Posted on Sunday, November 29th, 2009 at 4:50 pm
Author: Jonathan Mok
Professor Homa Katouzian is an specialist on Iran, teaching at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Trained as an economist, Dr. Katouzian has a broad range of interests including Iranian history and literature. His latest book is The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran (Yale University Press, 2009).
Jonathan Mok: Your book surveys the politics, economics and culture of Iran. You first studied economics. Why and when did you extend your interest to history and literature?
Homa Katouzian: I taught economics for eighteen years and dropped it in favor of history, politics and literature, partly because I became disillusioned with economics once I discovered that economists did not adhere to the scientific methods which they proclaim in the abstract, but more importantly because there were no further issues in economics that I wanted to study, whereas there was plenty in Iranian history, comparative history, Persian literature and Iranian studies in general. I had kept up with these subjects all the while, and I did all the necessary research for my literary biography of Sadeq Hedayat and my political biography of Mosaddeq while I was still teaching economics.
Iran is an oil-rich state. It has remained a developing country, however. What are some of the reasons for its relative underdevelopment?
The problem with oil revenues is that there is no comparison between the cost of production and the revenues gained. As such, I have described them as ‘manna from heaven’, like the food that descended from the heavens for the people of Moses. Moreover, the revenues are received and disbursed by the state. The state’s development strategy for economic progress therefore becomes crucial.
In Iran, the state has increased its power and patronage over the rest of society, giving rise to a renter class, and tends to encourage import substitution, rather than export promotion strategies. The system also encourages the waste of resources… For example, Iran is heavily dependent on importing petrol, largely because of the incredibly low prices at which it is sold by the state, thus encouraging unnecessary public consumption of petrol, congestion on the roads, and pollution in the air. I have discussed these issues more fully in The Persians, and also in my The Political Economy of Modern Iran, which I wrote more than thirty years ago.
Your book analyzes the ruling years of both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini. Any similarities between them?
The shah succeeded his father in 1941. For the first twelve years he was a constitutional monarch. From the coup d’etat of 1953, he was a dictator at the head of a loyal political and religious establishment. Launching his White Revolution ten years later, he jettisoned that establishment and became an absolute and arbitrary ruler in the style of the pre-constitutional Iranian regimes. Such a ruler is most powerful because he is not bound by any independent laws outside of his own will. But this results in the alienation of not just the less privileged but all social classes from the state. The state thus does not have a social base, and when it is weak not only some social classes but also the entire society rises against the state, as happened in the Iranian Revolution of February 1979.
Khomeini was not only a senior religious pontiff but also a highly charismatic, shrewd and pragmatic popular leader. Although some of his supporters were alienated in the 1980s, he still had a large social base when he died in 1989. He was the patriarch and an arbiter of the last resort in the Islamist regime which he had created, but was not an absolute and arbitrary ruler. There was consultation, participation and representation in politics and government among the Islamists while he was still alive, but the modern and secular groups of society were in effect politically dispossessed, as they still are.
While the nuclear issue has caused tension between Iran and the West, repeated statements by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Israel and the Holocaust also draw worldwide attention. Iran and Israel have no diplomatic relations following the Iranian Revolution. What can you say about the Iranian President’s denial of the Holocaust and calls for the end of the state of Israel?
Ahmadinejad seems to genuinely believe that the Holocaust was simply invented to justify the establishment of the state of Israel, and so regards that state as illegitimate. However, even a nuclear Iran could not initiate a war with Israel, not only because it would lose it as such, but also perhaps more importantly because it would know that it would be confronting the world community. Thus, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric seems to be intended for his own supporters and, more especially, for the public opinion in Arab and Islamic countries. That indeed is what has made him popular among the ordinary people in these countries.
We keep hearing about the possibility of sanctions as a means to thwarting the Iranian determination to become a nuclear state. In your opinion, how should world leaders engage with Iran on this issue?
This is a very sensitive issue since it has tended to unite various shades of political opinion (including some of the government’s opponents) among Iranians. You may have noted that recently even the head of the atomic energy organization under the shah who lives abroad has been vociferously defending Iran’s right to enrichment. Thus, opinion is divided in the country even among the Islamist leaders and government agencies, and this must be the main reason behind the ambiguities observed in the Iranian government’s behavior.
I doubt that seriously effective sanctions could be applied unless Russia (and China) is persuaded to go along with them. Given that, IAEA’s close supervision and monitoring, trust building and negotiations seem to be the right path to follow. A siege mentality appears to be dominant in Iran at the moment, and any policy which may alleviate that and encourage the more moderate elements should be useful.
This year, the Iranian election turned out to be violent. While media outside Iran generally depicted Mousavi as the moderate leader with a wide support network, Ahmadinejad is believed to have won because of a high level of support in rural areas. How do you explain the gap between the Western media’s reports and the reality on the ground?
In fact, many of the major Western media were saying that the election result was ‘too close to call.’ Mousavi’s support came mainly from Tehran and other major cities -reformists, pragmatists and seculars, who included the better-off and better-educated. Ahmadinejad’s voters, on the other hand, were mainly people of rural areas and small townships, and many of them were radical Islamists.
What led to the astonishment and disbelief of Mousavi’s voters was particularly the fact that Ahmadinejad was declared to have won as many as 10 million votes more than Mousavi.
In the post-election violence, Neda Soltani, a young student, has been hailed as a martyr for a new Iran after she was said to be murdered by the Revolutionary Guard. In 1978-1979, students were the main forces behind the overthrow of the Shah and the support to the Islamic regime, but in the election in 2009, young people, especially in cities, called for a different rule. Can we talk about what changed in Iran since the late 1970′s on this front?
The revolution of February 1979 was eventually backed virtually by the entire Iranian society, though many of its activists were young and idealistic Islamists or Marxist-Leninists. They had little or no interest in what they regularly described as ‘bourgeois or Western’ democracy.
The roots of recent debates about democracy are in the early 1990s when the reformist movement began to emerge and spread more widely during the eight years of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) and beyond. The movement for change is not a homogeneous one, and includes various agendas, but the present mainstream (most of whom come from within the Islamist fold itself) tend to emphasize the representative features of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, though there are others who would like to revise it as well. In fact ‘change’ was one of the leading slogans of the reformist candidates and their supporters. They were hoping to make the system more representative, and extend personal and cultural freedoms.
Youth and graduate unemployment may have played a role in this but I doubt if it was the primary motive for ‘change.’
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