While a coherent interpretation of current events in Iran is still lacking, the background to the revolution is coming into...


ROOTS OF REVOLUTION: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran

While a coherent interpretation of current events in Iran is still lacking, the background to the revolution is coming into clearer focus. UCLA historian Keddie, assisted with a chapter on contemporary Iranian political thought by Yann Richard, has here gone back to Mohammed in her search for roots. In a background chapter that takes Iran's history up to the 19th century, where her main text begins, Keddie follows the various threads of Sunni and Shi'a Islamic doctrines and the changing configurations of Middle Eastern politics until 1501, when Twelver Shi'ism (a branch that awaits the arrival of the Twelfth Imam) became the official state religion under the Safavid dynasty. The dominance of Shi'ism, together with the employment of a trained Persian bureaucracy by the Safavids, helped create a national identity out of a country with nebulous national boundaries populated by nomadic tribes. The nomadic influence did, however, keep local loyalties alive--making it difficult for Iranian rulers, even now, to centralize authority. The fragmented authority structure was accompanied, Keddie explains, with a fragmented economy. Suppliers of raw materials and luxury goods to the world market, the Iranian economy became lopsidedly oriented toward small-scale craft production. At the same time, the dumping of finished goods from the west on the Iranian market undermined the craft production geared to the domestic market. In the 19th century, land previously devoted to food production was converted to opium and other cash crops, a significant contribution to famines and scarcities. In short, Keddie outlines the development of a two-tiered economy that is a familiar characteristic of Third World development. In Iran's case, this was supplemented by one-sided concessions granted by the Qajar dynasty (17961925) to western nations, mainly Britain, to develop mineral deposits, transport and communications systems, etc., so that they could further their commercial interests. When Reza Shah took over in 1925, he continued an economic policy that sustained two different economies--a modernizing internationalist one and a harried, and much larger, domestic traditionalist one. His son, Reza Pahlavi, added on a cultural dichotomy, and for the first time the upper and lower classes in Iran ceased to share a common culture; not only was the culture of the newly rich secular, but it rejected traditional forms of Iranian culture like folk tales and poetry. The oil boom widened the economic and cultural differences and furthered popular fears of foreign domination, leading up to the reemergence of the ulamas and the revolution of 1978-79. While Keddie cannot sort out the current problems of the regime (her narrative ends with Bani Sadr still in office)--partly, at least, because it emphasizes more what the opponents to westernization share than what divides them--she at least establishes what it is they oppose and why. Heavy going for all but the committed, but thorough and--for the period up to the revolution--an excellent source.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Yale Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981