The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars: Society, Politics, Economics and Foreign Relations 1796–1926

Author: Hooshang Amirahmadi

Volume Volume 44, Issue 3, 2013, Asian Affairs

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This book provides a comprehensive study of the Iranian political economy during its transition from what the author terms as ‘pseudo-feudalism’ to ‘proto-capitalism’ between the 1800s and the 1920s. (He explains that, since neither feudalism nor capitalism took their classical European form in Iran, he has distinguished them with the prefix ‘pseudo’ and ‘proto’ throughout the book.)
In particular, the study aims to answer the key question: why, despite its long, rich history and its extensive natural resources, did Iran fail to develop economically, become a democracy and establish beneficial international relations. For the author – and this is the central theme throughout the book – it was the combined practices of internal and external forces that led to an underdeveloped and dependent Iran in the period under discussion; it is these two forces, namely Iran’s oppressive and corrupt feudal ruling classes and, secondly, foreign powers, in particular the Russians and the British, which are identified as factors delaying Iran from making the important transition from subsistence agriculture to manufacturing.
The author applies underdevelopment and dependency theories to Qajar Iran. By setting Iran’s underdevelopment within a historical framework, his view is that it makes sense to use the political-economy approach to examine Qajar rule since this helps to establish the links between internal and external forces and allows for a comprehensive critical analysis of Iran’s economic, social and political development, as well as its international relations, during this period.
The book begins with an assessment of Iran in its pre-capitalist form and outlines the evolution of Iranian ‘pseudo-feudalism’ under the Safavid, Afshar and Zand dynasties (predecessors to the Qajars) and the emergence of the modern Iranian state. The following three sections are dedicated to examining the role of the aforementioned internal forces in obstructing Iran’s full development towards capitalism. There is a broad discussion of the role of the monarchy, governmental institutions, the administrative state apparatus; the study demonstrates how the state played a fundamental role in the early phases of the transition from ‘pseudo-feudalism’ to ‘proto-capitalism’ as the ruling classes oppressed the people, corrupted the administration, opposed reform, suppressed innovative ideas and all too readily allowed foreign powers’ intervention in Iranian political and economic affairs to reach unprecedented levels.
However, demand for changes in the structure of these institutions forced the state to introduce reform measures which were responsible in a limited way for bringing about change in the army, administration, judiciary, the media and the educational system; newspapers, literature, societies and varying organisations emerged promoting the arrival of what the author calls ‘a new civil society’ with the new forces engaging in ideological and class struggles which were anti-absolutist and anti-imperialist in nature. The study aims to show that these changes also increased social awakening and led to the formation of an intelligentsia, although these developments did not lead to a new political culture. It was in an effort to contain the threat of these progressive forces that the state allied itself with foreign powers which, in turn, led to their intervention in Iran’s economy.
The intervention of foreign powers, more towards the end of the transition period, is discussed in the next section. Here, the author aims to demonstrate how foreign powers penetrated the country through peaceful and violent means and how, by forming an alliance with internal forces and imposing numerous political and commercial treaties, they hindered the development of Iran’s transportation, mining, agriculture, manufacturing, banking and trade, causing large state deficits resulting from the many loans and advances made to the ruling classes; all this led to financial dependency and later to a fiscal crisis in the latter part of the 19th century.
At the same time, the author recognises that, by the beginning of the 20th century, Iran had experienced significant economic, social and political transformations. There was economic expansion and improvement. Favourable conditions for industrialisation existed: population increases despite numerous famines and plagues, a high rate of urbanisation, advances in the transport system, introduction of new techniques in the agrarian sector and in traditional industries, higher prices, lower wages and the formation of a commodity market. There was also development of foreign trade and the opening of the economy, and in all this the author acknowledges that imperialism played a progressive role as it contributed to what he refers to as ‘qualitative change’ in the productive forces and the social awakening of the wider population. However, he points out that this “unintended progressive role stood in stark contrast to its intended regressive role”.
This study provides a meaningful critical analysis of Iran’s development during an important period. As an expert on Middle East affairs, the author skilfully lays out his arguments and supports them with extensive research and statistics, using primary sources as well as scholarly literature. Consequently this is a very informative as well as readable book. The author writes clearly and with authority and while the main body of the book is concerned with providing a historical framework to his arguments, the last section is dedicated to a summary of the author’s empirical and theoretical conclusions which should make this book appealing to scholars and researchers as well as to the more general reader.
Sam Ala C.2013
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