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Of kings and cylinders
Nothing among Iranians is ever as it seems

February 7, 2002
The Iranian

Bahram is a dear friend. He lives in London, the cradle of constitutionalism and also the seat of one of the most enduring monarchies in the universe. Bahram is also a monarchist, especially when it comes to Iran. In his letters to me, Bahram often uses the adjective shahanshahi, which by the way has no precise equivalent meaning in any other lexicon; it translates literally as "king-of-kings-ism". More on this, in a bit.

From his perch in London, Bahram scans the landscape and sees monarchies firmly grounded in other places like Japan, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Monaco, Belgium, and a number of lesser principalities in Europe. In none of these joints, monarchy has stood in the way of civilization, modernity, human rights, and progress. So, as Bahram should see it, there is nothing diabolical or satanic about monarchy.

Bahram is also a supporter of Reza Pahlavi, and for this reason he is a royalist. While a monarchist is in favor of kingship in general, a royalist, in my mind, has a personal preference for a particular genealogy. If I am not mistaken, Bahram believes that the future of the Iranian kingship must be framed in terms of a "constitutional" structure. Here is where Bahram and his like-minded friends run into difficulty because in the time honored Iranian tradition there has never been a secular analog for the modern European and later American constitutionalism.

In the Western concept of constitutionalism, the monarch is limited by the legally binding expressions of popular sovereignty as exercised through a legislative process. In the Iranian practice, traditionally, the monarchy has been a contractual institution. In the pre-Islamic Iran, the shahanshah, or the shah of shahan, the king of kings, was a contractual undertaking, in which the chief-king's legitimacy and authority came from the consent of other kings, to which the chief was beholden in some measure or by some consideration or reciprocity. How the big cheese would get the consent of the other kings is not the issue -- force, flirtation, favor, bribe, threat, default, trade, hostage-taking, alliance against a common enemy, marriage.

Perhaps, the notion of mashruteh (conditional) monarchy in Iran under the 1906 Qajar Basic Law may have intended to be a recognition of the notion that the sovereign and the governed be connected by a binding document in which the rights and obligations of each were set forth. As it proved, the Qajar Basic Law was not a declaration of the rights of man or a harbinger of human rights or democracy; it was simply a promise that the king be less outrageous, arbitrary, and whimsical.

In Western thought, popular sovereignty and its political institutions, like the executive branch, legislature, and judiciary are accountable only to the Laws of Man. By contrast, traditionally, the ultimate limit to the authority of the Iranian king (now presidents, too) and the parliament has been the Laws of God. Under the Qajar Basic Law, the acts of the legislature could not trespass on the Laws of God. In Article 2 of the 1907 Supplement to the Basic Law, the job of guarding against such trespass was left to a college of theologians. The monarch himself was to recite an oath in which he would promise to safeguard and propagate the Twelver Shia religion, which the Basic Law had declared as the religion of the land. The same denominational scheme was present in the Basic Law under which the Pahlavi kingship came to power.

The present structure of the Guardian Council or even the velayat-i faghih , or province of the theologian, is not a new concoction: It is the reincarnation of the same 1907 college of theologians, which was ignored under the Qajars and Pahlavis for some seventy years. And so when the theologians asserted themselves, they did so with a vengeance and left no doubt as to who should wield power in their kind of kingship.

The right of the Iranian theologian to be king, or whatever else one may want to call him, is no less than the right of any other Iranian who aspires to be king. Ismail Safavi was a sufi, who rose to kingship. Nader and Reza Khan were soldiers. Karim Khan Zand was what? And was not the founder of the Sassanian dynasty a priest? In my opinion, therefore, Reza Pahlavi too may aspire to the Persian throne as an Iranian. As for his family connection to a former king, his Pahlavi genealogy may give him the inside track but not an exclusive claim.

Bahram wrote to me the other night, wanting to know the meaning of the gibberish that appeared on this site under "Fascination with cylinders and columns". There, I had tried to ring allegorically a note of caution with respect to the treachery present in the diatribe preached by the proponents and opponents of Reza Pahlavi. I wished to make the point that nothing among Iranians is ever as it seems, as in the case of the Chehel Sotun (Forty Columns -- a magnificent palace built in Isfahan during the rules of Shah Abbas I and II in the 16th century.

Amazon Honor SystemThe edifice of the palace is supported by twenty columns only. But they reflect in the palace pool, hence "forty columns". My guess is that the point about optical illusions and mirages was lost to the erudite readers of this site. There are no forty columns in Chehel Sotun. Similarly, a hezarpa (millipede) arthropod does not have a thousand legs. At the most, a millipede has 200 pairs of legs, which totals 400. The French too call the common arthropod mille-pattes, mille being the word for thousand. In most cultures however the Persian hezarpa and the French mille-pattes are generally and commonly called a centipede, for having legs in the hundred or so. This is more realistic. In the glorious language of the Basque, too, the word is ehunzagodun (zango=leg, ehun=hundred). So what? So this -- in Persian, as apparently it is in French, over-exaggeration is routine, as is obfuscation.

Here is an example of Iranian obfuscation: Item 34 of "McHistory" one reads that in August 1941 Britain and the USSR "permitted Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to succeed to the throne after he promised to reign as a constitutional monarch." Emphasis added. What is exactly the evidence of the Shah's promise to reign as a constitutional monarch? Did he issue a pledge or a written statement to that effect? Did he declare this orally? Was anyone within earshot? Was the promise in a treaty? Regardless, what greater promise he could have given to Britain and the USSR than was contained already in the very oath which he took under the Basic Law, to bear true faith and allegiance to it and to the Law of God?

Phallus titillates. A few readers were worked up over the images of cylinders and columns following the publication of "Shah bee Shah". One reader criticized it for making fun of Cyrus the Great's cylinder. I thought that the fun was funny and besides the guy was declared as asleep in 1971, so he won't hear us making fun of his cylinder. Another reader, named Xerxes Darius (more about this screen name later), noted perversely that some writers on this site may get excited by cylinders or columns ["Dummies for democracy"]. He was right. I do get excited about cylinders, but not over any cylinder: My favorite one is the Hammurabi cylinder, a Babylonian code of laws written in stone.

I am proud to say that I have visited it at the Louvre Museum in Paris and have a picture standing next to this sugar-cone looking thing. Its most famous edict was that if any one disobeyed the aforementioned laws he would be put to death. Guess what, seen any Babylonians lately? The cylinder survives as the testament to the lesson that immutability of law, such as religious law, is sooner or later lethal to the very order which it seeks to establish.

Now, to Xerxes Darius. What can one say of an apparently Iranian person who is twice the Achaemenian than any Achaemenian! Not just Xerxes, but Xerxes Darius. What I cannot understand is why would anyone proclaim one's Persian heritage so vociferously and so purely by using a screen name made of two Greek names? In Iran, a Xerxes answers to Khashayar and Darius to Dariush.

What boggles the mind is the proliferation of patriotic sounding Persian screen names: made-up pieces of fantasy to cover up a less than secure sense of the self? Of cultural identity, perhaps in one-upmanship? I suspect in such noms de plume some seek the anonymity that permits criticizing others without being known, or they seek safety from ill-wishers and evildoers. But as for the Xerxes and Darius, the irony of it all is that the guy they most clamor for is named Reza, not exactly a name from the Shahnameh (Ferdosi's Book of Kings)!


Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and practices law in Massachusetts.

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

By Guive Mirfendereski

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