Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

Ervand Abrahamian ponders how Muslim clerics seized and retained control of modern-day Persia

April 4, 2013

If you were to read only one book on present-day Iran you could not do better than this. Michael Axworthy, a Foreign-Office-expert-turned- academic, has drawn on his own experience as well as archival research to produce a highly readable narrative of the Islamic Republic.

Revolutionary Iran begins with the causes of the 1979 revolution: the oil boom and the subsequent economic downturn as well as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s grandiose schemes, his pumped-up autocracy and claims to be the “light of the Aryans”. Axworthy evokes the sound and fury of the revolution itself - the cycle of fourth-day demonstrations, the ever- expanding mass protests and the three days of street fighting that put the nail in the coffin of the so-called 2,500-year monarchy. He then describes the establishment of the Islamic Republic: the consolidation of power in the hands of clerics associated with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the marginalisation of other clerics, and the drafting of a truly theocratic constitution of a kind rarely found in the annals of world history.

The story continues with the survival of the republic under unfavourable circumstances - the US hostage crisis, the Iraqi invasion, the bitter conflicts between moderates and radicals within the regime, and the attempted uprising by a radical lay organisation named the Mojahedin. It goes on to explore the decades of economic reconstruction under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, of political liberalisation under President Mohammad Khatami, and of the emergence of a new form of religious populism, best described as evangelicalism, espoused by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The book concludes with today’s ongoing stand-off between Iran and the US over the nuclear issue, which has generated much on-and- off noise about air attacks, war and the “existential danger” to Israel.

Axworthy’s forte is presenting new information on military matters, gathered from his own experience

Axworthy’s forte is presenting new information on military matters, offering detail not found in other books. He has gathered this information from his own experience, from interviews with military officials, both British and Iranian, and from data provided by international research organisations. In the process, he debunks three widespread notions. First, he shows that, contrary to government propaganda, Iran’s regular armed forces, in particular the air force, played an important role in fighting off the Iraqi invasion. The regime has systematically underplayed its role and overplayed that of the volunteer militias - the revolutionary guards, known as the pasdaran, and their support battalions, the basijis. Some of the most valuable parts of the book are those on the Iran-Iraq war - on the reasons for Saddam Hussein’s invasion, the military tactics and hardware used by both sides, and the horrendous loss of life reminiscent of the First World War. Some might object that Axworthy is too ready to accept the claims made in Rafsanjani’s self-serving memoirs that he and Khomeini were willing to end the war in 1983. It is hard to believe that they were pressured or hoodwinked into crossing the border by hand-picked pasdaran.

Second, he debunks the notion that the Islamic Republic is a threat to the region - a Third Reich armed to its teeth, with ambitions to create a vast empire, and equipped with an unlimited array of panzer divisions. He shows Iran to be instead a fourth-rate power spending less of its gross domestic product on arms than many of its neighbours, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and even the tiny Gulf emirates. He writes: “By no means is Iran among leaders in regional or world defence spending. If defence spending is any measure of militarism or a sign of expansionist intent, then Iran is not a militaristic or expansion state.” Iran’s regular and irregular forces are capable of waging partisan warfare if the country is invaded again. But they do not have the capability of reaching out and invading other countries.

Third, Axworthy counters the alarmist claim that Iran is out to obtain nuclear weapons. He argues that its real intention is likely to be obtaining the capability to produce such weapons if need be in some dire future crisis. This is, of course, a capability many other countries have. Although many academics have argued this point, it is good to see the former head of the Iran Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concur.

It is also refreshing to have a Foreign Office hand openly take issue with official policies. Axworthy criticises both the purpose and the workings of the dire economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN under pressure from the US and the UK. He implies that the real intention was not to bring Iran to the negotiating table but to placate the Israelis and pull off a “regime change”. He also criticises the tendency of George W. Bush and Tony Blair to blame Iran for problems in Iraq and Afghanistan - problems mostly of those leaders’ own making - even when Iran was in essence aiding the West.

