The Mystery of Contemporary Iran
by Mahnaz Shirali and Trans. by Bernice Dubois
Edison: Transaction, 2015. 276 pp. $47.95.
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
A major problem with histories of modern Iran is that most were written in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, treating it as the pinnacle of Iranian political evolution rather than an anomaly. Shirali, a professor at the Paris School of Business, does not fall into this trap.
The author provides a narrative, both readable and substantive, tracking the major trends in Iran over the past century, from the constitutional revolution in the first decade of the twentieth century to the rise of Iranian nationalism, the coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddiq (r. 1951-53), through the fall of the shah and the establishment of the Islamic Revolution. In separate chapters, she explores the major ideological trends that have dominated the Iranian political landscape: communism, "revolutionarism," and ideological Islam.
Shirali displays an impressive ability to describe the big picture and illustrate salient trends, but her consideration of the clergy makes The Mystery of Contemporary Iran path-breaking. Many authors include them among Iran's engines of change. Shirali argues, however, that both liberalism and political reform frightened the clergy, setting the stage for increasingly reactionary behavior not only in the aftermath of the constitutional revolution but also against the backdrop of Mosaddiq's agrarian reforms and the shah's modernization drive of the 1960s and 1970s. One of her most startling contributions is evidence showing how clerical intransigence evolved into support for terrorism decades before Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution took the world by surprise.
With so much new academic work in Iranian studies blighted by arcane theory, apologetics, and a narrow, irrelevant focus, Shirali's work is a breath of fresh air, offering a masterful and must-read combination of political and intellectual history.
Related Topics: Iran | Michael Rubin | Fall 2015 MEQ
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