Iran is the 17th largest country in world. It measures 1,684,000 square kilometers. That means that its territory is larger than the combined territories of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal — Western Europe. Iran is the 16th most populous country in the world, with about 70 million people. Its population is larger than the populations of either France or the United Kingdom.
Under the current circumstances, it might be useful to benchmark Iran against Iraq or Afghanistan. Iraq is 433,000 square kilometers, with about 25 million people, so Iran is roughly four times as large and three times as populous. Afghanistan is about 652,000 square kilometers, with a population of about 30 million. One way to look at it is that Iran is 68 percent larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, with 40 percent more population.
More important are its topographical barriers. Iran is defined, above all, by its mountains, which form its frontiers, enfold its cities and describe its historical heartland. To understand Iran, you must understand not only how large it is but also how mountainous it is.
Iran’s most important mountains are the Zagros. They are a southern extension of the Caucasus, running about 900 miles from the northwestern border of Iran, which adjoins Turkey and Armenia, southeast toward Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz. The first 150 miles of Iran’s western border is shared with Turkey. It is intensely mountainous on both sides. South of Turkey, the mountains on the western side of the border begin to diminish until they disappear altogether on the Iraqi side. From this point onward, south of the Kurdish regions, the land on the Iraqi side is increasingly flat, part of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. The Iranian side of the border is mountainous, beginning just a few miles east of the border. Iran has a mountainous border with Turkey, but mountains face a flat plain along the Iraq border. This is the historical frontier between Persia — the name of Iran until the early 20th century — and Mesopotamia (“land between two rivers”), as southern Iraq is called.
The one region of the western border that does not adhere to this model is in the extreme south, in the swamps where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers join to form the Shatt al-Arab waterway. There the Zagros swing southeast, and the southern border between Iran and Iraq zigzags south to the Shatt al-Arab, which flows south 125 miles through flat terrain to the Persian Gulf. To the east is the Iranian province of Khuzestan, populated by ethnic Arabs, not Persians. Given the swampy nature of the ground, it can be easily defended and gives Iran a buffer against any force from the west seeking to move along the coastal plain of Iran on the Persian Gulf.
Running east along the Caspian Sea are the Elburz Mountains, which serve as a mountain bridge between the Caucasus-Zagros range and Afghan mountains that eventually culminate in the Hindu Kush. The Elburz run along the southern coast of the Caspian to the Afghan border, buffering the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. Mountains of lesser elevations then swing down along the Afghan and Pakistani borders, almost to the Arabian Sea.
Iran has about 800 miles of coastline, roughly half along the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf, the rest along the Gulf of Oman. Its most important port, Bandar Abbas, is located on the Strait of Hormuz. There are no equivalent ports along the Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz is extremely vulnerable to interdiction. Therefore, Iran is not a major maritime or naval power. It is and always has been a land power.
The center of Iran consists of two desert plateaus that are virtually uninhabited and uninhabitable. These are the Dasht-e Kavir, which stretches from Qom in the northwest nearly to the Afghan border, and the Dasht-e Lut, which extends south to Balochistan. The Dasht-e Kavir consists of a layer of salt covering thick mud, and it is easy to break through the salt layer and drown in the mud. It is one of the most miserable places on earth.
Iran’s population is concentrated in its mountains, not in its lowlands, as with other countries. That’s because its lowlands, with the exception of the southwest and the southeast (regions populated by non-Persians), are uninhabitable. Iran is a nation of 70 million mountain dwellers. Even its biggest city, Tehran, is in the foothills of towering mountains. Its population is in a belt stretching through the Zagros and Elbroz mountains on a line running from the eastern shore of the Caspian to the Strait of Hormuz. There is a secondary concentration of people to the northeast, centered on Mashhad. The rest of the country is lightly inhabited and almost impassable because of the salt-mud flats.
If you look carefully at a map of Iran, you can see that the western part of the
country — the Zagros Mountains — is actually a land bridge for southern Asia. It is the only path between the Persian Gulf in the south and the Caspian Sea in the north. Iran is the route connecting the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean Sea. But because of its size and geography, Iran is not a country that can be easily traversed, much less conquered.