The best parts of Revolutionary Iran are those dealing with contemporary events; less successful are those dealing with historical background. The latter are overly reliant on secondary sources, many of them coloured by the Cold War and Anglo-American backing for the Shah. They therefore tend to perpetuate distortions repeated so many times that they have become conventional wisdom. For example, the book claims that the Soviets set up a republic in Iranian Azerbaijan at the end of the Second World War. In fact, they set up an autonomous provincial government so they could have sure representation inside the Iranian parliament. Similarly, Axworthy holds that the 1953 overthrow of Premier Mohammad Mossadeq was due more to internal politics than outside machinations. This is a royalist myth. A leading CIA analyst, Richard Cottam, writing some years after in a mea culpa of the coup, readily admitted that prominent defectors from Mossadeq’s side, led by Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, did not seriously weaken the nationalist government, and the gang of some 3,000 that roamed the streets during the coup provided the military with mere acoustical side-effects. However, they were soon hailed as the heroes of the “Shah- People Revolt” - later billed as the “Shah-People Revolution”. By subscribing to this royalist myth, Axworthy is minimising the crucial roles played in the 1953 coup by the CIA and MI6.

Finally, Axworthy tends to exaggerate the independence of the Shah, describing him as a “partner” rather than a military monarch dependent on the West. Such a depiction runs counter to the facts - not only of the Shah’s own heavy reliance on the West during the revolution itself but also of Iranian public perception throughout the crisis. In fact, Axworthy, despite providing an excellent political narrative of revolution, does not focus sufficiently on the popular perceptions that generated so much heat, passion and fury. At the core of these passions was the deeply held conviction that the Shah was a foreign puppet - a view shared by clergy as well as laypeople, by the religious and the secular opposition, by the left, centre and right, and by religious populists as well as religious conservatives and even moderates.

What drove the revolution was neither the small increase in bread prices nor the slight decrease in employment rolls, but the widely held conviction that the Shah was illegitimate precisely because he had been installed on the throne by foreign powers. In an age of nationalism, he was deemed to lack national legitimacy.

The author

Michael Axworthy, director of Exeter’s Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies, was born in Woking and raised in West Kirby, Radyr, Ilkley and Chester. He lives in Morwenstow, “a beautiful place on the cliffs of north Cornwall - we can walk to the cliffs in about 20 minutes”, with his wife Sally, their children Triffie, Winnie, George and Meg, two dogs and two horses.

His exposure to Iran came early. “My father set up a trading office for the Midland Bank there. I went out as a teenager on holidays - nine times between 1975 and 1978. I spent the summer of 1978 in Tehran and left just after the first really big demonstrations in Tehran at the beginning of September.”

“I read a lot as a child and once I realised I was never going to be a fighter pilot I decided that I wanted to be a writer,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by books and history, and also film. I was not particularly studious at school, but was very lucky in having key teachers who encouraged and helped me at the right time - especially Keith Lysons and David Lyons at school in Chester, Maurice Cowling and Martin Golding at Peterhouse, and Tim Blanning. Arriving in Cambridge was wonderful and I loved spending time in the university library. Libraries and books (and bookshops) should be at the centre of any university.”

Of his decision to join the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he says, “It was not something that anyone in my circle at school or university did. My first preference had been to study for a doctorate after my first degree, but I could not get a grant, so applied for jobs.”

His work for the FCO would take him back to Tehran, ultimately as head of the Iran Section in the Foreign and Commonwealth office. Of the post-revolutionary capital city, he says, “I was actually struck by how many things were still much the same - the deep-seated changes were largely out of sight. The most striking thing was the removal of US influence in advertising, branded products and so on - in the 1970s that influence was strong and prominent.”

“I thought that the FCO would be challenging, and I liked the idea of living abroad,” he recalls. “I was right about that - but the FCO also taught me how to write, which was a bonus. But ultimately I wanted to write books, and I was never entirely at ease in a large, hierarchical organisation.”

His departure from the FCO - first going on leave in 2000 and then resigning in 2005 when he took up a post at the University of Exeter - came about “partly because I had always intended that I should be doing something else, but also because I thought I didn’t entirely fit in a large organisation, with the bureaucracy and so on. I do somewhat feel that having left in the hope of discovering academic freedom, I did discover it - but in recent years the bureaucracy seems to have encroached in that area as well.”

