Illustration of Tehran by Esmail Ashtiyani (1938)

Iran’s Modern History: A Conversation with Abbas Amanat

In Iran: A Modern History, Abbas Amanat combines chronological and thematic approaches, exploring events with lasting implications for modern Iran and the world. Here, Amanat discusses his motivation for consolidating five centuries of Iran’s history, the country’s challenges to modernity, and the book’s far-reaching impact since its publication in 2019.

What motivated you to write a book that covers nearly five centuries of Iran’s early modern and modern history?

AA: Readers of this book in the outset may wonder why events and trends of five centuries ago have anything to do with modern Iran. Afterall most histories of modern Iran tend to cover the 20th and early 21st centuries and thus pay little attention, if at all, to historical events and themes of earlier times. Here in this book, however, I have tried to demonstrate how pertinent and how crucial are the long-term historical trends, particularly between the 16th and the late 19th centuries and how insight about these developments offer a deeper understanding of Iran’s recent past and even its current situation. Shaping of Iran as a “Guarded Domains,” for instance, and the process of conversion to Shi’ism, occurred between 16th and 18th centuries. They reinforced communal ties within Iran proper especially in the face of real or imagined external threats. These trends later lend themselves in the 19th and early 20th centuries to what may be called integrated nationhood.

Collective memories, through conflict, suffering and hardship, further helped consolidate a “national” experience. Cultural expressions as in poetry, architecture, myths and mores further reinforced these shared memories. Writing a longue durée therefore has been stimulating for me, even cathartic, for it served as a prism through which I could better grasp tumultuous events that trouble Iran even today.

How is this book organized and what approach you adopted in covering such a long and eventful past?

AA: Throughout I have tried to observe certain underlying themes; themes that in the process of research and writing often were revised and reconfigured. Yet by and large the organizing principle remained chronological. Part One covers the Safavid era and its aftermath, that is 16th to 18th centuries. Part Two deals with the Qajar era, a “long-19th century starting in the last decades of the 18th century and continues up to the Constitutional Revolution during the first decade of the 20th century. Part Three covers the rise and fall of Pahlavi power as it emerged in the aftermath of WWI, led to a period of state centralization, secular reforms and rise of a modern middle class. After WWII and Oil Nationalization Movement of early 1950s, the Shah’s authoritarian grip over the country was achieved with a sizable degree of American blessing. The Land Reform and other state-initiated reforms that were ensued had a lasting economic and demographic impact.

A period of cultural florescence at the same time allowed some voices of dissent to be heard. Part Four explores causes and immediate consequences of the 1979 revolution and the formative phase of the Islamic Republic up to 2009.

That more than two-third of this book is devoted to the 20th century, is because of many compelling challenges that Iranian society and the state witnessed. These were both indigenous and imported, and perhaps inevitably they triggered many paradoxes. Although each of these four parts in the book stand on its own, I hope I have been able to show an organic interplay, so to speak, among them. They all in effect demonstrate an uninterrupted, though often troubled, metamorphosis from an empire to a nation state. Surely, Iran was not alone in the non-West in experiencing massive changes in its political, economic, social, and cultural institutions but certainly was one of the most traumatic, most eventful, examples.

So, what are these “compelling” themes and the impediments to what might be called “normative modernity”?

AA: To start with Iran’s limited demographic, ecological and economic resources made it a fragile, yet resilient system. During early modern times it had to withstand powerful and aggressive neighbors: the Ottoman Empire to its west and the mostly nomadic Uzbeks and Afghans to its east. These were not only military threats but religious threats to Shi’i Iran, or at least that is how Iranians perceived their Sunni neighbors. Later, emergence of the Russian Empire on Iran’s northern frontiers and the British colonial empire on the southeast and in the Persian Gulf changed the direction of Iran’s geopolitical compass. Transformative challenges on its north-south axis went beyond preservation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Although it lost peripheral but prosperous provinces to its mighty and aggressive Christian nemesis in the north, it was fortunate to become a so called “buffer state,” an intermediary status that allowed Iran to preserve a precarious political sovereignty while remaining culturally confident and to some degree engage with the outside world.