The location of Iran’s oil fields is critical here, since oil remains its most important and most strategic export. Oil is to be found in three locations: The southwest is the major region, with lesser deposits along the Iraqi border in the north and one near Qom. The southwestern oil fields are an extension of the geological formation that created the oil fields in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Hence, the region east of the Shatt al-Arab is of critical importance to Iran. Iran has the third largest oil reserves in the world and is the world’s fourth largest producer. Therefore, one would expect it to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It isn’t.
Iran has the 28th largest economy in the world but ranks only 71st in per capita gross domestic product (as expressed in purchasing power). It ranks with countries like Belarus or Panama. Part of the reason is inefficiencies in the Iranian oil industry, the result of government policies. But there is a deeper geographic problem. Iran has a huge population mostly located in rugged mountains. Mountainous regions are rarely prosperous. The cost of transportation makes the development of industry difficult. Sparsely populated mountain regions are generally poor. Heavily populated mountain regions, when they exist, are much poorer.
Iran’s geography and large population make substantial improvements in its economic life difficult. Unlike underpopulated and less geographically challenged countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Iran cannot enjoy any shift in the underlying weakness of its economy brought on by higher oil prices and more production. The absence of inhabitable plains means that any industrial plant must develop in regions where the cost of infrastructure tends to undermine the benefits. Oil keeps Iran from sinking even deeper, but it alone cannot catapult Iran out of its condition.
Iran is a fortress. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the ocean, with a wasteland at its center, Iran is extremely difficult to conquer. This was achieved once by the Mongols, who entered the country from the northeast. The Ottomans penetrated the Zagros Mountains and went northeast as far as the Caspian but made no attempt to move into the Persian heartland.
Iran is a mountainous country looking for inhabitable plains. There are none to the north, only more mountains and desert, or to the east, where Afghanistan’s infrastructure is no more inviting. To the south there is only ocean. What plains there are in the region lie to the west, in modern-day Iraq and historical Mesopotamia and Babylon. If Iran could dominate these plains, and combine them with its own population, they would be the foundation of Iranian power.
Indeed, these plains were the foundation of the Persian Empire. The Persians originated in the Zagros Mountains as a warrior people. They built an empire by conquering the plains in the Tigris and Euphrates basin. They did this slowly, over an extended period at a time when there were no demarcated borders and they faced little resistance to the west. While it was difficult for a lowland people to attack through mountains, it was easier for a mountain-based people to descend to the plains. This combination of population and fertile plains allowed the Persians to expand.
Iran’s attacking north or northwest into the Caucasus is impossible in force. The Russians, Turks and Iranians all ground to a halt along the current line in the 19th century; the country is so rugged that movement could be measured in yards rather than miles. Iran could attack northeast into Turkmenistan, but the land there is flat and brutal desert. The Iranians could move east into Afghanistan, but this would involve more mountain fighting for land of equally questionable value. Attacking west, into the Tigris and Euphrates river basin, and then moving to the Mediterranean, would seem doable. This was the path the Persians took when they created their empire and pushed all the way to Greece and Egypt.
In terms of expansion, the problem for Iran is its mountains. They are as effective a container as they are a defensive bulwark. Supporting an attacking force requires logistics, and pushing supplies through the Zagros in any great numbers is impossible. Unless the Persians can occupy and exploit Iraq, further expansion is impossible. In order to exploit Iraq, Iran needs a high degree of active cooperation from Iraqis. Otherwise, rather than converting Iraq’s wealth into political and military power, the Iranians would succeed only in being bogged down in pacifying the Iraqis.
In order to move west, Iran would require the active cooperation of conquered nations. Any offensive will break down because of the challenges posed by the mountains in moving supplies. This is why the Persians created the type of empire they did. They allowed conquered nations a great deal of autonomy, respected their culture and made certain that these nations benefited from the Persian imperial system. Once they left the Zagros, the Persians could not afford to pacify an empire. They needed the wealth at minimal cost. And this has been the limit on Persian/Iranian power ever since. Recreating a relationship with the inhabitants of the Tigris and Euphrates basin — today’s Iraq — is enormously difficult. Indeed, throughout most of history, the domination of the plains by Iran has been impossible. Other imperial powers — Alexandrian Greece, Rome, the Byzantines, Ottomans, British and Americans — have either seized the plains themselves or used them as a neutral buffer against the Persians.
