Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
We know that Donald Trump does not read books. He is more of a television enthusiast and a Twitter aficionado. His knowledge of international relations and history - Middle East history, in particular - is limited at best. But as we stand on the brink of a war with Iran, with catastrophic repercussions that would dwarf the fallout from the Iraq war, basic knowledge of the history of the country that President Trump almost bombed last month, would serve him, and his supporters, well.
Iran is located in West Asia in the heart of the Islamic world. The key themes that shaped its modern history and informed its political culture broadly overlap with the experiences of other developing societies in the global south.
In his magisterial study, From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra reminds us that Western history is not universal history. At the start of his book, he observes that for most of the developing world, the key events of the 20th century were not the two world wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall. The central political developments that shaped the modern history and identity of millions of Asians and Africans revolved around the struggle for self-determination and independence from Europe.
Iran's story fits within this framework. While it was never formally colonised, historians have described 19th-century Iran as a "semi-colony" due to the conspicuous influence Western powers had over the nation's domestic affairs. In 1872, for example, Baron Julius de Reuter - of news agency fame - received a concession from the corrupt Qajar king for control over all railway construction, mineral extraction, irrigation networks, creation of a national bank, and all other agricultural and industrial projects - in return for a modest sum of money.
Lord Curzon, British foreign minister, later described this concession as "the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that had probably ever been dreamt of."
Around the same time, Britain obtained control over the production, sale and export of Iranian tobacco. This impoverished local producers and led to a major societal revolt that set the stage for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The objective was to end royal absolutism by transforming Iran into a constitutional monarchy, establishing a parliament and institutionalising the rule of law. Despite its early successes, the revolution was eventually defeated in large part due to the intervention of Britain and Russia - who backed the monarchy - the latter of whom sent tanks to Tehran to attack the Parliament.
American lawyer William Morgan Shuster was an observer and participant of these events. He was appointed by the newly established Iranian Parliament as treasurer-general to modernise Iran's finances which were in a state of disrepair as a result of the monarchy's corrupt spending. Eager to retain influence, Russia and Britain protested Shuster's appointment and eventually succeeded in having him expelled.
After returning to the United States, Shuster wrote, The Strangling of Persia, which is a first-hand account of a weak developing nation falling prey to the machinations of the great powers.
In the mid-20th century, the West flagrantly violated Iran's sovereignty on two occasions. In 1941, in an act of regime change, the Allied powers invaded and occupied Iran. The ruling monarch was exiled to South Africa for his pro-German sympathies and his 21-year-old son, Mohammad Reza, was appointed shah of Iran.
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