The role of the media and think tanks to disinform
The Persian puzzle, or the CIA's?
Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, director of the US National Security Council and tout for the invasion of Iraq, now with a Washington "liberal" think tank, turns up regularly as an "expert" on CNN. Now his "new" book advocates demonization and "regime change" for Iran, writes KAVEH L AFRASIABI* -- a dangerous policy being adopted by the Paul Martin Liberals.
The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America
By Kenneth Pollack
Random House, 229 pages, $26.95
TEHRAN, IRAN -- THE PERSIAN PUZZLE is the name of a new book by Kenneth M Pollack, author of The Gathering Storm: The Case for Invasion of Iraq, widely regarded as a main justification for Iraq's illegal invasion last year. Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst now at the Brookings Institution, seeks to explore the roots of problems between Iran and the United States over the past quarter-century. In so doing, however, Pollack unfortunately proves incapable of breaking free from a CIA school of thought that, in addition to denigrating Iran's national character, consistently predicts the imminent demise of the Islamic regime in Iran.
Concerning the former, much like Graham Fuller, another former CIA analyst and author of The Center of Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran (Westview Press, 1991), Pollack indulges in criticizing Iranian emotionalism, xenophobia, exaggerated "self-importance", "considerable ignorance of many of its policymakers", etc, thus making a mockery of objective analysis bereft of such abstract generalization smacking of what the late Edward Said labeled "Orientalism".
According to Pollack, the "clock is ticking" for regime change in Iran, reminding us of the rosy predictions of another CIA analyst, Raul Grecht, who in the early and mid-1990s wrote articles, for instance in the influential Foreign Affairs, under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, about the "meltdown" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, so imminent that Grecht advised the US government against even bothering to locate any moderates in the Iranian system in order to enter into dialogue with them.
A decade or so later, it is of course a legitimate question to ask what is behind this persistent CIA knack for vilifying Iranian national character and taking the risk of going on record with respect to regime change, even though there are few, if any, visible signs of regime change in today's Iran. Is it because of an undeclared, subliminal CIA grudge harking back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that caught the US government totally by surprise, notwithstanding the complaint of then US president Jimmy Carter that a few months prior to the revolution he was never told by the agency that Iran was in a pre-revolutionary stage? Or is it because the CIA has received so much flak recently over what Pollack in his new book refers to as "our 25-year experience misstating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction" that the likes of Pollack want to redeem the agency in the guise of former CIA analysts?
Clearly, even with their high-tech pool of information, no present or former CIA analyst, or for that matter anyone else, is capable of historical clairvoyance with respect to a future regime change in Iran. Certainly, one may cite the indicators of regime instability and its opposite for a "scientific" study of political trends inside Iran enhancing the potential for political transformation, but to leapfrog from such limited studies to the categorical, albeit metaphoric, conclusion that the "clock is ticking" - in other words, it is simply a matter of time - is to substitute teleology for empirical research.
Related, Pollack presents a skewed analysis of post-revolutionary state-building in Iran and simultaneously refers to the present regime as the "worst sponsor of terrorism" and also as an increasingly moderate regime that "has no history of reckless behavior". At times, Pollack appears undecided as to where the chips are falling regarding the evolution of the Iranian system, contradicting himself particularly when discussing the Iranian nuclear issue.
On the one hand, Pollack claims that Iran's possession of nuclear bombs will stimulate a back-to-the-past policy of "aggressive" foreign policy by Tehran aimed at undermining its neighbors, using past tense, and on the other, accusing Tehran of precisely such "aggressive" actions as terrorism and subversion, using present tense. As a result, the book leaves a confusing impression of the post-ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini political system in Iran, partly due to Pollack's failure to touch on important facets of Iran's foreign policy, such as Iran's role in regional conflict management.
A major flaw of the book is that it claims that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) permits nuclear weaponization through "transparency", whereby all the fissile stages, save "loading the material" in a bomb, can be done under the watchful eyes of the NPT. This is, without doubt, a caricature of the NPT and its safeguard mechanisms, which Pollack may have been cognizant of had he devoted minimal attention to the intrusive Additional Protocol of the NPT, signed by Iran last December.
