They say that to understand the present you need to understand the past. This seems likely to be true, but when it comes to understanding human affairs in their historical and sociological detail I have to admit that I’m skeptical of much genuine positive insight. That being said, I do believe that one can constrain the blind choices and flights of intuition one has through an exploration of the sample space of data which might allow for falsification of a subset of the myriad models. In short, to call bullshit you have to know shit.
A concrete example of this are the events leading up to, and the scenarios projected for the aftermath of, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To know that the analogy between the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II and what was to come in Iraq after the invasion was bullshit you had to know something about Iraq and you had to know something about Germany. Too often analogies are viewed as nothing more than a stylistic flourish, so such knowledge is not assumed or necessary. There’s a reason that Adam Smith recommended that genuine scholars use them sparingly, all too often the plausibility of a given analogy is contingent more upon the biases of the two individuals engaging in communication rather than transmitting new structural information from one person to the other. Most people know very little about the source and target of the Germany:Iraq analogy, so its value-add substantively is zero.
Though I’m not particularly interested in international affairs, when some geopolitical dynamic comes to the fore I’m the type who is liable to pick up a few books and articles and just work my way through them. I’m generally often interested in a wide range of topics, but my focus at any given moment is highly contingent. It was with an “in the news” mindset that I picked up A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind. At a little over 300 pages the author, Michael Axworthy, delivers a relatively tight exposition which balances scholarly density with narrative accessibility. You are treated to a seamless interleaving of war & piece details along with social and cultural history. Because of the constraints of length and the popular audience to which the book is obviously aimed one might find that many topics are only given a cursory treatment, but I think that the marginal return for a work of this nature giving a great deal of space to the Sassanid or safavid epochs at the expense of a laser-like focus on the lead up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is there. If you want to explore in depth the nature of Revolutionary Iran of the 1980s, a book like Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty is much more to your taste. On the other hand, if you would like an introduction to the history of Persian Zoroastrianism, along with the styles of Safavid poetry, as well as the extent of the capitulations of the Qajar monarchy to European nations and capitalisms, Axworthy is your man.
Back to my initial point: what can the past teach us about the present? I want to focus on a passage on page 138, because I must admit that it is my own hunch as well:
Under Shah Abbas the Safavid dynasty achieved a more sophisticated, more powerful and more enduring governmental system than the traditional lands of Iran had seen for many centuries. The Safavid state, its administration, and its institutionalizing of Shi’ism set the parameters for the modern shape of Iran….
To some extent this is true even literally. Though the Safavid state was in general a bit more expansive than modern Iran in terms of size, it was more modest than the Sassanid state which usually included Mesopatamia. And it goes without saying that the Safavid domains were more constrained than those of the ancient Persian Empire, which stretched from Egypt and the Balkans to the Indus. But it is not just geography which I believe forces us to look to the Safavids as the most informative germ of modern Iran, it was the Safavids who transformed Iran into a Shia state, making it a champion of this minority sect within Islam. Prior to the 16th century Persia was a Sunni domain, though there were concentrated pockets of Shi’ism around Qom or in the northeast in Khorasan. Shia Islam was most closely identified with the cities of southern Iraq, Najaf and Karbala, as well as mountain redoubts in Lebanon and Yemen. It was an underground religion on the run, always at risk of suffering persecution at the hands of those who colluded with the powers that be. But under the Safavids Shi’ism and Persia became so tightly linked that today many people, even Iranians, blithely assume that this was always the case.
Here are the ethnic groups in Iran today which total above 1% of the population:
Gilaki and Mazandarani (8%)
Twelver Shia 89%
Sunni Muslim 9%
Other religions 2% (Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, etc.
Kurds and Baluch are most likely to be Sunni Muslims. I wanted to lay out the numbers in this way to point that Iran today is a multi-ethnic state, but religiously it is a relatively homogeneous one. Iran is more Shia than Turkey is Sunni, or Saudi Arabia is Salafi, or India is Hindu (or, the United States is Christian!). Just as Henry the VIII dragged his nation into Protestantism and so solidified Britain’s identity as distinct from the Catholic powers of the continent (and often inclined its sympathies toward underdogs such as The Netherlands and the German principalities), contemporaneously the Safavid program of converting the population to one religion which set it apart from their neighbors on all sides crystallized and unified a disparate populace.
The shape of the relations of this populace are also of note. In Sons of the Conquerors it is noted that the Iranian military has a disproportionately Turkish composition. By Turkish that generally means Azeri. An interesting point about Persian history over the last 1,000 years Persia has rarely been ruled by ethnic Persians. Rather, Iran, the land of the Aryans, has generally been ruled by individuals of Turkic ethnicity. Even the non-Turks, such as the Mongols, or Afghan warlords, have not been Persians. Reza Shah, who has been claimed to be the first ethnic Persian potentate of Persia in 1,000 years, was actually from an ethnicity which is technically not Persian though they were Iranian speakers.1 Michael Axworthy, whose brief seems to specifically be the prose & poetry productions of the Persian language notes with irony that while Persian (Farsi) was the court language of the Turco-Indian Mughals in Delhi, in Safavid Isfahan it was Turkish which was required at court to gain favor!
