James Buchan welcomes two attempts to pin down Iran’s past and present
November 21, 2009
Iran has in abundance first desert and then history. Its written annals go back nearly 3,000 years, while a sort of parallel history, collected by Ferdowsi in the magnificent national epic known as the Shahnameh or Book of Kings in the 11th century AD, recedes into an unimaginable antiquity. A country that has been smashed over and again by invasion and now by religious revival, Iran yet survives pretty much in the territories enumerated by Darius the Great in the rock inscriptions at Bisitun.
What thread runs through this heap of ruins and centuries? The British thought it had all to do with revenue, because revenue is what principally interests an imperial people. According to the last of the great British Persianists, the late Professor Ann Lambton, subsistence agriculture in an arid land could only support so much of a government and military apparatus without a resort to conquest. The sudden and urgent requirement for a modern court, army and bureaucracy in the 19th century strained the revenue system till it broke, and brought in train the constitutional revolution of 1906, the oil concession and, by extension, the modernising autocracy of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-79) and the 1979 revolution.
For the Pahlavi shahs, Reza and Muhammad Reza, Iranian history was mostly Herodotus seen through the lens of European, and especially German, racial nationalism. Islam was a sort of foreign implant. For the Islamic republic, Iranian history is, on the contrary, the gradual assumption by a hereditary clergy of the prerogatives (leading prayer, holy war, government) of the Hidden Imam, the 12th descendant of the Prophet through his daughter Fatemeh. Not assumption, but usurpation, say the quietists. And so on, ad infinitum.