A Modern History

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Abbas Amanat
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     1000 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Iran: A Modern History, Abbas Amanat, professor of history at Yale University, takes up the demanding task of writing a history of modern Iran that covers five hundred years in nine hundred pages. The work is comprised of four parts that cover the Safavid era and subsequent shaky states and principalities, the emergence of Qajar dynasty until its decline, the Pahlavi period until the 1979 revolution, and the first decade of the Islamic Republic, plus an introduction and epilogue.

The introduction lays out the principal concepts and the framework of historiography and history of Iran that Amanat relies on. The introduction is an informative piece for any reader to grasp an image of what the historians of Iran perceiveas the continuity of Iran as a civilization. The author, without falling into the pitfall of civilizational analysis, deploys the concept of longue durée to provide an analysis of the modern history of Iran. It is an act of courage for a historian to write the history of five centuries in an age of microhistories. However, a reader may question his choice of the emergence of the Safavid state as the starting point of the modern history of Iran. Amanat does not provide much theoretical nuance about how he periodizes Iranian history. However, he indicates that the Safavids were the first to revive the idea of Iran (without using the exact term) after the decline of the Sasanian Empire and reclaim more or less the same territory, which has stayed intact for the last five centuries. 

Part 2 deals with the Qajar period. Amanat, a Qajar-period scholar, offers a lucid and exhaustive narrative of this period. In comparison to part 1, this part offers more intellectual and cultural history alongside the main skeleton of political history. Amanat delineates the Qajar period as the Iranians’ first serious encounter with modernity. 

The biggest block of the book is devoted to the Pahlavi period, which is accurately presented as the most critical impetus in modernizing Iran. The political history of the period is supplemented with a detailed and brilliant treatment of the culture and society of the era. Investigation of the economy in the analysis of Iranian history received a fair share in this part, which aids the reader in understanding the complexity of the social and political dynamics of Pahlavi era and consequently the 1979 revolution. 

The fourth part begins with the investigation of the backdrop of the revolution and the following years in which the Islamic Republic was established and formed in the context of the failure of the Pahlavi agenda and the role of the Shiʿi ulama in the last 500 years of the Iranian history. It seems that apart from the two reasons mentioned above, Amanat starts the modern history of Iran in 1501 because of the significant role played by the ulama and the conversion to Shiʿism in the following centuries in the formation of modern Iran. A reader would see this retrospective approach to the past as too much colored by contemporary problems and issues, which results in overlooking the events that had a less conspicuous impact on subsequent events. An example of overlooking a historical event is the totalabsence of the national strike of the teachers' union (1961) that resulted in the resignation of Sharīf Imāmī’s government and the appointment of ʿAlī Amīnī as the prime minister. It is certain that the teachers’ union very soon lost its effectiveness to Khomeini’s more radical voice and the moderate professional politician of the Second National Front. However, the strike also marked a change of momentum, if not the most salient one, in challenging the self-confident Shah.

In the post-revolutionary section, several events are not mentioned at all or treated very hastily, among them the Nujih coup d’état plot (1980) and the ensuing purge in the Iranian Army and among the political elite. The unusual case of Ḥusayn-ʿAlī Muntaẓirī (d. 2009), the most high-ranked clergy in Khomeini’s circle, is treated very briefly. His early appointment as Khomeini’s successor in 1985 and his harsh objection to Khomeini’s policies and opinions, especially against the mass execution of leftist and Mujāhidīn-i Khalq (MEK) partisans in 1988, paved the way for his demotion. Muntaẓirī’s case had the most long-standing impact on post-revolutionary Iranian politics by a Khomeinist. It is also surprising that Muḥammad Muntaẓirī (d. 1981), Ḥusayn-ʿAlī Muntaẓirī’s son, is not mentioned at all. Muḥammad Muntaẓirī was, in his own right, a very controversial figure among revolutionaries and a key figure among Khomeini’s supporters. He had a good relationship with several Islamist groups and with anti-Israeli movements including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He was one of the founding membersof the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and his connection to the several armed movements outside Iran led him to found the Liberation Organizations Unit in the IRGC, the progenitor of the Quds Force. 

Amanat’s style of writing and his erudition in various aspects of Iranian history turns the book into a smooth, well-crafted, and informative read. However, some points should be revised in the second edition. Transliterations of Persian words in the text are sometimes sloppy. For example, Tavallodi Digar is rendered as Tvallodi-e Digar (612), Shahanshahi is rendered as Shahanshai (671), and masa’eb is rendered as mas’ab  (815). In Iranian history, to the best of my knowledge, there are two figures called Mahd Oliya (Mahd Olīyā). The first, Shah ‘Abbas I’s mother, Kahyr al-Nisāʾ was known as Mahd Olīyā; the second figure known by the same title was Jahān Khānūm, Nāsīr al-Dīn Shah’s mother. Both figures are mistakenly indexed as one person (962). 

The work enjoys a fabulous series of figures, maps, and diagrams that help the reader to find their way in the labyrinth of individuals and events. The book also contains a thirty-page “Further Reading List” that includes some insightful comments by the author. Occasional comparative remarks between Iranian history and history of the other parts of the globe provide the reader with hints to contextualize Iranian history in the broader context of world history. 

Notwithstanding the shortcomings mentioned above, Amanat successfully fulfills the difficult task of writing a macro-history of modern Iran. It is a well-written, comprehensive, and accessible book for the history of Iran’s last five centuries. However, the length of the work is a severe challenge for the reader.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Majid Montazer Mahdi is a doctoral student in Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Abbas Amanat is professor of history and international studies at Yale University and director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.


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