Wisdom of taxi drivers

23 May 2005

“I have no program. I had no time for that. But I shall call for accountability by every one. Go and see what people say in the taxis or at sandwich stands to hear people saying they want a Reza Khan. I shall be a Reza Khan, but of a Hezbollahi type.” Thus spoke Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Tehran police chief and current presidential hopeful. The allusion is to Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi monarch, who ascended the throne in 1925, four years after leading a de facto coup against the monarch, Ahmad Mirza, ending the largely inept Qajar dynasty.

Reza Shah, a fierce Iranian nationalist, had an Ataturkian disdain for the clergy, a Prussian-style view of himself as an enlightened solider-leader, and a fervent desire to modernize his country to emulate – and one day compete with – the West.

It's a smart election ploy, Qalibaf's harkening to Reza Shah. I've been to those same sandwich shops, hopped rides in those same taxis, and heard similar sentiments. Usually, it goes something like this: "We are so messed up that what this country needs is a Reza Shah. A strongman to get us back on track."

In fact, this "we are so messed up" view of things is partially driving the support for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily former President and perennial Islamic Republic power player, among many ordinary Iranians (or, at least those few who plan to vote) who otherwise resent his personal and family corruption.

An Iranian friend, a one-time big supporter of current President Khatami, told me recently: "I'll vote for Rafsanjani because at least he can stand up to Khamenei and maybe get things done. Khatami was too weak to do that." After all, when a popular, elected leader like Khatami – now largely a source of anger or disappointment – was unable to deliver the goods, it might be time to get "realistic", hold one's nose and lift the lever for Rafsanjani or – gasp! – even Qalibaf.

But, hold on a minute here. One of the reasons that some Iranians long for a Reza Shah figure is because of the dramatic mismanagement of the nation by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Homa Katouzian, the Oxford University Professor of modern Iranian history, has an interesting cycle theory about Iranian government: arbitrary rule leads to chaos, which then spurs calls for a strongman, once again leading to arbitrary rule then onward to chaos again, and calls for another strongman.

Are we witnessing such a cycle again, this time with an Islamic Republic strongman? Unlikely, given the diffuse nature of power in the system. One man – even the Machiavellian Rafsanjani – cannot dominate the state. There are simply too many poles of power, many of them hidden from public view. Qalibaf, a virtual neophyte compared to Rafsanjani, has even less chance of controlling the state in a Reza Shah manner.

And, there's one more thing. One of the reasons for the Reza Shah revival among many middle-class Iranians is his secularism. Tired of rule by men of religion, Iranians often speak fondly of Reza Shah's tough anti-clericalism.

Those same taxi drivers (many of whom refuse to pick up clerics) probably notice Qalibaf's thin beard or his police stripes and stop short of saying what usually comes next in the Reza Shah nostalgia-laced laments. I (unbearded) heard it all the time when I was living in Iran: "Reza Shah was great because he grabbed the mullahs by their collars and told them to get out of the way as Iran moved forward."

I doubt a "Hezbollahi" Reza Khan would do the same.

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