Iran: A Modern History
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This event took place on Thursday, January 25, 2018
JOANNE MYERS: We are delighted to welcome Professor Abbas Amanat to this Public Affairs breakfast program. Professor Amanat is known as a giant among Iranian scholars, not only for his depth of knowledge, but for the contagious excitement he brings to this subject.
Today he will be discussing his magnum opus entitled Iran: A Modern History. In it he covers a complex period of Iranian history, from 1500 through 2009. This is an era which includes five dynastic changes, at least three revolutions, three civil wars, four episodes of foreign occupation, and the inception of a modern theocratic state government.
If there is one thing we should know by now, it is how little we actually know about one of the oldest continuing civilizations. In fact, it is arguable that there are few countries in the world that are more misrepresented in Western eyes than Iran. By exploring its history through its geography and economy, ideology and religion, cultural identity and heritage, dynastic changes, revolutions, and foreign influences, Professor Amanat provides a context that will help us to demystify present-day Iran, one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East.
His narrative offers a revealing look at how events, people, and institutions are shaped by currents that sometimes reach back hundreds of years. In the course of reading this magisterial work, our speaker tells us that given that this country was overrun constantly and threatened by powerful neighboring forces from the Arabs to the Russians to the British, it is a wonder that this Persian Empire resisted being subsumed by these invading forces. Instead, in a testament to its strength, Iran retained its language, culture, and Shia religion.
There are very few books that you will find to be more relevant for us today, for not only the dubious purpose of "knowing your enemy," but even more crucially for understanding who exactly this so-called "enemy" is. Please join me in welcoming our guest, a scholar who, in his study of the past, gives the present meaning. Thank you, Professor Amanat, for joining us today.
ABBAS AMANAT: Thank you so much. Let me start first by thanking the Carnegie Council and also particularly Ms. Joanne Myers for the occasion to talk about the subject of today, which is my book. Thank you very much for your very generous introduction. I hope I can live up to all the expectations for what has just been said.
Also, you made my job a little bit easier because you gave the audience a background about what the talk and the subject of this book is about. It is early in the morning, and I have to warm up a little bit.
Naturally, I have to start with the first question: why I have written this book. There are plenty of books on modern Iran. There are a lot of studies on the subject. Why was there a need for a book of that size? I emphasize that.
In order to answer that, there are many ways. One way is that historians teach us that in order to keep the attention of our students we sometimes start our courses, on whatever the topic is, in this case perhaps modern Iran, in reverse. Since many of the students are much more aware and interested in contemporary issues rather than the 16th century history of a nation thousands of miles away from their land of which they only have heard the name, and perhaps that was partly a persuasion, a kind of inspiration for me to produce this book.
One question that as a matter of fact my publisher first posed to me and asked me, "Write a book of 300 pages about why, at the end of the 20th century after seven decades or more of intense secularization, mostly sponsored by the state, there was what you can refer to as a 'theocratic' revolution, an Islamic revolution and a theocratic republic afterward?"
Indeed this is an important question given the fact that the repercussions of what happened in Iran in 1979, as many of you probably are already aware, is extensive and profound in the sense that this triggered the whole process in the Islamic word that unfortunately we see some very negative sides of it around us, this kind of what is referred to as "political Islam" in a kind of very polite language, but "radical" Islam, "extreme" Islam in some of the language of some of the advocates of what we see around us these days as Islamofascism and all that. In a sense, we cannot hold Iran responsible for it, but this was the first important instance in the history of the Middle East or the history of the Islamic world, as a matter of fact, whereby you could see that this revolution brought about a very substantial rethinking about a political process, about relations with the outside world, particularly with superpowers, and most significantly with the United States.
That being said, the roots of a process that seems to us rather sudden and unexpected was much deeper, at least historians would always like to tell you that that in order to understand the present you have to always look back. Most people who write about modern Iran usually tend to write from the turn of the 20th century with what is referred to as the "constitutional revolution" in Iran in 1905-1906, which was a very important event in the history of the country, perhaps the first popular revolution in the Middle East with the aim of creating a secular, liberal constitutional democratic regime.
I think to some extent it succeeded in its task and was very much the product of what you may call a "trajectory of modernity," partly what you may refer to as "domestic indigenous" form of modernity, part of it as a result of what has been adopted and incorporated from liberal ideas of Enlightenment in Europe and the United States at that time. As a matter of fact, there was awareness at the time of the American Revolution, so you see in the press of the time some reference to these events.
