Eminent Persians

Individuals who shaped Iran’s modern political history


Eminent Persians
by Abbas Milani

Eminent Persians
The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979
Volumes One and Two
by Abbas Milani (Author) 
Syracuse University Press , 2008

As the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution approached, Abbas Milani realized that very little, if any, attention had been given to the entire prerevolutionary generation. Political upheavals and a tradition of neglecting the history of past regimes have resulted in a cultural memory loss, erasing the contributions of a generation of individuals. Eminent Persians seeks to rectify that loss. Consisting of 150 profiles of the most important innovators in Iran between World War II and the Islamic Revolution, the book includes politicians, entrepreneurs, poets, artists, and thinkers who brought Iran into the modern era with brilliant success and sometimes terrible consequences. Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University where he is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


Politics in Iran: 1941–1979
Politics in modern Iran has been dominated by protracted battles between competing models of politics and society. One formative battle has been between advocates of a secular Iran, its laws emanating, at least ostensibly, from the will of the people, and supporters of an Islamic Iran, ruled not by law, but by sharia and personal fiat, and legitimized not by popular sovereignty but by divine anointment. In this contested history, a bewildering variety of political movements, ideologies and forms of government have appeared on the horizon. Movements as far apart as Nationalism, Constitutionalism, Marxism, Islamic Fundamentalism, Social Democracy, Islamic Liberalism, and Fascism have each found powerful Persian advocates. Forms of government as different as Oriental despotism and Islamic theocracy, “guided” democracy and authoritarianism, and finally, liberal democracy have all been tried at some moment of Iran’s modern history.

The effort to create political parties has also yielded surprisingly varied structures. The first attempt to create political parties in the 1940s helped foster a kind of democratic experience, and the two-party system of the late 1950s was often described by the Shah as an experiment in “guided democracy.” At the same time, the Shah himself had brought both parties into existence, and had placed at their helms a succession of trusted loyalists. From Manuchehr Egbal and Assadollah Alam to Yahya Adl and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, each had their turn as the leader of a party. What he had created, the Shah felt entitled to dissolve.  In 1975, the Shah dismissed all political parties, replacing them with a single party he called the Rastakhiz or Resurgence Party.  

Nearly all the elements of this varied collection of political structures can also be found in the west. In Iran, however, they have often assumed unusual forms, shaped by the vagaries of a long imperial history, by the dictates of geography—particularly proximity to most of the world’s known oil supplies and to the Soviet Union, the now-almost-forgotten “evil empire” of the Cold War—and finally, by the hegemony of a particular form of Islamic culture called Shiism.

The conflict between modernity and tradition did not arrive with Shiism, but has underlain Iranian politics from the start of the twentieth century.  Beginning with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–07, modern Iranian politics has struggled with modernity, and the temptation to emulate the West not just in politics, but in every aspect of culture.  Seen as an episode in this continuing struggle, the 1979 Islamic revolution was not the first but certainly the most successful attempt to turn back the historical clock and dismantle what little progress Iranian society had made toward political modernity.

From a broader historical perspective, the same revolution appears one of the twentieth century’s greatest political abductions. Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts co-opted a democratic popular movement that enjoyed the near-unanimous support of the country’s urban population, and instead of a democratic polity, created a pseudo-totalitarian theocracy where nearly all power rests in the hands of an unelected and despotic “spiritual leader.”

This abduction was the more daring, and the more anachronistic, because it took place just as the world was seeing an end to despotic and totalitarian regimes. In the mid-1970s the world had begun witnessing what social scientists now term the “third Wave” of democracy. Regimes based on ideology—long considered the most pernicious form of despotism—were in their death throes.  Liberal democracy, with some form of market economy, was beginning to emerge as the victor in the “culture wars” of the Cold War era.

In defiance of this important global development, in contravention of the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, and in spite of a long tradition of “quietist” Shiite theology, embodied in the person and practice of Ayatollahs Hoseyn Boroujerdi and Seyyed Kazem Shari’atmadari—a tradition that discouraged the clergy from any claim to political power, and that, in the months after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, was brilliantly exhibited in the personality and practice of Ayatollah Sistani—Ayatollah Khomeini used the chaos of the revolution, the organizational weakness of the democratic forces, the weakness, illness and vacillations of the Shah, the policy confusion in the Carter Administration’s handling of Iran, and finally, the West’s continued fear of Soviet expansionism, to create an anachronistic Islamic state in Iran. Neither the dynamics of his success, nor the foundation of the lives of the eminent men and women of Iranian politics, can be understood, or explained, without some appreciation for the overall contours of modern Iranian history.