This is not to deny that the Persian language and ethnicity are at the center of Iranian life and that they take pride of place for both their richness and longevity set next to the Turkic tradition. But rather to point out that it is of note that one could argue that some of the most critical parameters of modern Iran was the work of Turks, and Turks continued to rule as Iran’s military elite down to the 20th century. Even today it is notable that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khameni, is of ethnic Azeri origin, though raised in a Persian environment so that that language is the one in which he is most fluent.
I mentioned earlier the importance of prior knowledge in fully leveraging an analogy. Unfortunately, I assume that most readers have not read a History of Byzantine State and Society, but I will nevertheless go forth. It seems to me that Iran and Byzantium at its height can be usefully compared; though many of its dynasties were not originally Hellenes (e.g., they may have been Armenians), the centrality of the Greek language was not challenged, while the Orthodox Christian religion was the other critical tie that bound together disparate peoples of various languages. 10th century Bzantium was substantially Greek in language, but there were also large communities of Armenians and Slavic speakers within the Empire. But the primacy of Orthodox Christianity was unchallenged, and even the Armenians who rejected Orthodox Christianity would have to accept it if they wished to ascend up the social ladder. By a similar token Iran is substantially Persian, but overwhelmingly Shia. The cultural prestige of a Persian language and history whose antecedents reach back nearly 3,000 years is unquestionable, but the fact that non-Persians have been central actors on the stage of Iran since the time of Alexander is also something which must be considered.
My own intent on following this line of thought and exploring the various angles of Iranian cultural history and ethnographic diversity are due to concerns of comparison and contrast in relation to Iraq. Here are the ethnic breakdowns for Iraq:
Arabs 75-80%, Kurds 15%-20%, Assyrian, Iraqi Turkmen or other 5-10%
Though Iraq is ethno-lingistically diverse, it is arguably far less so than Persia. On the other hand, we do know that Iraq is far less overwhelmingly Shia than Iran. Judging by these numbers I think one would be hard-pressed to wonder as to whether Iraq or Iran were more coherently constructed as nation-states. After all, Iraq had an ancient history of relatively unified rule under Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. But does this truly tell us anything about the present? Some, but not much. Much has happened in the past 3,000 years. I believe that Iranians’ greater consciousness of the Shahnameh in comparison to the likely Iraqi ignorance of the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the former nation-state has a greater continuity with its past, and therefore more natural roots, than the latter.
During the period of Safavid state-building in Iran, the 16th and 17th centuries, the provinces which later became Iraq were simply bones of geopolitical contention between the incipient Iranian nation-state and the Ottoman Turks. By and large Iraq remained an Ottoman domain, though there were rare occasions when the Shia Holy Cities were under Safavid rule. Proto-Iraq was a pawn, and proto-Iran was one of the players. Additionally, it is important to note that Iraq’s religious configuration is of more recent vintage than even Iran’s; during the 18th and 19th centuries modern irrigation techniques opened up vast swaths of land in southern Iraq to agriculture. This resulted in the transition of many nomadic Arab tribes to sedentary lifestyles, and the concomitant conversion of many Sunnis to the Shi’ism which was dominant in the cities of southern Iraq. The Sunni-Shia divide goes back over a 1,000 years, and the cities of southern Iraq have always played a large role in that conflict, but the rise of the Arab Shia peasant majority in Iraq is likely a phenomenon of only the past few centuries.
Iran and Iraq exhibit only one letter difference in English. But they are very different in substance. Not only is Iran a much more populous nation than Iraq, but its coherency as a nation-state is much more a thing of reality than of fantasy. While the Sunni Arab elite of Iraq had to terrorize the Shia majority into submission because of the alienation of religious difference, the Turkic military elites of Iran were united with the Persian bureaucrat class by the common glue of Shia Islam, and the due deference which the former gave the latter in the domain of culture. The integrity of nation-states varies. Nigeria is a creation of the past 50 years, cobbled together out of a gaggle of languages and religions due to the vicissitudes of late 19th century European colonialism. In contrast, modern China has its origins as far back as the Chin dynasty 2,300 years ago! The Chinese state is rooted in the numerical preponderance of the Han nation, whose identity stretches back nearly as far as the Chinese state. I believe Iran lay somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. Its contemporary roots can be found in the Safavid period, 500 years ago, and though Persians are Iranians par excellence, they rule in relative amity with other groups via the cement of common faith.
Note: I have made much mention of ethnicity here, but I do want to point out the likely importance of lower order tribal affinities here, especially among the nomads of Persia and among the Arabs of Iraq. It is often pointed out that the Shia of Iraq fiercely resisted Iranian offensives during the Iran-Iraq War. Inversely, the Arabs of Khuzistan in southwest Iran were generally loyal to the Iranian state when the Iraqis had the upper hand and were on the march. One less some take from this is that Iraqis are loyal to their nation-state against ethnic aliens, even if they are co-religionists. I suspect something like this is at work, but additionally, it may be that the tribes of Iraq were operating as actors whose interests lay neither in toto with Shia or Arab identities. Rather, as tribes they were operating to their proximate advantage at any given time, opportunistically emphasizing their religion or ethnicity.
1 – In A History of Iran it is claimed that Reza Shah’s patrilineage might actually have originally been Turk or Pashtun, making him rather more exotic and less plausible a candidate as a Persian of Persians King of Kings.