Now the question is, what happened that this process of democratization, creation of a parliament, division of powers, production of a very progressive at the time constitution, was the foundation for what Iran could have been for a period of time? However, this did not happen, part of it due to the fact that the revolution happened right at the time when the geostrategic situation in the region at the outset of the First World War made Iran, as it has always been since the 16th century, in the midst of world politics, in this case the imperial European politics between Russia and Britain.
Russia and Britain, since the early 19th century, were the two rivals in the North and South of Iran. And part of the fact that Iran managed to play in a very ingenious way a politics to be able to survive between these two powers was that they were rivals, so they could put one against the other, and that is the story of most of the history of Iran in the course of the 19th century and the early 20th century.
What happened at the turn of the 20th century is that these two powers, because of the rise of imperial Germany, for the first time felt that they had to come to terms between themselves, and Iran was one of those countries in the region that had to be in a sense not the victim but the country that has to be dealt with in these new geopolitical circumstances. The two zones of influence that emerged in effect partitioned Iran in practice, although the sovereignty of the country was maintained. All assurances were given, but nevertheless in practice that is what happened.
Now even that probably could have been acceptable if it was not because of the fact that then the First World War in all the places—not in Europe only; not in the Eastern Front, Russia and the Ottoman Empire . . . but it was Iran which in a sense was an unwilling and unwanted part of this world upheaval, as a result of which Iran was occupied by the Russians in the North—the whole of Northern Iran was occupied by Russian forces—and in the South by the British, who were very worried about the Persian Gulf and soon after the emergence of the exploration of oil in Iran.
As some of you may know, Iran is the first country in the Middle East in which the oil resources were explored by the British. It became very important because around 1913 and 1914, the British government, particularly Churchill, who was at the time the first lord of the admiralty, purchased the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) and turned the British Navy from coal to oil. It became a strategic commodity for the British and therefore extremely important in terms of preservation of the oil resources in the South.
This led to the period of the war up to 1918 where Iran suffered a great deal, not only because the occupying troops needed all kinds of provisions and interruption in the economy of the country, but also the entire political system really was jeopardized as a result of the two European powers. Of course, in addition to that, the intrigue from imperial Germany and in addition to that the Ottoman forces in Western Iran—so this was a great moment of turmoil that in effect jeopardized the entire constitutional experience.
Out of this what eventually became the Pahlavi dynasty emerged. A capable, rather ruthless officer with the name of Reza Khan, who later became Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, in 1921 staged a bloodless coup, took over the capital, and eventually in 1925 established a new dynasty in Iran.
What was important here, as a result of the experience, political democratization and political reform went on the backburner, the backstage. What was important was security. What was important was preservation of the country, return of sovereignty to Iran, and implementation of reforms, of which centralization was the most important in the country.
To a country that traditionally for 400 years or so had a tradition of what we call kind of a federal system—the official name of Iran was the "Guarded Domains of Iran," meaning it was not only one country or one domain, but there was a whole constellation of provinces somewhat maintained by this very delicate relationship between the center and periphery. That disappeared as this strong state emerged in the years post-First World War.
Of course, another important event—most of the Western world looks at the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as a rather threatening event. As far as the Iranians were concerned, that was a great event. It was a great blessing because it actually removed the tsarist threat, at least temporarily—for another 10 to 12 years it was out of the picture. It gave the British much more presence, as a matter of fact.
Nevertheless the emergence of this new dynasty, its attempt to try to centralize, its attempt to try to reform, its attempt to try to actually materialize, to fulfill all the promises of the constitutional revolution in terms of a modern new education, new judiciary system, telecommunications, more centralization, unified army, all of this happened in a short period of time, perhaps two decades, from 1921 to 1941.
In the middle of the Second World War, Iran again was the subject of occupation by the British, by the Soviets, and to some extent by the United States, who provided supplies for these two powers in order to fight in the Russian Front against Nazi Germany.
In these two decades several important things happened which are actually crucial for what we see now around us. For one thing, for close to 500 years, 400-odd years from the rise of the Safavid Empire in 1501, which is the beginning of the departure point of my book, there was an attempt by the state to patronize and create a certain alliance with the religious establishment.
The concept of religious establishment and the state were seen as the two pillars of stability, and that is a very old idea, actually. It goes back to pre-Islamic Iran. It goes back to the Sasanian era, where we see in many of these books, counselors to the kings, the first thing that they point out is that these two institutions have to support one another.
