Gholam Reza Afkhami
I. The Origins
Iranians are of Indo-European origin. At the dawn of history, they lived in Central Asia in the north and west of the Caspian Sea. Sometime around 2000 B.C. they began to move southward as a part of the great Indo-Iranian migration. Some of them went over the mountains of Hindukush in present day Afghanistan, through valleys between Hindukush and the Himalayas, to India. They interacted with the indigenous population and became the forefathers of the people now living in India. Others went to the Iranian plateau and gradually settled in western, southern and northeastern parts of present Iran. The name Iran is derived from the Aryan origin of these early settlers.
By 1000 B.C. the Iranian plateau had been mostly populated by Iranians. Next to them had already been established a number of advanced civilizations, such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians, in the area historically called Mesopotamia, meaning between two rivers. The two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, run through present day Iraq. Some historians and philosophers consider the period between 1000 and 500 B.C. to be very important in human history, because it corresponds to the emergence of sages and religious figures who through their teachings and writings mapped out the course of humanity's moral and spiritual history. This is the period of the Prophets in Israel, Confucius and Lao-tse in China, and Buddha in India. The Iranian prophet, Zoroaster, is said to have lived some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. Zoroaster is important not only because of his impact on the history of Iranians, but also because of his influence on other religions.
Zoroaster taught that two fundamental principles, Good and Evil, compete to achieve dominion over human life. The Good was the domain of Ahura Mazda, the Creator of the world; the Evil, the domain of Ahriman. It was the function and duty of each individual to help Ahura Mazda win by fighting against evil. Men and women could help the principle of Good by pursuing good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Zoroaster believed in the ultimate unity of creation and preached that Good shall finally prevail over Evil. Ahura Mazda was thought to be a tolerant God, which meant that Iranians were tolerant of other religions.
Iranians were good horsemen, a quality that allowed them later to develop exceptional fighting skills. Armed with their religion and military ability, they slowly settled over the territory, established a relatively sophisticated agricultural civilization, and soon began to interact with their neighbors. By about 900 B.C. three main Iranian groups had emerged, each occupying an area of its own: the Medes in the northwest in the areas now known as Kurdistan and Azarbaijan, the Persians in the south in an area now known as Fars and Khuzistan, and the Parthians in the northeast in the area now called the Greater Khurasan. The Medes were the first to come into contact with stronger neighbors.
In the very beginnings of Iranian history, probably around mid-8th century B.C., the Assyrians, a people of Semitic background living in the mountainous areas around the River Euphrates, moved eastward toward the newly settled Medean territories and, being an older and better organized society, subdued many of the Medean tribes. The Assyrians were a war-like people who had already subjugated many of their neighbors, including the Sumerians and the Babylonians. By the end of the 7th century B.C., however, the Medeans had become strong enough to challenge the Assyrian kingdom. They joined the Babylonians and together they conquered Assyria. This is the beginning of the Medean empire and also the beginning of the establishment of Iranian power in the ancient Middle East.
II. The Age of Empire (558 B.C.-651 A.D.)
The Medean empire, although comparable in power and territorial extent to the empires of Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, remained relatively small compared with the Persian Empire that succeeded it. As mentioned before, the Persians were one of the main Iranian peoples who settled in the southern part of present day Iran. At first they were dominated by the Medes, but slowly their political and military power grew as their culture and economy developed. United under the leadership of one of their chieftains, Cyrus of the Achaemenid clan, they challenged their Medean suzerain and after many wars they finally defeated the Medean king Astyages in 550 B.C. in the battle of Pasargadae.
The Iranian tribes, united by Cyrus the Great into a single state, conquered much of the then civilized world, including Assyria, Lydia, Palestine, Syria, the Greek littoral cities by the Mediterranean in the west and the neighboring areas to the east of Iran. Later, under Cyrus's son Cambyses, Egypt became an Iranian province in 525 B.C. Darius the Great who succeeded Cambyses in 521 B.C. expanded the Iranian borders to Greece.
Thus, in a brief space of a single generation, a previously obscure and secluded clan became the master of the greater part of the world. We can only guess at the reasons for this success from the evidence at our disposal. Certainly, Iranians proved themselves on the battle field. They excelled as horsemen and were particularly good with bows and lances. This is reflected in the Achaemenid bas reliefs, where kings are usually depicted with a bow in their hand. But there were other reasons.
Religion played a very important role in the lives of the ancient peoples. Most of these peoples believed in many gods, which they insisted should take precedence over the gods of other peoples. Only two nations believed in one God at this time, the Jews who worshiped Jehovah, and the Iranians, who, as indicated before, worshiped Ahura Mazda.
Unlike other warriors who disparaged the religion of the people they defeated, Cyrus respected and paid homage to other nations' deities by praying at their altars. In Babylonia, he freed the Jewish people who had been kept captive there for many years. That is why he is mentioned in the Old Testament as ordained of God. It was also in Babylonia, over 500 years before the birth of Christ, that he issued his important proclamation about the right of all peoples to live freely and to worship freely according to the dictates of their conscience.
The Achaemenids introduced to the world the art of large scale administration. The most renowned in this respect is Darius the Great, who continued and consolidated the work of his predecessor, Cyrus. He divided the empire into a number of provinces to be governed by their own rulers, but watched by his representatives. He developed a remarkable system of mail and communication that connected all parts of the empire to the capitals in Shusha, Ecbatana and Persepolis.
The concept of shahanshah, king of kings, which became the official title of the Achaemenid king and thereafter of most Iranian kings, suggested to the Achaemenids that the empire contained many countries, each with its own culture, norms, customs and government. The Achaemenids thought that their system should respect these special features and, to the extent practical, they established ways of preserving and defending them.
The Achaemenids ruled Iran until 330 B.C., when their last king, Darius III, was defeated by Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Indeed, a greater part of Iran's foreign relations during their reign was with the Greek city-states, particularly Athens and Sparta. Greeks called Iran Persia, the land of the Persians, and since it was through Greek historians, like Herodotus or Xenephone, that Iran became known to the West, the West also called Iran Persia for the greater part of Iranian history.
