Legacy of Despotism

A challenging book that, despite its chronological confusion, can diffuse some of the Iranophobia that has gripped us of late.

"Likro iran beyisrael: ha'atzmi vehe'akher, dat umoderniut" ("Reading Iran in Israel: The Self and the Other, Religion and Modernity") by Haggai Ram, Van Leer & Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 221 pages, NIS 79

Haggai Ram has written a complex and sophisticated book on the history and culture of Iran, a subject about which we know little in these parts. Along the way, he reaches conclusions about Israel's political culture on the basis of how it has told the story of Iran and its history. Most importantly, Ram grapples with seeming dichotomies like religion/secularity, modern/primitive, East/West, past/present and we/them, demonstrating how hazy the boundaries are, and how one actually encompasses the other. From all these standpoints, the book is problematic.

The first half is devoted to the way Iran is portrayed in Israel. Only in the second half of the book does Ram tackle the country's history, past and present, and analyze its mythology, culture, society and policies. It might have been easier for the reader to comprehend Ram's arguments if he had rearranged the order and used less academic jargon. His comparison of political rhetoric, history textbooks before and after the revolution of 1979, mosque sermons, the wills written by soldiers and analysis of the Iraq-Iran War is particularly intriguing.

The Iranians are apparently descendents of Aryan tribes that migrated from central Asia around the 5th century B.C.E., and never saw themselves as belonging to the same race as the Semitic and Arab peoples who settled in the region. They built a great civilization, but were conquered repeatedly by different empires and tribes. The Arab conquest was perceived as a decline, but these people adopted Islam, introduced changes in it and became the first Shiite nation. In general, they argue that every conqueror was absorbed into their culture and underwent a process of Iranization. Ram claims they were the first to develop the concept of modern nationhood. Together with religion, this became an integral part of their collective identity and contributed to their state's ability to recruit the masses and to call upon the people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation.

Shi'a Islam began with Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph, cousin and brother-in-law of the prophet Mohammed. The 12th imam "disappeared" in 874, but is expected to return as the savior at the time of the Last Judgment. The founding myth of Sh'ia is the Battle of Karbala, which was waged on October 10, 680. Imam Hussein tried to wrest political power from the Umayyads, led by Caliph Yazid, and bring back the dynasty of Ali, the bloodline of the prophet Mohammed. Hussein and his company were defeated and killed in battle.

Since then, the "Karbala example" has become a symbol of heroism and noble sacrifice, Hussein is the father of every shaheed (holy martyr, according to Islam), and Yazid is the personification of evil. The "Karbala example" was exploited, along with nonreligious national symbols, to inspire patriotism in Iran when the country was attacked by Iraq. The Shiite self-flagellation ritual is also a commemoration of the events in Karbala.

The Iranian Shi'a, Ram writes, was ruled by a succession of Sunni regimes for many years (the most notable among them being the Ottoman Empire). It was a society that adapted itself to the circumstances and did not particularly preach violence. In modern times, however, under the influence of the French revolution and secular nationalism, Iran - both government and "street" - have adopted violent strategies. Ram keeps coming back to this mix of religion and nationality, which he compares to Zionism, although the similarities are uncomfortable to acknowledge.

Shameless exploitation

Without going deeply into Iranian history, it is important to note the shameless exploitation of Iran's vast oil reserves over the past hundred years by colonial powers (first Russia and Britain, then the United States). In 1906, a constitutional government was inaugurated, but it only lasted until 1911, when the Russians invaded and sowed terrible havoc. Many Western-educated intellectuals were assassinated, libraries and museums were burned, and newspapers were closed down to insure the submission of the Iranians. The Russians and the British even divvied Iran up between themselves into "areas of influence." Later, Iran was forced to grant Britain the sole concession to all its oil reserves and refineries in return for protection (from Russia).

After World War II, the anger of the Iranian populace over the British monopoly of its oil fields steadily mounted. In 1951, the newly elected popular prime minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized the oil industry. In August 1953, the CIA organized a coup and installed Mohammad Reza Shah of the Pahlevi dynasty in his stead. Iran's shift from democracy to absolute monarchy remained a national trauma for generations of Iranians, much like the Russian invasion.

