The Western picture of Iran is of authoritarianism with clerical rule following centuries of shahs—punctuated by Mohammed Mossadegh, an eccentric, 1950s prime minister supported by pro-Soviet forces. Azimi, a history professor at the University of Connecticut, provides a useful corrective, illustrating how the desire for modernity runs deep among Iran's intellectuals, businessmen, and ordinary people. Few in the West realize how much Iran's political culture continues to be shaped by the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution, a violent struggle to impose constitutional democracy on Mozzafar al-Din Shah and to maintain it under his successor Mohammad 'Ali Shah.
The constitution, which relegated the shah to a largely ceremonial role, was ignored by successive shahs who reestablished absolutist rule: first, Mohammad 'Ali (r. 1907-09), his son Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-21), Reza Khan from the 1920s, and then his son Mohammed Reza, especially through the 1960s and 1970s. What Azimi brings to life is how broadly the absolutism was resented and seen as illegitimate by both elites and the population at large, which saw democratic consultation as an inseparable part of the modernization those shahs claimed to be advancing. Further, Azimi brings out the striking similarities between the shahs and the Islamic Republic's clerical leaders: Both groups bend to popular democratic demands when weak but, when strong, promptly install authoritarian rule, which is broadly resented as illegitimate and a force that stifles modernity.
The strength of Azimi's account lies in how he captures the burning desire that some Iranians have for democracy. He is frank in attributing the failures to the democrats as much as to the autocrats. His evaluation of Mossadegh could apply to Iranian liberals across the last century: "In the specific circumstances of Iran, liberal democratic constitutionalism was more congruent with political opposition than with governance. It was far easier to oppose violations of the Constitution and denounce election rigging than to govern constitutionally or conduct free elections."
The weakness of The Quest for Democracy is that Azimi presupposes considerable knowledge about Iranian history over the last century. He presents broad interpretations that make sense only if one is already well versed about the twists and turns, of which there were many, in Iran's complicated political evolution. Azimi does little to guide the reader interested in democracy but with only a passing acquaintance with Iran. As a result, his account is more useful to the specialist or to informed Iranians than to Westerners in general, even to those with considerable interest in foreign affairs.