Until Alexander welded the Greeks into one nation, the Iranians usually had the upper hand, sometimes invading Greek islands and cities, at other times being called in by the feuding Greek cities to intervene. The most important Iranian expeditions to Greece took place under Darius I in 490 B.C. and Xerxes I in 480-479 B.C. The Iranians were defeated in two critical battles, Marathon under Darius and the sea battle of Salamis under Xerxes. The present day long-distance running event called Marathon takes its name from a feat accomplished by a Greek long-distance runner taking the news of Greek victory in the fields of Marathon to Athens.
The defeat of Xerxes's expedition was probably the turning point in the history of the Achaemenid empire. When Alexander took his army to Iran over a century later, the aging Iranian empire had already fallen in disarray and was no match for the youthful zest and military genius of the Macedonian conqueror.
Alexander thought of himself as heir to the Iranian throne and dreamed of a Greco-Iranian world government. He adopted many Iranian customs and encouraged the intermarriage of Greeks and Iranians. His conquest of Iran opened the country to the influence of Greek culture, which remained a part of Iranian life for the next 200 years. But he died before he could consolidate his empire. After him, his possessions were fought over by his lieutenants. And Iran finally fell to Seleucus Nicator.
Thus began the first of many foreign dynasties that would rule Iran during its long and turbulent history. The Greeks, however, were the only conquerors of Iran who could boast of an equal culture. Greek thought and architecture left a lasting effect on Iranian society. Even after the Selucid dynasty was overthrown by the Parthian tribes that had united in northeast Iran, Greek dress, coins and language survived in the royal court and among the upper class Iranians for at least a century. The effect, however, was not as pronounced among the common people.
The history of Iran during the long Parthian rule (247 B.C.-225 A.D.) is not well documented. The Parthian society resembled a feudal system. The king's power was limited by the power of local lords and important families who not only participated in governing the realm, but also in selecting the royal successor. Provinces and cities enjoyed substantial autonomy. Religion did not play as important a role in the life of the people or in Iran's international relations as it did under the Achaemenids or the Sasanians. Thus, non-Iranian religions, particularly Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, but also paganistic rites such as animal worship and totemic practice flourished.
The Parthians were the first Iranian dynasty to come into contact and conflict with the Romans. From about 90 B.C. Iran and Rome became neighbors, though in certain strategic areas they were separated by buffer states such as Armenia and Georgia.
Christ was born in Bethlehem when Parthians ruled in Iran. The three wise men, the Magi, famous in Christian legends for predicting Christ's birth and for seeking his birthplace, are said to have been Zoroastrian priests from Iran. The idea of a messiah had been foreseen in Zoroastrian scriptures. As a result, certain Zoroastrians developed an affinity for early Christian faith. Indeed, as we shall see, Mani, or Manes, an important Iranian prophet who preached Manichaeism in 3rd century A.D., thought of himself as Christ's vicar. But there was more. Mithra, the "good spirit" and ruler of the world in Avesta, Zoroastrians' sacred book, was introduced into Rome about 68 B.C., and by about 3rd century A.D. Mithraism had become a great rival to Christianity in the Roman world. Mithraism resembled Christianity in many respects, including the reverence for love and humility and belief in the immortality of the soul, resurrection and the last judgement. The two religions resembled each other also in certain rites, such as the use of holy water, rite of communion, adoption of December 25, Mithra's birthday, as a holy day, and also the adoration of the shepherds at Mithra's birth. These similarities facilitated the conversion of Mithra's followers to Christian faith.
Very important for Iranian history was the gathering during this period of legends that many centuries later served as an important source for the Iranian national Epic, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings--the account of the values, mores and deeds of Iranian heroes and kings, many of whom were of Parthian origin.
After nearly half a millennium of rule, the Parthians began to lose control of parts of the empire and, finally, in 225 A.D. succumbed to Ardeshir I, a Persian of the House of Sasan, who claimed to be a successor of the Achaemenid royal house. Thus, Iran reverted back to the rule of the Persians.
Unlike the Parthians whose powers were decentralized, the Sasanians reasserted the imperial power of the king, who now ruled in great pomp and ceremony. Centralized power marked the Sasanian rule. Ctesiphon, the last capital of the Parthians, became also the capital of the new Persian empire and grew into one of the world's splendid cities. Its ruins stand on the Tigris near present-day Baghdad in Iraq.
Religion was a pillar of the Sasanian government. During this period, the Zoroastrian clergy achieved unprecedented power, exerting influence over all aspects of social life. Society became more rigidly stratified, thus making it difficult for people to move up the social ladder. Since religion played such an important role in everybody's life, it was natural for many religious movements to take shape. We have already mentioned Mani (3d century A.D), whose religion was probably the most important and influential offshoot of Zoroastrianism. He combined Zoroastrian, Christian and Buddhist principles and thought of himself as the legitimate successor to Zoroaster, Buddha and Christ. Mani was executed by the order of the king, under clerical pressure. Manichaeism, however, traveled far outside of Iran, and became a popular religion throughout the Roman provinces in the west as well as Turkic and Chinese lands in the east. St. Augustine, the great 4th century Christian thinker, was a Manichaean for many years before he embraced Christianity.
A second important religious movement during the Sasanian period was Mazdakism. Mazdak preached a form of communal sharing of wealth and a more equitable distribution of social privileges. He also advocated limitations on polygamy. Qobad (Kavadh I), the reigning Shahanshah, apparently favored Mazdak and, in some accounts, accepted his teachings, a matter that could not have found favor with the religious hierarchy. Qobad was dethroned, but was later reinstated after he had renounced Mazdak. Mazdak and his followers were routed in 528 A.D. by the order of Qobad's heir, Khosrau Anushiravan, who, paradoxically, is known to history as "the Just."
These episodes demonstrate the extent of the influence of the religious hierarchy and the nobles in the Sasanian Iran. For the first time in Iranian history, already almost a millennium old, religious intolerance became state policy. Iranian Christians came under political pressure after Rome adopted Christianity as the state religion. Their situation, however, improved once they established the Nestorian church, which to this day is the official religion practiced by the Assyrians in Iran.
Iran, nevertheless, grew in power and wealth. The empire expanded to the limits reached by the Achaemenids. In the early phases of the Sasanian rule, the world of the Mediterranean and West-Asian cultures was divided between the Romans and Iranians. Later, when Rome was divided and the western empire sacked by barbarians, the wars and the rivalry continued with the Roman successors in Byzantium. From 527 A.D. on, the wars almost never stopped. Iran and Byzantium both became weak and vulnerable, drained of resources, with empty treasuries always in need of replenishment, requiring the imposition of unpopular taxes on a tired and impoverished population.
In Iran, the political situation progressively deteriorated. Between 629 and 632 A.D., eleven royal pretenders, including two women, Purandokht and Azarmidokht, sat on the Sasanian throne. The last Sasanian monarch, Yazdegerd III (632-651), inherited a nation in disarray. Despite their own bravery and the splendor and potential power of their country, Yazdegerd and his generals succumbed to a much inferior Arab force, because they had lost the ability to mobilize the support of their people.
III. Islam in Iran
The Prophet Mohammad announced Islam in 610, during the reign of the Sasanian king Khosrau Parviz. In 632, the year the Prophet died and the last Sasanian king ascended the throne, the first Arab squadrons prepared to enter Iranian territory. In 637 they defeated the main Iranian army in the battle of Qadesiya and took Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital, with all its treasures. The king, Yazdegerd III, fled to Medea, where his generals attempted to organize a resistance; but the Iranian defeat in the battle of Nahavand put an end to that effort. Thereafter, Yazdegerd sought refuge in one province after another, till, finally, in 651, he was assassinated in Merv, a city in Parthia, by a miller who coveted his jewels.
Now began a new era in Iranian history. The Arabs had come armed with a vibrant religion that preached the worship of one God, Allah, demanded the recognition of Mohammad as the last and the seal of God's prophets, and promised peace for everyone who accepted Islam. But except for their religion, the Arabs had little to offer as culture or as statecraft. They were thus unprepared for the responsibilities of administering the vast empire they had acquired. It fell mostly on the Iranians to supply the experience and the know-how required for managing the new Islamic state.
For the next 800 years, until the dawn of the Safavid power in 1500, Iranian culture was a catalyst and Iran a melting pot, where Islam, the Persian language and culture and the Turkic and Mongol traditions blended to produce some of the finest ideas and most magnificent artistic creations the world has known.
1. Iran under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs
The Prophet Mohammad died in the Arabian city of Medina in 632. His mantle passed to four of his close disciples who were among the first to accept his message--Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali, respectively. There were those among the faithful who believed that Mohammad had designated Ali, his nephew and son-in-law, as his successor, and therefore considered the other three usurpers. These objectors constituted the Party of Ali, or, in Arabic, the Shi`a of Ali. Their position became the basis of the principal division in Islam, i.e., the division between the Sunni Muslims (now constituting a majority of Muslims everywhere except in Iran and Iraq) who believe in the rightfulness of the four aforementioned Caliphs, and the Shiis (also known as Shiites), who believe in the legitimacy of Ali and his descendants, known as Imams.
The Shii ideas blend with the traditional Iranian beliefs and practices. For example, the Shiis believe that through the Prophet's blood God's glory is passed to the Imams. This is similar to the idea of "divine glory," which was the cornerstone of the legitimacy of the pre-Islamic Iranian kings, and which was believed to devolve on those who were at once worthy and of royal blood. Moreover, Iranians believe that one of Ali's sons, Hossein, who is revered by Shiis as the "lord of the martyrs," married a daughter of the last Sasanian king, Yazdegerd III. Thus, the line from Hossein is also legitimated in Iranian eyes by the dynastic continuity that this marriage confers on the house of Ali.
The Arab dynasties that followed the first four caliphs, the Umayyads (661-750 A.D.) and the Abbasids (750-1258 A.D.), adopted many important features of the Sasanian government, including their court protocol, administrative and financial rules, and military organization. Arabic remained the official language of the court, government, and the literati, but the concepts were often Iranian or were developed by Iranians. Iranians codified Arabic grammar. Persian words for objects and concepts that had not existed in Arab society and culture entered the Arabic language. This is true not only of the arts and philosophy, or of the affairs of state, but also of Islam itself. Arabs, however, remained governors and field commanders, wielding military and political power.
Despite the political repression and material destruction the Iranians suffered at the hand of the Arabs, the Arab conquest changed the Iranian society in ways that favored subsequent Iranian economic and cultural development. The rigidity of the Sasanian social stratification gave way to greater social mobility, where people of low origin reached high social, political, economic or military positions. The change from a centralized administration to a many-headed and multi-layered governmental system meant that literary figures, scientists, philosophers and religious thinkers could escape social and religious repression by seeking shelter and support in the courts of rival rulers. The challenge of Arab domination forced many Iranians to seek distinction in fields open to them--in literature, science, crafts and commerce.
The rivalry between the Arab pretenders to the caliphate opened the way to the centers of power for many Iranians. In the middle of the 8th century the Umayyad dynasty fell largely because of the help their rivals, the Abbasids, received from Iranians. The early Abbasid caliphs often killed their Iranian generals and chancellors in order to prevent them from becoming threats to their rule. But the fact that they depended on them to achieve power raised Iranians' self-confidence and encouraged them to rise in rebellion.
The first and most important territory to achieve nominal independence from the Arabs was Khurasan, an area in east of Iran which included what is now Tajikestan and parts of Afghanistan. Balkh, Bukhara, Samarqand and many other legendary cities were part of this resurgence--cities that in the following centuries would play such an important role in Iran's cultural renaissance. Khurasan is where the first Iranian military and political leaders rose, first to help the Abbasids to overthrow the hated Umayyads and later to establish governments under Iranian rule.
