The Political Traditions of Persia

The Shia theocracy of Iran seems to contrast sharply with the secularist Pahlavi dynasty that preceded it. The Pahlavis prohibited the veiling of women, quashed the political influence of Shi’ism, and romanticized their connection to the culture of pre-Islamic Persia. The Ayatollahs, conversely, mandate the veiling of women, meld politics with Shi’ism, and deride the heresies of ancient Persia. But these two regimes, despite their apparent contrasts, both belong to a political tradition that stretches back twenty five centuries to Cyrus the Great: Persian Kingship. The Ayatollahs do not look like kings, and even Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, when he famously bedecked himself in jewels to pose for photos at Golestan Palace, did not look especially kingly. Still, both the Ayatollahs and the Pahlavis, very much like the Qajars, the Afsharids, the Safavids, the Sassanians, the Parthians, and the Achaemenids before them, have held the power of kings. Persian absolute monarchy is as old as Persia. And by the time the medieval concept of the Divine Right of Kings was invented in the West, it had already existed in Persia for hundreds of years. Persians have immense reverence for their history, and it would be no surprise if they generally expect to be ruled over by a king-like authority (although they disagree over who that authority should be). If indeed this ancient expectation endures in the general Persian mind, then surely it poses the most fundamental barrier preventing freedom and democracy in Iran today.

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