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In Search of Modern Iran’s Liberal Statesmen

Within our broad conference topic of “Iranian Intellectuals between Statesmanship and Dissent,” I propose to probe the question of why modern Iran’s liberal tradition has been so weak that practically, i.e. in terms of significant presence in the political arena, it is almost non-existent. More specifically, I develop my argument in response to a recent scholarly trend that finds real or closet liberals in high-ranking Pahlavi era statesmen, going back to Taqizadeh and Forughi and continuing with Shadman and Hoveyda. My argument is twofold: First, I suggest that this revisionist trend erroneously conflates liberal ideals with liberal political practice. Second, I try to show that even in terms of their intellectual makeup, men like Taqizadeh, Forughi, Shadman and Hoveyda hardly fit the liberal mold. I would also note that, with serious qualifications, Mosaddeq’s political career makes him the closest thing to Iran’s archetypical liberal statesman. Ironically, recent revisionist interest in Iranian liberalism tends to bypass Mosaddeq, finding instead its liberal icons in men like Forughi, Taqizadeh and Shadman.      

I begin by defining my understanding of “liberalism,” a term whose ambiguity is rarely probed by those involved in this debate. Liberalism is an originally European intellectual and political tradition, whose meaning has changed in about two centuries of its global unfolding. Political liberalism began with the French and American revolutions, referring to constitutional or republican governments, requiring the consent of the governed, and justified by doctrines of social contract and/or natural rights. Liberals were in the forefront of Europe’s political and revolutionary upheavals up to the middle of the 19th century, when a new working class political movement, and its socialist ideology, emerged as their main rival and contender. During the second half of the 19th century, liberalism and socialism began to overlap, their convergence culminating in the 20th century Welfare State model. Reacting to this convergence, a new doctrine of neo-liberalism emerged, linking freedom and democracy closely to unregulated markets and the unfettered accumulation of capital. Following the collapse of the Soviet model, neo-liberalism became globally triumphant, phasing out both the welfare state and its corresponding notions of liberalism.  It is also important to note that up until mid-20th century, liberal government, in the sense of majority rule, was not the norm in Europe or the US, nor was it applied to the vast majority of the world’s population who lived under Euro-American colonial or imperial jurisdiction. Thus, during the 1950s-1970s, we see socialism, rather than liberal democracy, becoming the imaginary inspiration of the Third World. In 20th century Iran, the Pahlavi regime implemented the authoritarian model of nation-state building, typical in global Cold War alignments with the Anglo-American bloc.

Next comes my argument about why individuals recently identified by Iranian scholars as liberal does not really fit meaningful definitions of that term. I must emphasize that I see liberalism as institutionalized political practice with a tangible impact on a country’s political life. This means we should not confuse liberalism with ideas held by individuals regardless of their political practice, which might even be illiberal. This confusion, in post-revolutionary debates on Iranian liberalism, appears in Abbas Milani’s biography of Hoveyda, who, according to Milani, was “a liberal serving an illiberal master.” Milani later applied his oxymoronic definition of liberalism to Fakhreddin Shadman, while others have extended it to Forughi and Taqizadeh. Milani’s assertions notwithstanding, it is easy to see that, judged by their political careers, neither Hoveyda nor Shadman were liberal. Carefully tracing Taqizadeh’s intellectual trajectory, from his inchoate social democracy in Kaveh to his becoming a self-described “instrument” of Reza Shah’s dictatorship, I refute the assertions of scholars like Katouzian who see him as a liberal or democrat. The same applies to Forughi’s political career, who served as prime minister transferring the crown to Reza Khan, whose dictatorial ambitions were quite clear, serving him dutifully until being discarded, and again becoming prime minister to save the Pahlavi dynasty in 1941. Moreover, while Forughi’s Seyr-hekmat dar Orupa is the first major introduction to modern European thought in Persian, it carefully avoids any discussion not only of socialism but also of liberalism. In fact, Forughi’s mention of modern political thinkers stops in the 18th century with Montesquieu, whose thought he considers the pinnacle of political philosophy. Given his systematic service to Pahlavi dictatorship, as well as his elitist pre-French Revolution political ideals, it is hard to see in what sense Forughi can be considered a liberal.     

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Distinguished historian Afshin Matin-Asgari specializes in 20th-century Middle East, modern Iran, and modern Islamic political and intellectual movements. Dr. Matin-Asgari was born in Tehran, Iran, and moved to the U.S. after high school. In the U.S. he participated in the student movement against Iran’s monarchist regime. Matin-Asgari returned to Iran in 1978 during the revolution that overthrew the monarchy, but he did not support the post-revolutionary regime and returned to the U.S. In 1993, Matin-Asgari received a doctoral degree in Middle East history from UCLA. His dissertation was published in 2001 as the book, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah. At Cal State LA, he teaches courses in Middle East history, world history, Islam, and comparative religion. Matin-Asgari has published 20 articles and book chapters.

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July 2019
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