Iran may seem like a difficult country for Americans to get to know. It has been almost three decades since Washington and Tehran have had diplomatic relations. The Islamic Republic gives few Americans visas and, counting all diplomats and businessmen and their spouses, only about 3,000 Westerners live among the seventy million Iranians. Many tourists avoid a country more associated in the popular mind with mass "Death to America" rallies than its art and architecture. Nor can Iranians easily explain their own country to the West: Iranian authorities have long railed against a "Western culture invasion" and, in recent years, they have intimidated intellectuals and academics, arresting several on allegations of participating in U.S.-funded plots to undermine the regime.
Nevertheless, within Iran there remains an impressive array of scholarship, even on issues relating to contemporary society and politics. While some in the Iranian government may try to restrain the flow of ideas, when it comes to the openness of the academic community, Iran has more in common culturally with the West than its Arab neighbors. Although many Arab societies take the attitude that information is power and information shared is power lost, Iranian researchers collect and publish detailed statistics on delicate political issues. Similarly, whereas many Arab governments disregard scholarly examination of their own country, at least until the rise of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic's institutions sponsored studies on controversial historical and social issues. For instance, the semi-governmental Institute of Contemporary History in Tehran has published many objective and, indeed, often positive analyses about actions by the late shah and his father, whom the current regime detests. And while it is rare for Western scholarship about the Arab world to be translated into Arabic, Persian translators and Iranian publishers often seize upon even obscure Iran-related doctoral dissertations by Western scholars. To be sure, there are limits Iranian scholars cross only at their peril—criticism of the Islamic Republic's theological underpinnings, for example—but Iranians' positive attitudes toward scholarship cannot be understated.
In a striking paradox, though, for a country so open to scholarship, the Iranian regime tightly controls mass media in order to monopolize interpretation of current political issues. That control extends not only to Iran's mass media but also to the access given to Western reporters. Those who speak out of turn to Western journalists are punished. The rule seems to be: Information and analysis is fine so long as no one notices them—that is, so long as they remain confined to the obscure scholarly and intellectual circles—but anything destined for the masses, Western as well as Iranian, must be carefully crafted. The result is that the fly-in Western reporter is often misled. And what becomes established in the Western mind as the realities about Iran may not bear much resemblance to what careful scholarship demonstrates. Therefore, a good rule of thumb for learning about Iran is to read the obscure scholarly books and ignore anything that sells well.
Democracy and Attitudes toward the West
We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. By Nasrin Alavi. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2005 (also London: Portobello Books). 365 pp. $15.95, paper.
The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Journey to Freedom. By Afshin Molavi. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 352 pp. $14.95.
Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty. By Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 214 pp. $25.
Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. By Shirin Ebadi. New York: Random House, 2006. 233 pp. $24.95.
This is particularly true on the interrelated questions of democracy and attitudes towards the West. Resurgent fanaticism seems to have replaced what many described in the late 1990s as a vibrant democratic movement. The key question is which more represents Iran today: a Western-oriented youth movement or inward-looking demagogues. The Islamic Republic works hard to transmit the message that the real Iran is revolutionary and that reformists are limited to a small number of affluent intellectuals in Tehran. Intellectuals allowed to travel and to interact freely with Western journalists offer arguments to back up this thesis, but the appropriate scholarly approach is to search for independent verification. Herein lays the difficulty. There is no sure way to get past the government's controls. An intriguing example is a recent poll by an international firm which, after asking a series of delicate political questions and finding much support for the regime's hard-line stance, asked if the respondents felt they could answer freely or had to take into account government pressure. Forty-two percent acknowledged the pressure, raising the obvious question about what percentage felt pressure but did not feel free to acknowledge it.
Perhaps the two best ways to get past the regime's controls are to look at the tens of thousands of Iranian blogs and to take advantage of the Iranian-American and Iranian-European community's greater access to ordinary people. Two recent, excellent books use these approaches to present insight about how Iranians view the world. Nasrin Alavi has edited a fascinating collection of translated Iranian blog entries in We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. The contextual explanation she provides is useful, but she lets the blogs carry the weight of the story. Chapters cover women, culture—which she misleadingly labels "media"—reporting news, attitudes towards recent history such as the 1979 revolution and the 1980-88 war with Iraq, attitudes towards the regime's icons, and politics. The entries illustrate daily life under the Islamic Republic, and the picture is not pretty—social problems such as drugs and prostitution are rampant; people feel alienated; petty repression is common. The hatred for the current regime comes through strongly but so, too, does despair about the country's situation, personal circumstances, and prospects for change. Alavi, a strong supporter of the reform movement, interprets many messages to suggest both the inevitability of long-term change but also resigned acceptance of the immutability of circumstances in the near term. The bloggers describe individual resistance to the regime's social and cultural restrictions, but there are few entries calling for organization or action to bring about social change. Indeed, most of the bloggers project outright cynicism toward politicians and political action.
An excellent complement to We Are Iran is Afshin Molavi's The Soul of Iran, an updated version of his 2002 Persian Pilgrimages, which told the stories of the people he met journeying across Iran. Molavi, an Iranian-American who speaks Persian fluently, is a talented reporter who has worked for Reuters and The Washington Post, among media. He is smart enough to build on his journalistic skills by writing essays about the people he meets, rather than trying to reinvent himself as an academic who offers grand social theories or as a policymaker who proposes how to resolve U.S.-Iranian differences. That makes The Soul of Iran a refreshing change from some books by journalists who have covered Iran and then decided to write a "big think" book about Iranian politics, U.S.-Iranian relations, or both. Molavi has a good eye for the telling detail, be it the clerk pulling out fading receipts to show how good times were under the shah compared to now; the simple man in the slums of south Tehran who recounts how his grand hopes for the 1979 revolution have been dashed; or the generosity and kindness of the taxi driver he befriended in Mashhad who is utterly uninterested in politics but instinctively supports those protesting against the government. Molavi structures his account around his travels but weaves in episodes from the country's long history, especially from its rich literature, to illustrate the deep pride Iranians have in their civilization. And it is indeed their civilization they venerate—their love is in their culture more than in the power of the shahs. This is not nationalism that exalts conquests of arms; it is the glorification of great ideas and poetry. Against this background of pride in advanced thought, it is easier to understand how reform-minded intellectuals and students touch a deep cord in Iranian popular life.
Molavi's approach also brings to life how disappointed and discouraged Iranians are. They are sure theirs is a great civilization, but life is a bitter struggle for what Iranians assume should be theirs by right, namely, a standard of living roughly on a par with those in other great civilizations. The harshness of daily existence grinds people down—not that Iran is particularly poor by the standards of developing countries; it is a middle-income country roughly on par with Mexico or the Balkan states. This is not the group with which Iranians seek comparison, though. The shah told his countrymen that Iran would be the equal of Germany by now, and the revolution promised to do even better. While Persians believe themselves to be richer in culture and, frankly, intellect than Arabs across the Persian Gulf, the Arab emirates and sheikhdoms have soared ahead of Iran over the last quarter century, feeding the sense that had it not been for the Islamic Revolution, Iran, too, would now be as rich as its people feel it deserves to be. Adding insult to injury, the only social group whose income has risen dramatically under the Islamic Republic is that of the families of the politically well-connected. By bringing out the deep disappointment of ordinary Iranians, Molavi's account shows why the populist, anti-corruption 2005 presidential campaign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad worked well. Not that this is Molavi's aim; indeed, he makes clear that he expects the economic discontent to add to the reformist camp and to work against the Islamist hard-liners.
The insight into the views of ordinary Iranians provided by Alavi and Molavi is the key to understanding the weaknesses as well as the strengths of democratic tendencies in Iran. Much less important is the high politics of elections and maneuverings by establishment politicians. In their Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, Ali Gheissari, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East politics and associate chair of research at the Naval Postgraduate School and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, rarely get beyond the stale and rarefied world of high politics. Democracy means more than elections and human rights; it can only flourish where there is a vibrant civil society, vigorous media and educational institutions, and openness to debate in which all points of view are tolerated. None of these issues are broached in Gheissari and Nasr's account. In their slim volume, they rehash the familiar ground of the shah's shortcomings before 1979, the revolution's turn towards Islamist absolutism rather than political openness, and the failure of reformers to build on their 1997 victory in the presidential elections—all stories told elsewhere with as much insight.
Disappointingly, Gheissari and Nasr provide none of the context inside Iran or around the region that has put democracy front and center on the Iranian agenda. In the end, they are much less successful at making the case that democracy is inevitable for Iran than is Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, now at Harvard, in his short monograph, The Point of No Return: Iran's Path to Democracy. Sazegara points to the social changes, such as literacy and urbanization, that are often associated with democratization in other countries and that Iran has experienced. He also notes the changes in Iran's neighbors, with the consolidation of democracy in Turkey and the adoption of the democratic ideal nearly all around Iran—Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia—as well as around the world.
Nothing would seem more different from the Gheissari and Nasr abstract account of high politics than Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, which is a personal account of her struggles to defend human rights under the Islamic Republic. There is, however, a profound similarity in the two books in their common defense of the 1979 revolution, which both narratives present as having lost its way rather than having been from the start a great step backwards. To be sure, Ebadi goes further on this path. Even with the hindsight of twenty-seven years, she still writes, "The head-scarf ‘invitation' [the order days after the shah's fall for women to cover their hair] was the first warning that this revolution might eat its sisters." Actually, the writings and speeches of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had for decades been clear about his agenda. Ebadi writes, "When I think back to these times [of the revolution], my own naïveté astounds me." But she remains committed to the revolution that has enslaved her; she cannot bring herself to acknowledge that she was wrong, that the shah was a better ruler than Khomeini. The same refusal to learn lessons from history and to reconsider the leftist ideology of her youth, which led her first to oppose the shah, runs through her account. She manages to say not one positive word about Western—much less U.S.—support for human rights and, instead, devotes her final chapter to attacking the U.S. government for limiting human rights in tones only slightly more balanced than her earlier dark hints that "rumors swirled" of U.S. support for Khomeini's Islamic Republic.
Reconsidering the Islamic Revolution
The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. By Charles Kurzman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 287 pp. $27.95.
Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East. By Ali Ansari. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 288 pp. $26.
Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. By Ray Takeyh. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2006. 260 pp. $25.
Ebadi's anecdotal approach makes for interesting reading, but her memories and experiences were by no means typical of the revolution through which she lived. By contrast, Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has produced the definitive account of the Islamic Revolution. No serious historian can write about these events without consulting his 10-page essay on available source material in The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. His 41-page bibliography includes three pages of document collections consulted, the majority in Persian. Some, such as the twenty-nine volume Yaran-e Emam beh Ravayat-e Asnad-e Savak (Friends of the Imam According to the Documents of Savak) and the seven volumes of Enqelab-e Eslami beh Ravayet-e Asnad-e Savak (The Islamic Revolution According to the Documents of Savak), which includes the reports from the shah's secret police about the clerical opposition, are amazing resources. As Kurzman explains, while it is clear that not all the relevant documents from the shah's regime are included in these collections, the amount released is significant, especially in juxtaposition to the sluggishness with which the U.S. government declassifies documents. Much of this material undermines the revolution's most cherished images. For instance, the Islamic Republic releases the results of their strenuous efforts to document casualties in demonstrations even though these confirm the imperial government's estimates at the time rather than the claims of the revolutionary movement.
The facts as established by Kurzman's detailed research fit poorly with every theory of revolution in general and the Islamic Revolution in particular, leading Kurzman to propose "an anti-explanation that puts anomaly in the foreground." For instance, he shows that the mosques and clerics were subject to severe repression under the shah. This contradicts the claim that the shah repressed the liberal and secular opposition, creating a climate in which those opposed to him had no choice but to organize in mosques. Indeed, Kurzman shows that in 1977, most mosques were controlled by apolitical clerics so that activists had to build a mosque network from scratch in 1978. He also documents that as late as autumn 1978, the revolutionaries did not expect to triumph, much less to do so quickly. In other words, the revolutionary movement's intelligence failure was as complete as that of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The myths that Kurzman punctures continue to reign in the semi-popular, semi-scholarly literature about Iran. The latest example is Ali Ansari's Confronting Iran, whose subtitle—The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East—tells much about the theme. Ansari, who is on the faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland, writes that U.S. policymakers did not foresee the Iranian revolution and that the shah's indecisiveness was key to the revolution's triumph. Kurzman, however, demonstrates that no one in Iran including the revolutionaries foresaw their victory and shows that the shah's policies were sophisticated and decisive if unsuccessful. Ansari goes on to run through the usual list of myths beloved of leftist Iranian intellectuals, such as former prime minister Muhammad Musaddiq's popularity, even though this had evaporated by the time of his 1953 overthrow. By contrast, he mentions nothing in his historical narrative about the June 1963 demonstrations against the shah led by Khomeini. For those who rule Iran today, this marks the central moment in modern Iranian history; however, many Iranian intellectuals saw and continue to see the demonstrations as a minor event led by backward clerics.