The biggest flaw of the book, however, is that it adds precious little to our knowledge of the subject matter. A fairly average summarizer of pre-existing approaches (eg, the grand bargain approach, which Pollack endorses by nuancing it), the book reads like a polished doctoral dissertation, and a mediocre one at that, one that insists Iran is to blame for most, if not all, of the problems in the current US-Iran quagmire, in part by psychologizing deep-seated, even structural conflict, and insisting that if only the Iranians could set aside their "emotionalism", then they could see the light of rapprochement with the US.
In an ideal world, authors explicitly espousing war and armed conflict would be chastised for contributing to "hate literature", and the likes of Pollack would at least not be treated as media celebrities as they are in the US today. But sadly we live in a unipolar Orwellian order where truth is a casualty of ideological warfare, espoused under the veneer of "clashing civilizations", and certainly ill-equipped to deconstruct the discourse of warmongers who use the considerable resources at their disposal to lay the groundwork of public diplomacy for America's next military gambit.
The Persian Puzzle is, in conclusion, highly recommended as a useful reading for the students of the CIA and the US government to decipher the riddle of a whole array of (former) CIA analysts sold to the historical determinism of regime change in Iran, as part and parcel of its perpetual demonization reaching its apex in George W Bush's "axis of evil".
*Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.
Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
3 December 2004
Excerpt from The Persian Puzzle
From Persepolis to the Pahlavis To understand the labyrinth of U.S.-Iranian relations, there are at least three things that you need to know about the seven millennia of Iranian history before the twentieth century. The first is that the land that is today Iran is the heir to a long line of remarkable predecessors. In its day, the Persian Empire was a superpower like nothing the world had ever seen-with a monotheistic religion, a vast army, a rich civilization, a new and remarkably efficient method of administration, and territory stretching from Egypt to Central Asia. All Iranians know that history well, and it is a source of enormous pride to them. It has given them a widely remarked sense of superiority over all of their neighbors, and, ironically, while Tehran now refers to the United States by the moniker "Global Arrogance," within the Middle East a stereotypical complaint against Iranians is their own arrogant treatment of others.1
The second important aspect of Iran's early history that still defines the Iranian state and has had a tremendous impact on U.S.-Iranian relations is that for the last five hundred years, Iran has been the only Shi'i Muslim state in the world. Though 90 percent of all Muslims are Sunni, there are a number of countries where Shi'ah make up either a majority (Bahrain, Iraq, Iran) or a significant minority (Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen). But only Iran adopted Shi'i Islam as its state religion. Although the Sunni-Shi'ah divide is not as caustic as other interreligious splits, it is not a trifle either. There are important aspects of Shi'ism that have helped shape Iranian political culture in ways that are quite different from that of other Muslim nations. What's more, it has heightened both Iran's sense of uniqueness and its sense of isolation. For Iranians, Shi'ism is a key element of their culture, and for many Arabs and other non-Iranians, the terms "Shi'ah" and "Persian" were long considered synonymous.
Last, for roughly a century and a half beginning in the early 1800s, a weak Iranian state became prey to powerful external actors, principally the European great powers. Iranians (Persians, as they were then still known) were accustomed to looking down on Europeans as barbarian adherents to a superseded religion and a primitive civilization. Now, suddenly, they were trouncing the shah's armies, carving up their lands, making and unmaking governments, monopolizing their markets, and treating their land as battleground, playground, and campground with no regard for the needs or desires of the Iranians themselves. It was humiliating; it was frustrating, and it was frightening for Iranians to be so vulnerable and so constantly manipulated by these foreign powers. And it reinforced a powerful sense of xenophobia coupled with an inferiority complex among Iranians to complement their superiority complex.
Elaine Sciolino has covered Iran since the revolution and is one of the most knowledgeable journalists writing on Iran, yet even she admits in her book Persian Mirrors that "whenever I think I understand Iran, it throws me a curve."2 Iran is a maddeningly complicated state and society, and even a cursory understanding of its motives today requires knowing a fair bit about the forces that have shaped the nation over time.
When the first tribes entered Iran after the last ice age, they found an inhospitable land. The territory of Iran is fenced in by three great mountain ranges-the Alborz in the north, the Zagros in the west and south, and the Mekran in the southeast. In the center is a great plateau that is itself mostly uninhabitable. Two vast deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut, in the east of the central plateau, render roughly half its territory unfit for agriculture. It has few navigable rivers.3
The mountains and deserts, the poor soil, and the lack of good rivers made communications difficult in ancient Iran. As a result, the population became deeply fragmented. In those parts of the land that were fit for agriculture, secluded villages and isolated towns-with only a few big cities-became the rule. Nomadic tribes who depended on herding livestock inhabited the rest. Because of the discrete separation of so much of the population, Iran became a patchwork of ethnic, religious, tribal, and other groupings, all of whom seemed to find constant reasons for conflict with their neighbors.4
Thus, it may seem odd that so difficult a land would produce one of the world's first great multiethnic empires. Perhaps a hard land made for hard people who could then conquer their softer neighbors? Whatever the reason, for centuries of the ancient world, the empire that emerged from ancient Iran was a superpower in a league by itself.
The first people to settle and establish a civilization in what would become Iran, however, were hardly world beaters. The Elamites lived in the far southwest of the land, close by to what was then the great civilization of Sumer-mankind's first true civilization, the home of the biblical Garden of Eden, and the ancient precursor of modern Iraq. Elam suffered from the superior power of the Sumerians as much as it benefited from their more advanced culture and technology.
In the second millennium b.c., migratory waves from eastern Europe brought the Indo-European race of Aryans into Persia. Three groups of Aryans swept in and settled in different parts of the country: the Scythians, who conquered the far northwest from their strongholds around the Black Sea; the Medes (or Mada), who settled in a wide swath of land in the center of the country; and the Persians (or Parsa), who eventually made their home in the south, in what would eventually become Iran's Fars (derived from "Pars") province. Other elements of the Aryan race would spread westward from their primordial homeland into northern Europe, to constitute the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples whom the Nazis would make so much of.5
For many centuries, it was the Medes who dominated ancient Iran. They were forced to unite quickly and develop an effective society to stave off the fearsome Assyrian Empire to their west. At that time, Assyria ruled Mesopotamia and much of the Near East with a highly developed and highly brutal war machine. In constant warfare with the Assyrians, the Medes rarely fared well, but, aided by the Zagros Mountains, they were ultimately able to hold back the Assyrian incursions.
Although the term "Mede" would remain in European usage as a synonym for "Persian" for millennia, little has survived of their history or society. The era of the Mede ascendancy saw the birth of one of the world's first monotheistic religions-Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster ("Zarathustra" in Greek) lived from roughly 628 to 551 b.c. and preached of a single great god, Ahura Mazda, of whom all other gods were simply poorly descried parts. Zoroastrianism was deeply concerned with the eternal relationship between good and evil, and many scholars believe that, even in modern Iran, Zoroaster's focus on this permanent struggle remains an important element lurking beneath the surface of much religious and secular philosophy. Khomeini's obsession with the struggle between good (epitomized by Islam and Iran) and evil (the West, the United States) is often described as a manifestation of this deep-seated Iranian trait. Zoroastrianism was also the first religion to preach the notion that humans would face judgment after death based on their actions in life, and that each soul would then spend eternity in either Paradise or perdition. Zoroastrianism became the chief religion of the Medes (and the Persians) and would dominate Iranian spiritual life until the Islamic conquest more than a thousand years later.6
Ultimately, most of what we know of the Medes regards their eventual displacement by the Persians. In 636 b.c., the Elamites were crushed in battle by the great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. This defeat opened the way for the rise of the Persians. The defeat of Elam (the Persians' neighbors to the west) created room for the Persians to expand their land and power. With their new status, the Persian kings allied themselves with the Babylonians, and together they defeated the Assyrians, sacking the Assyrian capital of Ninevah in 612 b.c. In about 559 b.c., Cyrus II (later called Cyrus the Great) took the throne of Persia. It was Cyrus who took a state that had made itself regionally important, and turned it into the vast Persian Empire. Drawing on the new power provided by the combined lands of Persia, Elam, and parts of Assyria, Cyrus turned on the Medes and conquered them. He quickly followed this victory with successful campaigns against the Parthians and Hyrcanians farther to the east, before turning west and smashing the fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia (in present-day northern Turkey), and incorporating Asia Minor into his empire. After his Lydian victory, Cyrus turned south, conquering Babylon, where he freed the Jews from their captivity and permitted them to return to Palestine-thereby earning considerable praise in the Bible's Book of Isaiah. When Cyrus finally died, he was followed by his son Cambyses II, who added Egypt to Cyrus's colossal Persian demesne.7
In 522 b.c., when Cambyses' son Darius ascended the throne as the king of kings of Persia, his empire was the greatest in the world. It stretched from the Aegean to Afghanistan, from the Black Sea to the Blue Nile. It was estimated to have contained 50 million people, an unimaginable population for that time. So vast an empire was difficult to govern with ancient communications and organization, and Darius's greatest achievement was a thorough internal reform of the empire. He built roads-2,500 kilometers' worth of them. He created a system of provinces ruled by satraps (governors) capable of acting on his behalf. He instituted a standardized system of weights and measures and introduced uniform gold and silver coinage. His commercial reforms made Persia a trading juggernaut that dominated the markets of the ancient Near Eastern world. And Darius built a magnificent new imperial capital at Persepolis with an eclectic architectural style that attempted to blend elements of the motifs of all of the many subject peoples of the empire.8
Darius also mounted the first Persian invasion of ancient Greece, which looms so large in the Western consciousness. It was Darius whose forces landed at Marathon in 490 b.c. only to be defeated by the Athenian hoplite army. Darius's defeat by so tiny and insignificant a nation as the Athenian city-state spurred his son and successor, Xerxes, to mount a much grander expedition. In 480 b.c., Xerxes led a massive force of possibly as many as 200,000 troops across the Hellespont to conquer all of Greece. At Thermopylae, he was detained by the illustrious, doomed stand of 300 Spartan warriors and their great king, Leonidas, whose sacrifice inspired their squabbling countrymen to unite against the Persian foe. Later that year, the Athenian fleet scored a stunning victory over the Persians at Salamis, forcing Xerxes to halt the invasion. The next year, at Plataea, a combined Greek army led by the Spartans smashed a Persian force, ending the Persian threat to Greece and setting a limit on Persia's westward expansion.9
A century and a half later, Greece would come back to bite the Persians. In 334 b.c., Alexander the Great, king of Macedon and the leader of a Greek confederation, invaded Persia. For the Greeks, Persia was the world's great superpower and had been for as long as any could remember. Attacking it was the ultimate act of defiance, and anyone who could conquer it would achieve fame unmatched for all the ages. This was precisely the sort of challenge that appealed to the young, headstrong Macedonian monarch. In 334, Alexander crossed the Hellespont with a force of about 35,000 men and proceeded to conquer the greatest empire the world had ever known. In 331, he defeated the Persian Army at the Battle of Arbela (in modern-day northern Iraq) by charging directly at the Persian king, Darius III, who fled the field and so demoralized his troops. The next year Alexander occupied Persepolis and burned it. Eventually, he would push on into Afghanistan and India, before turning back when his exhausted troops mutinied.
