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Mackey's entertaining history of Iran has a wealth of factual information, evidently provided by her research assistant, W. Scott Harrop, a bright young scholar of Iran. These details could mislead readers into accepting the politically loaded judgements that are at the core of The Iranians. Mackey is ever-ready to judge U.S. actions negatively. The Iran/contra arms sales went badly, she tells us, because Tehran was put off by getting only one-third of the arms it expected.

The focus in The Iranians is on intellectuals and high politics; the book provides little sense of Iranian society and how it has changed. Anybody would be better than Americans: "Perhaps the Iranians could have coped better if the engine of modernization chosen by Muhammed Reza Shah had not been the American superpower" The USSR would have been the right choice? Along these lines, she dismisses the shah's White Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which in fact led to the transformation of Iran from semi-feudalism toward an industrial urban society. She provides no hint that during the twenty years before the shah's fall in 1979, Iran's per capita income tripled, as did the proportion of adults who were literate (from one-sixth to one-half). Nor does she note that under Ayatollah Khomeini, per capita income fell in half.

Mackey quickly passes over the shortcomings of those hostile to America. The detailed index contains no entry for human rights. Of nine pages on which terrorism is discussed, five deal with terrorism against the Islamic Republic and one with terrorism during ancient times. The Islamic Republic's drive for nuclear weapons is presented as a reason why Washington should cultivate good relations with Iran, for Iran only wants respect: "Once Iran achieves a place at the table of nations, the need to prove its worth diminishes."