"Back to Amir Kabir: Nostalgia for the Past, at the Height of a Crisis in the Present"
IraniX No. 10 | February 2023
By Dr. Raz Zimmt
On January 10th, Iran commemorated the 171st anniversary of the death of Mirza Taghi Khan-e Farahani ("Amir Kabir"), the mid-19th century Iranian Prime Minister who was considered the most important reformer during the Qajar Dynasty. Renewed discussions of his legacy express a diversity of viewpoints with regard to his major achievements, on part of the Islamic Republic's various political factions. Despite these differences, the public discourse reflects a nostalgia for honest and capable politicians who were able to bring change and promote crucial reforms for the benefit of their nation. Amir Kabir's achievements were especially emphasized in light of the difficult current reality in the Islamic Republic, and the growing distress of the citizens of Iran, which highlight the longing for an historically better past.
On January 10, 2023, the Department of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the Qom province held a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the death of Mirza Taghi Khan-e Farahani (1807 – 1852), known as "Amir Kabir", who was one of the most important reformers of the Qajar Dynasty (1794-1925). At the ceremony, Ali-Reza Rahimi, Head of the provincial Department of Education, said that although Amir Kabir's tenure as Prime Minister lasted only three years and three months, he was so effective that his name is still positively remembered, many decades after his death.
Iran's weakness in the mid-19th century, especially with regard to the foreign powers led by Russia and Great Britain, led to the bolstering of efforts to promote change, in the spirit of the West. Amir Kabir was considered a pioneer of this reformatory stage. He was born in Tabriz and was sent by Prince Abbas Mirza to represent Iran in negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, where he personally witnessed its reforms (Tanzimat). In 1848, shortly after returning to Iran, he was appointed Prime Minister by Naser Al-Din Shah. He worked to restore and empower the army, founded the first official newspaper in Iran, and established a modern network of education. In 1851, he also founded Iran's first school of higher education, Dar ul-Funun, where generations of leaders would be educated under Western methods. He also initiated widespread financial reform. The changes he made provoked fierce opposition in the courtyard of the Shah, as well as in the religious establishment and among representatives of the superpowers. At the height of these courtyard intrigues, Amir Kabir was impeached in 1851, and on January 10, 1852, he was murdered in the city of Kashan under dubious circumstances, allegedly with the involvement of the Shah.
Commemorating the 171st anniversary of his death gave rise to a renewed public debate about the legacy of Amir Kabir, who has been highly commended among diverse political circles in the Islamic Republic. The governmental News Agency IRNA called Amir Kabir "a great and unforgettable Iranian politician," and described his contribution to "hindering foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country, upgrading the health situation of the Iranian society, , establishing the Dar ul-Funun high school to promote innovation in education, contributing to the publication of Vaqaye Ettefaqiyeh newspaper , and creating the postal service system." He was described as a "real patriot and anti-colonialist politician", who was highly commended by Iranian leader Ali Khamenei in a 2004 meeting with members of parliament as one of the most prestigious names in the history of Iran. (IRNA, January 10th).
Although the Iranian reformer was hailed by supporters and opponents of the Iranian regime alike, the discussion of his legacy reflected differing viewpoints regarding his most prominent achievements. Supporters of the regime emphasized his stance against the foreign powers and their intervention in Iran's internal affairs, his efforts to reinforce the local economy and the battle he led against the Bábist movement. On the other hand, critics of the Iranian government portrayed him as a symbol of the battle against political corruption and as a model of crucial reform.
In an interview for the media, conservative journalist, historian and political activist Abbas Salimi Namin elaborated on Amir Kabir's efforts to bolster the economy by building industries that would provide for the nation's needs and limit the ability of colonial powers to turn the country into a market for their commodities while damaging the local industry.
