Iran's society defended him. Not the merchants
he had made wealthy, not the workers he had created jobs for, not even
the women and the minorities he had treated so kindly. This puzzling
ingratitude is completely explained by Iranian society's resolve to put
an end to arbitrary rule. An evolutionary force overwhelmed sectarian

Some argue that we should stop dwelling on Shah and Mossadegh. After
reading Katouzian, I believe we can safely drop the Shah from
conversations, as his species is unlikely to be part of Iran's
political ecology again. The Pahlavis were the last dinosaurs. But
Mossadegh was the first mammal. His political genes are alive, evolving
and relevant. Iran's stubborn struggle against foreign dependence, even
in the face of sanctions, is straight out of Mossadegh's book. Western
analysts flummoxed by The Islamic Republic's resilience to regime
change should acknowledge the unprecedented symbiosis that now exists
between the dowlat and parts of the mellat. The Islamic establishment
in turn should consider to what extent the concept of a Supreme Leader
contradicts the program that the Iranian nation has set for its long
term development. The regime's leaders should also beware: their power
is imperiled whenever they arbitrarily suspend constitutional rights.

The Shahs are dead, but Mossadegh's legacy remains a giant factor in
Iran's future. This is why Giants still rule. And the Dodgers? Well,
who cares anymore?



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Shanameh economics

by Ari Siletz on

Dear Rostam,

Thank you for taking time to respond to this article. 

Your conjecture that Iran's culture may be specially prone to a dualistic world view has some merit.  Your critique of the article, however, misapplies the conjecture.

The article explicitly acknowledges the Shah's accomplishments in making merchants rich, creating jobs for workers, and improving life for women and minorities. It also leaves room to claim possible benevolence of character on the Shah's part, as much as it leaves room for the argument that Mossadegh may have made a mistake in the early dismissal of  the parliament. I propose that shades of Grey do exist in the content.

Your point about the Shah's spending money on Iran's infrastucture misnderstands the requirements of a modern economy, which--in the West at least--relies on inviolable rights of ownership leading to long term security of capital. Generosity on the part of a leader who is empowered to take those rights away, however, is Shahnameh economics, not modern economics.

Finally, as in the baseball metaphor, one team wins and the other loses regardless of how close the score--same with political parties in the US. Decalring Mossadegh the winner is not denying that the other team also scored some points. To think otherwise has the flavor of the black and white state of mind which you have transcended




Shades of gray

by Rostam on

This article is heavily biased.


This is very common among us Iranians. When you read a pro-Shah article, "everything" the Shah did is depicted as positive, and "everything" that Mosadegh was doing as negative. Note the emphasis is on the word "everything." Everything as 100%, as absolute, as total and all encompassing. In a pro-Shah article, the Shah is depicted as totally, absolutely, one hundred percent correct in all of his decisions. At the same time Mosadegh is brutalized and depicted as a villain.  Conversely, when you read a pro-Mosadegh article, "everything" Mosadegh did is depicted as positive. "Everything" the Shah did as villainous. Again, note that the emphasis in on the word "everything."


Why? Why can't we see that the Shah, Mosadegh or anyone else is just a human who is capable of mistakes and that most likely they had made both right AND wrong decisions during their political carriers? Why must we be absolute? An example is this very article. Mosadegh is depicted as an absolute hero and the Shah as an absolute villain. Even the positive and constructive results of the Shah's reign is depicted as negative. There are also many pro-Shah articles in which the positive results of Mosadegh's reign is depicted as negative.


I think the answer can be found in our culture and traditions. Historically, we have a tradition of creating "imam zadeh" images. The majority of us Iranians, from any class or with any degree of education, have a tendency to worship "perfect" heroes who are "dead", or as we say in Farsi "botparasti va mordeh parasti". Start with the Iranian masses. Their heroes are dead and are from the past: Imam Ali, Hussein, Reza, Abolfazl, Abaas, ... When you move on to the better educated or even secular Iranians, you will find that they are in the same trap. Only the names are changed: Shah, Mosadegh, Shariati,...


Note that in the eye of the worshiper Ali is perfect. Hussein is perfect. Abolfazl is perfect. Shah is perfect. Mosadegh is perfect. Shariati is perfect. They are "incapable" of making mistakes and their actions in life were "absolutely" without flaws. Try to argue with an avid Shi'a that imam Ali had made not just one but many mistakes during his life and you will instantly become the subject of his wrath. Do the same with a Shahi or Mosadeghi or Shariati, and you will get the same results.


I long for the day that Iranians put an end to worshiping "perfect" heroes and to seeing things as either 100% bad or 100% good. I long for the day that a pro-monarchist will find it perfectly all right to give credit to the Shah's accomplishments BUT at the same time also admit to his mistakes AND credit Mosadegh's accomplishments. Conversely, I hope for the day that a pro-Mosadeghi too will find it perfectly all right to give credit to Mosadegh and at the same time also admit to his mistakes AND to credit the Shah's accomplishments when it's due.


But why is it so difficult to do this? Because we view our heroes as 100% good and our villains as 100% evil. There are no shades of gray. We say we are democratic and "roshanfekr", but that's true only in words. In action we are un-demoratic towards whoever opposes our views. We even label them as stupid and their leaders as traitors. Just watch a pro-Mosadeghi and a Pro-Shahi argue with each other.


In one example the author writes: "... I figured out that the spike in the price of oil in the seventies only created the illusion of a modern economy in Iran. This period was in reality little more than a shopping spree by the country's sole owner, the Shah."  This is one example that a pro-Mosadeghi, the author, sees the Shah as an absolute villain and just "cannot" give credit to him because the Shah has to be 100% villain. The spike in the oil price did not just create an "illusion" of a modern economy. It was during that very same period that the steel industries were founded, nuclear reactors were built, the petrochemical and other oil related industries were built and many other infra-structures were laid. It was the oil money that made all these possible. What part of this was an illusion? What part of this was "just a shopping spree" for the Shah's benefit? Why can't the author be anti-Shah but still give him credit when it's due? And why can I, an anti-monarchist and anti-Shah, give credit to the Shah when it's due and still be an anti-monarchist? The answer is that I don't see things in absolute terms. My heroes and my villains are not perfect heroes or perfect villains.


At the end, the author claims: "The Pahlavis were the last dinosaurs. But
Mossadegh was the first mammal..." I claim that both Pahlavis and Mosadegh are dinosaurs, and that the first mammal is in the making today even as we are writing these articles. Pahlavis are dinosaurs because an authoritarian rule "simply" does not work in today's age. Mosadegh is also a dinosaur because stubbornness, as the author labels Mosadegh, "simply" does not work today either, as that very "stubbornness" made the 28 Mordad coup possible. Today Iran needs democratic and un-stubborn leaders and intelligent politicians. At the same time she needs democratic and un-stubborn citizens who see those leaders and each other only in shades of gray.


You deserve mullahs...

by Ghool on

I would say both Shah and Mosadeq were too civilized for the two-legged monkeys like you and those you call inhabitantts in Iran.

What idiots like you need is a daily treatment by a Louisville slugger wrapped in barbed wire and marinated in hot molasses getting shoved up your sorakh koon by mullahs…!?

Long live Khomenei...


Very nicely put

by Parham on

Considering that the annulment of the Majles was going to be followed by a popular referendum, thus yet another attempt at the rule of the people, even that event could be considered as swaying away the traditional arbitrariness.

Great article, as always!