Friday, August 24, 2007

Going to Bat for Mossadegh, a books review.

Iranian History and Politics: The dialectics of state and society.
RoutledgeCurzon 2003.

Mussadiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran.
I.B. Tauris 1990.

In moments of statistical introspection, I wonder if LA Dodgers fans are generally Pahlavi supporters. The occasional Shah picture posted on huge Westwood billboards, and the handful of TV stations time capsuling pre-revolution Tehran are tempting bits of data. San Francisco Giants fans, on the other hand, are generally pro-Mossadegh, though I lack the evidence of billboards. Needless to say, Giants rule and Dodgers suck, but it is nice occasionally to debate with facts and reason. Two meticulously researched books by Oxford scholar Homa Katouzian hit the ball right out of the ballpark for the Giants.

The first book, Iranian History and Politics: The Dialectics of State and Society, develops the author’s theory of “arbitrary rule,” and establishes a foundation for understanding Mossadegh’s uniqueness in Iranian history. The second book, Mussadiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran, specifically analyzes the events of the Mossadegh period, demonstrating how he personified a new paradigm in Iran’s civilization.

Arbitrary rule should not be confused with dictatorship, Katouzian says. “The distinctive characteristic of the Iranian state [has been] that it monopolized not just power, but arbitrary power--not the absolute power in laying down the law, but the absolute power of exercising lawlessness.” I believe the umpire is a good example of a dictator. You can’t argue with his decision, but neither can he change the rules of baseball. Katouzian cites the example, Henry VIII of England as a dictator who was not an arbitrary ruler. This dictator had the most unfettered power of any English king, yet he had to use threats, coercion, bribery, and at least one execution to become head of the Church of England, so that he could lawfully divorce his wife (Katouzian does not discuss motivation or methods, just that Henry VIII got the approval of Parliament).

Looking for examples of arbitrary lawlessness, on the other hand, I found this recollection by Farhad Diba of an encounter with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi:

“The Shah asked me what I was doing and I, very proudly, told him about how well NCR [National Cash Register Company] was progressing in Iran. When I reported that to my father the next day, he said "You are a fool. Sure enough, within the year, NCR (which my father had introduced into Iran and, over 25 years, it had grown into a large business) was taken from us and given over to the Pahlavi Foundation.”

In Iranian History and Politics..Katouzian mentions a few of the countless examples of arbitrary usurpation of property by various Shahs. The suspicion that the wealth may have been acquired by unjust means in the first place gives Shahs a certain Robin Hood appeal. But Katouzian’s scholarship exposes the practice as a tragic reason for Iran’s economic backwardness: capital does not accumulate over the generations, making it impossible for any large industrial or financial enterprise to take root.

Under the arbitrary rule of its monarchs, Iran was a “short term society,” as Katouzian terms it, where few social structures were allowed to stand long enough to evolve the sophisticated architecture of modern institutions. In Europe, lords, barons, counts and dukes had the brutal right of ownership to their land, making a feudal system possible. Iran’s khans had no ownership rights, only privileges that could be taken away at the whim of the arbitrary ruler. In such a system even feudalism has no incentive to grow, much less its Western progressions: a powerful merchant class, large scale capitalism, and socialism.

Applying Katouzian’s arbitrary rule theory, I figured out that the spike in the price of oil in the seventies only created the illusion of a modern economy in Iran. This period was in reality little more than a shopping spree by the country’s sole owner, the Shah. In the historic pattern of economic insecurity of the wealthy, nothing had changed.

Applying the simple yet powerful theory again, I realized that freedoms enjoyed by Iranian women and religious minorities during the Shah should not be misunderstood as a modern appreciation of human rights and dignity. True to Iran’s historic pattern, all such freedoms were privileges granted by the monarch, to be taken away at his convenience. The Shah may have been a benevolent soul, but benevolence is no substitute for guaranteed rights under a long term tradition of law. Niceness is a character trait, not a social institution.

The arbitrary rule concept is developed into a solid theory in the book Iranian History and Politics the Dialectic of State and Society. Now the reader is ready for Mussadiq and the struggle for Power in Iran, fully prepared to appreciate this leader’s uniqueness in Iranian history.