Ansari, like so many Iranian-origin academics who write with such confidence about U.S. ignorance regarding Iran, does not know what matters to those who rule the country. Nor is he well informed about U.S. policy towards Iran. He elevates into a major missed opportunity the 1979 cable from Bruce Laingen, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Tehran, recommending reconciliation with the Islamic Republic. In fact Laingen's recommendation was adopted: U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met with Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan in Algiers on November 1, 1979, to assure him that Washington looked forward to working with the Islamic Republic. That meeting, however, provoked revolutionary students to seize the U.S. embassy four days later. Undeterred, Brzezinski spent the succeeding twenty-seven years urging Washington to follow the same policy. The minor difficulty—which neither he nor Ansari wish to confront—is the ideological hostility of Iranian power-holders, who have little use for Western-oriented intellectuals like Ansari and his friends.
A better version of Ansari is Ray Takeyh's Hidden Iran. Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who once worked under this reviewer's direction at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is an excellent writer, which makes his book a pleasure to read. On some issues, he has done his homework and displays an excellent feel for how those who rule Iran think: for instance, their utter disdain for democracy and pluralism since, in his words, they view the "essential purpose of the state as the realization of God's will on earth." But on other issues, he slips into simple assertions of the usual liberal shibboleths, for instance, blaming the hard-liners' success on U.S. hostility. On the basic question for U.S. policymakers of what motivates Iran's foreign policy, Takeyh could not be more wrong. Time and again, he asserts that Iran is a near-normal state: "its rhetoric is infused with revolutionary dogma, yet its actual conduct is practical, if not realistic." But, as his own chapter on "Israel and the Politics of Terrorism" shows, those who hold power in Tehran are committed to revolutionary goals though they may temper their actions to preserve their regime. Takeyh concludes with the recommendation that the United States and revolutionary Iran form a partnership to deal with issues of common concern—an extraordinarily impractical suggestion given the attitudes in both countries.
Culture and History
Iran's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook. By Massoume Price. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 376 pp. $55.
The Persians. By Gene Garthwaite. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 311 pp. $59.95.
Iran-Persia: Ancient and Modern. By Helen Loveday, et al. Odyssey Books and Guides, distributed by New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005. 430 pp. $24.95.
Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. By Nikki Keddie. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 379 pp. $18.50, paper.
Much as Kurzman's book is indispensable to study the Iranian Revolution, so, too, is Massoume Price's Iran's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook must reading for anyone who wants to understand ethnic and religious diversity in Iran. Price, a University of London-trained anthropologist, shows that Iran very much remains a Persian empire: a country in which Persians dominate a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. The historical record has some surprising twists, such as the positive experience of many minorities under the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah (r. 1941-79) although that was less true of tribal groups who do better when the central state is weak. Price begins her story in ancient times, showing Iran's long experience knitting together groups by both rewarding loyalty and tolerating diversity. The one weakness in her account is that she skips too quickly over Islam's slow permeation of Iran. The nature of Islam's diffusion in Iran marks Iranian society to this day. While religious minorities dominated trade and urban life through much of Arab history, in Iran the bazaar class was at the core of Islam.
Dartmouth professor Gene Garthwaite elaborates upon the depth and strength of imperial tradition in The Persians. He has written that rarity: a readable, historical introduction rooted deeply in the scholarly literature. That he is a respected historian with decades of research experience rather than a regurgitater of others' work shows in the richness of his account of Persian history from the earliest days, covering religion, the arts, governance, warfare—even occasionally, economic life—as well as the comings and goings of rulers. He brings to life the historical reality that modern Iran is the heir of ancient Persia in at least as much the sense that modern European civilization has its roots in the Greco-Roman past. Indeed, the continuity of Iranian civilization over those millennia is well on a par with any claim of a common European past during that interval. Garthwaite's command of the grand sweep comes out most clearly in his chapter on the eight centuries from the Arab conquest to the Safavid dynasty. Entitled "‘Non-Iran': Arabs, Turks, and Mongols in Iran," the chapter emphasizes the taming role of Persian culture over successive hordes of invaders. Garthwaite's account of recent times is less interesting, only as that story has been told far more often.
While Garthwaite paints the picture of Iranian history, he does not tell the story of the land as it is now—its natural and social geography, historical buildings, and grand sights. Here, the best introduction is Iran—Persia: Ancient and Modern by Helen Loveday, Bruce Wannell, Christoph Baumer, and Bijan Omrani, four Persian-speaking experts. Although part of a series of travel guides, this book is skimpy on practical travel suggestions; for instance, there is no information about where to eat and only a 6-page list of hotels, which mostly gives telephone and fax numbers. Nor does it bother with much information about modern Iranian society; this is not the place to learn what to shop for or where to see Iranians enjoying themselves. Instead, it has stunning photographs combined with quite sophisticated local histories, excellent maps, and detailed explanations about the famous historical buildings. The introductory chapters on geography, art, and architecture are well done.
