SOVEREIGNTY, AUTHORITY, AND POWER
MRS. WOOD'S HOMEPAGE
INTRODUCTION TO IRAN
SOVEREIGNTY, AUTHORITY, AND POWER
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHANGE
CITIZEN, STATE. AND SOCIETY
An early Iranian concept of sovereignty can be traced to the days of the ancient Achemenian Empire (called Persia by the Greeks) that existed as the world’s largest empire from its founding by Cyrus in the 6th century B.C.E. till its defeat some 200 years later. Iran’s greatest rival was ancient Greece, and the two civilizations couldn’t have been more different. Greece was divided into quarreling city-states and its economy and transportation was heavily reliant on the sea. In contrast, Iran emerged from the dry lands north of the Persian Gulf and spread its power through highly centralized military leadership by land as far as the Aegean Sea, where its interests conflicted with those of the Greeks. The clash between two great civilizations may be seen as the first act of a drama that has played out over the centuries: West vs. East. Ironically, both civilizations were conquered by a Macedonian, Alexander the Great, but Alexander’s affinity for the Greeks led him to spread their culture to lands that he conquered. Less well known is the fact that Alexander much admired the Persian political structure, and left it largely in place as he conquered their lands.
The Iranian sovereigns were always hereditary military leaders who very much enjoyed the trappings of royalty. One king, Darius, built a magnificent capital at Persepolis, and joined his new city to many parts of the ancient world by an intricate system of roads that carried his armies all over and allowed people from many lands to pay tribute to him. His title was “The Great King, King of Kings, King in Persia, King of countries,” and he referred to everyone, even the Persian nobility, as “my slaves.” The king’s authority was supported by a strong military as well as a state-sponsored religion, Zoroastrianism.
Although none of the rulers of empires that followed were able to centralize power so successfully as the Achemenians did, the stage was set for the authoritarian state. Zoroastrianism did not survive as a major religion, but it continued to be sponsored by rulers for centuries, including those of the Sassanid Dynasty (226-651 C.E.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF SHI’ISM
From the 7th to 16th centuries C.E., the geographical region of Iran had little political unity, and experienced numerous invasions, including that of the Arabs, who brought Islam to the area. What emerged was a new glue that held the Persians together - not political, but religious in nature. As a result, even when their caliphate (an Islamic empire put in place by the Arabs) was defeated by the mighty Mongols in the 13th century, the religion survived the chaos as the invaders converted to the religion of the conquered. Despite the political leadership changing hands many times over the years, the religion of Islam continued to be a source of identity for the Iranians.
The brand of Islam that distinguishes Iran from its neighbors today - Shi’ism - was established as the state religion in the 16th century by Ismail, the founder of the Safavid Empire. Ismail and his qizilbash (“redheads,” because of their colorful turbans) were supporters of this sect of Islam that had quarreled bitterly with Sunni Muslims for centuries. The division originated after the religion’s founder, Muhammad, died without a designated heir, a significant problem since his armies had conquered many lands. The Sunnis favored choosing the caliph (leader) from the accepted leadership (the Sunni), but the Shi’ites argued that the mantle should be hereditary, and should pass to Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali. When Ali was killed in the dispute, the Shi’ite opinion became a minority one, but they kept their separate identity, and carried the belief that the true heirs of Islam were the descendants of Ali. These heirs, called imams, continued until the 9th century, when the 12th descendant disappeared as a child, only to become known as the “Hidden Imam.”
When Ismail established Iran as a Shi’ite state in the 16th century, he distinguished it as different from all Sunni states around him, a characteristic that still exists today. He gave political legitimacy to the belief that the “Hidden Imam” would eventually return, but until he did, the rulers of Iran stood in his place as the true heirs of Islam.
LEGITIMACY IN THE MODERN STATE
To a remarkable extent, these historical influences still shape the modern state. Authoritarian leaders played an important role in the 20th century as the Pahlavi shahs (“King of Kings,” or “shah in shah”) ruled from 1925 to 1979. Their attempts to secularize the state, though, were undone by a charismatic leader - the Ayatollah Khomeini - who personified the union of political and religious interests from ancient days. His appeal may be likened to that of Ismail - the protector of the “true faith” that unites the Shi’ite religion with the power of the state. The Ayatollah was hailed as the “Leader of the Revolution, Founder of the Islamic Republic, Guide of the Oppressed Masses, Commander of the Armed Forces, and Imam of the Muslim World” - titles that blend the historical influences into the persona of one very powerful religious/political leader.
The Ayatollah Khomeini led the Revolution of 1979, an event that transformed the legitimacy of the state, anchoring it once again in principles of Shi’ism. The most important document that legitimizes the state today is the Constitution of 1979, along with its amendments of 1989, written during the last months of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s life. The document and its 40 amendments is a highly complex mixture of theocracy and democracy. Its preamble reflects the importance of religion for the legitimacy of the state, affirming faith in God, Divine Justice, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, and the eventual return of Hidden Imam. Khomeini’s doctrine of jurist’s guardianship (which we’ll define later) is included along with the other “divine principles.”
Although the Safavid Empire was followed by centuries of weak political organization in Iran, Shi’ism continued as an important unifying thread to the political culture. However, the dynasty that followed - the Qajars - did not claim the imam’s mantle, so Shi’i clerical leaders came to be the main interpreters of Islam, and a separation between religion and politics developed. Although the Qajars were never very strong, they did not succumb to European imperialism, and they ruled until the 20th century. These complex historical influences - with roots back to ancient times - have formed a multi-faceted political culture characterized by: