Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A History of Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian

This short and recent book (2008) doesn't tell you everything you might want to know about 20th century Iran, for instance it says little about the Iran-Iraq war, but it very usefully focuses on a consistent theme, the building of a modern state in a country where governmental power was extremely limited in 1900. Except for occasional long lists of personal names that will not mean a lot to most potential readers, the book is quite well-written. The author has a talent for the appropriate quotation, and it seems that Iranians over the years have had a talent for producing those quotations. For instance, an opponent of Mossadeq in the early 1950s expressed his opposition thus (page 116-17):
Statecraft has degenerated into street politics. It appears that this country has nothing better to do than hold street meetings. We now have meetings here, there, and everywhere -- meetings for this, that, and every occasion; meetings for university students, high school students, seven-year-olds, and even six-year-olds. I am sick and tired of these street meetings...

Is our prime minister a statesman or a mob leader? What type of prime minister says "I will speak to the people" every time he is faced with a political problem? I always considered this man to be unsuitable for high office. But I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares that an old man of seventy would turn into a rabble rouser. A man who surrounds the Majles with mobs is nothing less than a public menace.
Abrahamian also likes economic and social statistics, but he uses them well. The growth and development they document is impressive.

One theme I followed with interest was the role of elections and the Parliament or Majles in Iranian politics since 1906. Some of this sounds pretty familiar, for instance this discussion of how Reza Shah controlled all the elections in the 20s and 30s (page 73):
Reza Shah retained the electoral law but closely monitored access into parliament. He personally determined the outcome of each election and thus the composition of each Majles ... the control mechanism was simple. The shah -- together with his chief of police -- inspected the list of prospective candidates, walking them is either "suitable" or "bad,"... the suitable names were passed on to the interior minister, who, in turn, passed them on to the provincial governor-generals and the local electoral boards. The sole function of these boards was to hand out voting papers and supervise the ballot boxes. Needless to say, these words were all appointed by the central government. Unsuitable candidates who insisted on running found themselves either in jail or banished from their localities. Consequently, the successful candidates were invariably "suitable,"...
Cambridge University Press has an "e-widget" that gives you a preview of the book.

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