Bryan Caplan  

Civil and Economic Liberties Under the Shah

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Here are two striking passages from Abbas Milani's The Shah

Civil liberties under the Shah:
The Shah's crucial decade from 1965 to 1975 was also critical for the regime's cultural politics.  Iran in this period was a discordant combination of cultural freedoms and political despotism - of increasing censorship against the opposition but increasing freedoms for everyone else.  It is far from hyperbole to claim that during the sixties and seventies, Iran was one of the most liberal societies in the Muslim world in terms of cultural and religious tolerance, and in the state's aversion to interfere in the private lives of its citizens - so long as they did not politically oppose the Shah.  Indications of this tolerance were many: from the quality of life of Iran's Baha'i and Jews to the artistic innovations and aesthetic avant-gardism of the Shiraz Art Festival...

Much to the consternation of the Shiite clergy in this period, the Baha'i enjoyed freedom and virtual equality with other citizens.  The same was true about Iranian Jews - some 100,000 of the them, who had lived in Iran for over 3,000 years.  In the words of David Menasheri, it was the Jews' "golden age," wherein they enjoyed equality with Muslims and in terms of their per capita incomes "they might have been the richest Jewish community in the world."  Some of the most innovative and successful industrialists, engineers, architects, and artists were either Jewish or Baha'i...
Economic liberties under the Shah:
In a fascinating speech on the floor of the Senate, he [Iranian senator and industrialist Qassem Lajevardi] offered a de facto manifesto for Iran's nascent industrialist class...

Lajevardi began his remarks by pointing out the startling fact that 103 of the 104 government-run companies were losing money - the only one that showed any profit was the oil company.  He also talked of the dangers or price control, knowing well the Shah's proclivity to use force to control prices, going so far as deputizing an army of students to identify and, if necessary, arrest businessmen accused of price gouging.  The policy angered not just modern industrialists like Lajevardi but also members of the bazaar, long a bastion of support for the moderate opposition and for the clergy.  Nowhere in the world, Lajevardi said, had the effort to forcefully control prices led to success.  He went on to also criticize the government policy of arbitrarily deciding workers' wages.  Wages, he said, must correlate with productivity and cannot, as was the case in Iran, be treated as a political bonus.  Industrialists will invest, he said pointedly, only if they are allowed to make a fair profit.  By then, a massive flight of capital from Iran had already started - a flight that would be redoubled when the political situation deteriorated.
Strong on civil liberties, weak on economic liberties - it almost seems like American liberals should have liked the Shah.  The favorable theory is that liberals cared more about democracy than getting their preferred policies.  The unfavorable theory is that liberals knew next to nothing about the Shah's actual policies, and opposed him chiefly for the traditional authoritarianism he symbolized rather than what he actually did - or how he compared to plausible alternatives.

HT: Mehi Haghani


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Michael writes:

Thie unfavorable theory is basically right, but it can be put more charitably. What he symoblized was something we did -- we, the US and the UK in particular, and thus the West. We wrongly imposed our will on another people. And when you realize you have done that, you should publicly repent so it will not be easy for your covert agencies to do it again; and you should back off, which is really all we did. (I don't think any substantial fraction of America ever wanted actively to support anti-Shah forces.)

What you should not do is to imagine that you can now finesse the situation in the interest of those you previously wronged, as though the one realization that your prior actions were imperialist has left you omniscient and your agencies incorruptible.

Same now in Iraq.

JK Brown writes:

A more likely theory bolstered by what we learned after the fall of the USSR is that they liberals new nothing of his actual policies except the Soviet propaganda fed to them and blindly followed the rhetoric of their leaders many of whom were directly controlled Soviet assets.

Miguel Madeira writes:

A third theory could be that "civil liberties" also include "political liberties" (not only "cultural liberties" - if anything, left-wingers tend to give more importance to freedom to engage in politics than to pure "private life" freedom), then puting the Shah in the authoritarian quarter (low economic freedom and low civil freedom) instead of in the liberal quarter.

Afaik, Pinochet were not also particularly intrusive in private life issues, but almost everybody considers their regime as "high economic liberty, low personal liberty" (because of the repression against opponents), not "high economic and personal liberty".

Miguel Madeira writes:

Another point is that probably many observers compared the Shah with Mossadegh (a parliamentary and relatively secular government who nationalized oil - nationalization reversed after the Shah's coup) - and, in relative terms, the Shah was the "conservative" and Mossadegh the "liberal".

Btw, I think that US conservatives are not also particularly entusiastic about Islamits (who are also, I think, relatively pro-free market).

Miguel Madeira writes:

"liberals new nothing of his actual policies except the Soviet propaganda fed to them and blindly followed the rhetoric of their leaders many of whom were directly controlled Soviet assets."

Besides the cases from World War II and imediate years, like Alger Hiss (much time before the US support for the Shah), there is any eviddence of american "liberals" being controlled by the Soviets (we should not forget that were the Democrats that were responsible by the wars of Korea and Vietnam, the invasion of Dominican Republic, etc.)?

Hazel Meade writes:

You're forgetting that the Shah's predecessor, whom he overthrew, was even MORE restrictive of economic liberties. He nationalized the oil companies.

Let's not forget that the reason the Shah was overthrown is because the British and the US feared that he was going to align Iran with the USSR. Which would give the USSR access to persian gulf oil fields, and a potiential military port on the Indian ocean, and pose a military threat to US control of the Persian Gulf.

Plus this was 1953. which was still very much the Stalinist period. And right after the New Deal, a time period when the economy was more heavily regulated even here.
So a probably more accurate interpretation is that at the time the left was openly aligned with Stalinist USSR, and the Shah overthrew a Soviet ally and replaced him with what was at the time a fairly mainstream capitalist society with some economic controls.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I suggest reading this article in Foreign Affairs magazine that suggests the CIA was just a small part of the fall of Mossadeq. Even the Muslim clergy was against him.

I'd say blaming the CIA for the Iranian coup is like blaming France for the American Revolution.

Thomas writes:

This seem about right about Iran. Who ever knows who the relevant opposition is. Where it goes wrong is on the attitude of Western liberals. Would you say that "conservatives" should like the Islamists because they have more liberal economic policies and more restriction on personal and women's rights?

Where the Shah and us policy went wrong was not to realize when you repress all political opposition equally, you favor the least liberal flavors.

Jeff writes:
The unfavorable theory is that liberals knew next to nothing about the Shah's actual policies, and opposed him chiefly for the traditional authoritarianism he symbolized rather than what he actually did - or how he compared to plausible alternatives.

The really unfavorable theory is that blue tribe liberals never cared much about the Shah one way or the other, he was just a useful cudgel to bludgeon red tribe Cold Warriors with. "You helped overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran and installed a brutal dictator! You beasts!"

In that sense, the more brutal and repressive he was, the more rhetorically useful he was to US liberals.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Being a Portuguese born in 1973 I don't know much about the details of US politics of 1950/60/70.

But "liberals" (I am not talking about "radicals" - the people who read Noam Chomsky, Marcuse or the Monthly Review, or were in the streets chanting "Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many babies you kill today?"; they are a different thing) had any big objection to the Shah? My impression is that both Kennedy and Johnson had good relation with his government and even Carter only stop supporting him when the public protests become to big.

Becker writes:

From December 1979: Life Under the Shah

glasnost writes:

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Gus writes:

Uh, you ever hear of SAVAK? They were great for civil liberties.

Cheerful writes:

The Shah frequently tortured people to death, with medieval methods. Why shouldn't liberals find that incompatible with civil liberties?

politicalfootball writes:

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