Andrew Scott Cooper is the author of two well regarded books, The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Last Days of Imperial Iran (Henry Holt and Co., 2016). In the past, Cooper has taught at Columbia University and worked at the United Nations and Human Rights Watch. Diwan caught up with him in early January to discuss the recent demonstrations in Iran as well as the legacy of the Iranian monarchy.
Michael Young: What has intrigued you the most about the recent unrest in Iran?
Andrew Scott Cooper: Though several factors fueled the unrest, I was particularly intrigued to see images of working class and lower middle class Iranians in small towns and medium-sized cities calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and chanting in support of the monarchy and the exiled Pahlavi dynasty. For many demonstrators, the wretched state of the Iranian economy and corruption provided the perfect vehicle for pent-up expressions of Persian nationalism.
In the aftermath of the 2009 crackdown, many young Iranians became disillusioned with political Islam and found solace in pre-Islamic Persian art and culture. I was made aware of this phenomenon in 2013 when I spent time in Qom on sabbatical. The teaching staff at the city’s leading Islamic university lamented student fascination with pre-revolutionary Iran and the Pahlavi family. The regime employed various strategies to suppress, deflect, and coopt these trends, all to no avail. The scale of the unrest demonstrates that even social classes previously regarded as regime stalwarts have succumbed. At some point, it was inevitable that Persian-infused nationalism would burst into public view. I had been waiting for this moment and to see it happen was really something.
MY: How might the unrest affect Iran’s regional ambitions, if indeed it does?
ASC: The men who run Iran have no choice but to reassess their regional ambitions. They will have to find ways to boost social spending. One way to do that is to redirect resources away from their proxies, who are the target of a great deal of domestic resentment, and back into the domestic economy. They have to focus on job creation, benefits, and housing. In the short term, at least, they may signal a desire to cut deals so as to wind down conflicts that are draining so much national treasure. The clergy can be flexible when they want to be. Who can forget Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s decision to “swallow poison” and end the war with Iraq? But why should the Saudis come to the table when they smell weakness in Tehran? Riyadh may be tempted to keep the pot boiling for a while longer. Unexpected fluctuations in the oil and gas markets, with flow-on effects for the Iranian treasury, will play an important role in what happens next.
MY: How do events today in the region compare with the period you covered in your first book, The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East?
ASC: As ever, Iran is the driver of change: Where Iran goes, so goes the region. The 1979 Iranian revolution ushered in a period of intense sectarian conflict and unrest in the region. But a majority of the Iranian people appear to have tired of Khomeini-style political Islam, which regardless of its promise never lived up to its potential. Revolutionary slogans rarely do. Younger Iranians are embracing and reasserting their Persian national identity almost in reaction to the regime, and in ways that I think will impact the region for decades to come. So the post-1979 chapter in regional history has closed and a new chapter has started. If present trends continue, I see Iran heading our way again.
MY: In many regards the mullahs in Iran appear to be Iranian nationalists first, just as the shah was. To what extent are there similarities between the Islamic Republic and the shah’s regime when it comes to the region?
ASC: The mullahs discovered nationalism late in the game. Khomeini, of course, famously eschewed nationalism until he felt the need to rally Iranians during the war with Iraq. In recent years, we have seen the regime try (and fail) to coopt Iran’s Persian traditions. State media’s efforts to denigrate the Pahlavis backfired spectacularly by making it okay to talk about the family in public. In the aftermath of the large rally at the tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae in October 2016, which caught the authorities by surprise, a rather foolish attempt was even made to prove that the Prophet Mohammed was related to Cyrus. This suggests that the leadership is somewhat disoriented by events and unsure of how to respond.
This trend marks a turnabout from the 1970s, when young Iranians rejected Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s Persian style and embraced all aspects of Shi‘a Islam. Today, the children and grandchildren of those revolutionaries are employing the old techniques used to undermine the shah, only this time against the mullahs. The clothes they wear, the music they listen to, the books they read, and the places they visit on vacation reflect their love of Persian culture and an implicit rejection of political Islam. In that sense they know their history very well indeed.
As far as similarities between the Islamic Republic and the Pahlavi regime, the desire to project Iranian influence throughout the region is obvious. But the shah was constrained by the Cold War and the liberal international order he pledged to uphold. The Islamic Republic is seeking to exploit the power vacuum left in the region by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The shah would be horrified if he saw Iran as it behaves today. One Pahlavi family member told me that he was glad the shah died before the start of the Iran-Iraq war, because it would have completely devastated him.
MY: So you see a reassessment taking place in the country with regard to the shah’s legacy, and to the monarchy in general?
ASC: I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Iranians, if asked to choose between the shah’s regime and post-1979 Iran, would choose the shah in a landslide. But that is not what you hear from some Iranian expatriate intellectuals who can’t quite believe that many students and working class Iranians might prefer the monarchy to the Islamic Republic. They still harbor a visceral distaste for the Pahlavis.
