A history of modern Iran - Azar Tabari

A history of modern Iran - Azar Tabari

AMONGST THE myriad of books about Iran which have appeared over the past few years, one work stands out as a unique contribution to modern Iranian history: Ervand Abrahamian, Iran: Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982, 562 pages, cloth £31.80, paper £10.30).

Although it covers a long period - from the late nineteenth century and the constitutional revolution (1906-11) to the late 1970s and the Islamic revolution (hence the title of the book) - it is unique in its detailed and in-depth coverage of a very important period of modern Iranian politics: 1941-53. No other book covers this period of social upheaval and political struggles at the same length and based to the same extent on original documentation. This is significant, because the politics of that period have left their deep imprint on the subsequent period down to the present day.

The book is organized in three parts. Part I, 'Historical Background', is subdivided into three chapters. The material here is on the whole not new to the reader familiar with Iranian history, although substantial new documentation is introduced. The first chapter covers nineteenth-century Iran from a new angle: that of investigating the various ethnic, national and religious divisions that made up the mosaic of the Iranian social formation. Abrahamian argues that this very diversity lay at the root of the failure to construct a modern, reform-orientated polity:

The communal ties-especially those based on tribal lineages, religious sects, regional organizations, and paternalistic sentiments - cut through the horizontal classes, strengthened the vertical communal bonds, and thereby prevented latent economic interests from developing into manifest political forces. Insofar as numerous individuals in early nineteenth-century Iran shared similar ways of life, similar positions in the mode of production, and similar relations to the means of administration, they constituted socioeconomic classes. But insofar as these individuals were bound by communal ties, failed to overcome local barriers, and articulated no state-wide interests, they did not constitute sociopolitical classes. This absence of viable classes had far-reaching political consequences; for, as long as the central government was not confronted by statewide forces, the Qajar dynasty was able to dominate society in the typical manner of, to borrow a nineteenth-century term, oriental despots. (p36)

The argument is novel and brings to the fore a frequently ignored aspect of the sociopolitical structure of nineteenth-century Iran. (The work of the prolific twentieth-century Iranian historian and author Ahmad Kasravi is a notable exception.) None the less, presented as the central obstacle to the emergence of a bourgeois political order in Iran, the argument is unsatisfactory. Many of the present-day nation-states also grew out of a heterogeneity of ethnic and national groups. Some are still substantially segmented along such lines. Amongst the more recently established states, India is a striking example of a divided 'nation' and yet, compared to many other post-colonial states, it has a much more cohesive bourgeois political system. In Iran itself, despite all the tribal, ethnic and religious divisions, a movement developed towards the establishment of a modern parliamentary system, with political and intellectual leaders sharing a vision of replacing the Qajar autocracy with a strong reformist central authority based on a secular constitution. The constitutional revolution - against the combined forces of the Qajars, some of the tribes, an important sector of the clergy and even the help of Tsarist Cossacks - succeeded in establishing a constitutional regime. And yet it failed to bear the promised fruits of 'civilization and modernization'. It began to collapse almost as soon as it had declared itself. Was this because the multiplicity and depth of tribal/ethnic/religious divisions had prevented the shaping of a cohesive class with a developed sense of purpose and social outlook? Abrahamian's third chapter on the background to the emergence of Reza Shah (1909-21, The Period of Disintegration) sheds more light on this issue.

The debates and divisions in the second Majlis (parliament) were not along ethnic and religious lines, but over political and ideological issues: over what reforms were necessary in governmental structure, laws, education, economic policies, land titles, banking, commercial and industrial policies, and so on. The problem was that the Iranian middle class, unlike its European counterpart from whom it had taken its political ideas, did not have the social and political base that would embolden it to carry out the necessary reforms to do away with an archaic system. It was tied to the clergy, so it could not be secular enough. It was a landed class - since the commercial interests had been buying state lands over a long period - so it could not be socially radical enough. It was deeply interconnected with European industrial and commercial concerns, so it could not be nationalist enough. This was another aspect of the Iranian middle class's dilemma: many of the economic and political measures that it needed to carry out in order to remove some of the obstacles it had faced during the Qajar period would bring it up against the European powers, particularly Britain and Tsarist Russia. But it owed its own growth and prosperity- not to mention its political ideas - to Europe. All these problems more than explain the indecisiveness and oscillations of the political leaders of this class. Even Reza Shah, with his brute military 'decisiveness', could not get very far in tackling these problems. His secular reforms, for example, and those followed up by his son Muhammad Reza Shah barely scratched the surface. It was possible, within the short space of three years and without meeting much popular resistance, for the Islamic regime to undo all the secular institutions built up over some sixty years.