Yet, adopting to modernity, whether indigenous or Western, was visibly troubling in the areas of political reform, securing new economic resources, industrialization, urban growth, accommodating the ethnic periphery and lessening the influence of a conservative clerical establishment. Nevertheless, during the 20th century we witness a rapid, though sometimes excessive, Westernization in areas of material culture, everyday life, education, communication, and even literature and art. This in turn broadened the chasm between the modernists and the conservatives. A search for “authenticity,” moreover, in the 1960’s critique of “Westoxication,” strived to achieve a pristine identity, one believed to have been violated by alien forces of the West. This imagined sense of loss proved to be misleading, even disastrous, for it soon was weaponized by radical Islamists. Ever since the 19th century the Shi’i clerical establishment resisted reform and often actively combatted everything modern. In due course, the shadow of a threatening West contributed to a xenophobic ideology that shaped the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Do you think Iran is an exceptional case in coming to terms with modernity and its complex demands?

AA: In many respects Iran shared the same set of dilemmas that non-Western countries like Egypt, China, Thailand, Ethiopia and even Japan had faced. Western imperial intrusion, loss of territory, weakening of political institutions, a sense of decline and call for reforms, and of course a mix of resentment and envy toward industrial powers and their colonial expansion. Parallels are many but so are the differences. Iran never was colonized, and contrary to common misperceptions, never lost its political sovereignty and its cultural memory. That was as much because of its peculiar terrain and its position as a “buffer state,” as it was because of its flexibility and its relatively coherent socio-religious fabric that was product of some four centuries of integration. No doubt systemic tensions did exist between the center and the periphery, within the institutions of the state and between the state and the religious establishment, and surely there were numerous instances of near collapse. Yet Iran’s nuanced culture, it may be argued, insured a resilient existence at times of precarity.

One can witness aspects of the same systemic tensions even in our time. That Iran went through two revolutions in the 20th century, and in between one semi-revolution in the 1950’s, is symptomatic of unresolved historical issues. Today we witness intense popular discontent in Iranian society against the Islamic Republic, its highly repressive policies, its populist propaganda, its international isolation, and its near bankrupt economy. Most recently, the protest movement that defined itself as “Woman, Life, Liberty” not only revealed a generational divide but also a socio-cultural chasm with historic roots. Young protesters now rejecting the Islamic Republic’s ideological project and its oppressive program of socioreligious engineering, especially regarding women. They reject paranoic xenophobe, isolation, oppressive imposition of Islamic sharia, such as mandatory hijab, and brute clerical monopoly of power.

These all have historic roots and in many ways are byproducts of the experience of modernity. Today’s protests exhibit alternative face of Iran’s modernity, one that defies obscurantism, misogyny, dictatorship, corruption, nepotism and the regime-sponsored culture of morbidity, mourning and lamentation. They reject isolation and instead call for greater global integration and seek a culture of joy and happiness. In so far as Iran’s geopolitics is concerned, we may also witness continuity. The Islamic Republic’s gradual move toward other autocratic regimes, such as Russia and China, heralds political adventurism and regional conflicts, but it also anticipates Iran becoming a new buffer state. All in all, and perhaps more than other countries in the region, Iran remains engaged, perhaps enslaved, by the authority of its past while at the same time it strives to liberate itself from the demons of that past. 

Finally, what kind of readership did you have in mind and to what extent that target audience welcomed your book? What has been the overall reaction to it?

AA: Though I primarily had in mind college students and a college-educated readership, reception for this book has gone beyond my expectation. For nearly four decades I taught courses on early modern and modern Iran and on aspects of the modern Middle East and perhaps subconsciously my interlocuters were Yale History majors. Yet adoption for history courses aside, this book has found readership among many Iranians abroad, a large and diverse community worldwide who wishes to know more about Iran’s past. Also, it attracted readers who for reasons of intellectual curiosity or because of interest in current affair wish to learn more about Iran. That it has been translated into Turkish, Chinese, and Persian (the latter unauthorized) and it is in the process of being translated into Arabic and I hope into Russian, Japanese, and Spanish also reflects wider interest. Email messages I have been receiving from all over, reviews in national papers, and other venues confirm that despite its substantial size, this books’ style and content, as well as its overarching argument, are within the reach of most readers. In the Preface of this book I spoke, somewhat playfully, of “history with attitude.” It seems that such personal undertone resonates with many readers.  

Abbas Amanat is William Graham Sumner Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University and former director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He lives in North Haven, CT.

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