From the early 9th century, when a Taherid dynasty was established in Khurasan, the Caliph's power became progressively limited to the spiritual domain. In the first century of the Abbasid rule, Iran was divided among various local rulers, some of whom, like the Saffarids in the Iranian southeast, challenged the very existence of the caliphate. It is with the Saffarids and, later, Samanids that Persian becomes the preferred language at the court of the local kings. Local leaders rose also in other areas, including Azerbaijan in northwest, Tabarestan by the Caspian, and Esfahan in the center. Some, like the Saffarids, came from lowly origins; others, like the Ziarids in Tabarestan or the Samanids in Khurasan, belonged to traditional ruling families.
The 10th and 11th centuries saw the rise of Turkic dynasties in Iran, the two most important of which, the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks, established an empire almost as vast as the Sasanians'. These dynasties were founded by Turkish slaves who had been brought to work at the court of the caliphs in Baghdad or in the courts of emirs and sultans in various parts of the country. The Ghaznavids, for example, rose to power within the court of the Samanid emirs. At about the same time an Iranian Shii dynasty, the Buyids, rose in Central Iran to dominate government and politics in the Caliphate. The Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad now lost all political power as his survival depended on the good will of the Buyid, Ghaznavid and Seljuk kings.
The most powerful Ghaznavid monarch was Mahmud, a warrior king whose court was a haven for writers and poets. Ferdowsi, the great 11th century poet who composed the Shahnameh, Iran's great epic of kings and heroes, lived during his time. Mahmud defeated the Tatars of Central Asia, wrested Khurasan from the Samanids, and established his rule over the greater part of Iran. His repeated invasions of India were a reason for the spread of Islam as well as Persian language and Iranian culture in that country; also, they were a means of replenishing his treasury by plundering India's rich Hindu temples.
Mahmud's successors were not as energetic and by 1055 another dynasty of slaves, the Seljuks, had spread its authority over all of Iran, including Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate. For the first time since the Arab conquest of the Sasanian empire Iran had become unified under a government whose authority extended westward into Asia Minor and eastward to India and Central Asia. The Seljuk system, however, was essentially military. Soon, the military governors the Seljuk kings had sent to the provinces rose in rebellion and established small dynasties in various parts of Iran. One among these dynasties in Asia Minor became the forerunner of the Ottoman empire. Another was the Khwarazmshahis, the first of whose line was a slave in the Seljuk court sent to govern the northeastern province of khwarazm. By the time Genghis Khan, the Mongol warrior, invaded Iran in mid-13th century, the Khwarazmshahs had established themselves over the larger part of the country.
The period from the fall of the Sasanian empire in the 7th century to the Mongol invasion of Iran in the 13th corresponds roughly to the Middle Ages in Europe. Unlike in Europe, however, where an important part of this period is referred to as the dark ages, in Iran there evolved a new and splendid culture, not to be surpassed in the country's later history. We have already mentioned fabulous cities in the Greater Khurasan area, such as Tus, Merv, Samarqand and Bukhara, all of which fell to the Mongol armies of the "Golden Horde." There were also talented people whose contributions in different fields became the foundation of philosophical and scientific discourse throughout the world for many centuries. Poets like Rudaki, Ferdowsi and Khayyam, Sufi mystic masters like Attar and Rumi, historians like Tabari, physicians like Razi and mathematicians like Biruni have contributed not only to literature and science in Iran , but to the advancement of knowledge throughout the world. Perhaps the most renowned among them in this period was Avicenna, whose writings on medicine and philosophy remained classics for centuries and whose books and treatises on Aristotle facilitated the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy in Europe.
2. Iran under the Mongols
Mongols moved into Iran, destroying everything on their way. Great historical cities were ruined and emptied of people. Men, women and children were slaughtered. Agricultural land was laid to waste. Factories and workshops were destroyed. Libraries were burned. That part of Iran that fell to Genghis Khan and his army was ruined.
But Iran survived. Slowly, the Mongol rulers became familiar with Iranian culture and began to adopt it. The first Mongol who ruled all of Iran was Hulaku, who in 1258 captured Baghdad and killed the last Abbasid Caliph. The ablest of Hulaku's successors was Ghazan Khan, during whose time the Mongols in Iran were converted to Islam. Ghazan's brother and successor, Mohammad Uljaitu, became a Shii, and thus received the title of "Servant of God" from the Shii leaders.
After Mohammad Uljaitu the Mongol empire fell in disarray and soon was divided into a number of principalities. This allowed another conqueror, Teymur (Tamerlane), to invade Iran at the end of the 14th century. Teymur moved from one victory to another, but his rule was never unchallenged. After him, his sons ruled in various parts of the country, often in domestic warfare, until the end of the 15th century, when the Safavids established a new dynasty and a new empire in Iran.
The waves of Mongol invasion produced paradoxical results. On the one hand, the country was devastated under military attacks; on the other hand, Mongol domination of the vast Asian continent opened the frontiers and thus facilitated not only material, but also artistic and intellectual commerce. Hulaku's rule in Iran coincided with that of his uncle Kubla Khan, the story of the splendor of whose court in China was brought to Europe by Venetian Marco Polo. Marco Polo passed through Iran to China in 1271, and on his way back, many years later, he was commissioned to accompany a lady of the Great Khan's court who traveled to Iran to marry Ghazan Khan.
Hard times prepared the ground for significant intellectual and artistic creativity. After Hulaku, the Mongol kings reverted to the old Iranian tradition of supporting poetry and the arts. The art of the book flourished and reached perfection under Teymur's successors. The best lyric poets in Iranian history, Saadi, Hafiz and Jami, lived and wrote during this period. Under Ulugh Beg, Teymur's descendent, magnificent buildings were erected in Samarqand, and in his name the famous astronomical tables were drawn up, probably the greatest legacy in this area the East has bequeathed to the West. And Sultan Hossein Bayqara, one of the last of the Teymurids, was the patron of a very great period, rivalling that of Renaissance in Europe--the period of Jami the poet, Behzad the painter, and Mirakhund the historian.