The chapter on Reza Shah is very well argued and documented. Unlike the usual 'conspiracy' theories prevalent on the Iranian left about Reza Shah's rise to power, Abrahamian describes the internal political and social setting that led to the emergence of a military figure as the chief architect of some of the projects that the constitutionalists had fought for:

Although Reza Khan based his power predominantly on the military, his rise to the throne would not have been so peaceful and constitutional without significant support from the civilian population. Without such civilian support, he might have been able to carry out another military coup d'etat, but not a lawful change of dynasty; he might have seized the capital, but not the whole country with an army of a mere 40,000 men; and he might have rigged enough elections to provide himself an obedient party, but not enough to enjoy a genuine parliamentary majority. Reza Khan's path to the throne, in short, was paved not simply by violence, armed force, terror, and military conspiracies, but by open alliances with diverse groups inside and outside the Fourth and Fifth National Assemblies. (p120)

In fact, one could argue that the parliamentary leaders of the constitutional revolution, having felt their own impotence in dealing with the country's problems, sought in Reza Shah a 'superman saviour' who would achieve through force what they had failed to do through parliamentary experiments. Many of them complained about his dictatorial methods, but they generally gave him their support and often participated in his administrations. The popularity later enjoyed by Hitler amongst certain layers of Iranian nationalists was not simply an ideological/mythical return to Iran's past 'Aryan' glories (which was admittedly a strong element in the anti-Arab consciousness of Iranian nationalists); it was also based on the belief in the necessity of a strong military figure to head 'national progress' and overcome backwardness.

The richest and most important part of Abrahamian's book is Part II, 'Politics of Social Conflict'. It covers the period 1941-53 in much greater detail than any previous work. Compared to Part I it is more descriptive than analytical, but this is partly because the absence of any comparable history necessitates such minute descriptions of events.

The bulk of Part II consists of a study of the Tudeh Party; as Abrahamian explains in the Preface, the book itself 'began in 1964 as a study on the social bases of the Tudeh Party'. It is all the more surprising that there is no satisfactory explanation for the failure of this party, despite its growth and increasing popularity over a prolonged period of political activitism (1941-53). The picture presented is of a party of immense industrial muscle, having succeeded in unionizing the modern working class as well as sectors of traditional craftsmen and state employees; a party with almost total hegemony amongst intellectuals and political writers; a party with vast mass influence throughout society, including the government apparatus and the army.

The party was founded immediately after Reza Shah's abdication and the release of political prisoners in September 1941. Already by mid-1943:

In the provinces north of Tehran, [the Tudeh] had branches in all the twenty-one cities with a population of over twenty thousand, and in nine of the seventeen towns with a population of between ten thousand and twenty thousand. In the provinces south of Tehran, it had opened branches and secret cells in six of the twenty-three cities with populations of over twenty thousand.' (p291)

It published three major newspapers in Tehran and three in the provinces. In the elections for the Fourteenth Majlis (1943) the party's 'twenty-three candidates obtained over 70 percent of the votes cast in their constituencies, over thirteen percent of those cast in the whole country, and over twice as many as any other political party'. (p292) It successfully merged various unions into a single Central Council of Federated Trade Unions of Iranian Workers and Toilers in 1944. By 1946 it had successfully expanded in the southern provinces, publishing another six provincial newspapers, and holding larger and larger mass demonstrations on various occasions. The Tudeh held three cabinet posts in Qavam's administration in 1946. In January 1946 the British Military Attaché reported to the Foreign Office:

In the Caspian provinces all Persian officials from the Governor downward are under Tudeh supervision. No government official is allowed to send telegraphic messages in code. No movement of gendarmerie can take place without prior permission of the Tudeh. The railway administration is completely under Tudeh control. In fact, the Tudeh can take over whenever it wished to do so. (Quoted by Abrahamian, p304.)