Perhaps the most influential book, at least among the university student population, is emeritus University of California- Los Angeles historian Nikki Keddie's Modern Iran, a revised edition of her 1981 earlier version Roots of Revolution. Her knowledge of Iran is deep and so are her liberal politics, which permeate the three new chapters she added in the 2003 edition to cover Iran since 1979. Typical is her assertion, "The term terrorism, now in vogue, fails to make distinctions," and does not capture Iran's support for "using means available to a weak side against a militarily overwhelming one—means similar to some use in past anti-colonial fights in Israel, South Africa, Algeria, and elsewhere." She paints an upbeat picture of the Islamic Republic. She lavishes six pages on the "advancement of women's causes," and her five pages on the arts is more than 90 percent about arts films which, while popular at international festivals, have little audience in Iran. By contrast, the rigid censorship of state television, which is the main source of news and electronic entertainment for the vast majority of Iranians, passes unmentioned.
An Axis of Evil?
Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment. By International Institute for Strategic Studies. New York: Routledge, 2005. 128 pp. $69.95.
The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. By William Beeman. Westport: Praeger, 2005. 299 pp. $49.95.
Turning to present foreign policy disputes, the most pressing issue about Iran for the West is its nuclear program. The best guide to this technical subject is Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment from a team at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) led by Gary Samore, a National Security Council official under President Bill Clinton. The political history of Iran's nuclear program serves as a backdrop to a detailed examination of its current state and informed speculation about its future. There follows a short discussion about Iran's chemical and biological programs and its ballistic missile systems. Appendices present resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The information is well documented, and the tone is scholarly and sober.
Missing is much comment on the flawed evaluation of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. That is a curious omission since, in 2002, the IISS produced under Samore's leadership an influential evaluation, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment, which was on balance not much more accurate than other prewar intelligence assessments. The IISS team would have been better advised to integrate into Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes a full and cautious explanation of how the Iran case compares to the Iraq case. That would have allowed them to pound home the difference in facts known and those inferred. In Iran, the regime trumpets the existence of sensitive facilities whereas Iraq tried to keep its programs murky. While Iraq had a single centrifuge, Iran has more than a thousand and claims to be making more than a hundred centrifuges each month.
Last and least is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other by William Beeman, the director of Middle East studies at Brown University. It is disappointing to find a full professor at an Ivy League school writing a book that claims to examine how Iran views the United States while the author cites only four articles or books in the Persian language. Beeman ignores or remains ignorant of both the rich literature produced by Iranian analysts as well as the issue and opinion polling showing the complexity of Iranian attitudes about the United States. Nor does his analysis of how Iran views the United States refer to a single statement by an Iranian leader, or a single article in the Iranian media, in the last twenty-five years. Indeed, at critical points in his analysis, Beeman does not even refer to secondary English-language sources; for instance, he gives not one single footnote in his 3-page rant on how the U.S. accusation that Iran shipped arms to the Palestinians on the Karine-A was "absurd." The failure to cite primary sources is more troubling given Beeman's intemperate language, more appropriate for talk radio than scholarship. For instance, he refers to "a patchwork of untestable, murky assertions from dubious sources [which have] asserted—or inferred—that there were centrifuges for enriching uranium" at Natanz. In fact, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shown the world's press the enriched uranium Iran produced in the centrifuges. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have issued dozens of detailed and public reports about the centrifuges.
What is more discouraging about Beeman's book is the opportunity missed. As a linguistic anthropologist, he would be well placed to analyze Iranian rhetoric and to elaborate upon the cultural context for themes used in speeches, textbooks, and television images. Instead, he ignores what Iranians themselves are saying, writing, and filming, preferring instead to cite what Westerners writing in English say about Iranians. That is typical of the critics of U.S. policy towards Iran: they themselves make little effort to read or listen to the extensive material available from Iran, and then they project onto the U.S. government their own ignorance of what the Iranian regime projects.
The many recent books about Iran reflect the problems that country poses for U.S. foreign policy as well as the puzzle about why its promising democracy movement has fizzled. Unfortunately, the quality of the analysis is uneven. It is a sad commentary on the present state of U.S. universities that some of the least insightful material comes from professors at eminent institutions.
 Bernard Hourcade, "Iran's Internal Security Challenges," in Walter Posch, ed., Iranian Challenges, Chaillot Paper no. 89 (Paris: Institute for Security Studies, European Union, 2006), p. 55.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes