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Fall and Decline

Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran

by Nikki R. Keddie, with a section by Yann Richard
Yale University Press, 321 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Inside the Iranian Revolution

by John D. Stempel
Indiana University Press, 336 pp., $17.50

Mission to Iran

by William H. Sullivan
Norton, 296 pp., $14.95

Revolution, like death, seems to concentrate the mind wonderfully—at least the minds of publishers. Since the Iranian upheaval, both commercial and university presses have run off a spate of books on Iran, a country not previously the object of much publishing attention. In a short time, we have had at least two books on aspects of the Iranian economy,1 two more on the Iranian clerical establishment and its relations to the state,2 and several on the special relationship between Iran and the United States.3

There have been at least two collections of essays.4 Three or more accounts have appeared on the American hostage crisis, all of them the work of newspapermen or television reporters.5 The first of the hostages has meantime produced an account of his days in captivity.6 More books are forthcoming. It is therefore pertinent to ask whether the addition of any new book to this growing heap contributes significantly to our knowledge of the country, or provides a fresh interpretation of the already known facts.

Nikki Keddie, the author of Roots of Revolution, has devoted many years to the study of modern Iran. Her work in the 1960s on nineteenth-century political and religious movements resulted in two books, one on the tobacco protest movement of 1891-1892 and one on the Islamic reformer Jamal ad-Din Asadabadi (Afghani). In the 1970s, Professor Keddie worked, and wrote a number of essays, on socioeconomic developments in Iran in the twentieth century.7 Roots of Revolution brings together the results of her earlier and more recent research.

The book, a survey of Iranian history over the last two centuries, does not avoid all the pitfalls of this difficult form of historical writing. It is sometimes repetitious. Although her approach is largely interpretative and concerned with long-term trends, the sections covering the 1890-1921 and the 1951-1963 periods tend to straightforward narrative history. For a book of interpretative history, there is surprisingly little on the institutional changes brought about by the revolution of 1906, when the Shah was forced to accept a constitution establishing a parliament.

But Professor Keddie has a strong grasp of historical material. She displays a characteristically impressive capacity for compression and consolidation of recent historical research. Her opening discussion on Shi’ism is highly competent, emphasizing how “from 1501 until this century Iranism and Shi’ism were for many people parts of a single blend.” On these matters, it is to hers rather than to the two other books under review that we must turn. John Stempel and William Sullivan, in their own much briefer comments on recent Iranian history and religion, are less sure-footed and less reliable.

Professor Keddie’s book bears very much the stamp of the particular moment in which it is published. She has, for example, revised her earlier and more positive assessment of the impact on Iran of land reform. Writing at a time of revolution, she seeks to emphasize the previous history of social unrest, calling attention to earlier instances of peasant revolt (of which she is able to cite few examples) and other movements for social reform. Writing also when the Pahlavi dynasty was having a bad press, she has little favorable to say about either of the two Pahlavi reigns.

The Pahlavi period had its own, often intense, internal politics.8 But Professor Keddie’s book devotes relatively little space to the political history of that period. Instead, she concentrates on economic development, land tenure, trade and demographic patterns, and the impact of these on class and social structure. When dealing with the Iranian economy during the 1960s and 1970s, she is concerned more with agriculture than with industry; and when she deals with industry, she seems more concerned with private business than with the larger public sector, where heavy industry was concentrated.

In discussing these long-term social and economic developments, Professor Keddie speaks as a participant in a nascent debate among writers on Iran concerning the interpretation of recent Iranian history. It is therefore necessary to describe where she places herself in this discussion.

Work by Charles Issawi, amplified by studies by younger scholars like Gad Gilbar and Mostafa Ansari, has in recent years led to a revision of the generally held view regarding the Iranian economy in the late nineteenth century. Rather than as a period of economic decline, it has been portrayed, even if on a modest scale, as a period of expanding trade, expansion and commercialization of agriculture, improvement of standards of living for some classes, and the growth of a merchant and middle class.

These developments were linked to the increase of trade with Europe. Professor Keddie is of course aware of these findings; but she tends on the whole to discount them. She writes:

Based on existing evidence it seems unlikely that the gains compensated for the losses—that carpets, for example, compensated for the decline in a great variety of crafts for internal and external consumption. While many imported consumer goods could be bought more cheaply than their local counterparts, this did not necessarily bring a better life to most Iranians. More sugar, tea, tobacco, and especially opium were consumed, which was detrimental to health, while prices of basic foodstuffs rose.

For the Reza Shah period between 1921 and 1941, Professor Keddie’s assessment does not differ markedly from other serious studies of the period. But she tends to attach less importance than others to the development of finance, banking, and communications, the strengthening of the “infrastructure,” including roads, technical facilities, and schools, and the expansion of the middle class.

The gap between the incomes of rich and poor, she notes, widened. Ownership of agricultural land grew more concentrated and the position of the peasant deteriorated. “Under Reza Shah,” she concludes, “the social structure continued essentially to be one where a small minority lived off the labors of the rest. The Reza Shah program of modernization, and the growth of the privileged classes, were largely financed by exactions from the majority.” These trends continued in the postwar period.

Her assessment of social and economic developments during the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah (1941-1979) focuses primarily on the period between 1963 and 1978. The policies of the Shah’s regime during this period, she argues, “may be seen as contributing to a capitalist style of agriculture and of industrial growth, with a natural emphasis phasis on state capitalism, given the autocratic nature of the regime and its monopoly control of the ever-growing oil income.”