IV. From the Safavids to the Pahlavis
1. Iran under the Safavids (1501-1736)
The Safavids traced their descent to the seventh Imam of the Shiis. Through the line of the Imams and the already mentioned legend of the third Imam's marriage to the last Sasanian king's daughter they claimed descent from both the Prophet and the Sasanian kings. Already in the 14th century Safi-u-din, from whom the dynasty received its name, had amassed a large following as a renowned mystic Sufi. His grandson, Esma`il, established the Safavid dynasty when he conquered Tabriz in 1499. As heirs to Safi-u-din's mystical mantle, Esma'il and his successors were revered by their followers as at once saint and king. It is also from Esma`il's reign that Iranian monarchs reassumed the title of Shah.
The Safavid period corresponds with an era of historically significant change in Europe. The dynasty came to power at the beginning of a new era, shortly after the Middle Ages had come to an end with the Ottomans' capture of Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, in 1453. The Ottomans now posed a serious threat to Europe, which was undergoing a renaissance in art, philosophy and science. In the first century of the Safavid rule in Iran Machiavelli, Galileo, and Luther revolutionized political, cosmological and religious thought in Europe. The first seeds of nationalism were sown as nation-states began to take form. Economic matters became more important as bases of political and military power. Empires began to be built, as new waterways and continents were discovered. The age represented the beginning of Europe's leap forward; what happened in the East, including Iran, at this time, therefore, would crucially affect the East's future ability to deal with the West on an equal basis.
In Iran, the Safavid period had its moments of glory, but in historical terms it failed to prepare the country for "modern times." Iranian independence was maintained against the Uzbeks in the east and Ottomans in the west by emphasizing Iranian Shiism against the Sunni orthodoxy. Esma`il's war with the Ottomans in 1514, particularly the battle at Chalduran, might have changed the history of the Middle East, had the Iranians won, but they did not and as a result, the king and his people lost heart. The Ottomans then were free to occupy a greater part of the Islamic world.
During the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629) Iranian frontiers reached those of the pre-Islamic empire. Roads were built and magnificent buildings and monuments were erected in Esfahan and other places, which even today dazzle the imagination. In general, however, these were steps within the traditional framework. Even that part of thought that during the Safavid reign reached its most sublime, the philosophy of eshraq, a particularly Iranian synthesis of religion and philosophy, was basically a perfection of traditional thought. The kind of "worldly philosophers" who appeared in Europe and who represented the great qualitative change that had occurred in history--Bacon in the 16th century, Hobbes in the 17th, Adam Smith in the 18th, Marx in the 19th--never appeared in Iran, partly because the religious foundation laid down in the Safavid period proved too strong to overcome.
Thus, although Iranian pressure on the Ottoman flank reduced Ottoman pressure on Europe, it had the negative effect of emphasizing religion as a pillar of Iran's national integrity. Consequently, religion and state became increasingly intertwined, resulting in the repression of novel and unorthodox ideas. Many poets and writers migrated to India to the court of the Mughal emperors who welcomed and favored Iranian culture, particularly Persian poetry. Persian became the language of the literati in India. Soon, it became the official language of the government and the court, a place it maintained until 1857 when it was replaced by English.
The Safavids ruled Iran for more than two centuries. The last ruling Safavid monarch, Shah Sultan Hossein, was a weakling, a firm believer in astrological signs. During his reign the Afghans of the eastern provinces invaded Iran. Twice they were repulsed by local governors and were about to retreat when they received offer of money from the Shah, which they correctly interpreted as the Shah's weakness. They then surrounded the capital, Esfahan, and took it when the Shah surrendered without a fight. But, lacking in popular and logistical support, they were in no position to hold the country and were forced to retreat when faced with a resurgence of Iranian patriotic feeling.
In the meantime, the Ottomans had taken advantage of the confusion and penetrated deep into Iran, occupying many cities, including Tabriz. The Russians, now modernizing under Peter the Great, moved down the western shore of the Caspian and entered the city of Rasht. This was the first of many subsequent Russian invasions of Iran.
The man to rise in this hour of need was Nader, a warrior of the Afshar tribe, who in the name of Tahmasp, the young Safavid prince, mobilized the Iranians and after many campaigns drove out the Afghans, the Ottomans and the Russians. He then assumed the title of Shah in 1736 and thus the Safavid dynasty came to an end.
Nader was the last Asian conqueror and his reign was the apogee of Iranian military power in modern times. He invaded India and entered Delhi with little difficulty, appointing his vassals in various Indian provinces. The campaign afforded Iran great wealth, some of which are still in Iran as part of the famous Iranian "crown jewels." After the Indian campaign Nader's personality changed. Despite military successes everywhere, he became suspicious of everybody, including his own sons. As the years passed he became progressively worse, putting to death many of his trusted friends. Finally, one evening in 1747, he was assassinated by his own body guards.
The death of the great warrior threw the country into chaos. Tribal leaders rose everywhere to claim power. The most active among them at this time were the Qajars in the north and the Zands in the south. In the wars that pursued, the Zand leader, Karim Khan, won.
Karim Khan chose Shiraz, a city near the ruins of Persepolis in the south of Iran, as his capital. He never took the title of Shah; rather, he preferred to call himself the Regent or Protector of the People. He was a kind and gentle man. During his regency Iran was relatively quiet, recuperating from the turbulence and hardship of war. His death in 1794, however, led to a resumption of civil strife and the old rivalry between the Zands and Qajars. After many battles the Qajar leader, Agha Mohammad Khan, defeated the Zand successor and thus began the reign of the Qajar dynasty in Iran.
2. Iran under the Qajars (1794-1925)
The end of the 18th century witnessed two important revolutions--American and French--that changed the American and European societies and transformed the shape of Western politics. The French Revolution was partly the culmination of intellectual changes that are referred to as the enlightenment. New ideas, mostly the result of this progressive intellectual fermentation, were instrumental in bringing about new social covenants by which Western society was to be politically organized. In some countries, e.g., England, change occurred gradually; in others, such as France, political change was more abrupt and took the form of revolution. In either case, it was the beginning of a new era, a new social contract, whereby laissez-faire economics and secular democracy became the recognized progressive creed. As later developments showed, imperialism was also a result of these cumulative changes.
Whereas Europe looked forward to greater technological capability, military power, political freedom and economic progress, Iran began a period of social and economic regression. At the beginning of the Qajar period, Iran was in economic and political disarray, but still able to protect itself militarily and diplomatically. By the end of the Qajar period, Iran was almost totally at the mercy of foreign powers--specifically, Russia and Great Britain.
The first Qajar monarch, Agha Mohammad Khan, was a despot who was good at war. He fought the Georgians who, encouraged by the Russians, had taken advantage of Iranian wars of succession and occupied the territory west of the Caspian. Agha Mohammad Khan repossessed Georgia for Iran, but, after only three years of rule, was assassinated by his servants.
The Iranian situation grew worse during the reign of his heir, Fath-Ali Shah, which corresponded to the Napoleonic era in Europe. European rivalries encouraged Iran to wage two wars with Russia--the first lasted ten years and ended in 1812, the second, one year, ending in 1828--both disastrous for Iran. Iran lost many important cities north of the River Aras--cities that now constitute the Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Just as important, it became clear that Iran's power was diminishing and that Iran no longer was able to hold its place in international power politics.
The Iranian political, social and economic conditions deteriorated progressively. After Fath-Ali Shah his grandson Mohammad Shah ascended the throne and after him, his son Nasereddin Shah. The latter ruled Iran for nearly 50 years, from l848 to 1896, when he was assassinated by a modernist revolutionary.
During Nasereddin Shah's reign many new ideas were introduced in Iran, but none was seriously followed by the Shah or his government. An opportunity for the country to move forward was stifled when the young Nasereddin ordered his able chancellor, Mirza Taqi Khan (Amir Kabir) executed. Amir Kabir, holding office about the same time as Meiji in Japan, tried to implement policies that might have brought Iran out of its economic and cultural doldrums. But it was not to be. His death not only stopped short his plans, but also discouraged others from following his path.
The society, however, was in ferment. Princes of the court, members of the landed and commercial aristocracy began to travel to Europe, bringing back new ideas. They were rebuffed by the traditional elements, which constituted a majority everywhere. But the orthodoxy, social and political, was being punctured as stories of the way other peoples lived and managed themselves began to circulate.
The ferment was also experienced in the realm of religion. Many religious movements, such as Sheikhism and its later offshoots, Babism and Baha'iism, flourished, challenging the Shii orthodoxy. Some, like the Sheikhis, were grudgingly accepted into the mainstream; others, like the Babi and Baha'i creeds, were persecuted and driven out to find followers and refuge in other countries, particularly Israel, which was then Palestine, and the United States. The Shii orthodoxy remained in power, more or less unified, until the Constitutional Revolution of l905, when a number of religious leaders participated in curtailing the power of the king. Indeed, the clergy had already shown its political power when it forced the government to rescind a foreign tobacco concession by issuing a fatwa (religious edict) forbidding the use of tobacco by believers. It is said that even Nasereddin Shah's wives had honored this religious order.
3. The Constitutional Revolution (1905-1906)
Nasereddin Shah's son, Mozaffareddin, was already old when he ascended the throne, and not in very good health. His father's long, uninspired rule had impoverished the country. The Qajar princes and government officials ruled a hapless people with impunity. The Shah's powers, though theoretically unbounded, were in practice insufficient to check the power of the official potentates.
Little by little, people among the budding intelligentsia, bazaar merchants, and even the aristocracy began to voice their grievances against the system. They realized that they needed help from the more enlightened clergy if they were to succeed. At the beginning they asked the Shah to redress specific wrongs by establishing a house of justice. Soon, however, the demand developed into a genuine movement for constitutional government. Underground organizations began to distribute revolutionary pamphlets; many people sought refuge in religious shrines and foreign embassies, embarrassing the Shah and the government; others took up arms, directly challenging the regime. The turmoil spread to many cities, but it was particularly pronounced in Tehran, the capital of the nation, and in Tabriz, the traditional seat of the Qajar crown prince. After a year's struggle, the Shah signed the Constitutional Order and opened the first Assembly in October of 1906. A few days after, he died.
The Constitutional Revolution is a landmark in Iran's modern history. Even though the resulting constitutional document acknowledged the supremacy of religious law, known as the shari`a, nevertheless, it formally introduced modernity in Iran, including the ideas of popular sovereignty, limited government, separation of powers, and human rights.
Iran at this time was not ready for the implementation of a modern, basically Western, constitution. The population was poor, illiterate, superstitious and immobile, controlled politically by the clerics, merchants and landed gentry, whose interests were better served if the status quo was maintained. Furthermore, Iran was under great pressure by its powerful neighbors, Russia and England.
Since the reign of Peter the Great in the 18th century, Russia had sought access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Whenever Iran became weak and vulnerable, Russian pressure increased. By the end of the 19th century, Russian influence in Iran had reached its zenith.
The British, on the other hand, had acquired great interest in India, which made them particularly sensitive to any move by any country that might endanger these interests. Wary of Russian intentions, they had decided that they needed to control Iran in order to thwart Russian plans to move south toward the Persian Gulf. Iran, therefore, became a zone of competing influence, where Russia and England fought out their diplomatic wars at the expense of Iranians. In 1907, a year after the establishment of constitutional government, Russia and England made an agreement that formally divided Iran into their respective zones of influence. The agreement offended the Iranians greatly.
The combination of internal backwardness and foreign pressure stifled constitutional government in Iran. Slowly, many Iranian modernizers concluded that they needed a strong government that could at once hold out against foreign pressure and change the socioeconomic and cultural foundations of the society. Whether they realized it or not, such a system would lead to a breach of constitutional principles. This indeed happened, when a strong man, Reza Khan, rose to power to modernize Iran by fiat, despite the Constitution and its spirit.