Underlying the external problems of Iran is a severe internal problem. Mountains allow nations to protect themselves. Completely eradicating a culture is difficult. Therefore, most mountain regions of the world contain large numbers of national and ethnic groups that retain their own characteristics. This is commonplace in all mountainous regions. These groups resist absorption and annihilation. Although a Muslim state with a population that is 55 to 60 percent ethnically Persian, Iran is divided into a large number of ethnic groups. It is also divided between the vastly dominant Shia and the minority Sunnis, who are clustered in three areas of the country — the northeast, the northwest and the southeast. Any foreign power interested in Iran will use these ethnoreligious groups to create allies in Iran to undermine the power of the central government.
Thus, any Persian or Iranian government has as its first and primary strategic interest maintaining the internal integrity of the country against separatist groups. It is inevitable, therefore, for Iran to have a highly centralized government with an extremely strong security apparatus. For many countries, holding together its ethnic groups is important. For Iran it is essential because it has no room to retreat from its current lines and instability could undermine its entire security structure. Therefore, the Iranian central government will always face the problem of internal cohesion and will use its army and security forces for that purpose before any other.
For most countries, the first geographical imperative is to maintain internal cohesion. For Iran, it is to maintain secure borders, then secure the country internally. Without secure borders, Iran would be vulnerable to foreign powers that would continually try to manipulate its internal dynamics, destabilize its ruling regime and then exploit the resulting openings. Iran must first define the container and then control what it contains. Therefore, Iran’s geopolitical imperatives:
1. Control the Zagros and Elburz mountains. These constitute the Iranian heartland and the buffers against attacks from the west and north.
2. Control the mountains to the east of the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut, from Mashhad to Zahedan to the Makran coast, protecting Iran’s eastern frontiers with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maintain a line as deep and as far north and west as possible in the Caucasus to limit Turkish and Russian threats. These are the secondary lines.
3. Secure a line on the Shatt al-Arab in order to protect the western coast of Iran on the Persian Gulf.
4. Control the divergent ethnic and religious elements in this box.
5. Protect the frontiers against potential threats, particularly major powers from outside the region.
Iran has achieved four of the five basic goals. It has created secure frontiers and is in control of the population inside the country. The greatest threat against Iran is the one it has faced since Alexander the Great — that posed by major powers outside the region. Historically, before deep-water navigation, Iran was the direct path to India for any Western power. In modern times, the Zagros remain the eastern anchor of Turkish power. Northern Iran blocks Russian expansion. And, of course, Iranian oil reserves make Iran attractive to contemporary great powers.
There are two traditional paths into Iran. The northeastern region is vulnerable to Central Asian powers while the western approach is the most-often used (or attempted). A direct assault through the Zagros Mountains is not feasible, as Saddam Hussein discovered in 1980. However, manipulating the ethnic groups inside Iran is possible. The British, for example, based in Iraq, were able to manipulate internal political divisions in Iran, as did the Soviets, to the point that Iran virtually lost its national sovereignty during World War II.
The greatest threat to Iran in recent centuries has been a foreign power dominating Iraq —Ottoman or British — and extending its power eastward not through main force but through subversion and political manipulation. The view of the contemporary Iranian government toward the United States is that, during the 1950s, it assumed Britain’s role of using its position in Iraq to manipulate Iranian politics and elevate the shah to power.
The 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq was a terrific collision of two states, causing several million casualties on both sides. It also demonstrated two realities. The first is that a determined, well-funded, no-holds-barred assault from Mesopotamia against the Zagros Mountains will fail (albeit at an atrocious cost to the defender). The second is that, in the nation-state era, with fixed borders and standing armies, the logistical challenges posed by the Zagros make a major attack from Iran into Iraq equally impossible. There is a stalemate on that front. Nevertheless, from the Iranian point of view, the primary danger of Iraq is not direct attack but subversion. It is not only Iraq that worries them. Historically, Iranians also have been concerned about Russian manipulation and manipulation by the British and Russians through Afghanistan.
The Current Situation
For the Iranians, the current situation has posed a dangerous scenario similar to what they faced from the British early in the 20th century. The United States has occupied, or at least placed substantial forces, to the east and the west of Iran, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is not concerned about these troops invading Iran. That is not a military possibility. Iran’s concern is that the United States will use these positions as platforms to foment ethnic dissent in Iran.