Decoding the Iranian Past
Deep-rooted cultural obstacles have hitherto hindered the serious and impartial study of Iran’s political history. A dearth of archives, memoirs, journals and biographies, and the prevalence of a Manichean view of history, where the cosmos is torn between the forces of good and evil, have been among the obstacles on the road to a clear, accurate understanding of Iran’s political history.

Another obscuring factor, one that has discouraged attention to the role of multiple individuals in shaping modern Iranian political history, has been the cult of hero worship.  The belief in the formative role of “great men” has traditionally shaped the Iranian view of history.  The dominance of this view has meant that the few reliable biographies, and much of the historical narrative, written to date have focused on a few important figures only; as a result, the lives of hundreds of men and women who actually shaped the contours, and determined the course, of Iran’s modern political history, have attracted little or no attention. This section of Eminent Persians is intended to fill in and integrate this incomplete and fragmented historical landscape.

Of course the cultural distrust of individualism is not the only reason for this fragmentation or for the failure to fully chronicle or appreciate the role of the myriad men and women who actually shaped modern Iran’s politics. Iranian culture has long had a propensity for Messianic thought; it has had a need for a Savior, or Mahdi, to arise and deliver salvation. History shows that messianic milieus are fertile grounds for the development of conspiracy theories; one easily begets the other. In fact, a propensity toward conspiracy theories is often the secular corollary of a messianic proclivity.  Shiism, the dominant form of Islam in Iran, is at least partially predicated on the idea that the twelfth Imam—the Mahdi—will reappear after his long absence, and with his return, all injustice and want, all inequality and suffering will end. Indeed messianism and conspiracy theories—both prevalent in Iran—have much in common. In both, a force outside society, beyond its redress and review, shapes the fate of that society; in both, individual responsibility is abjured in favor of some cosmic or foreign force; in neither do individuals with their foibles, or societies with their failures, bear any responsibility for the calamities that have befallen them.  In both, the power of the conspirator correlates negatively with the sense of enfranchisement on the part of the populace.  In both, order and meaning are imposed upon a world that appears terrifyingly chaotic and meaningless.

Informed and self-assured citizenries do not need the balm of conspiracy theories. If people lose their faith in the redemptive power of the messiah—as they often do when societies secularize—and do not concurrently develop faith in their own powers as citizens to determine their own political life, then lapsed messianism easily morphs into belief in conspiracy theories.

>>> Eminent Persians available from amazon.com


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more from Abbas Milani

Mr. Abarmard

by Anonymous... (not verified) on


This is not a difficult question to answer... unless, of course, you are making it up.


Why "Persians" and not "Iranians"?

by Persian Speaker (not verified) on

Why does the title refer to Persians rather than Iranians???? Wouldn't it be better if it were "Eminent Iranians"? I have not read the book. Maybe Dr Milani has only covered Persians in this book! or maybe he equates Persians with Iranians!!! Either way, it does not seem to be a good choice.

From a concerned Persian speaker.



by Critic (not verified) on

You remind me of those athiests who in order to prove there is no God they cut "La Elaaha El'Allah" in two and say: look even in Islam the muslims say: "La Elaaha ..." and so conclude that there must be no God!!!

You obvisouly have such a poor command of English that do not understand the meaning of negative parody: to suggest that you are a political analyst is akin to cast Ahmadinejad as a Tom Cruise stunt!!

Did you get it? No? No suprise!


Abarmard and his

by Anonymous... (not verified) on

Abarmard and his co-religionists are the Iranian right wing fanatics much like Palin et al who think America is a Christian country and should turn into a Christian theocracy. They represent the basest and the worst instincts in all of us.

Imagine if the liberal and democratic Americans do not stand up to this bigotted, zombified, self-destructive religious nuttery in the US?? Imagine if the KKK became the government in the US.

The mullahs and their supporters are the Iranian version of the KKK and rightwing, neoconish nutcases in the US.


Just the facts

by sz (not verified) on

Should Milani’s “Eminent Persians” be anything like his “The Persian Sphinx” then it too will take its place among the sober history books of modern Iran. “The Persian Sphinx” unlike most Iranian authored nonfictional works where hearsay and doctrinaire inclination form the back bone is meticulously documented and thus a watershed in this crowded genre.



by Abarmard on

I have absolutely nothing personal against Mr. Milani. I disagree with his positions based on his institution, Hoover Institution, which had invited another warmonger, Mr. Rumsfeld (I am not sure if Rumsfeld accepted the invitation) to join their group. He is in my eyes guilty by association and continuation of Demonizing Iran that justifies an attack on Iran.