V. The Pahlavis (1921-1979)
1. Reza Shah (1925-1941)
In 1921 there was a coup d'etat in Iran, whereby two men, a journalist named Seyyed Ziaeddin Tabatabai, and a brigadier named Reza Khan, came to power. Seyyed Ziaeddin lasted three months. Reza Khan, however, remained to play a pivotal role in Iran's future development.
Reza Khan's rise to power had a lot to do with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia. The Iranian armed forces had mostly been commanded and led by Czarist Russian officers until the Bolshevik Revolution. After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks called back the Russian officers. This opened the way for a number of Iranian officers, including Reza Khan, to rise quickly through the ranks. By 1921, Reza Khan was in command of the forces in the city of Qazvin, near Tehran. He was thus positioned to move into the capital.
Once in control of the capital, Reza Khan was appointed by Ahmad Shah, the last Qajar king, as Sardar Sepah, or general of the army. Later, he was also made minister of war. By l925 Reza Shah had reestablished central control over tribal khans and provincial potentates whose rebellious behavior threatened to dismember the country. He had also strengthened his political control by astutely playing various factions, including the clergy, against each other. Thus, he made himself indispensable: the question was whether Iran would become a republic with him as president, or it would remain a monarchy, with him as king. At the end, the clergy tilted the scale in favor of monarchy because they feared the antireligious policies a republic might adopt. On December 15, l925, Reza Khan took the oath of office before a constituent assembly that had elected him king and on the 16th he was publicly proclaimed the first of the Pahlavi dynasty.
As the new king of Iran, Reza Shah set out to reform some of the basic structures of Iranian government and society. He was helped by a group of outstanding individuals who formulated and administered the new policies. They introduced a new system of law based on French jurisprudence. They reformed the structure of governmental administration, particularly in finances and taxation. And in education, which was hitherto the province of the Shii clergy, they introduced secular curricula, modeled after the European system. For the first time in modern Iranian history, a university was established in Tehran, which became the forerunner of other institutions of higher learning in the country.
Iranian women, like women in most parts of the world, had lived under strenuous social and legal confinements throughout their history. The political awakening of Iranians during the Constitutional Revolution and after also entailed sporadic demands for social, legal and cultural rights for women. These demands emphasized education for girls, who, in the past, had been systematically kept out of existing religious schools. Now, with the introduction of modern schools and curricula, women's education became possible and parents were encouraged to send their daughters to school. Parallel to this, steps were taken to train teachers for both boys and girls. But the most daring step taken by Reza Shah was the unveiling of women in 1936. The religious hierarchy never forgave Reza Shah for this act, which it considered to be a sacrilege.
Recognizing the importance of education for the future of Iran, Reza Shah sent many students to Europe to learn modern science and technology. These students returned to Iran and formed the nucleus of the Iranian intellectual society after the Second World War.
Reza Shah ruled Iran with an iron fist. He followed the letter and form of the constitution, but not its spirit. He directed and supervised everything personally. He held everyone accountable to his person for the affairs of state. The parliament, regularly elected by the people, ratified only the policy favored by the Shah. Nevertheless, during his reign Iran made significant social and economic progress, until the march was interrupted by the Allied occupation of Iran in 1941.
2. Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979)
When the Second World War broke out Iran declared its neutrality. Nevertheless, the Allies entered Iran after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza, who became king at the age of 22, when the country was under foreign occupation.
The war was hard on Iran. It devastated the country economically. Politically, the tight discipline of the Reza Shah period gave way to a form of popular democracy bordering on chaos. Numerous political parties emerged--some of them were established by the new ideologues of the right and the left, but most by the traditional notables or, even, by ordinary people. Newspapers mushroomed. It was an exciting but also dangerous time.
Iran's old foes, England and Russia, now the Soviet Union, were again present on the scene, this time as occupiers. For the first time, Americans had also come to Iran in force. Many Iranians wished to engage them in Iranian politics as a "third force," to offset the dangers posed by the Soviets and the British.
The Russians had a long history of imperialism in Iran, which brought them into head-on opposition with Iranian nationalism. During the War, the Soviet Union helped establish the Communist Tudeh Party and organized various separatist movements, particularly in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. At the end of the War, contrary to the agreements made with Iran and the Allies, the Soviets refused to leave the country unless they received certain concessions in oil and other commodities. The controversy lasted many months, but at the end, a strong ultimatum by the United States coupled with an imaginative Iranian diplomatic maneuver convinced them to leave Iran in l946. Immediately afterwards the secessionist governments collapsed before the advancing Iranian army.
Freed of Soviet occupation, Iranian nationalism had to face the challenge of British colonialism. The British had an old concession on Iranian oil which they managed under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This concession was contrary to Iranian interests, not only economically, but also politically since the British used it to influence Iranian politics. Under the leadership of the nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iranians abrogated the concession, which led at once to domestic and international turmoil.
Iran nationalized its oil but was not able to market it, because the United States joined Britain in opposing any country that wished to buy Iranian oil. Mosaddeq insisted on the letter and spirit of the law of nationalization. Meanwhile, the Iranian national economy and government finances grew progressively worse. The communists grew in power. Many of Mosaddeq's former allies left him, because they feared an impending national disintegration that would lead to a communist take-over. The fear of a communist take-over was also shared by the U.S. and British governments, which joined Mosaddeq's Iranian foes in urging the Shah to take action. The Shah finally dismissed Mosaddeq in the summer of 1953, but Mosaddeq refused to leave office. The Shah left the country, and for three days there was chaos. On the fourth day Mosaddeq's government fell and soon after the Shah returned to Iran.
Although Mosaddeq's fall was a result of diverse economic and political causes, many Iranians considered the U.S. involvement, in particular the CIA, as the deciding factor. The episode created a rift in the Iranian body politic that was never healed. It came back to haunt Iran a quarter of a century later at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79. But in between these years Iran experienced a remarkable economic and technological development.
