When Ansari, a lecturer in history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, published the first edition of this book in 2000, events proved his thesis wrong. While Ansari spoke of reform in the Islamic Republic, its leadership was censoring the press, placing student protestors in prison, and murdering dissidents and intellectuals. In this second edition, Ansari does no better. Rather than provide honest analysis, he seeks to exculpate former president Muhammad Khatami, a man with whom Ansari enjoys a relationship and whom Ansari often praises in commentaries in the British press.
Ansari divides his study into two parts: In the first, he assesses conceptual problems confronting the study of Iran while in the second, he more closely examines the Khatami presidency (1997-2005). What Ansari does not consider is that his embrace of trendy academic theory is what handicaps his analysis and encourages him to substitute an idealized Islamic Republic of his imagination for its reality. He cites Edward Said's theories of Orientalism to justify the substitution of scholarly emphasis on hard evidence with political polemic.
Perhaps the greatest academic sin after plagiarism is omission. Of this, Ansari is guilty. He cherrypicks evidence to justify support for Khatami's sincerity. He praises, for example, Khatami's call in English for a "dialogue of civilizations" but ignores Khatami's contrary statement—on Iranian television on October 24, 2000—to kill those who do not believe in the Qur'an as well as the former president's support for Holocaust denial. Ansari's research is also shallow: It was one thing for Khatami to call for dialogue but quite another to deliver. In 2000, Washington granted over 22,000 visas to Iranians; Tehran reciprocated with only 800 visas for Americans.
There are many questions Ansari prefers not to ask, for example, how much Khatami knew of the Islamic Republic's covert nuclear program in which the Iranian government invested so much money. Indeed, Ansari makes no mention of Iran's secret uranium processing plant at Natanz nor, in his discussion of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, does he discuss International Atomic Energy Agency findings against the Islamic Republic.
Such curious judgment in emphasis is the rule rather than the exception. Ansari dedicates far more space to the late French philosopher Michel Foucault than he does to Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi, arrested, raped, and beaten to death by security officials after she snapped a photo of Tehran's notorious Evin prison in 2003.
Ansari is either careless or dishonest in his largely unsourced discussion of U.S.-Iranian relations. He lambastes the Bush administration for appointing Michael Ledeen, even though Ledeen has not served in the U.S. government since Reagan. He condemns Bush's 2002 "Axis of Evil speech" as "catastrophic" and "counterproductive" but provides no evidence to support his assertion. While the Axis of Evil designation may have disheartened Iran's theocrats, dispassionate analysis shows that Iranian students, labor activists, and civil society protestors were far more willing to challenge their government on reform and democracy after such statements of moral clarity. Ansari's attempt to apply the label "neoconservative" to current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is silly. Perhaps he wants to draw comparisons between Ahmadinejad and U.S. democracy advocates whom he sees as hard-liners, but the analogy reveals Ansari's ignorance of Iranian history: Ahmadinejad represents the Islamic Republic's older cast of revolutionaries who spent their formative years in the military during the Iran-Iraq war.
Most disappointing is Ansari's unwillingness to tackle the broader issue: In a system in which the Supreme Leader rules for life with absolute veto power and does not recognize the notion of popular sovereignty, is it possible to have democracy, let alone meaningful reform?
 Sunday Times (London), Oct. 8, 2006.