Similar reports were produced for other provinces, industries and government departments. Despite a period of repression and partìal setback (October 1946-February 1950), the Tudeh revived rapidly as the government began to relax censorship and allow political activities. This picture of growth continues up to the 1953 coup:

The Tudeh continued to gain strength in 1952. In the dramatic events of the July uprising, the participation of the pro-Tudeh unions made the general strike a success throughout the country. . . The Tudeh gained even more strength in 1953 . . . on the anniversary of the July uprising, the Tudeh called for a mass meeting outside parliament, . . . mobilized nearly 100,000 outnumbering the National Front ten to one... By the last days of Mossadeq's administration, observers were reporting that the Tudeh had over 25,000 members, some 300,000 sympathizers, and, despite police restrictions, the most effective organization in the country. One foreign correspondent warned that the Tudeh was gaining so many adherents that it would "sooner or later take over the country without even the need to use violence".' (pp320-1)

And yet, not only did the Tudeh Party not take over the country, it failed to act against the 1953 coup; it did not even put up any defence of its own organization. The 1953 coup succeeded with relative ease and comparatively few executions and arrests. Between 1953 and 1958 forty Tudeh leaders were executed, fourteen were tortured to death, over two hundred were given life sentences, and many rank-and-file members were released after signing public recantations. By 1959 the party had lost its effective organization. (p325)

It is surprising that Abrahamian offers no explanation for this paradox. There are references to government repression in the period 1946-50, with Qavam moving to the right, expelling the Tudeh ministers from his cabinet, and the attacks against the Azarbaijan autonomous government and the Kurdish Republic; there are references to various political errors that cost the Tudeh some popularity, as in the case of its support for the Soviet Union's demand for an oil concession in the north. But clearly, from Abrahamian's account, none of these were of any long-lasting significance: down to the time of the coup, Tudeh could have taken over the government, or at least foiled the coup through a general strike, as in July 1952. It had an impressive underground officers' movement in the army that informed the party of the coup ahead of time. It is even implied that the party's failure to act against the coup was a reaction to Mossadeq's rejection of an alliance with the Tudeh. (p325) Least plausible of all is Abrahamian's attempt to attribute the failure to the Tudeh's lack of roots amongst the rural masses: (pp375-82)

The inability of the Tudeh to find roots elsewhere proved in the final analysis to be disastrous. Without rural support in a society in which villagers and tribesmen formed over half the population, the Tudeh, however successful in the cities, remained an oasis in a desert of peasant conservatism. As the Tudeh leaders admitted in analyzing the defeat of August 1953, the royalist officers could not have carried out their coup d'etat if their peasant rank and file had mutinied or the rural masses had risen up in revolt. Had the countryside rebelled or the army troops refused to obey orders, the Tudeh party, with its effective urban network, would undoubtedly have tried to lead a Bolshevik-style revolution. Without a peasant uprising, the Tudeh failure was sociologically predetermined.' (p382, my emphasis)

Coming from a historian of Iran's two revolutions, this sociological pre-determination is somewhat surprising: after all, both the constitutional revolution and the Islamic revolution were urban revolutions with no peasant uprisings involved. The constitutional revolution was confined to a few major cities; to the extent that some tribes were also involved, they constituted military units, some fighting for and some against the constitutionalists. The Islamic revolution was much more national; it involved all the major cities and towns, but still there were no peasant uprisings. To the extent that there was any 'rural component', it was in the participation of migrants to the cities, rather than any rural upheavals as such. All peasant activities effectively started after the old regime had collapsed, rather than causing its collapse. None the less, both revolutions succeeded in taking power and neither was sociologically doomed to failure from the outset. Moreover, to expect the army rank-and-file to revolt before any uprising amongst the civilian population is to expect the impossible. In no revolution in the past, anywhere in the world and with no matter how much rural involvement, has the army rank-and-file refused orders unless the strength of the revolution has already demonstrated the possibility of a victory. To do otherwise is plainly suicidal.