Having conquered Persia, Alexander was determined to rule it; he reorganized the empire and attempted to fuse his Greco-Macedonian base with his new Persian conquests. He instituted a common currency, made Greek the "official" language of the entire empire, devised a unified bureaucracy, and even went so far as to order 10,000 of his Greek soldiers to marry Persian women at a mass ceremony at Susa in 324. But Alexander contracted a fever and died the very next year, and without him, his empire could not hold together. It was divided up among a number of his generals. Mesopotamia fell to Seleucus, who made his capital at Babylon and used it as a base to conquer the Iranian heartland. For the next century, the Iranian lands were ruled by the Seleucid Greeks, who brought Hellenistic influences to Persia.10
The Seleucids were eventually displaced by the Parthians-a central Asian people descended from the Scythians, who were, in a sense, returning to their old stomping grounds. The Parthians were able to conquer and hold Mesopotamia as well as the Iranian lands, and for several centuries they contested control of Armenia and the Levant with the Roman Empire. The Parthians left almost no surviving records, and scholars speculate that they may not have kept any themselves. But the Parthians too would pass, defeated in 227 a.d. by Ardeshir of Sasani, who would establish in their place the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanids ruled Iran until they in turn were overthrown by a new power rising in the south, Islam.11
The Islamic Invasion
The Sassanids fought ten wars with Rome, many more with the migrating Huns, and developed a highly centralized state firmly grounded in Zoroastrian teachings. But by the sixth century a.d., they were losing their grip on power thanks to revolts among their military nobility, internal discontent, and a series of costly and unsuccessful wars against the Byzantines. They were certainly not ready for the storm that broke upon them in the middle of the next century.
In 622, the Prophet Muhammad made his famed hijra (migration) from Mecca to Medina, beginning the Islamic era. Two years later, his followers defeated the Meccans in the Battle of Badr, bringing the new religion back to his homeland and inaugurating the first of the Islamic conquests. The new faith spread like wildfire among the tribes of western Arabia, firing them with a zeal that made them nearly invincible in battle. Within a year after Muhammad's death in 632, the entire Arabian Peninsula had fallen to Islam. Five years later, victory at the Battle of Qadisiyah would bring them control of Ctesiphon, then the capital of Mesopotamia. The Islamic armies then broke the power of the Sassanids at Nahavand in 642, although not until 700 was Iran fully pacified.12
In some ways, the Islamic conquest changed everything for the Iranians, and in other ways it did not change that much. The Iranians were slow to convert to the new religion. Not until the ninth century were a majority of Iranians Muslims. Unlike many other lands of the Islamic empire, Arabic did not entirely supplant Persian as the language of the masses-the elites learned it, but most of the population continued to speak variations of Pahlavi, the Persian tongue of the Sassanids. Moreover, the Muslim conquerors actually adopted a great deal from their Iranian subjects. They retained the Sassanid monetary system, incorporated Sassanid court ceremonies into their own, and borrowed many Sassanid administrative mechanisms, including the office of vizier (minister) and the divan (a budgetary office). The practice of veiling and seclusion of women-wealthy, freeborn noble women-came from the Persians, too, although both customs were also practiced to some extent by the Greeks and Romans.13
Under the first two Islamic dynasties-the Umayyads and the Abbasids-Iran remained firmly within the orbit of the larger Islamic empire. However, the decline of the Abbasids in the tenth and eleventh centuries allowed Iran's rulers to begin to assert a degree of independence from the center. This process was reinforced by climatic change. Over the centuries, irrigation had introduced salinity into the Iranian soil, leading to desertification, which forced formerly settled agricultural communities to adopt nomadic ways of life that made them more difficult to control by centralized authority.14
Overall, these patterns left Iran vulnerable to invasion by warlike tribes from central Asia-greatest among them the Seljuk Turks, who conquered Iran in the early twelfth century. Nevertheless, the Seljuks recognized themselves to be culturally inferior to their Persian subjects, and they quickly adopted many local practices. Not all Iranians accepted the Seljuks, and one group of Isma'ili Shi'ah created a secret sect that sent out fanatical members to murder their political opponents. In Arabic, these zealots were called the Hashashiyyun (because it was believed they smoked hashish before departing on their missions), which became corrupted in European usage to "assassins."
