THE IRANIANS: PERSIA, ISLAM, AND THE SOUL OF A NATION (1996)
by Sandra Mackey
Reviewed by Mark Dankof for Christian News and Freedom Writer (www.freedomwriter.com)
• Published by Plume • an imprint of Dutton Signet, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. • Penguin Putnam Inc. • 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014 USA • ISBN 0-452-27563-6 (Paperback–$15.95–442 pages) • ISBN 0-525-94005-7 (Hardcover) •
Let not this body live if there is no Iran
-- The Persian poet, Ferdowsi, 10th century, in chiseled script on his tomb near Tus. --
Events of September 11, 2001 necessitate further acquaintance in the Western world with the best literature on the Middle East generally and the nation of Iran specifically. Any attempt at the development of a compendium of such works for the American reading public will, of necessity, include Sandra Mackey’s 1996 work, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation.
The Preface and Introduction provide an excellent sketch and overview of the panoply of issues and problems presented by any informed, responsible consideration of the past history of Iran. This is accompanied by thoughtful reflection upon the derivative implications for contemporary political and cultural problems in that country, especially in its relationship to the Western powers. In these initial pages of the book, Mackey reminds the reader of a series of facts and strands in the history of the Iranian landscape, some of which the present American political leadership and its counterpart in the mainstream electronic and print media would prefer to be lost to the public in a convenient case of utilitarian amnesia.
Three points made in the Preface and Introduction are worth special emphasis because they provide the framework for the comprehensive material which follows, taking the reader from the initial days of ancient Persia under the Achaemenid kings to the present post-Khomeini period in Iran. They include: 1) Mackey’s case that the geopolitical realities of Iran make it a nation of ongoing importance to the United States in the post-Cold War period; 2) that Iran is a mosaic of tribal and linguistic configurations whose existence has provided tremendous difficulty historically for central governments in Tehran as well as for outside foreign interventionists, notably Russia, Britain, and the United States; and most critically of all, that 3) the dual identity of modern Iran is linked both to the zenith of the power of pre-Islamic, Achaemenid Persia, as well as to its Islamic roots located both in the 7th century advent of Islam in Iran through Arab invasion, as well as to the 16th century when Shiite Islam officially became the state religion of Iran.
In regard to the geopolitical realities of Iran and its continued importance to the United States, Mackey states that Iran "constitutes the great strategic prize, or the great strategic peril, of the industrialized West (Preface, xx)." Her succinct reasoning may also have applicability to the larger, unstated agenda inherent in the current conflict in Afghanistan:
Five years later, Mackey could have added, "Afghanistan," where Unocal and other Western oil and natural gas companies, formulating in consortiums, have concluded that oil and natural gas pipelines from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan need a direct route from the "Stans" to the Arabian Sea, a linear line which would place them through the heart of Afghanistan, including the cities of Herat and Kandahar. And in this complicated geopolitical arena, the Iranian links to the Hazara and the "Cyprus Group" factions in the Northern Alliance may be of critical importance to the West, and to its recently concluded consortium arrangements like CentGas where Unocal and other companies desire to tap the natural gas reserves of Dauletabad field in southeastern Turkmenistan, where a certified 25 trillion cubic feet of gas reside for the shrewdest players with the most strategically placed janissaries.
