Read All the Shah’s Men Online
Authors: Stephen Kinzer
Sunnis do not attribute great importance to the violent deaths of Ali and Hussein, but for Shiites, whose name comes from the phrase
or “followers of Ali,” they were cataclysmic events. To them, Ali and Hussein represent both the mystic spirituality of pure Islam and the self-sacrificing life that true Muslims must live. In this view, shaped by Zoroastrian tradition, the two heroes rebelled against an establishment that had become corrupt and thereby lost its
They are believed to have sacrificed themselves, as the truly pious must, on the altar of evil. By doing, so they embraced a pattern that still shapes Iran’s consciousness. They bequeathed to Shiites a legacy of religious zeal and a willingness, even an eagerness, to embrace martyrdom at the hands of God’s enemies. Ali remains the most perfect soul and the most enlightened leader who ever lived, excepting only the Prophet himself; Shiites still pore over his speeches and memorize his thousands of proverbs and aphorisms. Hussein epitomizes the self-sacrifice that is the inevitable fate of all who truly love Islam and humanity. His martyrdom is considered even more universally significant than that of Ali because it was inflicted by government soldiers rather than by a lone fanatic. Grasping the depth of this passion is essential to any understanding of modern Iran.
Iranian Shiites consider Ali to have been the first of twelve legitimate imams, or successors to Mohammad. The twelfth was still a youth when he passed into an occult state, apart from the world but aware of its suffering. For Iranian believers he is still vividly alive. They revere him as the Twelfth Imam, often called the Hidden Imam or the Imam of the Age, and many pray each day for his return to earth. When he does return, he will be the Mahdi, or messiah, who will right all wrongs and usher in an age of perfect justice. Until that time, it is the duty of temporal rulers to emulate his wisdom and righteousness. When they fail to do so, they trample not only on human rights but on the very will of God.
“The Imam watches over men inwardly and is in communion with the soul and spirit of men even if he be hidden from their physical eyes,” the twentieth-century Shiite scholar Allamah Tabatabai has written. “His existence is always necessary, even if the time has not yet arrived for his outward appearance and the universal reconstruction that he is to bring about.”
The profound hold that this tradition has on the souls of Iranian Shiites raises their beliefs above the level of traditional doctrine to what the anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer has called “a drama of faith.” They revere Mohammad but focus far more viscerally on Ali and Hussein, embracing what Fischer calls “a story expandable to be all-inclusive of history, cosmology and life’s problems” and reinforcing it with “ritual or physical drama to embody the story and maintain high levels of emotional investment.” Ali and Hussein gave them a paradigm that tells them not only how the moral believer should live, but also how he should die.
After Ali and Hussein met their worldly ends in the seventh century, the Arabian empire reached its peak and then began to weaken. Arabs who dominated Iran slowly melted into the country’s already mixed population. As Arab power receded, Shiites gained strength, partly because their warnings about the corruption of worldly dynasties were borne out by the excesses of the conquering Seljuk Turks and the savagery of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, who ravaged Iran in the years after their invasion in 1220. When the Mongols began to lose control, power passed to the revolutionary Safavid dynasty, which was inspired by Shiite belief. The Safavid leader, Ismail, was a militant Shiite who sent his warriors into battle crying: “We are Hussein’s men, and this is our epoch! In devotion we are slaves of the Imam! Our name is Zealot and our title is Martyr!”
After a series of victories won with the help of Shiites who flocked to his side from other lands, Ismail proclaimed himself shah, or king, in 1501. His first act after assuming the throne was to declare Shiism the official state religion. A famous miniature painting depicts the scene, with this caption: “On Friday, the exalted king went to the congregational mosque of Tabriz and ordered its preacher, who was one of the Shiite dignitaries, to mount the pulpit. The king himself proceeded to the front of the pulpit, unsheathed the sword of the Lord of Time, may peace be upon him, and stood there like the shining sun.”
Far more than simply a religious act, this was the single most important step toward creating the Iranian nation. Ismail used Shiism to help him build an empire that within ten years of his coronation not only included most of modern-day Iran but extended from Central Asia to Baghdad and from the frosty Caucasus to the sands of the Persian Gulf. During Ismail’s rule, today’s Iran emerged not just politically but also spiritually. Iranians were already bound together by a shifting geography, a language, and a collective memory of ancient glory, but none of these ties evoked anything close to the unifying fervor of Shiism. By embracing this faith, Iranians accepted Islam but not in the way their Sunni Arab conquerors had wished. They rebelled while appearing to submit.