Of far more devastating consequence were the Mongol invasions that began in the thirteenth century. First Genghis Khan blazed a trail of slaughter and destruction across Iran, followed by his grandson Hulagu, who extended the bloody Mongol conquests farther west, sacking Baghdad in 1258. The Mongols did terrible and, in many cases, permanent damage-destroying fragile underground water tunnels and massacring so many Iranian males as to radically alter parts of Iran's topography and demography. A second wave under Tamerlane (Timur the Lame or Timur Lang) in the fourteenth century was gentler only by comparison with its predecessors-the razing of the great cities of Isfahan and Shiraz being cases in point. The Mongols were skilled at obliterating things but poor at building anything lasting of their own. They left behind little but a legacy of misery after their passing.
Shi'ism Comes to Iran
In the wake of the chaos left by the Mongol rulers, Iran became a cockpit to be fought over by a variety of Turkic and Afghan peoples. For that reason, it is somewhat remarkable that an indigenous group, the Safavids, would finally succeed in reunifying the country-the first native dynasty to rule the land in more than a millennium. The Safavids began as a militant Sufi (mystic) sect of Shi'i Islam. After conquering the great northwest Iranian city of Tabriz in 1501, the Safavids moderated many of their more extreme beliefs-such as the notion that their leaders were divine-and launched a series of offensives that soon brought the rest of the traditional Persian realm under their control. However, this stability came with a price: they demanded that all of the inhabitants, the vast majority of whom were Sunni Muslims, convert to Shi'ism.15
Thus it was the Safavids who brought the Shi'i version of Islam to Iran. Although Shi'ism is often associated with Iran because Iran is the largest Shi'i country today, its origins have nothing to do with Iran. Instead they derive from the earliest days of the Islamic empire.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, there was disagreement among his followers over who should be named his successor (caliph) as leader of the Muslims. Although an important minority of the original companions of the Prophet favored 'Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, the majority backed Muhammad's longtime companion and father-in-law, Abu Bakr. 'Ali eventually became the fourth successor to the Prophet, but his murder in the garrison town of Kufa in southern Iraq reopened the debate on succession. (He was assassinated in 661 by a dissident soldier, one of a group who opposed his lenient treatment of the rebellious governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya.) Upon the death of 'Ali, his followers, or partisans, demanded that the succession remain within the family of the Prophet and to its only survivors, the sons of 'Ali-Hasan and Husayn. Members of the dominant merchant clans of Mecca and Medina, however, backed the claims of another prominent tribe, the Umayyids, led by Mu'awiya. Hasan gave up his claim and Mu'awiya was named caliph.
But not everyone accepted Hasan's decision. Those followers of 'Ali who rejected Mu'awiya became known as the "party of 'Ali" or, in Arabic, the Shi'at 'Ali, later abbreviated to Shi'ah. 'Ali's youngest son, Husayn, became the leader of the Shi'ah, although he made no claim to the caliphate as long as Mu'awiya lived. When Mu'awiya died in 680, Husayn hoped to claim the caliphate, but he and seventy-one of his followers were waylaid at nearby Karbala by a far greater force under Yazid, the son of Mu'awiya, who (naturally) believed that the caliphate should pass to him. Husayn and his followers were slaughtered at Karbala on the tenth day of the month of Moharram. Husayn and his brother Abbas were buried in Karbala, which became-together with their father's tomb in Najaf-the holiest sites in Shi'i Islam. The tenth day of Moharram, the day of Ashura ("tenth" in Arabic), became the holiest day of the Shi'i religious calendar, when the faithful wail and even flog themselves bloody to excoriate themselves for, figuratively, not having come to the defense of Husayn at Karbala. Indeed, the martyrdom of Husayn and the mythology of the fatally doomed cause became important touchstones of the Shi'i faith.