Indeed, the United States has tried to do this in several regions. In the southeast, in Balochistan, the Americans have supported separatist movements. It has also done this among the Arabs of Khuzestan, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. And it has tried to manipulate the Kurds in northwestern Iran. (There is some evidence to suggest that the United States has used Azerbaijan as a launchpad to foment dissent among the Iranian Azeris in the northwestern part of the country.)
The Iranian counter to all this has several dimensions:
1. Maintain an extremely powerful and repressive security capability to counter these moves. In particular, focus on deflecting any intrusions in the Khuzestan region, which is not only the most physically vulnerable part of Iran but also where much of Iran’s oil reserves are located. This explains clashes such as the seizure of British sailors and constant reports of U.S. special operations teams in the region.
2. Manipulate ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq and Afghanistan to undermine the American positions there and divert American attention to defensive rather than offensive goals.
3. Maintain a military force capable of protecting the surrounding mountains so that major American forces cannot penetrate.
4. Move to create a nuclear force, very publicly, in order to deter attack in the long run and to give Iran a bargaining chip for negotiations in the short term.
The heart of Iranian strategy is as it has always been, to use the mountains as a fortress. So long as it is anchored in those mountains, it cannot be invaded. Alexander succeeded and the Ottomans had limited success (little more than breaching the Zagros), but even the Romans and British did not go so far as to try to use main force in the region. Invading and occupying Iran is not an option.
For Iran, its ultimate problem is internal tensions. But even these are under control, primarily because of Iran’s security system. Ever since the founding of the Persian Empire, the one thing that Iranians have been superb at is creating systems that both benefit other ethnic groups and punish them if they stray. That same mindset functions in Iran today in the powerful Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). (The Iranian military is configured mainly as an infantry force, with the regular army and IRGC ground forces together totaling about 450,000 troops, larger than all other service branches combined.)
Iran is, therefore, a self-contained entity. It is relatively poor, but it has superbly defensible borders and a disciplined central government with an excellent intelligence and internal security apparatus. Iran uses these same strengths to destabilize the American position (or that of any extraregional power) around it. Indeed, Iran is sufficiently secure that the positions of surrounding countries are more precarious than that of Iran. Iran is superb at low-cost, low-risk power projection using its covert capabilities. It is even better at blocking those of others. So long as the mountains are in Iranian hands, and the internal situation is controlled, Iran is a stable state, but one able to pose only a limited external threat.
The creation of an Iranian nuclear program serves two functions. First, if successful, it further deters external threats. Second, simply having the program enhances Iranian power. Since the consequences of a strike against these facilities are uncertain and raise the possibility of Iranian attempts at interdiction of oil from the Persian Gulf, the strategic risk to the attacker’s economy discourages attack. The diplomatic route of trading the program for regional safety and power becomes more attractive than an attack against a potential threat in a country with a potent potential counter.
Iran is secure from conceivable invasion. It enhances this security by using two tactics. First, it creates uncertainty as to whether it has an offensive nuclear capability. Second, it projects a carefully honed image of ideological extremism that makes it appear unpredictable. It makes itself appear threatening and unstable. Paradoxically, this increases the caution used in dealing with it because the main option, an air attack, has historically been ineffective without a follow-on ground attack. If just nuclear facilities are attacked and the attack fails, Iranian reaction is unpredictable and potentially disproportionate. Iranian posturing enhances the uncertainty. The threat of an air attack is deterred by Iran’s threat of an attack against sea-lanes. Such attacks would not be effective, but even a low-probability disruption of the world’s oil supply is a risk not worth taking.
As always, the Persians face a major power prowling at the edges of their mountains. The mountains will protect them from main force but not from the threat of destabilization. Therefore, the Persians bind their nation together through a combination of political accommodation and repression. The major power will eventually leave. Persia will remain so long as its mountains stand.