Perhaps most important, Iranians found an institution that would ultimately free them, at least spiritually, from the authority of the state. Ismail and the Safavid leaders who followed him thought they could control Shiism, and for most of the next two hundred years they did. But integral to Shiism, as to Zoroastrianism, is the belief that rulers may hold power only as long as they are just. Ultimately, this belief gave the Shiite masses, and by extension their religious leaders, the political and emotional power to bring temporal regimes crashing down.
By the time Ismail rose to power, Iranians had already reached great cultural pinnacles. As early as the ninth century, their intellectuals had traveled through the Islamic world in search of the wisest philosophers and the most learned scientists and had translated and studied the works of Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Ptolemy, and other Greek thinkers. Artisans made breathtaking leaps forward in architecture and ceramic arts. Persian miniaturists established styles that were copied but never matched by masters from Constantinople to the steppes of Central Asia. Captivating poets composed works full of ecstasy and passion that are still read around the world. Many of them, like the thirteenth-century mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, reject orthodoxy of any kind:
I hold to no religion or creed,
am neither Eastern nor Western,
Muslim or infidel,
Zoroastrian, Christian, Jew or Gentile.
I come from neither land nor sea,
am not related to those above or below,
was not born nearby or far away,
do not live either in Paradise or on this Earth,
claim descent not from Adam and Eve or the Angels above.
I transcend body and soul.
My home is beyond place and name.
It is with the beloved, in a space beyond space.
I embrace all and am part of all.
These cultural achievements meant that when Iranians finally achieved political unity, they were poised to enter the modern age confident of their creative, as well as of their military and spiritual, power. The Safavid king who inspired them to some of their greatest achievements as a people, Abbas Shah, is still revered as a hero. He sat on the throne for more than forty years, from 1588 to 1629. His success in unifying his people and giving them a sense of shared destiny was at least as profound as the success of his contemporaries, Elizabeth I in Britain and Philip II in Spain. He built roads that brought European traders into Iranian cities and established workshops to produce silk, ceramics, and other products those traders wanted to buy. His bureaucracy collected taxes, enforced justice, and organized life as it had not been organized since the era of Cyrus and Darius two thousand years before.
Abbas fit the archetype of Iranian rulers not only because he was dedicated to bringing the best of the world into his kingdom. He was also typical because he imposed cruel tyranny and brooked no challenge to his absolutism. Torture and execution were commonplace during his reign. For years he locked his own sons inside the royal palace, allowing them the pleasure of concubines but denying them access to the education and training that would prepare them for future leadership—or, Abbas feared, for rebellion against his rule. He had his eldest son murdered and two other sons, two brothers, and his father blinded.
The greatest physical legacy Abbas left to posterity was his glorious capital, Isfahan, which he transformed into one of the world’s most splendid cities. To this day its soaring domes, intricately designed royal residences, and magnificently tiled prayer halls inspire awe in the visitor and justify what generations of Iranians have believed:
(Isfahan is half the world). Abbas brought Armenian craftsmen to help build his city, Dutch traders to expand the reach of its grand bazaar, and diplomats from around the world to give it a cosmopolitan air. Half a million people lived there, and few cities on earth could compete with its grandeur. Yet Isfahan came to symbolize not just Iran’s brilliance but also the dark sides of Abbas’s rule.
“Everything, from the ornamental profusion of the faience decoration of the mosques to the ponds and flower beds round the royal pavilions, bears the hallmark of an art that not only aimed at pleasing but was enhanced by the might and majesty of the sovereign,” one modern author has written. “Here we can best understand the peculiar mixture of cruelty and liberalism, barbarity and sophistication, magnificence and voluptuousness, that made up Persian civilization.”
Given the savagery with which Abbas Shah treated potential heirs to his throne, it is not surprising that Iran fell into disarray after his death. Neighbors began to prey on it, and in 1722 Afghan tribesmen swept down and overran it, even sacking Isfahan itself. The Afghans were finally expelled by the last of Iran’s great historical leaders, Nadir Shah, a Sunni Turk who then marched on to seize Delhi. One of the treasures he looted from Delhi was the jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne, which became a symbol of Iranian royalty. Nadir was assassinated in 1747, and after a series of power struggles that lasted nearly fifty years, a new dynasty, the Qajars, came to power.
The Qajars, a Turkic tribe based near the Caspian Sea, ruled Iran from the late eighteenth century until 1925. Their corrupt, small-minded kings bear heavy responsibility for the country’s poverty and backwardness. As much of the world rushed toward modernity, Iran under the Qajars stagnated.
