“I call IRAN a short-term society”

Published: February 5, 2010 - 14:59 Updated: February 5, 2010 - 16:42

Mehru Jaffer Vienna

Homa Katouzian, 67, author of The Persians, says that to know Iran is to see the land and its people from an Iranian perspective. At the end of a conversation, the professor of Iranian History and Persian Literature at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, preferred perhaps to leave us more puzzled about the Persians rather than project clichéd conclusions about the future of the country of his birth.  His mantra remains clear: the world should stop looking at Iran over the shoulder of the European experience. Professor Katouzian spoke to Hardnews in Vienna, where he was on a vacation.

On Iran today
Iran faces two problems today. There is a crisis of authority in the country and a crisis of legitimacy of the present government. How this crisis will resolve is anybody's guess. A possible scenario is that the opposition will move towards a kind of reconciliation. After all, there are conservative and radical forces in both the government and within the opposition. It could also happen that in the future more fundamentalist elements within the government will demand more punishments and executions of members of the opposition, the enemy within.

On the puzzle that is Persia     
Iran is a puzzle because it is not easy to predict what will happen there next. I call Iran a short-term society. That is why all predictions by modern day analysts frustrate the world and create further misunderstandings about Iran. In Iran it is not just the government that is unpredictable but also the individual. It is common knowledge that most of the time most Iranians do not know what to expect round the corner next. There are individuals in Iran who have experienced being a merchant, government minister and political prisoner all in one life time. A common saying in my country is that a man leaving home in the morning is never sure where he might end up at the end of the day.

On revolutions    
Most revolutions in Iran almost always unite the entire society against the State. The antagonism in Iran is not between different social classes but between all of society and the State. What happened in Iran after the June 2009 elections has come as a surprise to Iranians and to the world. This was never predicted. What will happen next is also anybody's guess.

On better understanding in the East of western societies    
Maybe that is true. But there is not enough understanding and knowledge about the other, in both the worlds. For example, many in Iran will look at a modern young woman from the West and often conclude that she is a whore. On the other hand it is not rare for many in the West to look at an Iranian woman dressed modestly and conclude that she is a slave of society. There are grave misconceptions on both sides.

Has this happened in Iran before?    
It has more often than not. To express antagonism towards the State is not uncommon in Iran. However, it is perhaps the first time in the history of Iran that all of society is not united against the State. At least 14 million voters seem to be in favour of the government today, if not more.

On prisons    
I don't know any more than you do. I hear the conditions in prisons in Iran are harsh and there is violation of human rights. The government too agrees that there are irregularities. I can only repeat what I have read in reports.

On the Basij    
The Basij was a people's militia of Iranians between the age of 14 years and 60 years voluntarily founded in the 1980s and ready for martyrdom during the war with Iraq. Over the years the Basij has evolved from a group of volunteers and got institutionalised. It is now attached to the Revolutionary Guards. It is regarded today as a professional force of people between the age of 18-25 years and its function is somewhere in between that of the police and the military.

On fear of the government of the opposition     
Of course, the government is afraid of the opposition. But the government is not afraid of being overthrown by the opposition. There is fear that the opposition may continue and grow and get help from enemies outside Iran.
Iran is worried about international isolation. Iran did not care about sanctions during the war with Iraq when it got strength from being united within the country even when the entire western world had supported Saddam Hussain against Iran.
Today the government is more worried as it must fight enemies both within, and outside the country.

On the countryside    
I am not there. I don't know what is happening there. But it is my impression that most of the supporters of the present government are from the countryside. These supporters represent not only the pious but also the dispossessed in society.

On Mir Husain Mousavi    
I don't know Mousavi personally. But it is my impression that Mousavi has evolved from a hard line Islamist to represent today some sort of a liberal, a more human face of Islam. Collectively the entire opposition is asking for more moderation in foreign policy, more cultural freedom and more freedom of expression. And Mousavi represents all these forces asking for moderation.

On Shia revival    
Sounds like Sunni propaganda to me. To say that there is a Shia revival is to go too far. Iran does have a relationship to Hezbollah in Lebanon but my understanding is that the Shia in Lebanon are an independent force. The Hezbollah represents Lebanon's Shia community. It is genuine and authentic and not a puppet of Iran. Hezbollah does not look only to Shias for help. It will take help from whoever is willing to help it.
And as for the Shia in Iraq they are not even organized in a group like the Hezbollah.

On Israel    
Of course, Iran is anti-Israel. Nevertheless past presidents like Syed Muhammad Khatami have more than once said that any agreement that is accepted by the disfranchised Palestinian people will be honoured by Iran.

On the denial of the Holocaust by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad    
I am sure Ahmadinejad believes that this event did not take place. There are many who believe in the conspiracy theory that the event is used by the West to provide a moral foundation for the State of Israel and Ahmadinejad is one of them.

On oil    
I call the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908 manna from heaven, a free gift from God.
From the 1960s huge amounts of money from the oil revenue was delivered directly to the State treasury. Can you imagine the power that this kind of money brought with it?

On benefit of oil revenue on ordinary Iranians    
In absolute terms ordinary Iranians have benefitted. In 1978 the life of every Iranian improved compared to the 1960s.

On poverty in Iran    
Even without oil Iran was clueless about economic policies. The discovery of oil is something new and has added to the confusion and mismanagement of the national economy. Look at Norway and how it manages its oil.

On the nuclear ambition of Iran    
This is very problematic not because of the subject itself but how it is used to position Iran as a pariah State. As a party to the NPT, Iran is entitled to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But the West says... we know your real intention is to weaponise so you are not allowed to have nuclear technology.

Interest first began in nuclear technology in Iran under the Shah with help from the USA. After the 1979 revolution there was little interest in nuclear activities.  During the international isolation of Iran in the midst of the war with Iraq, the country looked for ways to provide nuclear fuel itself.  

On the transition of Iran from an Islamic republic to a republic
I have no idea.

On the future of theocracy in Iran
What we have in Iran today is Shiaism as interpreted by Ayatollah Khomeini. God is not the sovereign in Iran like in a theocracy. There is no rule by God or by a human incarnation of God.

On example of a theocratic State
An example of a theocratic State is like the way Geneva was under John Calvin in the 16th century.
In Iran there are all sorts of people who are part of the government apart from the pious and the religious.

How do you explain this to your colleagues and students at Oxford?
I repeat that if we continue to look at Iran from the vantage point of western culture we will learn nothing.
The intelligentsia in Iran makes the same mistake when it applies words like the left, Marxism, feudalism, bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. These terms used to describe experiences in Europe do not help much to better understand what is happening in Iran. They only increase misunderstandings about Iran.

To know Iran is to understand it from an Iranian perspective.


Homa Katouzian, 67, author of The Persians, says that to know Iran is to see the land and its people from an Iranian perspective.
Mehru Jaffer Vienna

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