The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule

By Clawson, Patrick | Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule


Clawson, Patrick, Middle East Quarterly


The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule. By Fakhreddin Azimi. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. 491 pp. $35.

The Western picture of Iran is of authoritarianism with clerical rule following centuries of shahe - punctuated by Mohammed Mossadegh, an eccentric, 195Oe prime minieter eupported by pro-Soviet forcee. Azimi, a hietory profeeeor at the Univereity of Connecticut, providee a useful corrective, illustrating how the desire for modernity runs deep among Iran's intellectuals, businessmen, and ordinary people. Few in the West realize how much Iran's political culture continues to be shaped by the 1905-1 1 Constitutional Revolution, a violent struggle to impose constitutional democracy on Mozzafar alDin Shah and to maintain it under his successor Mohammad 'Ali Shah.

The constitution, which relegated the shah to a largely ceremonial role, was ignored by successive shahs who reestablished absolutist rule: first, Mohammad 'Ali (r. 1907-09), his son Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-21), Reza Khan from the 1920s, and then his son Mohammed Reza, especially through the 1960s and 1970s. What Azimi brings to life is how broadly the absolutism was resented and seen as illegitimate by both elites and the population at large, which saw democratic consultation as an inseparable part of the modernization those shahs claimed to be advancing. Further, Azimi brings out the striking similarities between the shahs and the Islamic Republic's clerical leaders: Both bend to popular democratic demands when weak but, when strong, promptly install authoritarian rule, which is broadly resented as illegitimate and a force that stifles modernity.

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