The history of what is now known as Iran is a history of various ethnic groups, languages and cultures coexisting amongst one another. Ever since the establishment of the first Elamite civilization around 5000 BC. Iran has been a multiracial. multicultural and multilingual society. The Iran Papers P.1
In Iran today, one minority regards its race culture and language, as superior to all other cultures and languages. The Iran Papers P.3
Then, during the Iran-Contra affaire, Iranians became convinced that for all the rhetoric, the United States was the ultimate realist in international relations, for whom commercial and geopolitical interests took priority. The Iran Papers P.5
The Iranian government sponsored conferences in which Nazi lecturers were invited to deliver speeches on race, ethnicity, culture and history. Right Wing Iran: The Iran Papers P.2
Peoples of various ethnic origins, such as the ancestors of contemporary Azeris, Kurds, Baluchs, Turkomans, Arabs, Gilaks, and others have lived in Iran for centuries.However, the continuation of monolingual and monocultural agenda for Iran has brought the country to the brink of ethnic discontent. The Iran Papers P.4
Islamists are perfectly serious, and know what they are doing. Their rhetoric has a millennial warrant. Conclusion The Iran Papers
The most dangerous error we could make in possible confrontation with Iran, is to convince ourselves that its leaders will act rationally:
Iran doubtless counts on support from Beijing, a relationship I also analyzed: Why An Iran-Chinese relationship.
Selected Bibliography Comment
We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. By Nasrin Alavi. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2005 (also London: Portobello Books). 365 pp.
The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Journey to Freedom. By Afshin Molavi. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 352 pp.
Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty. By Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 214 pp.
Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. By Shirin Ebadi. New York: Random House, 2006. 233 pp.
Perhaps the two best ways to get past the regime's controls are to look at the tens of thousands of Iranian blogs and to take advantage of the Iranian-American and Iranian-European community's greater access to ordinary people. Two recent, excellent books use these approaches to present insight about how Iranians view the world. Nasrin Alavi has edited a fascinating collection of translated Iranian blog entries in We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. The contextual explanation she provides is useful, but she lets the blogs carry the weight of the story. Chapters cover women, culture—which she misleadingly labels "media"—reporting news, attitudes towards recent history such as the 1979 revolution and the 1980-88 war with Iraq, attitudes towards the regime's icons, and politics. The entries illustrate daily life under the Islamic Republic, and the picture is not pretty—social problems such as drugs and prostitution are rampant; people feel alienated; petty repression is common. The hatred for the current regime comes through strongly but so, too, does despair about the country's situation, personal circumstances, and prospects for change. Alavi, a strong supporter of the reform movement, interprets many messages to suggest both the inevitability of long-term change but also resigned acceptance of the immutability of circumstances in the near term. The bloggers describe individual resistance to the regime's social and cultural restrictions, but there are few entries calling for organization or action to bring about social change. Indeed, most of the bloggers project outright cynicism toward politicians and political action.
An excellent complement to We Are Iran is Afshin Molavi's The Soul of Iran, an updated version of his 2002 Persian Pilgrimages, which told the stories of the people he met journeying across Iran. Molavi, an Iranian-American who speaks Persian fluently, is a talented reporter who has worked for Reuters and The Washington Post, among media. He is smart enough to build on his journalistic skills by writing essays about the people he meets, rather than trying to reinvent himself as an academic who offers grand social theories or as a policymaker who proposes how to resolve U.S.-Iranian differences. That makes The Soul of Iran a refreshing change from some books by journalists who have covered Iran and then decided to write a "big think" book about Iranian politics, U.S.-Iranian relations, or both. Molavi has a good eye for the telling detail, be it the clerk pulling out fading receipts to show how good times were under the shah compared to now; the simple man in the slums of south Tehran who recounts how his grand hopes for the 1979 revolution have been dashed; or the generosity and kindness of the taxi driver he befriended in Mashhad who is utterly uninterested in politics but instinctively supports those protesting against the government. Molavi structures his account around his travels but weaves in episodes from the country's long history, especially from its rich literature, to illustrate the deep pride Iranians have in their civilization. And it is indeed their civilization they venerate—their love is in their culture more than in the power of the shahs. This is not nationalism that exalts conquests of arms; it is the glorification of great ideas and poetry. Against this background of pride in advanced thought, it is easier to understand how reform-minded intellectuals and students touch a deep cord in Iranian popular life.