The Shi'i and Sunni sects of Islam have a great deal in common-far more, arguably, than the doctrines of Protestant and Catholic Christianity, for example. And although born of a blood feud, the Sunni-Shi'i split has not been a particularly gory one; again, there is nothing in Islamic history like the appalling wars of the Reformation that devastated Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A key distinguishing feature of Shi'ism, however, is the concept of the Imamate. Shi'is believe that the succession from the Prophet rightly should have passed to 'Ali and then to 'Ali's blood line. Most Iranians are Twelver Shi'ah, the mainstream Shi'i denomination. As their name implies, Twelvers believe that there were twelve imams: 'Ali, then his sons Hasan and Husayn, and nine others. The twelfth imam was taken into hiding to protect him from the enemies of Shi'ism when he was just a baby, and later it was announced that he had entered into a form of occultation and would return only at a much later date in messianic fashion as the Lord of the Age, the Mahdi, who will begin an era of justice followed by ultimate judgment for all mankind.
The concept of the imamate is important because it contributes to another key difference between Sunni and Shi'ah. In its simplest form, the Sunni faith maintains that God has given mankind everything we need to live our lives properly in the form of the Quran and the sayings and histories of the Prophet, the proper interpretations of which were finalized in the ninth and tenth centuries. Shi'is believe that the imams were themselves divinely guided, and so it fell to them to lead the community in righteous fashion, which they did by definition. The loss of the twelfth imam consequently posed a problem for the Shi'ah: Who was going to lead them? This problem led eventually to a reliance upon men called mujtahids-those capable of practicing ijtihad (the ability to interpret the holy scriptures). These were religious leaders responsible for guiding the community in the absence of the imam. At the pinnacle of the Shi'i religious hierarchy, the most respected and revered mujtahids were granted the title marja-e taqlid (source of emulation). Effectively, the concept behind this structure held that only those most learned in Islamic jurisprudence (the mujtahids) were capable of interpreting the scriptures to determine how men and women should live their lives in the absence of the twelfth imam. Everyone else had to look to a source of emulation (a marja-e taqlid), who were always highly respected mujtahids, and follow their example to live righteous lives. In the nineteenth century, the notion of a marja-e taqlid al-mutlaq (the "absolute" or "supreme" marja-e taqlid) as the ultimate exemplar for all Shi'ah to follow also entered Shi'i theology and would become the root of Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of velayat-e faqih, or "rule of the jurisprudent."16
The emergence of the mujtahids and the concept of the marja-e taqlid at the peak of it all gave rise to a fairly elaborate religious hierarchy within Shi'ism that is not matched by Sunni Islam. Would-be mullahs (a Persian term for a cleric that in Arabic is rendered 'alim) begin by attending a seminary, a madrasah, often in one of the great centers of Shi'i learning (called hawzas) at Qom in Iran or Najaf in Iraq. From there, they might go on to be the local mullah in a village or teach under the guidance of a higher-ranking cleric in one of the seminaries themselves. In time, as they demonstrated their learning, their familiarity with the Quran and other Islamic scripture, and their ability to deal with questions posed by their students or congregants, they might be accepted as a hojjat-ol Islam ("proof of Islam"). If their wisdom and prestige were to continue to rise, they might be acclaimed as an ayatollah ("sign of God"), which requires them to write a lengthy dissertation elaborating on how people should conduct themselves in day-to-day life as a guide for their followers. Finally, at the very top, is the exalted rank of ayatollah al-uzma (grand ayatollah, literally "greatest sign of God"), which is a relatively recent rank that was used to distinguish the very top ayatollahs after "title inflation" raised many lesser figures to the rank of ayatollah and so diminished its cachet. All of the grand ayatollahs were marjas, and in the nineteenth century, a marja-e taqlid al-mutlaq was then named from the handful of grand ayatollahs.