I do however admit that I did not find the reference that I was looking for in regard to support for a regime change in the form of military, and earlier emailed Mr. Milani to clarify. He answered that he had never supported an "attack" and I will take his word and apologize for my accusation in that specific regard. Although those who are familiar with Hoover Institute, a neo-conservative think tank, know very well what they are made out of.


Is that the NIAC way?

by Anonymous123 (not verified) on

Mr. "Abarmard" or "mighty" or whateva

Why don't you provide the link to the article or comments where Milani has advocated bombing Iran so that all of us can read it for ourselves rather than taking your word for it?!

Is that the way all NIAC members and advocates operate?!!

Darius Kadivar

Abarmard you Surprise me ?

by Darius Kadivar on

Milani never called for bombing Iran.


If that is how you guys at NIAC perpetuate false rumors no wonder we can make no progress in finding common ground amongst moderates ...

Arash Monzavi-Kia

Thanks for writing

by Arash Monzavi-Kia on

Dear Prof. Milani,

Thanks for writing, which is the cornerstone of civilization. One reason that Iran has been so backward is that writing has been historically (from Darius to Khomeini) suppressed as LIES.

In an environment of hush-hush and divar-ghosh-dareh, people have been unable to write for most of our history, inside Iran. Unfortunately, outside too, we sometimes become our own prison guards and tormentors, to make sure that no one can rescue us from the dark dungeon of ignorance, bigotry and bias.


Arash M-K


من و تو بی‌من و تو جمع شويم از سر ذوق...


خوش و فارغ ز خرافات پريشان من و تو

The main problem of our society now is the religion we built one thousand year ago to fight and preserve ourselves against the Muslim invader and which in one word is, Shiism.

The ideological weapon, though powerful at the beginning, shaped our minds for more than 10 centuries to believe more on something we do not control like Velayateh faghih or Mahdi than on our own power to shape our destiny.

Till we don’t accept to have a secular society and to separate religion from power, we will continue on speculations of what were or are our problems which make us fill so lousy now. I think Hafez expressed this idea as:

‫جنگ هفتاد و دو ملت همه را عذر بنه
‫چون ندیدند حقیقت ره افسانه زدند


I really love Leftist Islamists Supporters

by Physicist from Boston Area With phd (not verified) on

I really love the way they think and analyze history. It show us how people can make a great case for any idiotic act in history; including an idiotic act like the Iranian Revolution.


Islamic colonization and imperialism

by sickolies (not verified) on

colonial design???

Fundamentalist islamists and tyrannical Marxists while taking advantage of lawfulness of democratic societies, have expanded their propaganda network to promote their own cause by talking about Colonialism, Imperialism, etc...

The Islamic fundamentalists among islamic nations who have a big
portion of energy sources of the world in their possession, instead of using this situation to the advantage of their nations for progress and prosperity, are working hard to stop the world from moving forward through use of terror and propaganda!

The crusader mentality of middle ages, has been revived by a group of fundamentalist islamists like Ahmadinejad/abarmard who have taken the so called "Islamic revolution" in Iran as a sign for final victory of islamic values over modern values, rooted in western civilizaiton.

The belief in a Messiah is found in many cultures. The Jews have their Elijah, the Christians have their Second Coming, the Shiites have their Mahdi, the and the stargazers have their extraterrestrials. I do not believe in any messiah, but I can understand why people would want to believe in some kind of messiah and it has nothing to do with colonialism or imperialism

There is one messianic prophecy I would want to come true. It is the messianic prophecy concerning the last Zoroastrian princess of Yazd. Thirteen centuries ago, after Islam had become the dominate religion in Iran, the last Zoroastrian princess of Yazd was fleeing from Moslem fanatics who were determined to kill her. She vanished into the Mountain of the Sacred Spring of Chek-Chek in the Yazd desert. According to legend, she will return (in spirit or reincarnation or whatever) in Iran's hour of greatest danger. When she returns, Iran will be saved and the dominate religion of Iran will once again be Zoroastrianism.

فغان ز ابلهی اين خران بی دم و گوش
که جمله شيخ تراش آمدند و شيخ فروش
شوند هر دو سه روزی مريد نادانی
تهی ز دين و خرد ؛ خالی از بصيرت و هوش ...

