Hegel says in his lectures that history must repeat itself to be intelligible.footnote1 Yes, rejoined Marx, in his most elegant piece of journalism, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), first as tragedy, and then as farce.footnote2 Marx saw the coup d’état of Prince Napoleon in 1851 as a comic re-enactment of Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power on the 18th Brumaire, Year viii of the French revolutionary calendar (1799), mere historical play-acting in altered circumstances. What would Hegel and Marx have made of the June days in Iran? The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the tenth election for the Iranian Presidency on 22 Khordad, or June 12, was for his supporters an instance of divine grace and for his rivals a vulgar fraud. For the student of Iranian history, June 12 falls into a pattern in which popular revolutions (1906 and 1979) are disrupted by a coup d’état and then another and then another. In place of Muhammed Ali Shah Qajar, we have Ali Khamenei, for the Cossack commander Liakhov there is Interior Minister Mahsouli, and for Reza there is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Persian Bonaparte in a car coat.

For Iranians of a religious cast of mind, the history of their country is the repeated disruption of God’s will by conspirators, mercenaries, foreign capital, liberals and the bbc Persian Service. For those of a secular bent, the sure passage of the country towards enlightenment is broken up by unpredictable periods of darkness, like a train journey in mountainous country. In either case, the consequence is frustration in which the Guarded Realms of Iran are granted neither prosperity nor justice, nor the fame they deserve in the eye of God and the judgement of humanity.

Within this perplexing pattern, there is a fundamental conflict which, as you might expect in the land that gave the world Manichaeism, takes different shapes at different historical epochs. Despotism fights Constitutionalism, Monarchy Parliament, Right Left, God the Devil, hard-liner reformer. The twelfth of June opens a new chapter. The long stalemate since the death in 1989 of the revolutionary pioneer Ruhollah Khomeini, in which the reformers could not reform and the hard-liners could not hard-line, is broken. Iranian Republicanism, or jomhuriat, is wounded and the clergy at daggers drawn. We enter a period of confusion, confrontation with the Western powers and messianic enthusiasm. Somewhere in the great salt deserts of Iran, there will soon be a nuclear explosion.

In 1905, Iran was an out-of-the-way place where European modernity was represented by a few horse-drawn kaleshkis, five miles of pilgrim railway which some rode in their shrouds, a bankrupt sugar factory, a polytechnic, a brigade of Cossacks and thirty million roubles in national debt to fund the Shah’s household and his water-cures in France. A protest at the bastinadoing of two sugar merchants and objections to the construction of a Russian bank were transformed into a revolt against the Qajar autocracy, famine prices and the sale of concessions to shady European capital. The progressive clergy, shopkeepers, craftsmen and a few liberals and social democrats called for a ‘house of justice’ and then a majlis (parliament), qanun (rule of law), and even mashruteh (constitution). Tormented by gout and kidney stones, Shah Muzaffaruddin Qajar agreed to grant a constitution on August 5, 1906 and the Majlis convened two months later. In a land where surnames were still a few years in the future, the deputies advertised themselves by their crafts: Messrs Bookseller, Tailor’s Foreman, Silkmercer, Wholesaler, Fletcher, Crystalseller, Grocer, Ricecooker, Middleman, Watchmaker.footnote3

Muzaffaruddin died that winter and his son, Mohammed Ali, objected to any limitation on the ancient prerogatives of the monarchy. On July 24, 1908, the commander of the Cossack Brigade, Vladimir Platonovich Liakhov, turned his cannon on the Majlis building in Tehran. By then, many of the clergy had come to distrust democratic government and the wild talk of liberty and equality. Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, the most learned and influential of the Tehran clergy, concluded that, until the Lord of Time—the twelfth Imam in direct descent from the Prophet through his daughter, Fatemeh—should emerge from his incognito and usher in the age of justice and the end of the world, an absolutist government that applied Islamic law was the least of all evils. For the anti-clerical historian Ahmad Kasravi, the Constitutional Revolution was premature. ‘The mass of people’, he wrote in the 1920s,

were wholly ignorant of what a Constitution is and what it entailed and took part in the insurrection merely to follow their leaders. In that case, there should have been at the outset of the movement people to guide and educate and teach everybody about popular government and national life, and progress as it is understood in Europe.footnote4

The ‘little despotism’, as it was called, lasted just a year. A force of Constitutionalist tribesmen from the Bakhtiari gathered in Isfahan, defeated the royal army and reconvened the Majlis. Sheikh Fazlollah was hanged on June 30, 1909. But Constitutionalism gradually disintegrated and much of the clergy returned to the seminary or doffed their turbans. In 1921, a Cossack officer named Reza seized power, ejected the Qajars four years later and instituted a modernizing despotism. Foreigners responded according to national type: English ladies attended Reza’s coronation in 1926 and designed the court uniforms from patterns at Kensington Palace; a German professor dug up an ancient Persian word, Pahlavi, to consecrate the parvenu dynasty; the Soviet orientalists at Novy Vostok labelled Reza a bourgeois revolutionist, anti-feudal and anti-imperial, who would create an industrial society ripe for proletarian revolution.