For example, whereas they still lambaste the shah for sacking Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, and for holding his party in the desert at Persepolis in 1971, many younger Iranians do not show the same level of interest in Operation Ajax, and regard Persepolis differently. They view it with fascination and awe because it signified a time when world leaders came to Iran to pay their respects to an Iranian king who wielded immense power on the world stage.
Further, I would argue that a key turning point in the evolution of unrest was the large turnout of young people at Pasargadae in October 2016, which I mentioned earlier. This remarkable exercise in mass mobilization was all but ignored by the Western media and Western-based Iran analysts. Crowd estimates ran as high as 100,000. Participants were filmed cheering and calling for the return of the Pahlavi family and the restoration of the monarchy. I offered to write an essay for Foreign Policy describing the significance of the event, why the Islamic Republic faced a crisis of legitimacy and how it most likely portended future unrest. My pitch was rejected because, I was told, it lacked a timely news hook.
MY: The shah has been both reviled and to an extent defended over the years. As someone who has taken a more positive view of the man, how would you assess his rule almost 40 years after the Iranian Revolution?
ASC: It’s important to remember that I am a historian, not a political scientist, journalist, or novelist. The declassification of documents from the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations in the past decade meant that a review of U.S.-Iran relations during the Cold War was timely, necessary, and logical. How did we get to where we are today? That question has driven my research but it’s not an easy question to answer.
We have to place the shah in the context of his time, as a leader caught in history’s riptide between the Cold War and Islam’s renaissance. He was driven by utopian dreams of delivering social justice for his people. He enacted remarkably progressive reforms in areas such as social policy, environmental protection, women’s rights, protection of minorities, and literacy. His capacity for denial was reflected in his handling of the security forces, though he ultimately vacated his throne rather than sanction a military crackdown that would have cost thousands of lives and may well have triggered a civil war.
After 1963, when he assumed executive rule, he missed an opportunity to build durable independent political and judicial institutions that might have shouldered the load when Khomeini made his bid for power. But for all its flaws, the record shows that Iran under the shah was stable, prospering, and at peace with its neighbors. In Beirut and Cairo, I have heard Arabs bless the shah’s memory and say they wish he never left. You hear the same in Tehran today.
MY: Given your knowledge of Iranian-Saudi relations during the 1970s, what would you see as necessary for the two countries to reach a new understanding in the Middle East, away from the polarization of today?
ASC: Both leaderships are faced with serious internal challenges that, if left unresolved, may lead to internal rebellion and implosion. On the one hand, their proxy wars are a very expensive distraction from the main event. However, domestic reforms of the sort they envisage, or will be obliged to implement, will be difficult and painful. These regimes lack the sort of democratic “safety valves” that are essential to prevent popular unrest from spilling out into the streets. Thus, the temptation will be to embark on even riskier foreign adventures as a way of stoking nationalism and distracting people in the street from their hardships. It will take a breathtaking act of statesmanship from one side or the other to ease tensions. But I don’t see an Anwar al-Sadat on the horizon. Do you?
MY: The Trump administration has taken a hard line on the Iranian regime’s regional role, yet has done virtually nothing to counter this. Why is that the case and where do you see U.S.-Iranian relations heading in the years ahead?
ASC: Does the Trump administration have a coherent policy on Iran or toward the Middle East? If it does, I have yet to see it. America’s precipitous withdrawal, followed by today’s drift, has created a vacuum for regional players to get up to mischief. In the absence of a skillfully executed diplomatic strategy, there is an increased risk of events sliding out of control, of misperceptions leading to unintended conflict. My view is that the very worst thing the Trump administration could do would be to launch a military strike against Iran. Doing so would most likely embolden and strengthen Tehran in the short term.
On the plus side, I am optimistic that the United States and Iran will once again become friends. Americans and Iranians have much in common, though the Iranian people are much farther along in that regard than Americans still living in their 1979 bubble. Regimes don’t last forever and change happens when we least expect it.
MY: As we look ahead, are we seeing the emergence of a hegemonic Iran in the Middle East?
ASC: Is a hegemonic Iran on the horizon? Overconfidence in foreign policy, followed by overreach, is something of an Iranian tradition. I can show you dozens of panicky American news articles from 1974 and 1975 warning of the dangers of Iranian imperialism. We saw the same reaction during the era of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Our nervous reaction every time Tehran sneezes says as much about our own insecurities as it does about Iranian intentions. What sort of regime are we talking about, anyway, one that is apparently so unpopular that its own people would prefer to roll back the clock 40 years? Though Iran should not be underestimated, in some important ways it resembles the old Soviet Union. The Islamic Republic has entered its twilight. I think we need to start thinking about what comes next.