The shah sought to introduce rapid modernization and secularization (a la Ataturk), but he resorted to brute force to accomplish this mission, employing his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, which the CIA and the Mossad helped to establish. The top echelons were plagued by widespread corruption, and oil concessions again fell into the hands of foreigners. The shah strengthened and rebuilt the army, looking toward it for support. He signed arms deals and brought in instructors from the United States and Israel. Glittering enterprises run by a small elite and by overseas investors accentuated the social gaps and paved the way for the 1979 revolution.

The shah embarked on an interesting experiment: He tried to build a super-narrative and forge collective identity based on a blend of pre-Islamic myths, history and archaeology (harking back, for example, to the empire of Cyrus - the biblical Koresh - king of Persia and Medea). This reminds Haggai Ram of the Zionist narrative that draws a direct line from Israel's ancient past to the present and the future. In fact, this happens in all societies and countries, and is not unique to either Israel or Iran.

The semi-open pact between Israel and Pahlevi Iran was an important component in Israel's geopolitical "peripheral alliance" doctrine. According to this doctrine, non-Muslim countries and ethnic communities in the region, from Turkey to Ethiopia, played a political, military and conceptual role in diversifying the region and reducing its Arabness at a time when pan-Arabism was on the rise and threatening Israel - not to mention insuring a cheap and reliable source of oil. Oil aside, the United States regarded the shah's regime as a kind of dam that would keep the communists from taking over the country.

Necessary price

Israel's emissaries in Iran saw the political graft, the persecution and the torture, but they went along with the theory that it was part of the price one had to pay for modernizing and westernizing a "primitive" country. Furthermore, some of them returned to Iran as private individuals and advanced their own interests, becoming wealthy, politically powerful and well-known in Israeli circles, mainly as a result of arms deals. Emissaries of the Mossad and other military personnel became "academic experts" and commentators on Iranian affairs.

It seems to me that this is one of the sources of the "big devil" and "little devil" rhetoric in Iran today - more so than concern for the fate of the Palestinians, although early on, Yasser Arafat tried to drum up support for the Palestinian cause in revolutionary Iran, and Iranian rebels were trained by Palestinians in Lebanon until the civil war broke out in 1975, leaving Shiites and Palestinians on opposite sides of the fence.

In its early stages, the revolution in Iran was not led solely by Ayatollah Khomeini and his ilk. Secular intellectuals were also involved in stirring up revolutionary fervor and laying down the ideological infrastructure. One of them was Dr. Ali Shariati, who did his doctorate at the Sorbonne in the 1960s. Sharyati studied the Algerian revolution and translated "The Wretched of the Earth" of Frantz Fanon, required reading for young rebels, into Persian.

When Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, it appeared to be internally divided and weakened by revolution and global isolation. But it responded by rallying around its religious leadership and recruiting masses of young people prepared to die in its defense. In effect, it was a war for control over the Persian Gulf and its oil reserves. The culture of death and martyrdom reached a peak during the eight years of fighting. The bloodshed was horrifying, yet Iran safeguarded its borders and switched to counterattack, not least thanks to the arms supplied by Israel and the United States (the Iran-Contra affair is worth mentioning in this context - a deal in which money from arms sales was rerouted to the right-wing underground in Nicaragua) and the military training provided before the revolution.

Everyone wanted the two countries to pulverize one another, and indeed, about 450,000 soldiers were killed on each side. Ram emphasizes two issues: One is that to the West, the cult of death is a form of lunacy, whereas "defending the homeland" is self-evident and mandatory; and secondly, that in recruiting soldiers for this war, Iran employed the same mix of religion and nationalism that Israelis know so well, but without it being played up in the media, either in Israel or the West.

Haggai Ram has a keen understanding of post-revolutionary Iran, but he is very much aware that one despotic regime has replaced another, as in most of the revolutions in European history. Ram's book is neither linear nor chronological, in contrast to this review, which tries to make things easier for the reader. It contains many complex, multi-level facts and observations that one can either agree with or not. Certainly, it is a challenging book - one that can diffuse some of the Iranophobia that has gripped us of late and take us beyond the nonsense spouted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mainly to aggrandize Iran in its own eyes and portray it as a global power.

Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.