What happens in this period of the Pahlavi era, the state no longer is in need of the religious establishment, first of all because of a relatively small but still important oil resource. The revenue from the oil resources from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company is only 16 percent. Actually that was sometimes not fully paid to the Iranian government, but whatever it was, it was enough to allow the centralizing state of the Pahlavi era to create its own unified army, to try to implement some of its reforms, and gradually take away from the religious establishment some of its very important functions.
One was basically that there was no other form of education as it was only the education in the colleges, the schools, the madrasas. It is pretty much like the European system prior to the 18th century.
It took away from it most significantly the judicial function. Since the religious establishment traditionally was responsible, there was a kind of de facto division of labor between the state and the judicial authority of the religious establishment. They had their own courts. Sharia was the law of the land in a kind of—it was never really codified into a system of law.
Now with the emergence of a modern judiciary, new codified law, a legal system which is very much based on the French model, there is no more need for these very learned, turbaned legal jurists that people did not see again until the 1979 revolution. But they were there. They were isolated. They were sent back to the madrasas. Their religious endowments, which was a major source of their income, was taken away by the government in order to further institutionalize and put into a regulated system. So financially they were in trouble, too.
Indeed that kind of elite of the religious establishment that survived for a very long time, for several centuries, lost their place in the society. Many of their children basically changed their religious garb and became secular, became judges in the new judicial system established by the government, became university professors, became engineers and doctors and professionals like the whole middle class that emerged in this period. But there was still a residue that survived in the madrasas.
Beyond that, the state also competed with the religious establishment by creating all kinds of new spaces of leisure. There were cinemas, there were theaters, there were means that people could enjoy themselves rather than going to the mosques and listening to the preachers, and that also took away from the religious establishment another very important function of connecting to the people that they had maintained for a very long time.
All of these isolations in terms of financial, judicial, educational, and contact with the populace, turned the nature of this institution very much into a radical force in a sense that was against the state. That happened for the first time.
Qom, which was the center for the religious establishment in Iran, in addition to Najaf in Southern Iraq, gradually became a kind of repository of all kinds of radicalism that was not necessarily even generated from the religious establishment but was generated from actually many of the theologies at the time that were critical of the government, particularly from the left, from the Tudeh Party of Iran, the Communist Party of Iran, from many of the other leftist intellectuals who criticized the Pahlavi regime for its wholehearted Westernization. And this theme, this discourse of questioning Westernization and returning to the authentic value—whatever it was—of our own culture, of Islam as being at the very center of it, became part of the rhetoric of the religious establishment.
Perhaps Ayatollah Khomeini is the best example of that shift that occurred in the period between 1900, from the beginning of the constitutional revolution, up to 1979. He was born in 1902. He witnessed all of the forced secularization process under the Reza Shah era, and it is not surprising that he was its greatest villain. He never referred to him as the shah; it was Reza Khan always, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty.
In a sense, the whole discourse of anti-Westernism was incorporated into the rhetoric of the religious establishment, particularly the younger generation, most of whom are nowadays in power. These are coming from a very different background. Most of them are not from an urban background but from the smaller villages. Their social class was not part of the middle class but from mostly a peasant background or from the lower rank, lower classes in the cities, lower middle class, working class background, and therefore they were not as much invested in the idea of collaboration with the state and support for the state, but rather the opposite of it, that it was more in kind of an opposition to the state.
But of course the religious establishment—and that is the last point I would like to make—it is rather irrational to think that they could stage a revolution. Something else must have happened that helped them in order to trigger and mobilize the population in their own support. These millions of people in 1979 who came into the streets, these huge multitudes of people, were not coming from the madrasas. They were not even very profound Shiites, devout Shiites, believers, but basically they were the ordinary people in the cities, particularly from the lower middle classes, from the working classes.
What happened is that—I will try to make it very short—in the 1960s as part of the process of modernization and before under the Pahlavi, this time under the shah, the son of Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah, the last of the shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty, he staged in several phases a very extensive land reform throughout the country, which on the surface was perfectly justified and actually very much praised at the time by the foreign press, by the foreign representatives in Iran, by the Iranian people as well, as a result of which we see that that was the backbone of the Pahlavi regime, this old landed elite. This was the old elite that had a lot of land and big estates who gradually lost much of their estates. So they no longer served as a kind of support for the Pahlavi regime.