The 1906 constitutional revolution was an attempt to put an end to arbitrary rule. At the time Mossadegh was in his early twenties, and for forty-five years he watched as the revolution was torn apart by foreign interference in domestic politics. By the time he became prime minister, Mossadegh knew what to do to piece Iran’s constitution back together. His nationalization of Iranian oil had far less to do with revenue than with eliminating foreign intrusion into Iranian affairs. His recalcitrance in coming to terms with the British should be assessed as serving his grand project—protecting Iran’s newly discovered paradigm of lawful leadership.

Mossadegh himself has been criticized for breaking the law when he temporarily dissolved the majles. “How is that different from the dictatorship of the Shah?” his detractors ask. Katouzian admits the mistake, while explaining the complex mitigating circumstances. Yet his arbitrary rule theory makes it unnecessary to decide whether Mossadegh was a dictator. The reader has already learned that the term “dictator” in the Western sense does not describe our Shahs at all. The Pahlavis were not dictators, but arbitrary rulers. Mossadegh, dictator or not, acted in the modern paradigm of the struggle between various interests of society. For him, the primitive mellat [society]vs. dowlat [state] dialectic was an extinct theme.

As Katouzian explains in Iranian History and Politics..., our numerous rebellions had always been about the mellat overthrowing the dowlat. Everybody vs. the “institution” of the arbitrary ruler. The upheavals led to a period of chaos [fetneh/ahsoub] until a new arbitrary ruler enforced order and began the cycle all over again. In Mussadiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran it can be seen that the battles of the Mossdegh era were of a fresh variety. We were fighting over which interests in our society were going to dictate the rules. This gave a totally new texture to the power game, which for the first time could be termed “politics.” Katouzian emphasizes that there was no Persian word for “politics”; the modern connotation of “siaasat” was first adopted during the constitutional revolution.

Though the Shah appeared to win the day after the 1953 coup, he could not hold back Iran’s new paradigm, best archetyped in the Mossadegh drama. In an unmistakable occurrence of Katouzian’s mellat vs. dowlat phenomenon, everyone rose against the Shah in 1979. Not a single major element of Iran’s society defended him. Not the merchants he had made wealthy, not the workers he had created jobs for, not even the women and the minorities he had treated so kindly. This puzzling ingratitude is completely explained by Iranian society’s resolve to put an end to arbitrary rule. An evolutionary force overwhelmed sectarian interests.

Some argue that we should stop dwelling on Shah and Mossadegh. After reading Katouzian, I believe we can safely drop the Shah from conversations, as his species is unlikely to be part of Iran’s political ecology again. The Pahlavis were the last dinosaurs. But Mossadegh was the first mammal. His political genes are alive, evolving and relevant. Iran’s stubborn struggle against foreign dependence, even in the face of sanctions, is straight out of Mossadegh’s book. Western analysts flummoxed by The Islamic Republic’s resilience to regime change should acknowledge the unprecedented symbiosis that now exists between the dowlat and parts of the mellat. The Islamic establishment in turn should consider to what extent the concept of a Supreme Leader contradicts the program that the Iranian nation has set for its long term development. The regime’s leaders should also beware: their power is imperiled whenever they arbitrarily suspend constitutional rights.

The Shahs are dead, but Mossadegh’s legacy remains a colossal factor in Iran’s future. This is why Giants still rule. And the Dodgers? Well, who cares anymore?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had to make sure that I understood everything you had written about Homa Katouzian’s books in your review of his brilliant thinking, so I read your review three times and must admit that I had not had as good and clear an ‘aha’ moment as when I read your rendition of Katouzian’s “arbitray ruler”. Katouzian’s identification of arbitrary rulership as the main choke hold on the advancement of Iranian society, economics, and politics has to be one of the most clear and concise explanations ever offered by anyone with regards to Iran. Katouzian’s theory is the political and economic equivalent of the Theory of Relativity, answering so many questions and explaining so much all at once. The theroy will stand the test of time and as you point out, there are many lessons in it for the current batch of Iranian rulers. Hats off Homa Katouzian for his work and to you Ari for bringing it to our attention.