“In a country so backward in constitutional progress, so destitute of forms and statutes and charters, and so firmly stereotyped in the immemorial traditions of the East, the personal element, as might be expected, is largely in the ascendant,” the British statesman Lord Curzon wrote toward the end of the Qajar period. “The government of Persia is little else than the arbitrary exercise of authority by a series of units in a descending scale from the sovereign to the headman of a petty village.”
Had Iran been governed during the nineteenth century by a strong and sophisticated regime, it might have managed to fend off the ambitions of foreign powers. The pressures, however, would have been intense in any case. Geography placed Iran in the way of that era’s two great imperial powers, Britain and Russia. When the British looked at Iran, they saw a nation that straddled the land route to India, their richest and most precious colony. The Russians, for their part, saw a chance to control a large swath of land across their exposed southern border. The fact that Iran was ruled by weak and self-involved monarchs made it too tantalizing for either empire to resist. Both rushed to fill the power vacuum left by the ignorant Qajars.
Qajar kings did not seem disturbed to see Iran slipping into subservience, or if they were, they determined to take what advantage they could of its seemingly unavoidable fate. In what turned out to be a great miscalculation, they presumed that the Iranian people would accept whatever their rulers dictated. But by their corruption and especially their willingness to allow Iran to slip under the domination of foreign powers, the Qajars fell out of step with their people and ultimately lost their right to rule, their
Armed with the Shiite principle that endows the ordinary citizen with inherent power to overthrow despotism, and with the ideals of the emerging new world, Iranians rebelled in a way their forefathers never had. Their demands were as astonishing as their rebellion itself: an end to the country’s domination by outside powers and a parliament to express the popular will. This was the most radical program Iranians had ever embraced. It would spell the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty and define all of Iran’s subsequent history.
The Last Drop of the Nation’s Blood
Democracy dawned in Iran one day in December 1891, when the Shah’s wives put aside their water pipes and vowed to smoke no more. It was no easy sacrifice. Tobacco was one of the great pleasures of harem life, and beauteous odalisques spent hours each day smoking it while reclining on lush divans. By renouncing it, they were defying the Shah, the institution of absolute monarchy, and the imperial system by which most of the world was ruled.
By the time the harem women took their fateful step, their husband, Nasir al-Din Shah, had been on the Peacock Throne for more than forty years. Like other Qajar rulers, he was famous for his excesses. His harem, where he spent much of his time, grew to sixteen hundred wives, concubines, and eunuchs. He fathered hundreds of princes, all of whom had free access to the national treasury. Garish clusters of jewels decorated his palaces. When he became bored by the pleasures of home, he would set out for Europe accompanied by a huge entourage. He demanded to be called not only Shah of Shahs but also Asylum of the Universe, Subduer of Climate, Arbitrator of His People, Guardian of the Flock, Conqueror of Lands, and Shadow of God on Earth. Those who refused to honor him were flogged, shot from cannons, buried alive, or set afire in public squares.
To support his lavish tastes, Nasir al-Din Shah sold government jobs, imposed oppressive taxes, and confiscated the fortunes of wealthy merchants. When there was no money left for him to take, he came up with the idea of raising cash by selling Iran’s patrimony to foreign companies and governments. The British were his first customers. British officials were worried by native uprisings in India and wanted a telegraph line to their command posts there. In 1857 they bought a concession to build one across Iran. French, German, and Austrian groups bought a variety of other concessions. A German-born British subject, Baron Julius de Reuter, of news agency fame, won the most breathtaking one of all. In 1872, for a paltry sum and a promise of future royalties, he acquired the exclusive right to run the country’s industries, irrigate its farmland, exploit its mineral resources, develop its railroad and streetcar lines, establish its national bank, and print its currency. Lord Curzon described this as “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has probably ever been dreamt of, much less accomplished, in history.”
Many were angered by the extreme one-sidedness of the Reuter concession. Iranian patriots, of whom there were already quite a number, were naturally outraged. So were merchants and businessmen, who saw their opportunities suddenly snatched away from them. Clerics feared for their status in a country so fully dominated by foreign interests. Russia, Iran’s most powerful neighbor, was alarmed to see a British concern take so much power just across its southern border. Even the British government, which Reuter had not consulted in negotiating the concession, doubted its wisdom. Finally, Nasir al-Din Shah realized that he had overstepped the limits of the possible, and he revoked the concession less than a year after granting it.