Molavi's approach also brings to life how disappointed and discouraged Iranians are. They are sure theirs is a great civilization, but life is a bitter struggle for what Iranians assume should be theirs by right, namely, a standard of living roughly on a par with those in other great civilizations. The harshness of daily existence grinds people down—not that Iran is particularly poor by the standards of developing countries; it is a middle-income country roughly on par with Mexico or the Balkan states. This is not the group with which Iranians seek comparison, though. The shah told his countrymen that Iran would be the equal of Germany by now, and the revolution promised to do even better. While Persians believe themselves to be richer in culture and, frankly, intellect than Arabs across the Persian Gulf, the Arab emirates and sheikhdoms have soared ahead of Iran over the last quarter century, feeding the sense that had it not been for the Islamic Revolution, Iran, too, would now be as rich as its people feel it deserves to be. Adding insult to injury, the only social group whose income has risen dramatically under the Islamic Republic is that of the families of the politically well-connected. By bringing out the deep disappointment of ordinary Iranians, Molavi's account shows why the populist, anti-corruption 2005 presidential campaign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad worked well. Not that this is Molavi's aim; indeed, he makes clear that he expects the economic discontent to add to the reformist camp and to work against the Islamist hard-liners.
The insight into the views of ordinary Iranians provided by Alavi and Molavi is the key to understanding the weaknesses as well as the strengths of democratic tendencies in Iran. Much less important is the high politics of elections and maneuverings by establishment politicians. In their Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, Ali Gheissari, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East politics and associate chair of research at the Naval Postgraduate School and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, rarely get beyond the stale and rarefied world of high politics. Democracy means more than elections and human rights; it can only flourish where there is a vibrant civil society, vigorous media and educational institutions, and openness to debate in which all points of view are tolerated. None of these issues are broached in Gheissari and Nasr's account. In their slim volume, they rehash the familiar ground of the shah's shortcomings before 1979, the revolution's turn towards Islamist absolutism rather than political openness, and the failure of reformers to build on their 1997 victory in the presidential elections—all stories told elsewhere with as much insight.
Disappointingly, Gheissari and Nasr provide none of the context inside Iran or around the region that has put democracy front and center on the Iranian agenda. In the end, they are much less successful at making the case that democracy is inevitable for Iran than is Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, now at Harvard, in his short monograph, The Point of No Return: Iran's Path to Democracy. Sazegara points to the social changes, such as literacy and urbanization, that are often associated with democratization in other countries and that Iran has experienced. He also notes the changes in Iran's neighbors, with the consolidation of democracy in Turkey and the adoption of the democratic ideal nearly all around Iran—Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia—as well as around the world.
Nothing would seem more different from the Gheissari and Nasr abstract account of high politics than Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, which is a personal account of her struggles to defend human rights under the Islamic Republic. There is, however, a profound similarity in the two books in their common defense of the 1979 revolution, which both narratives present as having lost its way rather than having been from the start a great step backwards. To be sure, Ebadi goes further on this path. Even with the hindsight of twenty-seven years, she still writes, "The head-scarf ‘invitation' [the order days after the shah's fall for women to cover their hair] was the first warning that this revolution might eat its sisters." Actually, the writings and speeches of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had for decades been clear about his agenda. Ebadi writes, "When I think back to these times [of the revolution], my own naïveté astounds me." But she remains committed to the revolution that has enslaved her; she cannot bring herself to acknowledge that she was wrong, that the shah was a better ruler than Khomeini. The same refusal to learn lessons from history and to reconsider the leftist ideology of her youth, which led her first to oppose the shah, runs through her account. She manages to say not one positive word about Western—much less U.S.—support for human rights and, instead, devotes her final chapter to attacking the U.S. government for limiting human rights in tones only slightly more balanced than her earlier dark hints that "rumors swirled" of U.S. support for Khomeini's Islamic Republic.
Reconsidering the Islamic Revolution:
The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. By Charles Kurzman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 287 pp. $27.95.
Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East. By Ali Ansari. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 288 pp. $26.
Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. By Ray Takeyh. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2006. 260 pp. $25.
