The fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution prompted a deluge of books about Iran and its regime. Sadly, Iran Rising is far from the most valuable.
Saikal, a professor at the Australian National University, argues that the Islamic Republic has weathered four decades in power because it has deftly "oscillated between its religious legitimacy and pragmatic policies." This is undoubtedly correct but hardly groundbreaking. Iran-watchers know well that Iran's regime—to paraphrase Henry Kissinger—sometimes acts like a "country" and sometimes like a "cause."
Iran Rising mostly recounts modern Iranian history and is strongest discussing the factors that contributed to popular disaffection with the Pahlavi monarchy. Saikal's treatment of the priorities and ideology that shaped Khomeini's "theo-political order" likewise has much to commend it.
But Iran Rising is weakest regarding contemporary topics. Saikal's depiction of Iranian politics overplays the efforts of some, including Iran's "reformist" president Hassan Rouhani, to alter the clerical status quo, while ignoring or downplaying the excesses, radicalism, and repression of life under the ayatollahs.
Problematic, too, is Saikal's treatment of the 2015 nuclear deal. The author describes the Trump administration's decision to abrogate the agreement as ill-advised, unnecessary, and provocative—without exploring (much less evaluating) the fundamental flaws in the deal that even its supporters have acknowledged. The book also does not offer a serious discussion of how Iran's leadership—emboldened by the 2015 nuclear deal—has embarked upon a regional agenda that today threatens the United States and its regional allies.
Neither does he address the simmering counterrevolution against clerical rule taking place on the Iranian "street." After four decades in power, the Islamic Republic faces great challenges from a population increasingly disaffected by its economic mismanagement and foreign adventurism.
As such, Iran Rising offers little by way of new ideas about how, exactly, the United States and its international partners ought to deal with the contemporary challenge posed by the Islamic Republic.