The Shah’s greed, however, did not allow him to abandon the idea of selling concessions. Over the next few years he sold three to British consortiums. One bought the mineral-prospecting rights that had briefly belonged to Reuter, another the exclusive right to establish banks, and a third the exclusive right to commerce along the Karun River, the only navigable waterway in Iran. Russia protested but was placated when the Shah sold Russian merchants the exclusive right to his caviar fisheries. Through these and other concessions, control over the nation’s most valuable assets passed from the hands of Iranians to those of foreigners. The money they brought into the Iranian treasury sustained the Shah’s lavish court for a while, but then, inevitably, it ran out. He raised more by borrowing from British and Russian banks.
As Iran sank ever deeper into the mire of poverty and dependence, a thirst for change gripped the population. Bazaars in large cities became hotbeds of protest. Religious reformers, Freemasons, and even socialists began spreading new and radical ideas. News about struggles for constitutional rule in Europe and the Ottoman Empire roused the literate classes. Provocative articles, books, and leaflets began to circulate.
Nasir al-Din Shah, isolated in the private world of the Qajar court, was oblivious to this rising discontent. In 1891 he sold the Iranian tobacco industry for the sum of £15,000. Under the terms of the concession, every farmer who grew tobacco was required to sell it to the British Imperial Tobacco Company, and every smoker had to buy it at a shop that was part of British Imperial’s retail network.
Iran was then, as it is today, both an agricultural country and a country of smokers. Many thousands of poor farmers across the country grew tobacco on small plots; a whole class of middlemen cut, dried, packaged, and distributed it; and countless Iranians smoked it. That this native product would now be taken from the people who produced it and turned into a tool for the exclusive profit of foreigners proved too great an insult. A coalition of intellectuals, farmers, merchants, and clerics, such as had never before been seen in Iran, resolved to resist. The country’s leading religious figure, Sheik Shirazi, endorsed their protest. In a shattering act of rebellion, he endorsed a
or religious order, declaring that as long as foreigners controlled the tobacco industry, smoking would constitute defiance of the Twelfth Imam, “may God hasten his appearance.” News of his order flashed across the country through telegraph wires the British had built several decades earlier. Almost all who heard it obeyed. Nasir al-Din Shah was bewildered, frightened, and then overwhelmed by the unanimity of the protest. When his own wives stopped smoking, he realized that he had no choice but to cancel the concession. To add to the indignity, he had to borrow half a million pounds from a British bank to compensate British Imperial for its loss.
History changes course when people realize there is an alternative to blind obedience. Martin Luther’s challenge to established Christianity, the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, and the Boston Tea Party were such moments. For Iran, the beginning of the end of absolutism came with the Tobacco Revolt. It ushered in a new political age. No longer would Iranians remain passive while the Qajar dynasty oppressed them and sold their nation’s patrimony to foreigners.
After several years during which he drifted ever further from his royal duties and from reality itself, Nasir al-Din Shah was shot to death in 1896 while visiting a mosque near Tehran. Few mourned him. He left behind a country dominated by foreigners and plagued by widespread unemployment, crippling inflation, and serious food shortages. His son Muzzaffar, who succeeded him on the Peacock Throne, ignored his people’s crying needs and wallowed in all the vices that led Iranians to hate the Qajars. Soon after ascending to the throne, he embarked on a lavish European tour, paid for with money borrowed from a Russian bank. Upon his return he took out another loan, this one from British financiers, and gave them in exchange a share of his customs revenue. Disgusted Iranians began denouncing him in public. When he responded by arresting some of the agitators, antigovernment riots broke out in Tehran and other cities.
Instead of trying to rally Iranians to his side, Muzzaffar al-Din Shah took a step that further inflamed them. In 1901 he sold William Knox D’Arcy, a London-based financier, the “special and exclusive privilege to obtain, exploit, develop, render suitable for trade, carry away and sell natural gas [and] petroleum … for a term of sixty years.” It would be nearly a decade before D’Arcy struck oil and even longer before his concession turned into a blunt instrument of British imperial policy. Simply by granting it, however, Muzzaffar al-Din Shah shaped all of subsequent Iranian history.
In the decade since the Tobacco Revolt, the political consciousness of Iranians had grown enormously. Their belief that God requires leaders to rule justly, a central tenet of Shiite doctrine, led many to embrace the ideals of popular sovereignty that were coursing through society. By the time the twentieth century dawned, some had even begun to doubt the very principle of monarchy. Secret societies dedicated to subversion were formed in several cities. Books about the French Revolution, including several that glorified Danton and Robespierre, began passing from hand to eager hand. A sense of unlimited possibility gained strength with news that the supposedly invincible British were losing battles to upstart Boers in South Africa. It was reinforced by the turmoil of 1905 in Russia, where military defeat at the hands of Japan led to a revolt that forced Czar Nicholas II to accept a parliament. The stage was set for revolution in Iran. All that was needed was a spark to set the nation ablaze.
