Iran: A Modern History. By Abbas Amanat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 979 pp. $40.
Amanat, Yale University professor and specialist on nineteenth-century Iran (and this reviewer's Ph.D. advisor), has penned his magnum opus: a rich, detailed, nuanced history of Iran. After a quick overview of Iran's pre-Islamic and medieval histories, Amanat begins the core of his study with the 1501 Safavid revolution and conversion of Iran to Shiism; he continues through the subsequent dynasties, Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic, up to the 2009 uprising.
The narrative is thick but accessible and well supported by illustrations, maps, and charts. Amanat ably covers not only political but social and cultural history, including great power relations and diplomacy, religious minorities, economic exploitation, and repression, and also gives a tour of Persian poetry and literature. When he turns to the Islamic Revolution, he does not whitewash reality. He discusses the recruitment of children to the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war and the televised confessions forced by Iranian authorities engaged in post-revolutionary purges.
Amanat is weakest discussing the intersection of the United States and Iran. He describes the beginning of the embassy hostage crisis but glosses over its end. He sometimes gets bilateral episodes wrong: The Iran-Contra affair originated in a desire to influence a post-Khomeini order, not simply to check Soviet influence, and it was German and Dutch firms, not the United States, that shipped chemical weapons precursors to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
And like many of his academic peers, he prefers simply to ignore terrorism: Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups such as Hezbollah are mentioned only in passing and only in the context of the arms-for-hostages deal. There is no mention of the attacks that post-revolutionary Iran has sponsored from Buenos Aires to Beirut to Bangkok. It is unfortunate, then, that Amanat claimed, in an interview with Yale University Press, that one of his goals is to "humanize Iranian society for Western readers" and to move "beyond the misconceptions that have darkened political horizons for the past thirty years."
While Amanat's narrative is excellent, especially up to the Islamic Revolution, sins of omission and his political agenda erode the credibility of his treatment of recent history and, more broadly, undermine what could have been the definitive book on modern Iran. That book has yet to be written, but Iran: A Modern History is nonetheless an excellent resource to understand the country's rich history and culture, at least up until 1979.