According to him, Amir Kabir strived to restrict foreign imports to protect the local industry. Thus, for instance, he forbade the use of military uniforms manufactured in Great Britain, and instructed that the uniforms should be made in local factories using Iranian textiles. Simultaneously, Amir Kabir promoted the import of new Western technologies in order to develop local factories and train local manpower, to relieve Iran of its dependency on other countries. In addition, Amir Kabir preferred receiving aid from nations without colonial histories, such as Austria. Salimi Namin also emphasized the way Amir Kabir challenged Russia and Great Britain by manufacturing innovative weapons and acquiring new technologies (Aftab Eghtesadi , January 10th).
The website Borna News, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Sports and Youth, referred in a January 10th commentary to Amir Kabir's supervision of foreign specialists he had brought in from the West to teach Iranian students. Thus, for instance, Amir Kabir forbade foreign teachers employed at Dar ul-Funun to appeal to their respective embassies in case of trouble, and obligated them to only communicate with the government of Iran. He also prohibited them from intervening in anything other than teaching itself. Graduates of the school were obliged to work for the government upon completion of their studies, in order to utilize their training for the benefit of the nation.
Amir Kabir's portrayal by pro-Regime elements as a symbol of the battle against Imperialism and of the reinforcement of local economy is unsurprising, in light of the current regime's views in favor of "a resistance economy" based on reducing reliance on foreign elements and development of local industries, as well as its animosity towards the West, which comprises a key foundation in the ideological and cultural discourse of the Islamic Republic. Back in 1967, Amir Kabir was already dubbed "Hero of the battle against Colonialism" as part of the title of his biography, written by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Former President of Iran and one of the leaders of the Islamic Revolution.
Media affiliated with the conservative right also stressed the battle Amir Kabir waged against Bábism, and even held the Bábists responsible for his impeachment and death. Bábism was established in Iran in 1844 by Seyyed Ali Mohammad Shirazi, who called himself a Bab (a gate) due to his belief that he was the gate to the Twelfth Imam and to manifestations of divinity. Amir Kabir played a central part in defeating the Bábist rebellions in the years 1848-1851 and in the execution of the Bab in 1850. A commentary published by the hardline newspaper Jam-e Jam (January 10) cited evidences of historians, according to which the Bábists took advantage of the battle of powers in the Shah's courtyard to lead to the impeachment of Amir Kabir, his exile to Kashan, and his eventual murder. The newspaper also criticized Iranian filmmakers and television writers for ignoring the role of the Bábists in the death of Amir Kabir in their films and series, which was a distortion of history. The emphasis on Amir Kabir's battle against the Bábists, and the accusations made against them for his death, are an expression of the Iranian regime's official policy against the Bahais, who succeeded the Bábists, who are considered heretics. Unlike Jews, Christians, or Zoroastrians , the Bahais are not recognized as an official minority in the Islamic regime, and have suffered systematic persecution since the revolution.
The media coverage of the reforms promoted by Amir Kabir emphasized his campaign against political and financial corruption. The popular Telegram channel Khabar-e Fowri addressed his decision to cut back on the wages of senior politicians, including the Shah, his allies, his courtiers and clergy, and to forbid ministers and other executive officials to receive gifts. They also stressed his determination to tackle corruption, especially the custom of taking bribes. Iranians on social media also presented Amir Kabir as a symbol of the war against corruption, especially in light of the rampant corruption in the Iranian political and economic systems, and the hedonistic lives of many Iranian politicians.
To summarize, even 171 years after the death of Amir Kabir and 44 years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the legacy of the 19th century reformer is still being shaped. Despite the ways in which different political circles tend to highlight different achievements as his most prominent, it is clear that there is an overreaching nostalgia for a politician who is capable and honest, and who prefers the good of Iran upon his personal benefit, and is able to promote change and crucial reforms for the sake of his nation. Amir Kabir's achievements – limited and short-lived as they were – are especially evident in light of the sense of frustration, despair and lack of public trust in current Iranian politicians. The pining for the pre-revolutionary past grows along with the grievances of the Iranian citizens , in a reality of economical crisis, political corruption, and a crisis of leadership.