Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Saffron Kitchen

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The Saffron Kitchen

by Yasmin Crowther

The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2006, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2007, 272 pages

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A Short History of Iran
If your recollection of the recent history of Iran is a little rusty, this brief background should refresh your memory of the events that form the backdrop to Maryam's childhood:

Iran's 4,000 year history is summed up by Dr Saeed in The Saffron Kitchen. Referring to Iran before and after the 1979 revolution he says, "We were welcomed around the world for our oil, yes, but also for our culture, our civilization ..... Now a quarter century later, if you have an Iranian passport, people here, the authorities, think you're a terrorist, someone who may have a bomb strapped to their belly...."

Once the center of a major empire, by the 17th century Iran had lost much territory to various European countries such as Portugal, Great Britain, Russia and France. Following a revolution in the early 20th century, a constitutional monarchy was established and the first parliament met in 1906. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 divided Iran into two parts, each under the influence of one of the signing countries. In 1908 the British discovered oil in their part of Iran which renewed the British Empire's interest in the region as a whole.

During World War I, Iran remained effectively neutral, but was occupied by British and Russian troops. In 1921 a military coup established a new dynastic line, placing Iranian officer Reza Khan on the throne as the new hereditary Shah. Under Reza Khan's rule Iran started to modernize and to secularize politics. In 1941, British, Indian and Soviet forces occupied Iran and the British forced Reza to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Tehran Declaration of 1943 guaranteed the post-war independence and boundaries of Iran.

Initially, the new Shah allowed parliament a lot of power, but the parliament was unstable, with six different prime ministers holding office between 1947 and 1951. In 1951 Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh moved to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. British pressure, including an economic blockade, caused the Shah to remove Mossadegh from power briefly in 1952, but an overwhelming majority in parliament supported him and he was quickly re-appointed.

Mossadegh then forced the Shah into exile in 1953 (the ensuing riots are the background to the event that changed the course of Maryam's life). A military coup backed by the British and US governments finally led to Mossadegh being arrested and tried for treason.

In 1954 the Shah agreed that an international consortium of primarily British and American companies would run the Iranian oil facilities for the next 25 years. The consortium agreed to a 50:50 profit split but would not allow the Iranian government to audit their books to confirm that the split was accurate. During the relatively stable years of the late 50s and 60s the Iranian government reformed and modernized the country, funded by Iran's extensive petroleum reserves. However the reforms did not dramatically change the economic conditions for the majority, and the pro-Western leanings of the government alienated some religious and political groups.

In 1957, with the help of the CIA, the government controlled Organization for Intelligence and National Security (SAVAK) was established with virtually unlimited powers of arrest and detention. During the 50s and 60s, it is estimated that more than 13,000 people were killed by SAVAK and thousands more arrested and tortured; which led the Islamic clergy, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to become increasingly vocal.

In mid-1973, the Shah returned the oil industry to national control. Following the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973, Iran did not join the Arab oil embargo against the West and Israel. Instead it used the situation to raise oil prices, using the money gained for modernization and to increase defense spending. By the late 1970s there was widespread religious and political opposition to the Shah, and especially to SAVAK. Martial law was declared in September 1978 and the Shah fled the country in January 1979 as revolution broke out.

For more about Iran, see the "BookBrowse Says" for Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani.

This article was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the August 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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