The spark came in December 1905, when a handful of merchants in Tehran were arrested in a dispute over sugar prices. They were subjected to the
a favorite Qajar punishment in which victims were hung by their wrists and thrashed on the soles of their feet. The bazaar erupted in protest. At first, the rioters demanded only dismissal of the local governor who had ordered the beatings. Then, sensing their rising power, they began calling for reduced taxes. Finally, at one of their climactic meetings, they added an astonishing new demand: “In order to carry out reforms in all affairs, it is necessary to establish … a national consultative assembly to insure that the law is executed equally in all parts of Iran, so that there can be no difference between high and low, and all may obtain redress of their grievances.”
This demand soon subsumed all others. With his people on the brink of revolt, Muzzaffar al-Din Shah had no choice but to accept the idea that Iran should have a parliament. After agreeing, however, he began to stall and for several months did nothing to bring the idea to fruition. The protest movement swelled anew. Islamic clerics took a leading role. Some invoked the authority of the Shiite martyr Hussein, vowing to defend the poor even if it meant exposing themselves, as he did, to the sword of evil. Thrilled by this rhetoric, throngs of people took to the streets in the summer of 1906. Emotions reached a feverish pitch, and several hundred radicals, seeking to organize themselves in a place where troops could not attack them, decided to take
or refuge, on the grounds of a diplomatic mission. They chose the British Legation, a sprawling compound with lands covering the space of sixteen city blocks. Most of the Legation staff was away on summer holiday, and its secretary told the protesters that although he wished they would find another sanctuary, he would not, “in view of the acknowledged custom in Persia and the immemorial right of
… use, or cause to be used, force to expel them if they came.” Before long, fourteen thousand Iranians were inside the compound. They lived in tents according to their guilds and ate from great cauldrons of food prepared in a common kitchen.
This assemblage quickly turned into a school at which the principles of democracy formed the core curriculum. Every day, articles from reformist newspapers were read aloud to the multitude, agitators gave speeches about social progress, and foreign-educated intellectuals translated the works of European philosophers. The Shah, disconcerted but still failing to grasp the intensity of the movement, offered to name a council that would help run the justice ministry. That was not nearly enough to satisfy the protesters. They wanted a Majlis, or parliament, with true power, not simply an advisory council.
“The law must be what the Majlis decides,” they declared in one statement. “Nobody is to interfere in the laws of the Majlis.”
The Shah finally agreed, although without enthusiasm and with the proviso that laws passed by the Majlis would require his signature before taking effect. This was a climactic moment, comparable in some ways to the signing of the Magna Carta in England seven centuries before. One British diplomat cabled his amazement back to London: “One remarkable feature of this revolution here—for it is surely worthy to be called a revolution—is that the priesthood have found themselves on the side of progress and freedom. This, I should think, is almost unexampled in the world’s history. If the reforms which the people, with their help, have fought for become a reality, all their power will be gone.”
Having won the Shah’s reluctant assent, jubilant protesters left their sanctuary and set to work laying the groundwork for what many believed would be a new Iran. They produced a draft constitution based on Belgium’s, which was considered the most progressive in Europe, and convoked national elections for a two-hundred-seat Majlis. Some members were directly elected and others chosen from guilds, one each for the grocers, blacksmiths, printers, butchers, watchmakers, doctors, tailors, and so on. They assembled for their historic first session on October 7, 1906.
A host of troubles faced the new Majlis. The haste with which the new system had been designed and the inexperience of those who now sought to help rule Iran threw it into discord. Many deputies were uneducated, and there were no political parties to forge them into blocs. Debates over the proposed constitution faltered because no one was quite sure how to divide the powers of government. To make matters worse, it had to be written in great haste because Muzzaffar al-Din Shah was dying and his crown prince, Mohammad Ali, was known to detest the very idea of democratization. It was finally adopted on December 30, 1906, setting Iran on what would be a century of highly uneven progress toward democracy. A week later Muzzaffar al-Din Shah died.
The new monarch, Mohammad Ali Shah, ridiculed and ignored the Majlis. Several deputies demanded that he be deposed if he continued his resistance. Monarchists bitterly counterattacked, and violent debate, often echoed by clashes in the streets, shook the capital. Regional and tribal factions, encouraged by bribes and corrupt arrangements, staged protests that greatly weakened the constitutional movement. Ordinary people began to associate the word
with upheaval and conflict.