Regions and Global History: An Arab-Iranian Case Study and Three Observations

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This essay has two linked parts. The first, empirical part shows how Iran’s Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980; r. 1941–1979) and his government became involved in a series of sociopolitical crises in Arab countries in 1958, supporting Lebanon and Jordan, confronting Egypt, and seeking to roll back a successful coup in Iraq. It demonstrates how these crises, especially Iraq’s, triggered the shah’s quest for autocratic power and, as an outgrowth of this, for moderate socioeconomic reforms that actually proved decisive and successful. Drawing on the above case study, the second part of the essay makes three sets of conceptual observations. First, regions do not simply exist per se: they exist in that they function as such. They are not units; rather, they are constituted by sets of relationships, each fueled by a particular driving force. Sets of relationships can coexist and interplay, and hence they have different spaces and periodizations. Second, a particular set of relationships is not a static homogeneous unit but itself takes the form of multiple uneven, changing relationships. It has grey zones, that is, actors who are partially involved and/or become involved—that is, move “into” a region, as it were—and state and nonstate actors involved in it have different weights and play different roles. Third, I sketch out two areas that overlap with what one may call global—and certainly supraregional—developments, concerning the Cold War superpower rivalry and postcolonial state formation.