The second was much more significant, the fact that due to the change in the countryside, the growth of the population, and because of all-new medical health and access to various means of a better lifestyle, the population in the countryside grew. Iran's economy, particularly the agrarian economy in the countryside, could not maintain a huge population in the villages, so there is a huge surplus population, and that is nothing unusual. It happened during industrialization in Europe. It happened in the United States, as we see around us. So it happened the same way.
The huge population came to the cities. This is a kind of demographic revolution that happens from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The population of Iran grew substantially in this period. I have some figures actually. You can see in the 1960s and 1970s the population increases from around 20 million in 1956 to 35 million in 1975 or thereabouts, and then grew to what it is today, 83 million. So it is a very substantial growth of population.
This population in the cities needed jobs, needed housing, needed education, and in a short period of time, a matter of a decade or so, it was impossible for any efficient state, let alone for Pahlavi's state that had its own problems, to try to provide all of these amenities and resources for this new huge population that comes to the city.
Therefore there was a built-in dissatisfaction with the state. Why? Because there were no other civil institutions that mediated between the general public and the state. The state was held responsible for everything. We don't have schools; you are responsible. We don't have jobs; the state is responsible. So in that regard, the kind of dissent against the state became much more significant because of the growth of the population. So now there is a rhetoric; there is a religious establishment.
One more factor, and that is the final point I would like to make, is that one of the huge mistakes of the Pahlavi era was the fact that it never really, particularly under the shah after 1953, the famous period of national movement and the coup of 1953, never allowed the creation of political parties that would have opened up the political space, did not allow freedom of the press, did not allow all the means of political parties that would allow more of a mediator, center power instead of this radicalization. The mosques therefore became—the magisters and the mosques and the village establishment—the only conduit for expressing any kind of discontent with the state. And the religious establishment, the mullahs, as you call them, took great advantage of that with a remarkable, actually one might say, sense of opportunism to understand what are the problems in the country.
If you would have gone in the late 1970s to a mosque in the neighborhood of Tehran or big provincial centers, you would see that many of this younger generation of the preachers are capable of talking the language of the people, that the state could never really communicate on that level. That provided in a sense—the lack of political alternative—this massive demographic change that occurred in Iran, and that isolation and shift from support for the state to a radicalization of the religious establishment, those three major factors.
There is much more in my book if you care to read those chapters. In a sense, my book as you can see the four parts, perhaps the greater part of it is actually the history of the 20th century from the constitutional revolution all the way to the Islamic Republic and afterward.
I leave any points or questions for what happened after the revolution to the Q&A.
JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for taking us up to 1979. There is a lot more to go. I would like to just start by asking you, how do you see the protests of today playing out in the next 20 years or so?
ABBAS AMANAT: Sure. Very important question. Since 1979-1980, it is 38 years after the revolution, and despite all the indoctrination, despite all the propaganda, despite all the attempts to further Islamicize the Iranian society, they seem to have failed. This regime has not been able to try to fully—particularly the younger generations of Iranians, who have their own demands, who have their own perspective of the world, and if you scratch the surface, there is an enormous amount of opposition to the state, as some of the slogans in the past months' unrest clearly show.
The problem is, and that is perhaps partly an answer to your point, that the Islamic Republic took care of eliminating any alternative source of opposition to the state, either domestically or internationally. There is nothing that can replace it. Further than that, perhaps it is rather unwise to think that there should be another revolution, or this whole talk about regime change and all of that that we hear from very radical circles in this country. It seems to me the only option available is a kind of evolutionary process that would come about gradually within the system itself and partly by generational change.
Now we see a new generation is gradually emerging, and their demands are different. They want greater liberalization. They want less interference in the economic market by the state. They are against the enormous amount of corruption, monopoly of power, monopoly of the economy by the Revolutionary Guard and so on. Even perhaps within the Revolutionary Guard there is a change.
So we have to wait and see how this process is going to take care of itself. I doubt that there is any kind of attempt—well, support for protest is one thing, support for discontent is one thing, but any interference is another. As indeed the example of Iraq very clearly showed, that may end up in a disaster, and Iran is a very different country from Iraq. It is entirely a different country from virtually all of its neighbors. This is not exceptionalism or a sense of nationalist sentiment on my side, but it is a country that, because of its long history, there is a certain homogenization is in this country that is not easy to deal with in terms of a military or any kind of an attempt of that nature.
If there would be any outside interference, you would be surprised to see how much of a sense of unification of the country under the Islamic Republic, more an attempt to try to create a united front against the outsiders. So I would say that this is something that should happen over a course of time.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Thank you so much for giving us all this background which helps us to understand what is going on now. But there are several factors that of course you did not have a chance to address, and one of them is the economy, because we have been reading, for example, Tom Friedman yesterday in the Times, about the lack of water and that this is very important, this latest uprising from the rural areas where people cannot farm.
Also, the corruption of the religious regime, not only enriching themselves but also using Iranian money, Persian money, to interfere in the politics of the whole region and not spending it on the indigenous economy. How do you deal with this?
ABBAS AMANAT: Thank you so much for both points. The first one is absolutely crucial in terms of what is happening in the whole of that region. If some of you are interested, they brought out a special issue of The Journal of Iranian Studies, which is the organ of the field of Iranian studies, on the question of the environment in Iran, two articles on the issues of scarcity of water. That is going to play an enormous part in what is going to happen in the next decade or so, not only in Iran but perhaps the whole of that area. There are numerous studies, one by NASA, that actually identifies one of the core problems of the scarcity of water around the globe is in this region.
With the growth of the population that we see and the amount of consumption of water, particularly for agriculture, Iranian agriculture, although there are attempts to try to modernize it, it still wastes a lot of water. Money, too. Virtually nobody knows if there is an answer for it, except for what you have just pointed out, this symptomatic unrest in the smaller cities.
Although one should bear in mind that since the Revolution of 1979 the rural population of Iran actually decreased substantially, as I pointed out. Perhaps now Iran is around 85 percent urban and only 15 to 20 percent rural. Of course, part of the reason is that many of the villages were kind of glorified and were given the name of the city or town, and therefore this has some effect on the demographics, but you see a huge amount of population is no longer engaged in agriculture.
Nevertheless, it has an effect on their lives, if not only in terms of the agricultural supplies and the foodstuffs that would feed the country, but also the fact that there is this huge population in the smaller cities who are unemployed. Unemployment now from big cities goes to the smaller towns, so it has become a phenomenon throughout the country.
In terms of Iran's international or regional ambitions, there are two sides of it. Iranians ever since the shah's time, as a matter of fact ever since the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty and going back to the 16th century, ever since the Safavid era, had certain ambitions for control of some of the countries, some of the regions around it, most significantly Southern Iraq because of the similar shared faith. There were at least three attempts, two of them successful, in the 16th and 17th centuries to basically capture Iraq, capture Baghdad as the capital. That was under Iranian control.
Also, this kind of a sense of symbiosis with the people of Southern Iraq is a fact that cannot be—no matter how much the American administrations would like to reverse that, it seems to me something that is built into the geopolitics of the region.
But of course it goes beyond that. There is a misplaced sense of expansionism that Iran these days demonstrates with intervention in Syria, of course with Hezbollah in Lebanon, partly probably also responsible for some support for the Palestinians or certain sectors of the Palestinian resistance. Part of it is purely ideological, this sense of a mission that they have to support all the Shia entities around the world, or perhaps in the case of the Palestinians, not even Shiite. An enormous amount of wealth has been devoted to that.
Part of the discontent, as it became very apparent in many of the slogans that people were shouting—"No Syria," "No Lebanon," "Spend the money on us"—is part of the reflection of this disinterest toward the misplaced expansionism of the Iranian government. In the Persian Gulf, it is different, because the Persian Gulf, Iranians always considered as an area of their influence and presence, and probably it is going to remain as such.
I am not quite sure what will be the future as far as Iran's presence in Syria. Perhaps Lebanon with Hezbollah is going to continue because they are afraid of the Israelis, and they would see this as a counterforce in a sense that they would subsidize and support as the way of trying to have some kind of a presence in the Levant, in the region, in Lebanon.
Also, ever since the 16th century, Iranians were cut off from the Mediterranean because of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and that also had some kind of an aspiration to get access through Syria in this case and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. But I think these are not going to last for long, in my opinion, because one of the reforms that may come up is just abandoning that kind of idea.
This is partly the Revolutionary Guard that is behind this project, but I doubt that it is going to last long, particularly with the amount of discontent, and I am pretty sure the regime, at least for a time period, is going to slow down on its support for its presence in Syria and Lebanon and try to focus more after this unrest, or at least that is my wishful thinking.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
You passed over without much comment the events of 1953 and the Mosaddeq popular government which was—at least it is widely believed here—deposed, or the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assisted in deposing it. Tell me what kind of an opportunity may have been missed then and how things might have been different and any other thoughts you might have.
ABBAS AMANAT: Thank you so much. There is a whole chapter of about 60 pages on that subject that I would invite you to read. But I will give you an answer here.
Perhaps the period from 1942, the end of the Reza Shah era, to 1953, the whole decade, was the last chance that Iran had to exercise a very, as I call it, a "chaotic democracy." It was a chaotic democracy. This is the title of the chapter. Mosaddeq as a very capable politician, parliamentarian perhaps, not a very good prime minister, was a representative of that kind of period of liberalization in Iran after Reza Shah.
Yes, the fact that the British and the Americans brought about an end to that episode is a tragic moment not so much because of the downfall of Mosaddeq, which would have happened [anyway], I argue in that chapter. Sooner or later it would have happened because of the domestic pressures on it. But for its consequences, the fact that the fall of Mosaddeq put an end to this process of democratization and gave the shah much greater autocratic control over the country with the support of the Americans—and the British, of course, but the Americans substantially.
In a sense it is that consequence which is even more important than 1953, this whole two-and-a-half decades afterward that we see the United States almost unconditionally supports the shah, never pays any attention to the forces of the opposition, never criticizes, except for a few, the shah's regime for lack of opening of the political space. In every respect, as I am sure many of you remember those days, newspapers and Mr. Kissinger going to Iran and praising the shah all the time.
So this was part of the problem, the sense that you see this radicalization and villainization of the United States as being the "Great Satan," "Death to America" as being part of the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic, all of this in a sense is a reflection of events in the post-1953 period. Also because of the fact that it has some kind of a symbolic register in the minds of many Iranians, particularly intellectuals, the sense of resentment that a force from the outside came and interfered with the process of whatever it was. The Communist Party was very strong, like everywhere else in the world, but nevertheless there were nationalist forces, there were liberal forces, and perhaps the politics that would have come out of 1953 if there was not interference from the outside is that it would not allow the Pahlavi regime to become so autocratic and powerful as it turned out to be.
QUESTION: Good morning. Peter Russell.
Could you speak a little bit about the governing institutions now, how they have evolved? If change evolves as you suggest, what role do you see for the Majlis, the parliament? How do you think they will handle the succession process when Khamenei goes?
ABBAS AMANAT: It goes a little bit beyond the task of a historian, but I will do my best here.
For one thing, as I pointed out in my book, the Islamic Republic is really remarkable in the sense that it managed to institutionalize in a very short period of time. In a year, it created its own parliament, it wrote its own constitution, several elections took place, but some substantial problems remain as before, as in the pre-revolutionary times.
One of them that we witness around us today is this kind of contention that you see between the supreme leader and the president. In the older times, it was between the prime ministers and the shahs; Mosaddeq and Shah Reza were a very good example of that. You go back in history, there are numerous examples that I show that this kind of a tension between the bureaucracy of the state or the executive power of the state and the supreme authority of the shah or in this case the supreme leader remains a problem.
Just look at all the presidents of the Islamic Republic, prime ministers and presidents of the Islamic Republic that were deposed and disgraced, from Bazargan to Banisadr to Khatami, even to Ahmadinejad, and now probably with Rouhani. So this tension is there, and if it's not resolved, it is going to create more problems.
My sense is that probably now with this new generation that is emerging you see that there is not so much of a desire to create an autocratic guardian jurist that Khomeini has envisioned—part of the doctrine incorporated into the constitution of the Islamic Republic. My sense is that what is going to happen—it may seem rather pessimistic—is that it is going to be a weaker supreme leader after this one, and it is going to be perhaps the Revolutionary Guard having even a greater say in the affairs of the country. That is the negative side of it.
But I think the Revolutionary Guard is also evolving. They are perhaps recognizing that they are the guarantors of Iran as a stable country, and if you do not give the Islamic Republic any credit, we should give it this one, and that is that they maintain the stability of Iran. Iran, contrary to much of the region around it, with the exception of Turkey perhaps, is the most stable in terms of its domestic life. We can travel; we can go everywhere. It is a police state, no doubt. There is a lot of surveillance. There are a lot of arrests, well, not so much. Actually the Islamic Republic would like to basically expel much of its opposition to the outside rather than keep them inside.
Nevertheless, it is a country that is not as it appears on the surface. It is not a country like the Soviet Union. It is not Eastern Europe as a Soviet satellite. It is not even China. If you look at the press of today's Iran, you would see that there is a fair range of criticisms of institutions of the state being expressed, which is also remarkable, and I think it is part of that change that is going to come about.
So I think in the long run, if one wants to look at Iran optimistically, it is moving toward a greater liberalization within its own means. I do not think it is going to be an entire shift toward a secular regime the way that we know it. But there is going to be a much more open environment.
If you take what happens among the intelligentsia in Iran, particularly in Tehran, you see the enthusiasm for engaging the outside world is enormous. They read. It publishes more than any other country in terms of the titles in the region, I think all the way from Pakistan to Morocco, with the exception of Turkey perhaps. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it publishes more titles than any of these countries. They are interested. There are more translations into Persian from European literature and American literature, political thought, philosophy. Philosophy is very popular.
You see a lot of that going on, and that is a symptom that this society is not closing down, but it wants to open up to the outside world. So I think it has some effect in the long run. I cannot really go anything beyond that. The Revolutionary Guard is going to remain powerful, and it is going to be a decisive force in the future of Iran.
QUESTION: Ali Wambold.
There has not been a long history of enmity between Iran and the Jewish people. Can you talk about whether it is just pure propaganda to kind of rally the troops or whether there is anything substantial there, because the Palestinians are Sunnis anyway?
ABBAS AMANAT: Yes. First of all, we should differentiate between the Jewish population inside Iran, which has now diminished in number substantially, and the Islamic Republic's anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli posture. These are two different things.
Iran historically speaking has a kind of checkered record as far as the Jewish community is concerned. It was not always very kind to them. There were ghettos, no doubt. There was discrimination against the Jewish population in the past.
Under Pahlavi that was largely removed, and the Jews in Iran managed to actually do quite well. It was one of the very few countries that did not send as many immigrants to Israel. The Jewish population stayed in Iran because economically they were in a better position, and professionally they were in a better position.
Nowadays, whatever has survived, this 20,000—it used to be a much larger population and much more widely spread around the country—is mostly in Tehran. Many of the major centers of Jewish population in the smaller cities—some of the oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East, or in the world, let's say, are in Iran, going back to the fifth century BC. They somewhat are untouched. The government particularly makes a point that we are not anti-Jewish.
But as far as their position vis-à-vis Israel is concerned, it is very hostile. I do not think that the Israeli government is helping it in any way because it gives them all the supply of propaganda that they need. They put all of this rhetoric of pro-Palestinian, support for Palestine, very much in the forefront.
If you travel across the Middle East or the Muslim world for that matter—you go to Kashmir, of all the places that I have been—there is an enormous amount of support for Iran because they would see it as a representative of all the countries in the region that actually supports the Palestinians. The Arab world does nothing, and the Palestinians are in this dismal position. The occupation continues, and Iran is the only country that at least has a voice in support of the Palestinians. So that is going to remain part of the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic unless there is a change in the region.
But if you talk to ordinary people as I did some years back, they will say: "Okay, Israel is a very successful country. Why shouldn't we like Israel? We want to be a country like Israel. We want to industrialize. We want to develop. We want to be in the forefront," and Iranians do not see themselves—there is unfortunately an enormous amount of hostility and negative attitude toward the Arab world in today's Iran.
In a sense, the number one "other" is not the United States; it is not even Israel. It is the Arab world, and particularly with what is happening with Saudi Arabia and this kind of a polarization of the Shia/Sunni, that becomes even stronger, becomes even more powerful as we see.
Iranians are now going back to the ancient memories: "Our civilization has been destroyed by the Arabs. We had our own culture. We had our own civilization. We were a very great power," and glamorize that past. But it is the nature of nationalism that you always actually go back to the distant past and consider it as a great moment that has been lost.
So in that regard, still I think there is a very curious contrast that we see in this kind of opposition to Israel and occupation of the Palestinian lands, and yet at the same time this sense of a dislike particularly for the Iranian funds and Iranian resources going to Syria to fight there and to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not popular among the Iranian people at all.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you so much for touching on all the rich history and also the contradictions. To know more, I can only suggest that you buy this wonderful book, and it really is wonderful, 20 years in the making. So thank you very much.