1979 Revisited: Judging the Iranian Revolution
James Buchan, Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Everyone has his or her own judgment as to what is the enduring lesson of the Iranian Revolution. Some are rooted in economic determinism, while others may find strength among social theories. To James Buchan, an Oxford-trained Persianist, it is personalities that matter. Any reader who picks up Days of God, Buchan’s emotive and fact-filled read, will come to appreciate the personalities and narratives that drove events in Iran in the 20th century. Moreover, readers will be familiarized with the legacy of a handful of individuals who altered the course of modern Iranian history. In short, Days of God is the story of Reza Shah Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as much as it is a story of Iran.
In Buchan’s powerful appraisal of the events that led up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the stage is not set in the 1970s. Rather, he takes the reader back to the foundation of the Pahlavi dynasty (1920s), where its two modernizing monarchs — Reza Pahlavi and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — drastically altered Iranian society in their quest for modernity. Concurrently, Buchan explores the social, political, and religious impediments to their rule. In considering the formative opposition to the Pahlavi state within the context of Cold War, anti-imperialist, and Islamist ideologies, Buchan foreshadows the philosophies that would come to form the intellectual backbone of the Islamic Republic.
The reader is led chronologically through developments on the Iranian political landscape from the early 1900s, culminating in a section on the bloody Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) and a short — perhaps too short — epilogue on developments in Iran since the end of the war. On a more research-oriented point, Buchan provides an extensive notes section. Persianists, historians and political scientists alike will benefit greatly from his notes chapter. All would do well to check out the memoirs and biographies that Buchan draws upon to shape a narrative for the trajectory of the Iranian Revolution.
Throughout the book, Buchan’s personality-driven account reads like a tragedy from Aeschylus. Buchan captures the main contradictions in each Iranian leader and fleshes them out, highlighting powerful paradoxes in their identities. This is a worthwhile approach to understanding the men who made modern Iran.
Regarding Reza Shah, whom historians credit as solidifying and modernizing the Iranian state with an eye towards the West, Buchan highlights his military experience in the Persian Cossack Brigade as formative to his worldview and ultimately his governance of Iran (1925–1941). He relates:
What Reza took from his thirty-year service with the Cossacks was a soldier’s way of life, an autocratic cast of mind, a contempt for civilians and clergymen, and the bullying and cussing still rife in the Russian army today.
Conversely, Reza’s larger-than-life legacy as a forceful figure is tempered by his reaction while in exile to a sound recording from his son, Mohammad Reza. After hearing the recording, Reza Shah responds to his son and marks his exit from Buchan’s account with these words: “These invisible waves, penetrating my heart, re-formed into your darling voice, sweet light of my eyes.” For the reader who will come to be acquainted with Reza’s character, words like those will be a body blow to impressions of him.
Of Reza’s son, Mohammad Reza, who in time would gain the moniker the last Shah of Iran, Buchan highlights equally contradictory parts of his personality and legacy. Despite Mohammad Reza’s relentless pursuit of modernization and development, Buchan’s attention to detail in the historical record brings forth mystical and even fatalistic elements of the late Shah’s character. In briefly fleeing Iran during the 1953 oil-crisis and subsequent coup, “Mohammad Reza disbursed 100 of the 280 Iraqi dinars he had with him” at a Shi’ite holy shrine in Karbala, Iraq. A little over 20 years later, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would be in exile from his homeland again, dying in Egypt. Buchan notes that, “Mohammad Reza breathed his last with the box of Iranian soil beneath his pillow.”
For readers of mainstream history, Mohammad Reza may appear as a nationalist crusader against religion. Yet, as Buchan describes in his text, strategic reasons such as the domestic need to combat communism, and personal reasons such as belief in divine guidance may reveal why Mohammad Reza, in contradiction to his father, never fully moved against the religious establishment. Ironically, that establishment is what subsumed his state.
On Khomeini, despite Buchan’s open declaration that Reza Shah Pahlavi “was the most influential Iranian of the last century,” it is the Ayatollah who stands out to the reader as most pivotal to the Iranian political process. Khomeini’s life is impeccably detailed through his years in the seminary, in opposition, in exile, in triumphant return, and as Iran’s leader. Despite this detail, when it comes to Khomeini, Buchan is no relativist. He contrasts the man of God with what he wrought on earth. Near the end of the book, Buchan reminds the reader that Khomeini was no ordinary Islamist revolutionary:
It is said that once in Isfahan, the great Safavid divine Majlisi gave an apple to a Jew. Once in Tyre in the 1970s, Moussa Sadr bought an ice cream from a Christian. No such stories are told of Ruhollah Khomeini.
What’s more, in a powerful transition to the epilogue, Buchan’s thoughts about Khomeini and his legacy are summarized: “We wonder how, precisely, he explained to God the spots of blood on his robe and turban and the boys he left behind at Fish Lake.” Seldom do historians of Iran ponder this question out loud.
Focusing so much on identity and its political evolution does come with its drawbacks, however. Days of God would have benefitted greatly had it dipped deeper into other moments in modern Iranian history, such as the hostage crisis (1979–1981) for instance. Buchan does not delve into the crisis as deeply as earlier accounts, best typified by the one written by Shaul Bakhash in 1990, which recounted the fall of the provisional Bazargan government with an eye towards partisan developments in Iran. Regarding the Iran–Iraq War, the famous conditions that led Ayatollah Khomeini to drink from a “chalice of poison” are well outlined, but the conflict could have used a more expansive primer. More could have also been said on Khomeini’s attempts to export the Islamic Revolution, the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and of course, the impact of the Iran–Iraq War on Iran’s strategic situation to date. To his credit, Buchan does a good job of highlighting the domestic debate in Iran to invade Iraq in 1982. But given his demonstrated ability to tap into Persian sources, a reader well acquainted with Iran may be compelled to ask for more when it comes to wartime personalities.
In the epilogue, Buchan delves into the contemporary issues plaguing the Islamic Republic, from the challenges surrounding its nuclear program to the debate over domestic reform. For a book that boasts the word “consequences” in the subtitle, Days of God seems to run out of space to explain them. This, however, does not detract from Buchan’s clarity. On the nuclear program, he is curt but lucid, and hits at what many brilliant analysts in Washington, D.C., still miss — namely, that a “nuclear weapon suits the regime’s strategic interests.”
He also has insights for policymakers. In detailing Iranian negotiating behavior in the past century, Buchan writes that, “on four occasions Iran persisted with a weak hand long after it should have folded … Each time, Iran’s intransigence revealed not strength but weakness and, each time, it underestimated the bloody-mindedness of its adversaries.” This is a prophetic note. Should readers ponder this point further, they will quickly infer a fifth instance: the current talks over the Iranian nuclear program. Despite the ongoing negations, will inflexibility yield for Iran what it wants in terms of a nuclear program, or will it only lead to its increased isolation and inability to affect outcomes? Here the book could have used an explicit examination of the personalities behind Iran’s nuclear program, and Khomeini’s successor as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Too often, accounts of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath become exercises in methodology, with priority being given to theory or indicators. In turn, such accounts do not permit the reader to appreciate fully the differing personalities who inherited power in Iran across regimes. Buchan’s account stands out, not only due to its impressive notes section and Persian language primary source material, but because of this personal recognition. Indeed, there is something of “great man history” in Buchan’s pages, which is not impeded by structural limitations.
On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Buchan has done the seemingly impossible when it comes to the legacy of the 1979 Revolution in Iran — he accurately distills it into an evocative one-line sentence. With the distance and perspective of 30-plus years, Buchan notes, “What the Iranians most wished for they never gained, and what they most sought to preserve they lost.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The opinions expressed in this review are his own.
Photo credit: A.Davey