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Book Review: Iran: A Modern History

By (October 23, 2017) No Comment

Iran: A Modern History

by Abbas Amanat

Yale University Press, 2017

Yale University history professor Abbas Amanat’s massive, magisterial new book Iran: A Modern History, employs “modern” in the sense most fitting to the ancient country known as Persia, which has been a hub of human culture and trade for millennia. The focus here is so broad in scope of time that it could only really apply to such a mind-bogglingly old thing; Amanat begins his story only as ‘late’ as the 16th century, with the Safavid Revolution and the full welding of Shi’ism to the state apparatus, and he carries it down through the Qajar Era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and right through to the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s and the long, bitter Iran-Iraq War.

Amanat thickly peoples his narrative with dozens of vibrantly-drawn personalities, all loving and conniving and fighting and praying and dying against the backdrop of what he generally characterizes as a fairly consistent political world-view:

The Persian theory of government envisioned certain checks and balances to restrain the brute and unbridled exercise of power. The functional model of government known as the “circle of equity” was the ideal by which the manuals of government, a much-revered genre in Persian political writing, reminded the rulers of their duty to administer “justice.” Essentially, the shah was required to maintain social balance by honoring each constituency with its due protection and reward: by keeping at bay the army and the state administration (divan) so as to inhibit their oppressive intrusion into the life of the subjects. If the subjects are oppressed and plundered, so the circular model explains, they cannot produce and prosper, as a result of which the land will become impoverished and the state will be weakened, and eventually the ruler’s power base will crumble and he will be deposed and destroyed.

“This cyclical model of power,” Amanat continues in what we can only hope is deadpan humor, “inspired no doubt by the precariousness of the agrarian cycle in which it developed, seldom corresponded to the realities of power.”

This detached, almost dreamy, relationship between preached principles and the reality on the ground is a kind of supersonic whistle, the incredibly high-pitched perpetual grinding of one tectonic plate against another, generating the feeling of tension and forestalled catastrophe that permeates the book. Amanat delves deeply into every period of the long “modern” interval he covers; he fleshes out every segment with deft personality-portraits of the various princes and priests – in fact, his long account is such agreeably smooth reading that it seems at times more like an epic poem than a comprehensive history. This is the Shahnameh made flesh, with one overwhelmingly important element now brought forward and situated squarely at heart of everything: religion. The taut wire of Shi’ism holds the whole of Amanat’s book together – not always harmoniously:

More than any other unifying force, what held together the sinews of Iranian ruling classes – the kingship, the nobility, the divan, the religious establishment, the large landowners, the urban notables, and even the tribal khans – proved to be the Shi’i religion. Shi’ism also served as the most important ingredient bonding the majority population in the cities and the countryside to the state and its ruling elites. The Safavids and the Qajars, and to a lesser extent the dynasties in between, posed as “defenders of the faith.”

“This meant” he adds, “that the state had to accommodate a clerical class.”

One of the main sources of excitement in Amanat’s narrative is how often that accommodation was made only grudgingly, if at all. The state – virtually every level of every incarnation of the state throughout the five centuries covered in these pages – is always vying with the clerical class for control of something: trade, material extravagance, the freedom of women, and so on, and the results are seldom foregone conclusions.

The saga can’t help but shed many revealing and possibly clarifying lights on the Iran of 2017, but there’s a strong feeling throughout Amanat’s book that this is a temptation best indulged only very sparingly, or else ignored completely. Iran: A Modern History does not offer up the toil and genius of centuries merely as some kind of hyper-energetic foregrounding to Hassan Rouhani’s present-day nation. Rather, Amanat aims for a goal that’s more impressive for being less specific: the clothing of what is essentially an ideological story in the movements, wars, quotes, and poetry of a thousand individuals – an authorial blending best expressed in the chapter “Cultures of Authority and Cultures of Dissent.”

Putting it mildly, this is history not well enough known even in broad outline to Western readers; that alone would make Iran: A Modern History essential reading. The fact that Amanat is such a natural and infectiously readable storyteller, providing for readers what the poet Rumi referred to as “the universe in ecstatic motion,” is the best added gift of the season.