This strategy is not without political, military, and moral risk, both to the indigenous of the region as well as to Western, Russian, and Chinese players in the natural resources auction. For historical perspective on the inherent dangers of such a game, Mackey reminds the reader that the United States, Western European powers, and the Arab oil states bankrolled the presently demonized Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Khomeini’s Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. That Hussein is now considered a major strategic threat to the West in terms of bioterrorism, suitcase nuclear weaponry, and developed networks of terror in the United States and Europe is now acknowledged publicly, minus the historical perspective on the identities of his original handlers. The other historic piece of the puzzle, completely suppressed by Western governments and the mainstream media was the utter devastation wrought by Iraq on Iran over eight years, to the tune of a million and a half casualties. For Mackey, the Iranian border town of Abadan provides the reader with a microcosmic glimpse of the suffering and destruction brought upon the Iranian nation:
The ethnic, tribal, and linguistic diversities of Iran are then underscored by Mackey as a second major consideration to be understood and appreciated by the reader as well as the Western policy maker in the region. Utilizing the imagery of the Persian carpet as a microcosm of Iran itself, the author proceeds to describe Iran as a "complex pattern of ethnic groups, languages, religions, and regions" (p. 2) with a ". . . diversity bred by location." Placed between the steppes of Asia and the Fertile Crescent, Iran serves as the "stepping stone between East and West." The open corridor of the Iranian plateau attracted waves of nomadic tribes; it also attracted a series of invaders including the Arab, Turk, and Mongol. Some of the invaders were "digested by the culture they had challenged" but some were "never completely absorbed." Mackey traces the original Iranians to the Persians who settled about one millennium B. C. on Iran’s high central plateau, descendants of an Indo-European group that originally migrated out of central Asia, known as the Aryans. It is for this group that Iran, "the land of the Aryans," would be named.
In contemporary times, the Persians are the largest and most important group in Iran, comprising approximately 50 percent of the Iranian population. They all speak Farsi and almost all adhere to the Shiite branch of Islam. But the author reminds the reader of the 12 million Azerbaijanis who speak Turkish rather than Farsi, and of the 6 million Kurds who have never assimilated into the larger Persian culture and who have posited a continuous challenge to Iranian governments for most of the last century. Mackey discusses the role played by large, historically nomadic tribes which also "strain against the authority of the Iranian state" (p. 4). These number as many as 400, including the 1 million Baluchis of southeastern Iran, the 700,000 Lurs from the central Zagros Mountains, and the 1 million Bakhtiari in the southern Zagros, all of whom share language and religion with the Persians. Other significant groupings include the 1.2 million Turkomans emanating from the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea who speak a Turkish dialect and follow Sunni Islam, and the approximately 1 million Qashqais of central Iran who speak a Turkish dialect and ignore religion. Iran possesses 500,000 Arabs, concentrated in the southwestern province of Khuzistan, the only speakers of Arabic in Iran. Gilakis and Mazanderanis, numbering approximately 2.5 million, live in their folk culture on the Caspian Sea’s coastal plain. Added to these tribalisms are the influence of religion in Iranian culture, comprising not only the state religion of Shiite Islam, but pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, Christianity (Eastern Orthodox Assyrians, Protestants, and Armenians), Judaism, and the ostracized Bahai faith, considered by the Shiites to be a dangerous, heretical sect within their midst.
Finally, it is Mackey’s third major introductory point which serves as the thesis which weaves and threads throughout the entire narrative of 410 pages. She posits an identity struggle within the soul of every Iranian, between the apex of power in ancient Persia under the Achaemenid dynasty on the one hand, and the powerful grip on the Iranian psyche held by Islam since the 7th century, an Islam given a specific Persian twist in the Shiite version of the faith. The author explains this dichotomous struggle within the Iranian quest for definition and being on pages 5 and 6:
With this third premise as the foundational thesis of the entire narrative, the reader can then delve into the wealth of material presented in thirteen (13) chapters divided into four (4) parts. Part One is invaluable for its presentation of the material on pre-Islamic ancient Persia and the subsequent invasion of Islam in the seventh century. In discussing the 1200 years between the founding of the Persian Empire and the arrival of Islam in the 7th century A. D., Mackey covers the four major dynasties of the pre-Islamic Iran–the Achaemenid, the Selucid, the Parthian, and the Sassanian. Key to the contribution of this span of time is what the author refers to as the "three predominant themes" developed and handed down by these empires to subsequent Iranian generations down to the present. They are the "concepts of a powerful king ruling in the name of justice, the continuity of a distinct culture, and a sense of nationhood rooted more in cultural identity than in either government or territory" (p. 14). Mackey’s material and insights regarding the central importance of Cyrus the Great to Iranian history as the pivotal king of the Achaemenid dynasty is critical, along with her developed arguments and proffered information for the centrality of the Zoroastrian religion in "laying down the cornerstone of Persian civilization" (p. 16). In a cosmic dualism posited by the conflict between Ahura Mazda the Creator who is goodness and light, and Ahriman who is wickedness and death, Zoroastrianism emphasizes the free will of each individual in making the decision to stand with Ahura Mazda or Ahriman, in a realm where good works, good thoughts, and good deeds should be undertaken by men and women who "have been set at the center of a flawed world to serve as perfecter and redeemer" (p. 16). Zoroastrianism possesses a strong social content, where religion is "not only spiritual but political" (p.17). On pages 23 and 24 of the narrative, the reader is given a synopsis of the blending of Zoroastrian theology with Persian concepts of justice and sacred kingship rooted in "the farr–the sign of divine favor." The presence of the farr, or its perceived absence, would prove critical in the Persian evaluation of any leader, from Cyrus, Darius, and Abbas I to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini:
Zoroastrianism, however, would be "fatally implicated" (p.38) in the disasters wrought on Persia during the Sassanian dynasty (208-637) and the reigns of Ardeshir, Shapour I, and Khosrow I. While the Sassanian epoch would initially provide a renaissance of Persian culture, the charisma of kingship, and the Zoroastrian religion, it would later degenerate into a monarchial obsession with control and power, the introduction of an extreme social stratification in Persian society, and an alliance between the king and Zoroastrianism which no longer served the noble, cosmic battle between good and evil, but which allowed "the state to exercise its will and religion to protect its position" (p.38). In this regard, the increasing irrelevancy of Zoroastrianism to the Persian quest for justice and divine kingship set the stage for the introduction of Islam in Iran in the 7th century.
It is in the final two chapters of Part One where Mackey discusses the invasion of Islam into Iran in the 7th century, the Persian modification of the Arabic version of Islam, and the subsequent ramifications for issues of God and State in the entire history of Iran to follow. The historical particulars of Mohammad’s rise in Mecca, his alleged revelation from the angel Gabriel, and the socio-political dimensions of his revelation in regard to his public criticisms of the Quraysh, the clan of mercantile families among Meccan merchants, are all covered in great detail. Subsequently, the author weaves into the historical narrative an explanation for the eventual successful exportation of Islam into Persia through Arab military invasion–the exhaustion of the Sassanian Persian empire after centuries of warfare with Byzantium. In their last stand at Istakhr in Fars in 648-49, the Persians were pummeled in a siege that ended in the slaughter of 40,000 people and the Arab desecration of Persepolis in a desecration of the great Persian symbol of Achaemenid glories past, faintly reminiscent of the earlier, more vast destruction wrought by Alexander the Great circa 332 B. C. By 651, the Arab conquest of Persian territories under an Arab state was achieved for reasons articulated on pages 47 and 48 of the narrative:
Mackey then proceeds to discuss one of the greatest paradoxes in history--the burgeoning disdain and resentment of the Arabs in Persia coupled with the ongoing impact and acceptance of Islam in Persia, despite its Arabic origins and military exportation. This paradox would become best embodied in the 10th century Persian poet, Ferdowsi, born in 935 near Mashhad in northeastern Iran. Undertaking a commission from the Mahmud of Ghazan, Ferdowsi proceeded to spend the next thirty five years penning the sixty-thousand line Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. The Shahnameh takes the reader through a linear line of a thousand years of history from the Achaemenids to the Sassanians, from the beginning of the Iranians to the intrusion of the Arabs. Mackey refers to the work as the poet’s articulation of the "cosmic struggle over the complexity of the cultural conflict between pre-Islamic Iranian identity and Arab Muslim religious beliefs. . . . written in the context of faith in Allah, the Shahnameh nonetheless resurrects Iranian identity within the world of Islam by celebrating the history and mythology of Persian kingship" (p. 62). And while the reader is encouraged throughout the narrative to see the development of the Shiite version of Islam, expressed in the belief in Ali (an Arab) as First Imam, Hossein, the martyred at Karbala in 680 as Third Imam, and Sufism and Twelver Shiism (p. 77-78) as other Persian adaptations and revisions of the original Arabic Sunni faith, the quoted, bitter words of Ferdowsi are striking in expressing the unresolved psychic, spiritual, and political paradox of Iranian nationalism accepting a foreign faith exported by sword as part of its ongoing identity:
This paradox would never depart the Iranian consciousness. The reader learns in subsequent pages about the importance of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century in recovering reconstituted Iran’s rough borders under the pre-Islamic Sassanian Persia. Under Ismail (1501-1524) and later under Shah Abbas I (1588-1629), this political recovery and military renaissance against foreign incursion took place under the ideological banner of Twelver Shiite Islamic theology. Ismail’s employment of Twelver Shiism as the official state religion of Safavid Persia is credited by Mackey with providing Iran the clear differentiation from the Sunni Ottoman Empire that it needed, giving Iran the specific territorial and political identity that had been sought since the 7th century Arab conquest. As she puts it, "Through the Shia sect, the inhabitants of historic Iran could be Muslims within a specific Iranian identity. Shiism also gave a religious basis to the Iranians’ instinct of self-preservation and self-assertion" (p.85). Yet the 16th century Safavid dynasty, the foundation of modern Iran, underscores the tension between king and cleric, between Persia and Islam, which would repristinate itself in the tragedy of the Pahlavi dynasty and the ongoing groping for political and cultural stability in post-Muhammad Reza Shah, post-Khomeini Iran. Page 90 summarizes this "bedeviling dichotomy":
Finally, Mackey organizes her discussion of the 20th century Iranian political scene into an examination of the three (3) seismic political upheavals which occurred in this time frame–1) The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911; 2) the Nationalist Revolt of 1951-1953; and 3) the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She describes all three manifestations as "parallel movements driven by the same core issues: opposition to a corrupt, unjust king and resentment against the intrusion of foreign powers into Iran" (p. 124).
In many respects, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 provided a proleptic view of what would engulf Iran in 1979 with competing indigenous political forces expressed in terms of 1) an ancient Persian view of monarchy; 2) the advocates of a constitutional legislature rooted in conceptions akin to Western liberalism’s notions of expressive democracy or republic; and finally, 3) the insistent agenda of the Shiite ulama and mujtahids ("Islamic jurists") in underscoring the importance of sharia (Islamic law) in providing the ultimate foundation of Iranian political and societal governance. All of this took place against the ubiquitous backdrop of British and Russian intervention and competition in Iran, culminating in the 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement which divided the nation into a Russian zone in the north and a British zone in the south. Mackey’s verdict on the Constitutional verdict on page 155 would be repristinated in the tragedy of 1979:
Mackey also advances the interesting thesis that the role of the United States in deposing Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, with its infamous Operation Ajax under the aegis of Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA, reinforced the tragic "bedeviling dichotomy" of Pahlavi absolutism and the alternative Islamic theocracy under the Velayat-e Faqih ("The Guardianship of the Jurist") of Ayatollah Khomeini as he fully developed its ideology by the end of the 1960s. Dismissing the Tudeh Communist Party of Iran as wedded to the Soviet Union and devoid of broad-based nationalistic appeal in Iran, Mackey proceeds to depict Mossadeq’s budding coalition as a promising one gathered around the National Front (p. 196f), a diverse collection of political groups dating to the late 1940s. The members of this Front were overwhelmingly middle class, Western educated, and saw themselves as the true heirs to the Constitutionalist movement of 1905-1911. Young intellectuals like Mehdi Bazargan, Shahpur Bakhtiar, Karim Sanjabi, and Allahyar Saleh, who would surface again in 1979 as a futile alternative to the Pahlavi/Khomeini showdown, stood against absolute monarchy and the foreign domination of Britain through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Page 196 advances their basic agenda:
Mackey goes into considerable historical detail about the events leading to the demise of the National Front, and the rise and fall of Mohammed Mossadeq, including his alliance with Ayatollah Sayyed Abol-Qasem Kashani. Kashani, who bucked most of the hierarchy of the clerics to directly intervene in the Iranian political scene over British and AIOC influence in Iran, would later desert Mossadeq over the latter’s view that Shiite Islam was but an element of a wider Iranian society. The defection of Kashani and the non-participation of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the Shia hierarchy in Mossadeq’s movement became absolutely critical when the Prime Minister’s July 1951 eviction notice to all British employees of AIOC began to backfire on the Iranian economy. Described by the author as a man "possessing a magnificent courage to challenge" and who "sadly lacked the capacity to construct" (p. 200), the economic cataclysm created for Mossadeq an edge-of-the-ledge political perch he could not survive when the powerful merchants, much of the army, many of the court, and all elements of the National Front drawn to him solely on the basis of his anti-British policies, deserted. This left the Tudeh Communist Party of Iran as the strongest organized political force in the country, as described on pages 202 and 203:
The final conclusion to this epic would be reserved for 1979. The long-term aftermath of the short term success of the Dulles/Roosevelt Operation Ajax in 1953, which eliminated the threat of a Soviet backed Communist takeover in Iran, would be both tragic and legion. The United States would replace Britain as the hated Western power destroying Iranian sovereignty and denying the quest of both Islamic and Western oriented intellectuals for justice. It would be the United States who would be linked to the most egregious complaints of the masses against the Pahlavi regime from 1953 to 1979, beginning in earnest with the aftermath of the Shah’s failed White Revolution land reform policies of June 1963, urged on him by John Kennedy. It would ultimately be the United States held responsible for the excesses of the hated U. S. and Israeli trained SAVAK secret police and the Shah’s failed arms-for-oil policy which accelerated after 1973. The perceived repression of the Pahlavi regime; its loss of the concept of the farr, the divine favor visited on ancient Persian kings who ruled in the context of social justice and communal good; and the political evisceration of Iran’s Western educated, political center in the wake of the tragedy of the National Front of 1953, all paved the way for the sole emergence of Shiite Islam as the vehicle of political expression and liberation of the Iranian masses. Largely unnoticed by the Western intelligence community and policy makers, a series of nineteen lectures were being delivered in Najaf, Iraq between January 21 and February 8, 1970, an ominous harbinger of things yet to come:
Mackey’s work, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation, is a magnum opus. Comprehensive in scope and scholarship, articulate yet readable, its historical sketch and analysis of the most significant issues confronting Iran from the Achaemenid dynasty to the post-Khomeini era is required reading for any Western reader desirous of a basic window of exposure to the Iranian psyche occupied by the dual tracks of pre-Islamic Persia and contemporary Shiite Islamic Iran. These dual tracks are again manifest in the current conflict in Iran between Reformist members of the Majlis and the clerically backed Council of Guardians and Assembly for Discerning the Interests of the State (ADIS). They are reflected in the ongoing tension between moderate President Mohammed Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic. In these newly emerging disputes, old, repristinated themes and scenarios reemerge in the political and ideological landscape of the enigma and mystery of Iran. For the West generally, and the United States specifically, they again embody the identity of Iran as the great strategic prize, or the great strategic peril, of the industrialized West.
The Selected Bibliography at the work’s conclusion is generally excellent and informative. It would have been more well served had it included Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s final work and response to his critics, entitled Answer to History (1980).
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