Ebadi's anecdotal approach makes for interesting reading, but her memories and experiences were by no means typical of the revolution through which she lived. By contrast, Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has produced the definitive account of the Islamic Revolution. No serious historian can write about these events without consulting his 10-page essay on available source material in The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. His 41-page bibliography includes three pages of document collections consulted, the majority in Persian. Some, such as the twenty-nine volume Yaran-e Emam beh Ravayat-e Asnad-e Savak (Friends of the Imam According to the Documents of Savak) and the seven volumes of Enqelab-e Eslami beh Ravayet-e Asnad-e Savak (The Islamic Revolution According to the Documents of Savak), which includes the reports from the shah's secret police about the clerical opposition, are amazing resources. As Kurzman explains, while it is clear that not all the relevant documents from the shah's regime are included in these collections, the amount released is significant, especially in juxtaposition to the sluggishness with which the U.S. government declassifies documents. Much of this material undermines the revolution's most cherished images. For instance, the Islamic Republic releases the results of their strenuous efforts to document casualties in demonstrations even though these confirm the imperial government's estimates at the time rather than the claims of the revolutionary movement.
The facts as established by Kurzman's detailed research fit poorly with every theory of revolution in general and the Islamic Revolution in particular, leading Kurzman to propose "an anti-explanation that puts anomaly in the foreground." For instance, he shows that the mosques and clerics were subject to severe repression under the shah. This contradicts the claim that the shah repressed the liberal and secular opposition, creating a climate in which those opposed to him had no choice but to organize in mosques. Indeed, Kurzman shows that in 1977, most mosques were controlled by apolitical clerics so that activists had to build a mosque network from scratch in 1978. He also documents that as late as autumn 1978, the revolutionaries did not expect to triumph, much less to do so quickly. In other words, the revolutionary movement's intelligence failure was as complete as that of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The myths that Kurzman punctures continue to reign in the semi-popular, semi-scholarly literature about Iran. The latest example is Ali Ansari's Confronting Iran, whose subtitle—The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East—tells much about the theme. Ansari, who is on the faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland, writes that U.S. policymakers did not foresee the Iranian revolution and that the shah's indecisiveness was key to the revolution's triumph. Kurzman, however, demonstrates that no one in Iran including the revolutionaries foresaw their victory and shows that the shah's policies were sophisticated and decisive if unsuccessful. Ansari goes on to run through the usual list of myths beloved of leftist Iranian intellectuals, such as former prime minister Muhammad Musaddiq's popularity, even though this had evaporated by the time of his 1953 overthrow. By contrast, he mentions nothing in his historical narrative about the June 1963 demonstrations against the shah led by Khomeini. For those who rule Iran today, this marks the central moment in modern Iranian history; however, many Iranian intellectuals saw and continue to see the demonstrations as a minor event led by backward clerics.
Ansari, like so many Iranian-origin academics who write with such confidence about U.S. ignorance regarding Iran, does not know what matters to those who rule the country. Nor is he well informed about U.S. policy towards Iran. He elevates into a major missed opportunity the 1979 cable from Bruce Laingen, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Tehran, recommending reconciliation with the Islamic Republic. In fact Laingen's recommendation was adopted: U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met with Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan in Algiers on November 1, 1979, to assure him that Washington looked forward to working with the Islamic Republic. That meeting, however, provoked revolutionary students to seize the U.S. embassy four days later. Undeterred, Brzezinski spent the succeeding twenty-seven years urging Washington to follow the same policy. The minor difficulty—which neither he nor Ansari wish to confront—is the ideological hostility of Iranian power-holders, who have little use for Western-oriented intellectuals like Ansari and his friends.
A better version of Ansari is Ray Takeyh's Hidden Iran. Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who once worked under this reviewer's direction at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is an excellent writer, which makes his book a pleasure to read. On some issues, he has done his homework and displays an excellent feel for how those who rule Iran think: for instance, their utter disdain for democracy and pluralism since, in his words, they view the "essential purpose of the state as the realization of God's will on earth." But on other issues, he slips into simple assertions of the usual liberal shibboleths, for instance, blaming the hard-liners' success on U.S. hostility. On the basic question for U.S. policymakers of what motivates Iran's foreign policy, Takeyh could not be more wrong. Time and again, he asserts that Iran is a near-normal state: "its rhetoric is infused with revolutionary dogma, yet its actual conduct is practical, if not realistic." But, as his own chapter on "Israel and the Politics of Terrorism" shows, those who hold power in Tehran are committed to revolutionary goals though they may temper their actions to preserve their regime. Takeyh concludes with the recommendation that the United States and revolutionary Iran form a partnership to deal with issues of common concern—an extraordinarily impractical suggestion given the attitudes in both countries.
