Crossroads Asia

Why Iran’s Monarchy Could Unite a Divided Country

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Crossroads Asia

Why Iran’s Monarchy Could Unite a Divided Country

How the Persian monarchy once saved — and may yet again save — Iran.

Why Iran’s Monarchy Could Unite a Divided Country
Credit: Department of Defense Visual Information Center via Wikimedia Commons

During Iran’s now subsiding protests, which started in late December 2017, Iranians from across the country protested the country’s economic and political conditions, with many questioning Iranian interventionism in Syria and Gaza. Interestingly, not all that many of the individuals protesting, who mostly hail from more rural, poorer, and conservative backgrounds, called for a secular republic, or a liberal democracy.

Rather, many people chanted pro-monarchy slogans. Protesters chanted “Reza Shah, bless your soul,” “long live Reza Shah,” and “Iran haphazard, without the Shah [Mohammad Reza],” in reference to Reza Shah, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, and his son.

Although contrary to trends throughout the world over the past couple of centuries, the reestablishment of the constitutional monarchy in Iran is quite possible, because it is the banner that can unite many Iranians from different strips opposed to the Islamic Republic, including exiles and the rural poor. Although much of this nostalgia is retrospective — after all, the monarchy fell because liberals, communists, the clergy, and the conservative poor all united against it – -monarchy is a traditional alternative to theocracy that is nonetheless liberal without being stripped of sanctity. Most “republics” near Iran are dictatorships masquerading as sham democracies, whereas the countries that get the best of representative government and traditional leadership and the region’s constitutional monarchies, such as Jordan and Morocco.

Iranians have no memory of any form of government, other than the monarchy of the House of Pahlavi, or the Islamic Republic, established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Many other opposition organizations, such as the cultish Mojahedin-e Khalq or the communist Tudeh Party, have few supporters. And secular liberals in Tehran have no concrete plan other than vaguely desiring a secular democratic state, which is not mutually exclusive with restoring the House of Pahlavi.

Many protesters also chanted, “O Shah of Iran, return to Iran.” This individual, the son of the disposed Mohammad Reza Shah, seems to be positioning himself for a possible return to Iran, if called upon. The Crown Prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, who lives in exile in the United States, has argued that he is a democrat, and not a monarchist, while also stating that: “Who then do you think people are chanting for today? I think they realize I am a person they can trust, a person they can recognize that has a particular political capital associate with this name [Pahlavi]. They attribute it to the modernity and progress that Iran had.”

Iranian monarchy has a long pedigree, from its foundation by Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE. It is seen by many as the symbol of modernity, connectivity with the rest of the world, a link to Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage, and even freedom; if not political freedom, then at least social and cultural freedom. While the economic was inequitable both before the revolution, and in the present day, the rate of economic growth was much greater during the rule of the Shah.

And, the Reza Shah of whom many protesters chanted favorable slogans, saved Iran in one of it’s darkest times, while ironically being helped to the throne by the very clerical establishment who overthrew his son. Brigadier General Reza Khan, an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade, grew up during a time when Iran (then known as Persia) was in a state of serious decline and weakness. In regard to the previous dynasty, according to Michael Axworthy in A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind:

[The Qajar Dynasty] controlled its territory loosely, through proxies and alliances with local tribes. The state bureaucracy was small…it has been estimated that between a half and a third of the population were still nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. Provincial governors were often tribal leaders. They ruled independently, with little interference from the capital…

As a result of British, Russian, and Ottoman interference during World War I, as Ervand Abrahamian wrote in A History of Modern Iran:

By 1920 Iran was a classical “failed state”… the ministries had little presence outside the capital. The government was immobilized not only by rivalries between the traditional magnates and between the new political parties, but also by the Anglo-Persian Agreement. Some provinces were in the hands of ‘war lords,’ others in the hands of armed rebels. The Red Army had taken over Gilan, and was threatening to move on to Tehran.

It was only due to the successful military and centralizing political policies of Reza Khan, who became Reza Shah in 1925, after overthrowing the Qajar Dynasty, that Iran was not dismembered. But Reza Shah initially did not plan to set up a monarchy; rather he wanted to set up a republic.  The clergy, the conservative landed gentry, and liberals all opposed the disestablishment of the monarchy for different reasons: the former two because they feared that Reza Khan would emulate Kemal Ataturk in neighboring Turkey and establish a secular republic (the abolishment of the Sunni caliphate in 1924 was seen as a harbinger of things to come, even for Shia Iranians), the while the latter feared that he would become an autocratic dictator of a “republic,” also like Ataturk. And so, the Pahlavi Dynasty replaced the Qajars.

Ironically, the clerics saved the monarchy both in 1925, and in 1953, when they supported his son Mohammad Reza Shah against the leftist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who was seen as too socialist and close to the Soviet Union. Although, later on, large portions of the Iranian population turned against the autocratic Pahlavi regime, what they gained in exchange afterward, was even more autocracy, and isolation from the global community, something which neither liberals not rural conservatives bargained for. A religiously conservative society need not be so isolated internationally, as the cases of numerous Arab monarchies show.

Because Iran missed its republican moment, the monarchy is seen a legitimate alternative to the Islamic Republic. According to Abbas Amanat in Iran: A Modern History, “adopting a monarchy allowed the Pahlavi regime to bank on the historical tradition of Iranian kingship and earn for itself political legitimacy far beyond what a president of a republic, even a dictatorial one, could have done.” The legacy of the Pahlavis, who themselves come from a humble background, is “modernism, secularism, and nationalism”, so perhaps today, a combination of support from liberals, nationalists, exiles, and the rural poor tired of being fleeced by clerics can lay the groundwork for the reestablishment of a constitutional Iranian monarchy.