To this day, this pathological effect of Islamic Colonization/Imperialism has plagued the region with absolutely rendering logic, reasoning ability, and individual decision making and being masters of one's own fate, completely forbidden, irrelevant and paralyzed. And no other colonial power has been able to overcome this previous debilitating Islamic colonization of body and spirit.

To this day, this pathological effect of Islamic Colonization and Imperialism has plagued the region with absolutely rendering logic, reasoning ability, and individual decision making and being masters of one's own fate, completely forbidden, irrelevant and paralyzed. And no other colonial power has been able to overcome this previous debilitating Islamic colonization of body and spirit.


Isn't interesting that the

by Anonymous... (not verified) on

Isn't interesting that the usual suspect on this site condemn the religious nuts like Palin et al but when it comes to shia/islamic religious zealotry, they choose to celebrate it.


The Islamists scoundrals and

by shameoniri (not verified) on

The Islamists scoundrals and their miopic view of the world laced with venomous hatred for secular Iranian heritage is on full display.

The pestillence of militant shia and their ensuing crazed relgious nuttery has wrought nothing but incalculable damage to the psyche and the eventual annihilation/cleansing of true Iranian identity and culture. The cultural genocide of Iranians continues unabated to this day .

Shia/muslim forces have stripped Iranians of their idenity and sanity through mass brainwashing much in the same manner of Christian colonizers in Africa, Latin and South America, Phillipines. Millions of native cultures and relgiions and idenities were wiped by these colonizers. The Islamic colonizers have have done the same thing to the greater ME, jihading since 7th century...shame on both colonizers.


Hasha!! Hasha!!

by Anonymous500 (not verified) on

:-)) Mr. Critic Hasha, Hasha!! The MKO "ture represntative of the Iranian People"!!?? Hasha! Hasha!!

Mr. Critic, MKO sag-e ki basheh? When we have people like you, who could easily sepake on behalf of 75 Million Iranians inside and outside of Iran, including few dlusional ones on this BB and on Mars too.

But seriously, MKO is NOT anything other than what you and few other delusional ones say its is! Got it? MKO No, every other "ismus" yes, including Imam Khomeini, and Imam Khamenehi, and President Dr., Professor Ahamdi Nejad.

Akheysh!! Khiyalet Rahat Shod?

Good job buddy, you convinced all. Now you could continue reading Abbas Milani's book for all. Who said you don't represent true Iranians?



by Jaleho on

Can't agree more.


Another thing that surprises me is his opinion about Ayatollah Sistani.

The man has been the most effective figure in all of Iraqi politics since the invasion. From forcing the Americans for election, to prevention of a Najaf massacre a la Fallujah, to the most recent opposition to SOFA, his political influence has been monumental and shaped Iraqi policy since 2003!

I noted that in my first blog here:




by Abarmard on

Not to mention that Mr. Milani was part of the opposition that helped the revolution. I believe that he was influenced by some one since up to today, he is still not clear what he wants, what he is, who he should be with.

He wanted Iran to be bombed, then he changed his mind and actually denied every saying that, while he works with an organization that is in the line of bombing Iran.

It's freedom of speech and he may speak and write books, as long as people are aware about the author's background and political paths.


Worship of 150 Persians instead ?

by Jaleho on

Abbas Milani calls his very own complete disconnect with Iranians masses as the greatest abduction of 20th century!!

He does not appreciate the historical unifying force of Shia Islam that has moved the Iranian masses from Constitutional Revolution all the way to the Islamic Revolution, and amazingly uses these very same movements as examples fro his argument. But, when his example fails and he can not explain the REALITY of the victory of Islamic Revolution, he has to use the term "abduction," to analyze a thirty year old reality so foreign to him.  Abduction from his personal opinion!

He criticizes Iranian cult of "hero worship," one that relies not only on few characters, but also an "idea", that of Mahdi. He says: "Iranian culture has long had a propensity for Messianic thought; it has had a need for a Savior, or Mahdi, to arise and deliver salvation."

In that, Mr. Milani fails to appreciate that the very idea of "Mahdi" at the time of hopelessness, tyranny and despair, combined with the other idea of Shiism, that of Martyrdom, has in fact been the great propulsive force of Iranian revolutionary masses.

Belittling the Iranian people's "hero worship" even in the form of an idea of "Mahdi", he then goes on to pick his very own  hand picked "Eminent Persians" who supposedly override the wisdom and sacrifice of millions of Iranians whose collective wish has manifested in the form of a revolution against tyranny.

When Mr. Milani tells us:

"If people lose their faith in the redemptive power of the messiah—as they often do when societies secularize—and do not concurrently develop faith in their own powers as citizens to determine their own political life, then lapsed messianism easily morphs into belief in conspiracy theories. "

He misses the point that people did not give up their own powers as citizens when they fought in the name of an ideal, rather, they reclaimed it.

The colonial desire to destroy the hope and ideal of masses  for "better times" has come in many shapes and forms to combat its most potent form: people's faith in the idea of a Mahdi for final justice. From British supported movements of Agha Khan to Bahai movement supported first by the colonial Russian and then the British Empires and Zionits, all have failed to destroy that ideal (by claiming that Mahdi has come and gone) which was the part of Shiism which spearheaded  the anti-colonial movements.

That redemptive power of the messiah would only fade away when the colonial designs on Iranian people fades completely. Otherwise, Hoover Institute and Mr Milan's verbal demand would have  less of an affect than the more powerful colonial religious sects has had in the past.


Dear Critic

by Abarmard on

I know Mr. Milani and am familiar with him and his changing ideas and views based on the season. Iran between two revolution is not bias history, read it then we'll talk. I believe is the simplest yet comprehensive history of modern Iran available. I never saw one note that suggest the author is in agreement or disagreement with the policy/regime/government. If he says what good came out of something, he then tells you what bad came out of it too.

You can form your own cost benefit analysis and decide whether a move was worth taking or not...

Ali P.

To: Anonymous-today

by Ali P. on

Good question.

I am not sure, but chances are , it could be innocent; and maybe marketing the book is easier with that title, versus "Eminent Iranians". 

   The Russians have the same problem: No matter what your ethnicity was - or is- if you are a citizen of Russia, the world still calls you "Russian".

 *               *               *               *

  Many Iranians, and even many Afghans, identify themselves, rightfully or wrongfully, as "Persians", regardless of their ethnicity.

  I never figured out this "Persian" thing.What if you are 1/2 Persian, 1/2 Azari, or 1/8 Persian, 1/8 Balooch, 1/4 Geelak, and 1/2 Lor ?

Would you still be "Persian"?

 Does anyone know a 100% Persian, in the ethnic context of it? What are some feautures of "Persian" look?

(I look like Tom Cruise. Am I in?) 



Ali P.


Don't Judge the book by its cover

by Critic (not verified) on

As usual a number of people, some on this page, rush to judge a book and its author even before reading it. Milani has never claimed to be unbiased but to suggest that Abrahamian is being unbaised is akin to saying the MKO are being the true represenatives of the nation!!

And by the way, Azeri's ARE Persian, if you haven't got it by now.

Darius Kadivar

FYI/Abbas Milani's "Nuke, Kooks and Democracy in Iran"

by Darius Kadivar on

And excellent conference by Milani here:


Abbas Milani's talk will be "Nuke, Kooks and Democracy in Iran: a discussion of Iran's current political situation, and the prospects of democracy, and a resolution of the country's nuclear program...



by Anonymous-today (not verified) on

Why eminent Persians? The Azeris - and other Iranians of different ethnic groups - have played a major role in Iran's history in the past 150 years, so why eminent Persians? I've not read the book and reserve judgement but from this brief exceprt it's clear that Dr. Millani has his specific take on the events, as he should but then why cloak this study as a sort of "objective" encyclopedia? At least Dr. Dabashi's book "Iran: a people interrupted" puts its card on the table from the get-go.


I would suggest

by Abarmard on

Iran between two revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian, and I am certain most people would get much more information that is unbiased and actual history the way it happened.

The history of modern Iran, Iran between two revolution is a must for all who love to know Iran or are Iranian. If everyone reads these unbias historical books (There is no side ever taken in that book, just facts and you decided) then we are one step closer to realize the problems with today Iran and solutions for tomorrow.


Well done

by mahmoudg on

As always, a work that must be cherished and used as a historical encyclopedia of Iranain contribution to world civilization.


Well done.Mr. Milani

by Sharizie (not verified) on

IRI will not make 25 years.

1. Bazaar is on strike.
2. Then it will be followed by oil workers strike (due to fall of Oil prices.
3. World is re ordering itself. Europe is on the raise

So we repeat the cycle. Every 25 years we shake our beloved Iran up


Mr. Milani

by Anonymous4now on

This exerpt is the best analysis of the political situation in Iran I have ever read or heard of. 

I will definitely read this book.  Your unbiased analysis has made a fan of me.   

Baa sepaaseh faravan