Even more astonishing is the certainty with which Abrahamian asserts that with a rural rebellion (or an army revolt) the Tudeh would have tried to make a revolution. There is no evidence for this assertion. On the contrary, from his own presentation of Tudeh literature and internal discussions throughout this whole period, it is quite clear that the party never saw itself as a party of a Bolshevik-style revolution. Its initial positions had specifically excluded the possibility and necessity of a revolution in Iran, had considered the country 'premature' for revolution, and had set the party the task of uniting all progressive forces to weaken the ruling class and to strengthen the forces of democracy. (p285) Although over the subsequent few years the Tudeh, both in theory and in practice, put much greater emphasis on the working class, small producers (craftsmen), state employees and intellectuals, none of its work was directed towards the aim of making a revolution, much less a Bolshevik-style one. It continued to view itself as a party of opposition rather than as a party of government. It continued to emphasize its task as that of helping 'the national and democratic forces' against 'reactionary oligarchies'. Despite its industrial muscle and organizational strength, it remained politically weak. In fact, because it saw its role as an 'auxiliary' one, it made crucial concessions in important political and industrial clashes whenever it was faced with a decision to challenge decisively the government of the day (for example, in the important industrial disputes of Isfahan and Abadan, and the party's failure to mobilize nation-wide support for the struggles in Azarbaijan and Kurdistan). These successive concessions paved the way for further clamp-downs on the party resulting in irreversible losses for the Tudeh. Even its short-lived left zig-zag (in 1951-53) was directed not at leading the working class to power, but simply at attacking Mossadeq, much in the same manner as it had opposed the Shah and some of the previous prime ministers. It opposed Mossadeq without projecting and building any positive governmental alternative.

Abrahamian's view of the Tudeh's failures as being 'sociologically predetermined' is also reflected in later sections of the book. For instance, in analyzing the Tudeh's failure to recover politically after the 1953 coup, everyone is blamed and accounted for except the previous policies and record of the party itself. Mention is made of police repression; the regime's psychological war against the Tudeh; the rapid industrialization that brought some four million peasants into the urban labour force (this is surprising, since for the previous period Abrahamian notes the successful impact of the Tudeh's propaganda and organization on a previous first generation of semi-literate workers - see Chapter 6); and the weakening of the leadership by death, infirmities of old age and defections (pp451-5). This approach is all the more astonishing if we remember that in introducing the book, Abrahamian has argued that:

The Tudeh success [in the period 1941-53] could not be fully assessed without constant reference to the failures, on the one hand, of its many contemporary nationalistic parties; and on the other hand, ofits ideological predecessors, especially the Social Democrats of 1909-1919, the Socialists of the 1920s, and the Communists of the 1930s.' (pxi)

It is not clear why the same approach could not be followed in evaluating the failures of the Tudeh and, by contrast, the success of the present-day Islamic political currents (from Khomeini to the Mojahedeen). In discussing the recent events in Iran, the issue of the past record of the Tudeh (and of the National Front, for that matter) is not even raised.

In general, Part III, 'Contemporary Iran', and the Conclusion are rather disappointing. Unlike the other two Parts, the subject is treated in a rather superficial and journalistically descriptive manner. At times, it is factually sloppy. The Tudeh's strength in the. latter days of the Shah and after the 1979 revolution is wildly exaggerated without substantiating evidence being provided (p457). Moreover, in discussing Khomeini's immense popularity, Abrahamian says that in his fifteen years of exile Khomeini 'carefully avoided making public pronouncements, especially written ones, on issues that would alienate segments of the opposition'. He gives the issues of clerical power and sexual equality as two examples. This is simply not true, however. In the 1960s Khomeini made numerous pronouncements, including written ones, opposing the vote for women, the reform of the family laws, the right of women to join the judiciary, and so on. His views on clerical power were published in 1971 and have never been retracted. Most surprising of all, and contrary to Abrahamian's objectivist treatment of the Tudeh, he attributes the decisive element in the success of Islamic politics to the person of Khomeini. (See Conclusion.)

None of these weaknesses, however, undermines the value of the book as a history of the period for which it was initially projected (1941-53). On that level alone, Abrahamian's work remains a unique contribution.

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Jun 8 2014 22:05


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