Iran | Michael Axworth

Summary of: Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day
By: Michael Axworth


In the book ‘Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day’, author Michael Axworthy combines an engaging narrative with an analytical overview of Iran’s historical journey, tracing its roots to the seventh-century Islamic conquests. The book summary highlights pivotal changes and contributions, from the 1500s’ Safavid dynasty, Persian advancements in math and science during the Islamic Golden Age, to the troubled modern era marked by political chaos and revolutions. Readers will gain a deep understanding of Iran’s evolving culture, politics, and unique identity, emerging enlightened about a country that continues to play a significant role on the world stage.

Iranian Culture & History

Iran has been isolated from the world, but recently, the country is slowly integrating. However, Iran’s history, its impact on Iranian culture, politics, and perspectives is often misunderstood. With the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, Iran became a Muslim nation, and during the 1500s, it shifted to the Shi’a Islam. Despite suffering numerous invasions, Iran maintained its distinct identity and language. Persians made significant contributions to math and science during the Islamic Golden Age, and Iranian poetry is a major contribution to global culture. Iranians’ history and culture are unique and need to be explored in-depth to be understood accurately.

Iran’s Oil under British Monarchy

Iran’s oil rights were signed over to British entrepreneur William Knox D’Arcy by Iran’s Qajar monarchy at the turn of the 20th century. When Iran suffered famine and political chaos after World War I, British general Edmund Ironside urged Reza Shah to fill the power vacuum in Tehran.
Reza Shah embarked on an ambitious modernization effort by building infrastructure, adopting Western-style dress codes, and de-emphasizing the role of Islam. However, the pace of these reforms proved alienating for many Iranians.
Reza Shah lost power in 1941, when British and Russian forces seized Iran, claiming that Reza Shah sympathized with the Germans. The real reason was Iran’s oil and strategic location along Russian supply routes. Iranians enjoyed greater journalistic and political freedom under foreign occupation, leading to a new wave of nationalism.

Iran’s Turbulent Path

After WWII, Iran’s quest for independence led to a British export blockade, culminating in a coup by American and British secret services that ousted leader Mohammed Mosaddeq. His replacement, Mohammad Reza Shah, passed the “White Revolution” in 1963, which modernized the economy via land reform, but caused mass urbanization that led to new problems.

After World War II, Iran regained its independence. However, Iran’s leader, Mohammed Mosaddeq, sought to reclaim the country’s oil fields from Britain, which was crucial for its struggling economy. Tensions mounted, and Britain considered going to war with Iran to protect its interests, but the United States advised to pursue an export blockade. Eventually, American and British secret services staged a coup, ousting Mosaddeq from power, and replacing him with Mohammad Reza Shah.

The new leader’s “White Revolution” aimed to modernize the economy through land reform, granting ownership to two million peasants in a national referendum. The move led to mass urbanization as people migrated from the countryside in search of factory work, which brought new challenges that the Shah’s government struggled to address. Nonetheless, the West welcomed this era’S often authoritarian but more pliable Shah’s partnership. The Shah positioned himself as a modernizing force but also legitimized his regime via Islamic orthodoxy, which cast clerics in an important role beyond their religious duties.

The transition from Mosaddeq to the Shah represents a crucial phase in Iranian history, in which the quest for independence and modernity collided and resulted in different outcomes over time.

The Revolution in Iran

Ruhollah Khomeini, a small-town cleric, was a major player in Iran’s 1979 Revolution against the Shah’s regime. The Shah’s efforts to modernize and secularize Iran led to unrest among clerics, students, and merchants. Khomeini formulated his vision for an Islamic republic while in exile. The Shah’s compromises, the White Revolution, and a deadly cinema fire added to the regime’s loss of credibility. In 1979, a referendum passed in favor of forming an Islamic republic, leading to Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran.

Iranian Hostage Crisis

In 1979, students broke into the US embassy in Iran and captured 66 US diplomats and soldiers. The embassy occupation lasted for months, and a military rescue mission failed in April 1980. The students demanded the return of the Shah, but he died in July 1980. The captives were finally released in January 1981. The incident was an embarrassment to the US and had long-lasting effects on foreign policy with Iran.

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