Seeing the 1963-1978 period as a unit, she provides a catalogue of the economic and social ills and dislocations that have been described by Robert Graham and others and have become standard analyses of the causes of the Iranian revolution. Land reform, for example, she considers to have been largely a failure and large-scale agro-industrial projects and state-run agricultural corporations a disaster. She finds the policy of emphasizing mechanized agriculture and the concentration on “Western-style” industries and the production of consumer durables to have been a mistake.

Credit policies, she says, favored the large commercial farmers and industrialists. Policies for developing new industry benefited primarily the already rich. There was an improvement in living standards, but to her the widening gap in incomes is more striking. Agricultural and industrial policies encouraged migration to cities, producing housing shortages, shantytowns, and social dislocation. Too much money was spent on arms and spectacular projects. Corruption was all-pervasive.

This view is by now familiar, and Professor Keddie’s specific criticisms are for the most part convincing. But her general assessment, and the picture she gives of the structure of the economy and society, strike me as unbalanced. They lead to an explanation of the social and economic basis for the revolution that is not altogether adequate. Land reform, despite its limitations, was a considerable achievement, displacing a large number of very rich and inefficient private owners. The “equalization of landholding” among all peasants, including the landless khoshneshin, which Professor Keddie advocates, was simply not feasible and would have produced uneconomically small units.

The structure of the Iranian economy in the 1970s was more sophisticated than the book suggests. Despite a common belief to the contrary, large sections of the bazaar and the shopkeeper class benefited from the economic boom. Many small industries and workshops flourished. There was considerable social mobility, particularly among the families of merchants and technocrats, some of whose children went on to receive advanced education in Western countries. The implications of these changes are not adequately discussed in Professor Keddie’s book.

By treating the entire 1963-1978 period as a unit, moreover, Professor Keddie lays insufficient emphasis on the disruptive effects of the sudden explosion in oil revenues in 1973-1974. She notes that there was a period of impressive political stability between 1963 and 1975, but she does not comment on it. To explain it, she would have had to give more consideration to the facts that living standards improved, that reasonably progressive social policies were adopted, and that the level of political suppression, for all its brutality to some dissidents, was widely seen as tolerable.

Professor Keddie says little about the expansion in this period of transport, telecommunications, electric power generation, and heavy industry. The public sector, in fact, she largely ignores despite its economic importance. She rightly speaks of a growing form of state capitalism. But there is surprisingly little in her book on the ways by which the state began to encroach on private industry, trade, and even the distribution of consumer goods, a development that helps to explain why the prosperous merchants of the bazaar went over to the opposition, in collaboration with the clerical leaders. Indeed, if she had concentrated more precisely on the dramatic change in economic policy following the sharp rise in oil revenues in 1974, she would have done more to explain the revolution that followed.

Professor Keddie’s analysis would on the whole tend to suggest that the revolution occurred as a result of economic deprivation; but she seems to attach relatively little importance to the expansion throughout the 1963-1978 period of the middle classes. Crane Brinton’s observation, in The Anatomy of Revolution, that revolutions are often the work of upwardly mobile groups, and that the moneyed classes are often the most vocal in demanding change, might have served her as a corrective here.

The perspective from which Professor Keddie views these developments is reflected to a degree in the recommendations that she makes. Her retrospective prescriptions range from the reasonable (more assistance to small farmers) to the unobjectionable but elusive (“modification of traditional [agricultural] methods rather than straight borrowing from the West”) to the simply puzzling (“Lowered tariffs could rationalize production by reducing the production of complex goods requiring many imported elements and encouraging production of simpler, more popular goods, which should need less tariff protection as their manufacture is relatively less expensive”).

Many of these prescriptions are untested hypotheses and appear to spring partly from a more general distaste for and disillusion with economic planning, and partly—dare one say it?—from a neoromantic belief in the benefits to be derived by developing countries from a return to traditional crafts, simple industries, and the small peasant farmer, happily cultivating his fifteen hectares.

  1. 1

    Homa Katouzian, The Political Economy of Modern Iran: Despotism and Pseudo-Modernism, 1926-1979 (New York University Press, 1981); and Farhad Kazemi, Poverty and Revolution in Iran: The Migrant Poor, Urban Marginality and Politics (New York University Press, 1981).

  2. 2

    Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period (State University of New York Press, 1980); and Michael Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1980).

  3. 3

    Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran (Oxford University Press, 1980); and Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle: The American Failure in Iran (Knopf, 1981).

  4. 4

    Ahmad Jabbari and Robert Olson, eds., Iran: Essays on a Revolution in the Making (Mazda Publishers, Lexington, Kentucky, 1981); Iran in der Krise (Verlag Neue Gesselschaft, Bonn, 1981), which contains several articles in English; and also several relevant articles in Elie Kedourie and Sylvia Haim, eds., Towards a Modern Iran: Studies in Thought, Politics and Society (Frank Cass, 1980).

  5. 5

    Robert McFadden, et al., No Hiding Place: The New York Times Inside Report on the Hostage Crisis (Times Books, 1981); Pierre Salinger, America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations (Doubleday, 1981); and Doyle McManus, Free at Last! (New American Library, 1981).

  6. 6

    Richard Queen, with Patricia Haas, Inside and Out: Hostage to Iran, Hostage to Myself (Putnam, 1981).

  7. 7

    These and earlier essays appear in Nikki Keddie, Iran: Religion, Politics and Society (Frank Cass, 1980) and form in part the basis for the present book.

  8. 8

    The politics of the Pahlavi period are described in Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

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