Infrastructure and the Consolidation of Power in 20th Century Iran and Afghanistan


A review of Projecting the State: Political Ideology and Infrastructural Power in Early 20th Century Afghanistan and Iran, by Ryan Brasher.

In his in-depth and thorough Ph.D. dissertation, Ryan Brasher builds upon existing political theories of traditional power and ideology to explain why the Pahlavi and Musahiban dynasties achieved and consolidated power in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. To do so, he sheds light on the relevance of political ideology and the extent to which the center was able to assert control over the provinces through road networks and schools. By taking a subjunctive approach to history, he brings the reader to key junctions of each country’s history and attempts to explain why the figures of Reza Khan (later referred to as Reza Shah) and Muhammad Nadir Khan (later referred to as Muhammad Nadir Shah) were able to come to power while others were not.

He first sets out his methodological framework and the political theorists that he draws upon. He distinguishes state and regime and applies these differences to both Iran and Afghanistan. He initially applies Michael Mann’s concept of infrastructural power. Ryan also provides a review of other scholars’ explanations – including Jeffrey J. Roberts’s and B.D. Hopkins’s – on why Afghanistan can be considered to be weak, such as tribal and ethnic divisions as well as geography (see Roberts, The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan. London: Praeger, 2003; Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He also provides a brief on reasons why Iran was regarded strong, from its tradition of strong leadership and ancient civilization (Ryan makes reference to Stephanie Cronin’s writings, Homa Katouzian’s various works, and Sirus Ghani’s Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998). Upon this basis, Ryan draws our attention to the similarities between the two countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from cultural links to political fates.

Ryan examines the development of infrastructural power (defined as the state’s ability to penetrate its territory and implement its decisions in a routinized manner). By first describing Iran with effective and wide-reaching political institutions and Afghanistan as weak, his main argument is that standard approaches to the state that focus on structural conditions or rational rulers do not pay enough attention to the ideology of new elites. He uses Catherine Boone’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s work as a basis and draws upon this to develop an ideological theory of state development (see Boone, Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; and Ziblatt, Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). He focuses on two key turning points: the rise of Reza Shah and Muhammad Nadir Shah in Iran and Afghanistan respectively.

In the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, where Afghanistan was politically isolated, Iran experienced a significant degree of economic and military penetration by outside powers. Ryan provides a detailed discussion on the Constitutional movement in Iran and concludes that despite the establishment of a Parliament, political programs and factions remained vague. As such, politicians who were able to manipulate them for their own benefits could perpetuate the cycle and pattern of arbitrary leadership. In the case of Afghanistan, similar ideological options existed in Iran as well, however it was the strength and consolidating power of the Musahiban regime that ensured the continuation of patrimonial absolutism in Afghanistan. The families in Iran and Afghanistan that eventually established the Pahlavi and the Musahiban dynasties respectively perpetuated the traditional rule of leadership in their own countries, while drawing upon an ideology that was shaped by their familial and individual experiences as well as the political environment of the time (particularly in what was alternatively offered). Drawing upon Max Weber and Stephen Hanson, Ryan emphasizes the importance of individual level perceptions and decision-making, thus demonstrating how ideology is very much shaped by the cultural conditions that leaders grew up in or were exposed to.

The pursuit of modernity in both countries seemed to be a motivating factor for many among the political elite. However, this often came at the price of upsetting traditional structures of society. Through this lens, Ryan examines the different (though disunited) powerhouses that existed in Iran from the Democrat Party to the mysterious figure of Sayyed Zia Tabatabai, who although never achieving complete power, was always at the center of events. Reza Shah, a reformist was able to take advantage of the political chaos and insecurity following the First World War to establish himself as the new shah of Iran. Similarly in Afghanistan, conflict between modernists and traditionalists existed. However there were no parliamentary factions and the constitutional movement was suppressed, instead the presence of tribes and key families determined the local political landscape. Alternative power sources came from the previous king Amanullah, who unlike his counterpart in Iran did not utilize the military effectively in dealing with tribal opposition ultimately leading to his downfall. As such, Nadir Shah’s patrimonial absolutism was not threatened and he was able to pursue his own brand of modernist reforms albeit gradually.

Ultimately, Ryan argues that legal and bureaucratic rulers in Iran and Afghanistan viewed local and regional elites as hindrances to their modern state-building programs. They were either coerced or suppressed by the center depending on kinship ties or governmental priorities. Here, he concludes that due to the road network and education system in both countries, political ideology provides a satisfactory explanation for the development of infrastructural power at the provincial level. To demonstrate these instances, Ryan focuses on the tribal elements in both Iran and Afghanistan, though in the case of Iran, he does provide a detailed discussion on Reza Shah’s campaign against the jangali movement in the north of the country. He provides a detailed discussion on these elites and their relationship with the center. He concludes that due to their political ideology and outlook, both regimes asserted central power when necessary. However, Reza Shah undertook a keen detribalization campaign that established central control over the provinces while the Musahiban regime did not undermine tribal power as much.

He finally navigates his dissertation towards a deft calculation of each country’s administrative density. Through empirical evidence and calculation, paying close attention to population numbers as well as the construction of roads and schools, Ryan concludes that Iran spread its influence in a more uniform manner throughout the provinces, which matched with Reza Shah’s style of leadership. Whereas in Afghanistan, the spread of the center was less uniform and depending on tribal ties, it was evident that the center’s presence was missing when local power was recognized and unchallenged.

It is a challenge to summarize an in-depth dissertation such as this. Ryan has managed to reopen the study of absolutism in Iran and Afghanistan in a unique way. Through empirical evidence and the application of sound political theory frameworks, Ryan has been able to convincingly demonstrate the importance of political ideology within the particular and unique socio-political terrains of Iran and Afghanistan. His work is an invaluable addition to the existing body of literature that will further expand our understanding of the establishment and spread of the Pahlavi and Musahiban dynasties.

Rowena Abdul Razak
Faculty of Oriental Studies
University of Oxford

Primary Sources
Afghan and Iranian government publications, including official government statistics and censuses.
British sources taken from the National Archives and India Office Records.
U.S. diplomatic correspondence from the U.S. State Department.
United Nations official publications.
Contemporary accounts from travelogues.

Dissertation Information
Indiana University, Bloomington. 2014. 469pp. Primary Adviser: Šumit Ganguly.

Image: Family picture of the Musahiban. Source: Salnameh-ye Kabul from 1932-1933.

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