“So much of it is just pointless. Everybody is hyper-incentivised to pursue research grant applications and so on when everybody knows, including the Treasury and research councils, that presumably 90 per cent of that effort is completely wasted. I think it’s a ridiculous way to run things frankly. I know it’s not easy to come up with an alternative way to run higher education, of course; other models doubtless have their faults too.”

In observing the as a scholar rather as a member of the FCO, Axworthy acknowledges, “I miss the information stream, the constant flow of information when I was doing the Iran job. I could be completely confident that I was at the cutting edge of knowledge of what was currently going on at any one time, thanks to the embassy reporting and all the other sorts of reporting and information that came across the desk. But one way and the other you can achieve pretty much the same result or something approaching the same result independently of that, especially with the internet now, which makes things a lot easier.” And as a scholar, he says, “you have the time to apply yourself and think in a more in-depth way, which in the Foreign Office in general you don’t have. You’re just chasing the latest requirement for policy advice or whatever else is demanded of you.”

“My background, having studied history rather than political sciences and having been a practitioner, that I have a somewhat non-theoretical or even anti-theoretical approach, which I am quite happy with and quite confident in, because I’ve done it. Sometimes the theory does seem rather remote from the sorts of realities that I’ve known; sometimes you think people are just off on the wrong track and are just thinking over-theoretically - as though theories really do determine things rather than possibly being an explanation after the fact. At the same time, when you meet scholars who are good and are thoroughly versed in the subject matter, you often do have a little epiphany and the light comes on and you think, well, yes, maybe there is something to that. So for all that I am somewhat suspicious of great gouts of methodology and theory, it does have its place. And certainly in academia it should have its place - I don’t dispute that.”

A frequent commentator on television and radio, Axworthy says that “with TV or radio interviews I sometimes feel rather overwhelmed by the amount one could say in answer to a question. It can be difficult to boil it down to a reply that still carries a worthwhile message, and to do so in a way that conveys a vivid or memorable image. It makes a difference to have a skilled interviewer, who can both challenge you and ask questions that enable you to give good answers. Tim Sebastian in the Doha debates was good at that.”

His most recent journey to Iran was last September. “Unfortunately it wasn’t of a very long duration. Having had trouble getting a visa for a while, I finally got a visa last summer and flew out there in September, only to arrive at border control and have my passport taken away. Someone came along half an hour later and said, you’ve got to get on the plane back to London. So I was just turned around at the airport. A friend of mine in Iran sent an open letter to President Ahmedinejad protesting about it, but as far as I know he never got a reply. So for the time being I have to assume that it’s not really worth me trying again. But maybe after the presidential elections this summer I’ll try again.”

Asked if he thinks the refusal related to his FCO work or his scholarship, Axworthy replies, “It’s rather hard to say because they never give a reason. I have been given different accounts of why it might have been. My immediate assumption the first time I was refused a visa, which was back at the end of 2008, was that it was because of things I’d written. But that was in a rather special context where my wife, Sally, who still works for the Foreign Office, was applying for a visa at the same time. We were all flying as a family, as Sally was to go to Iran as deputy head of mission in the Foreign Office in Tehran - it would have been her first time there. We were all refused together. And I’ve had it suggested to me that it was not to do with me, but to because of something David Miliband said in a speech on the Persian Gulf shortly before, that the region needed an equivalent of Nato to resist Iranian expansionism or something of that kind. Although that might sound a bit strange that these sort of tit for tat things might go on, it’s not actually that strange.”

“I would go back like a shot if I were given a visa,” he adds. “I have friends there and familiar favourite places, and the way of life and the friendliness of the people, the depth of culture, is so appealing.”

Asked for a Farsi word that reveals something about Iranian culture, he opts for “taarof, a word for the etiquette of politeness in Iran, which is highly complex and can include what seem like bizarre games of one-upmanship. Iranian men can take a long time to go through a door because no one will take precedence by going first. To go first would be to lose the game. You win by being more modest and self-effacing than the other. This is a sign of other things - the ancient civilisation in Iran, the value placed on sophistication, politeness, education. And modesty. It can be rather false, but at its best it is attractive.”

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic

By Michael Axworthy
Allen Lane, 528pp, £25.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781846142918 and 9781846142925 (e-book)
Published 7 March 2013

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