Returning to Iran, the Shah decided to take power into his own hands. By the early 1960s he seemed firmly in command. In 1963 he introduced a six-point reform program, which he called the "White Revolution." Among other things, the program proposed to use military conscripts to promote literacy, hygiene and nutrition, and agricultural productivity in the Iranian villages.
The most controversial and consequential principles of the White Revolution were land reform and women's suffrage. Large private land holdings as well as large tracts of land in religious endowments were distributed among certain categories of peasants. The women's right to vote became a springboard for far reaching policies to improve the condition of women in the country. Women suffrage encouraged women to work harder to achieve more equal rights and treatment for women. Some of the women groups united to form the Women's Organization of Iran--an institution that influenced the passage of laws and took other appropriate measures to bring about greater participation for women in socioeconomic and political spheres. Coupled with an influx of western values, these movements and policies elicited the clergy's united opposition. Some, like the fundamentalist radicals, voiced their opposition openly and dramatically. Others, following the Shii doctrine of taqiyyeh, or dissimulation, which allows acquiescence under duress, nurtured their opposition quietly.
During these years Iran's economy developed significantly. In the 50 years between 1926 and 1976 Iran's gross national product (GNP) rose 700 times, per capita income rose 200 times, and domestic capital formation increased by a factor of 3400 times. Much of this growth had occurred since 1960. By 1978, Iranian per capita income, about $85 in 1941, had reached nearly $2,400 and was projected to reach $6,000 by the mid-1990s. Most important, Iran seemed to have achieved a minimum nucleus of scientific cadres that would allow it to engage in productive and innovative scientific work inside the country.
Iranian economic and social development, however, occurred in a difficult international milieu. Marxist-Leninist doctrines were still used as powerful ideological weapons, and the Soviet Union played an aggressive role on the international scene. Nevertheless, the relations with the Soviet government improved over the years as Iran pursued a policy of "positive equilibrium" between the two superpowers. But Iran was in the Western camp and, given its geographic proximity and historical experience with the Soviet Union, used American power to offset the Soviet threat. The resulting close relationship between Iran and the United States irked the Soviet Union, which, in turn, made Iran wary of Soviet intentions. The Soviet and communist threat, in turn, was used as an excuse to limit political freedom in Iran.
Thus, during the 1970s, the Shah and his government came under increasing attacks by the left and the right. They reacted by accelerating the rate of economic growth, which led to high inflation, and by moving toward a one-party political system, which reduced political freedom. These policies made the regime politically weak and vulnerable to serious challenge. The pressure was intensified when the United States, under President Jimmy Carter, adopted a policy of promoting human rights. Faced with forces that were united by the Ayatollah Khomeini under the banner of religion, and unwilling to use the full might of its armed forces to quell the opposition, the Shah's regime fell in February of 1979.
VI. The Islamic Republic of Iran (1979- )
The Revolution of 1978-79 led first to Mohammad Reza Shah's departure from Iran on January 16, 1979, and then to the collapse of the 2600 year-old Iranian monarchy on February 11, 1979. The leading force in this revolution was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shii fundamentalist religious leader who had fought for many years against the Shah and his regime. A new regime, named the Islamic Republic of Iran, was established under an Islamic Constitution.
The distinguishing characteristic of the current constitution is the formal insistence on the primacy of Islam in all matters relating to the individual and society. This principle was encapsulated in the concept of the velayat-e faqih, which, loosely translated, means the government of the religious jurist. The Shii fundamentalists argue that all man-made laws must conform to the law of God as revealed in the Holy Book. Sine only the trained religious jurists know the external and the "hidden" meanings of the revealed law, they have the final authority to determine the validity of all human decisions, including the decisions about government and politics. This interpretation of law and politics has become a matter of contention between the regime and those Iranians who believe that individuals have the right to come together in a civil society and, as sovereign citizens, make their own laws on the basis of mutually agreed democratic principles and procedures.
The new regime was determined to destroy the existing political, social, economic and military structures. It executed many of the leaders of the prerevolutionary system, including many among its military personnel. Contrary to the Shah's regime which sought international ties, the new regime denounced both the East and the West, particularly the United States, which it condemned as the "Great Satan." One outcome of this attitude was the taking of the American diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as hostage in 1979. Another was that Iran became a pariah in the international community of nations.
The destruction of the military organization, domestic turmoil and international isolation on the one hand, and the regime's belligerent revolutionary propaganda against other regimes, on the other, made the country weak and a target of foreign aggression. Taking Iran to be an easy prey, Saddam Hussein of Iraq attacked Iran in 1980. The war lasted eight years, killing and maiming millions on both sides, and destroying much of Iran's economic infrastructure.
Women particularly suffered as a result of the Islamic Revolution. They lost many of the rights they had gained during the previous years. Their participation in government and business was curtailed. They were segregated from men in public places and were forced, once again, to wear the veil. They were publicly flogged for failing to observe adequately the dress code set by the regime.
When Khomeini died in 1989, the Iranian economy was a shambles. There was high inflation and high unemployment. Many factories were closed or worked at much less than full capacity. Instead of improving over the years, per capita income had dropped from about $2400 before the revolution to a figure below $800. Population was rising at one of the highest rates in the world, while academic standards and facilities had drastically fallen. Millions of Iranians had left the country to live as political refugees in foreign lands, mostly in Europe and the United States.
Since the Ayatollah Khomeini's death in the summer of l989, the regime has taken certain steps toward moderation in domestic economic policy and international diplomacy. The Allies' strong reaction to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait seems to have accelerated the softening of the Islamic rules. The foundation of politics, however, is still the Islamic constitution and the principle of velayat-e faqih.
1. Why do you think the borders of Achaemenid empire stopped where it did?
2. What skill did the Persians have that made them good adminstrators for the Arabs in the Abbasid court?
3. Name at least two things the Safavid rulers did that left a permanent mark on Iranians and on Iran.
4. Before 1906, what kind of control do you think people in Iran had over Oajar kings?
5. Overall, how did the development of the oil fields in Iran affect its economy in the 20th century?
6. How did the government of Iran change after the Islamic Revolution of 1979?