The Qajar Dynasty and the Early Modern Era in Iran
Having brought Shi'ism to Iran, the Safavids held power from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. In 1722, Ghilzai tribesmen from Afghanistan conquered much of Iran, effectively emasculating the dynasty. Various external and internal groups contested power in Iran until 1795, when the Qajars-a Turkic tribe who had migrated to Iran from Central Asia in the fourteenth century-were able to defeat their rivals and claim the throne of a reunified Persian state.17
The Qajars would not rule happily for very long. The world was changing all around Iran, and not necessarily to its advantage. The rise of maritime commerce meant that many of the trade routes that had once passed from the Far East through Iran to the West now sailed around the mountainous land altogether. Without that trade, Iran's cities declined. This, coupled with further growth in nomadism, further weakened the strength and control of the central government. Meanwhile, the European states were growing powerful and creeping ever closer to Iran. In 1763, the Iranian ruler Karim Khan granted the British East India Company the right to build a base and a trading post at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf.18 More dangerous still, to the north, the Russians were slowly digesting new conquests in the Black Sea area and setting their sights on targets even farther south.
Persia (as it was then still called) and Russia first came to blows in 1804, when their imperial ambitions collided in Georgia. In a nine-year war, the Russians prevailed decisively, forcing the Iranians to cede all of their lands in the Caucasus and to agree to give up the right to maintain any naval forces in the Caspian Sea.19 But in the age of the Great Game between Russia and Britain, as these opponents sparred and fenced across the length of Asia, Russia's victory could only increase British interest in the country. With the shah (king) of Persia still smarting from his drubbing by the Russians, it was not difficult for British envoys to convince him to sign a protectorate agreement with His Majesty's government. The Definitive Treaty of 1814 pledged British support for Persia in return for Persian promises that no other foreign troops would be allowed into Iran and that only British officers would be allowed to train the Persian Army-a French training mission having formerly served that purpose since 1807.20
The signing of the Definitive Treaty officially made Iran a pawn in the Great Game. The shah had hoped to use British support to defend his realm against the Russians in the near term and use British military assistance to rebuild his army so that he could eventually avenge his losses to the Russians. The European powers had other things in mind. The Russians sought to rule Persia. The British saw Persia as yet another buffer to the "jewel in the Crown" of India. Thus they wanted an independent Persia, stable and strong enough to withstand the Russians but not strong enough to constitute a threat to India itself.21 Inevitably, it was the Iranians who lost out in this struggle.
In 1826, the Persians launched an offensive into the Caucasus to try to regain the lands they had lost in 1813. Their timing was terrible. The British were then allied with the Russians against the Turks in the War of Greek Independence and so provided no aid to Iran against the Russians. After some initial Persian victories, the Russians regained their balance and began to systematically demolish the shah's forces. By 1828, the Persian armies had been so badly mauled that the shah was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Turkmanchai. It confirmed Persia's loss of all of its former possessions in the Caucasus, forced Persia to grant economic concessions and extraterritorial privileges to Russian citizens, and saddled the shah's government with enormous war reparations. It was a stunning blow to Iranian self-confidence, and it would not be the last.22
Many of the trends established at the beginning of the century would plague Iran right till its end. A variety of vicious circles emerged that slowly sapped the strength of the Qajar state. Desertification, changing trade patterns, the growth of European manufacturing (which could produce better goods more cheaply than traditional Iranian handicrafts workshops), and the persistent problems of communications across Iran's mountains and deserts helped impoverish the nation and weaken the central government. However, the shahs of Persia were slow to recognize this weakness and continued to embark on foreign wars that generally turned out to be not just humiliations but expensive ones to boot.23
Over time, various Iranian political elites did recognize the increasing gap between themselves and the Europeans in military, commercial, and bureaucratic efficiency, and attempted to institute programs of broad reform similar to those attempted by their Egyptian and Turkish coreligionists. However, Persia lacked the wealth of either Egypt or Turkey to purchase European weaponry, manufacturing plants, and expertise. Thus these efforts at reform were often costly failures that Iran could not afford.24 Nor were they helped by the international financial markets, which saw a century-long decline in the price of silver-the basis of Persia's currency-thus making it ever harder for the Iranians to pay for imports.25 More damaging still, the decline in the silver market caused massive inflation in Persia, prices rising by 600 percent between 1850 and 1860.26
Excerpted from The Persian Puzzle by Kenneth Pollack Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Pollack. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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