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The Weaknesses of a Sovereign

March 15, 2011

Shah of Imperial State of Iran from December 15, 1925 till he was abdicated on September 16, 1941

As an assignment for History 261, we were asked to read All the Shah’s Men, by Stephen Kinzer. Written about the events of a CIA planned 1953 coup, which essentially overthrew the only democratic regime in the history of Iran, this novel details the rule from the Qajar dynasties through the oppressive Shah rule, and the spur of anti-Americanism. What struck me about this book was the number of absolute rulers who tried to retain control of Iran, but inevitably failed to keep peace. Recalling Hobbes belief, that in order to stay away from the State of Nature or State of War, the institution of a sovereign entity would placate fear and help maintain control, after reading this book, I believe that the idea behind a sovereign entity in Hobbes theory would inevitably destroy any society.

Hobbes argues that giving absolute power to one or a group will in turn protect the commonwealth as a whole, even if this means the sovereign kills or destroys others whenever he wants. Although most of the rulers in Iran were not handed complete power by the societies they ruled, their actions during their rein reflect why the idea of a sovereign entity would eventually end in disaster, violence, and rebellion. For example, the rein of Reza Shah (also known as Reza Khan) lasted from 1925-1941. He did a service to his people when he lead the overthrow of the Qajar ruler, however, his power soon became problematic. He chose to resolve problems with “brutal decisiveness” (Kinzer 43) When religious leaders protested his ban of the veil for women and his order that men wear billed caps (preventing them from touching the floor with their foreheads during prayer), “he ordered soldiers to storm the mosque and massacre them” (Kinzer 43). Hobbes does mention that giving all powers to one sovereign means that the sovereign is allowed to do whatever he wants. However, regardless of whether Reza Shah was formally given his sovereignty by the entirety of Iran or not, his absolutism essentially caused his self-destruction. In All the Shah’s Men, Kinzer points out that when allied forces demanded Shah give them free use of Iran for their forces, he couldn’t say no. By that point in 1941, he had “alienated himself from almost every segment of Iranian society, and if he had kept a cadre of wise advisers around him instead of systematically exiling or murdering them, he might have been able to resist” (Kinzer page 45). Because of his narrow mindness, he found himself unaided, and he eventually abdicated on September 16, 1941 (Kinzre 45).

To give him credit, Raza Shah achieved many things for his country, including a construction program that built new “highways, factories, ports, hospitals, government buildings, railroad lines, and schools for both girls and boys” (Kinzer 43). He modernized much of Iran, but with this transformation, came self-greed. It is that self-greed that I believe will be the downfall of any absolutist ruler, making Hobbes theory implausible. Not only has the history of some of Iran’s past rulers, but of many other countries past leaders (such as  Napoleon in France), eventually met their downfall because of their sovereignty. Absolute power in the hands of one person will eventually result in corruption and violence.


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