Culture and History:
Iran's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook. By Massoume Price. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 376 pp.
The Persians. By Gene Garthwaite. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 311 pp.
Iran-Persia: Ancient and Modern. By Helen Loveday, et al. Odyssey Books and Guides, distributed by New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005. 430 pp.
Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. By Nikki Keddie. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 379 pp.
Much as Kurzman's book is indispensable to study the Iranian Revolution, so, too, is Massoume Price's Iran's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook must reading for anyone who wants to understand ethnic and religious diversity in Iran. Price, a University of London-trained anthropologist, shows that Iran very much remains a Persian empire: a country in which Persians dominate a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. The historical record has some surprising twists, such as the positive experience of many minorities under the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah (r. 1941-79) although that was less true of tribal groups who do better when the central state is weak. Price begins her story in ancient times, showing Iran's long experience knitting together groups by both rewarding loyalty and tolerating diversity. The one weakness in her account is that she skips too quickly over Islam's slow permeation of Iran. The nature of Islam's diffusion in Iran marks Iranian society to this day. While religious minorities dominated trade and urban life through much of Arab history, in Iran the bazaar class was at the core of Islam.
Dartmouth professor Gene Garthwaite elaborates upon the depth and strength of imperial tradition in The Persians. He has written that rarity: a readable, historical introduction rooted deeply in the scholarly literature. That he is a respected historian with decades of research experience rather than a regurgitater of others' work shows in the richness of his account of Persian history from the earliest days, covering religion, the arts, governance, warfare—even occasionally, economic life—as well as the comings and goings of rulers. He brings to life the historical reality that modern Iran is the heir of ancient Persia in at least as much the sense that modern European civilization has its roots in the Greco-Roman past. Indeed, the continuity of Iranian civilization over those millennia is well on a par with any claim of a common European past during that interval. Garthwaite's command of the grand sweep comes out most clearly in his chapter on the eight centuries from the Arab conquest to the Safavid dynasty. Entitled "‘Non-Iran': Arabs, Turks, and Mongols in Iran," the chapter emphasizes the taming role of Persian culture over successive hordes of invaders. Garthwaite's account of recent times is less interesting, only as that story has been told far more often.
While Garthwaite paints the picture of Iranian history, he does not tell the story of the land as it is now—its natural and social geography, historical buildings, and grand sights. Here, the best introduction is Iran—Persia: Ancient and Modern by Helen Loveday, Bruce Wannell, Christoph Baumer, and Bijan Omrani, four Persian-speaking experts. Although part of a series of travel guides, this book is skimpy on practical travel suggestions; for instance, there is no information about where to eat and only a 6-page list of hotels, which mostly gives telephone and fax numbers. Nor does it bother with much information about modern Iranian society; this is not the place to learn what to shop for or where to see Iranians enjoying themselves. Instead, it has stunning photographs combined with quite sophisticated local histories, excellent maps, and detailed explanations about the famous historical buildings. The introductory chapters on geography, art, and architecture are well done.
Perhaps the most influential book, at least among the university student population, is emeritus University of California- Los Angeles historian Nikki Keddie's Modern Iran, a revised edition of her 1981 earlier version Roots of Revolution. Her knowledge of Iran is deep and so are her liberal politics, which permeate the three new chapters she added in the 2003 edition to cover Iran since 1979. Typical is her assertion, "The term terrorism, now in vogue, fails to make distinctions," and does not capture Iran's support for "using means available to a weak side against a militarily overwhelming one—means similar to some use in past anti-colonial fights in Israel, South Africa, Algeria, and elsewhere." She paints an upbeat picture of the Islamic Republic. She lavishes six pages on the "advancement of women's causes," and her five pages on the arts is more than 90 percent about arts films which, while popular at international festivals, have little audience in Iran. By contrast, the rigid censorship of state television, which is the main source of news and electronic entertainment for the vast majority of Iranians, passes unmentioned.
An Axis of Evil?:
Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment. By International Institute for Strategic Studies. New York: Routledge, 2005. 128 pp. $69.95.
The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. By William Beeman. Westport: Praeger, 2005. 299 pp. $49.95.
Turning to present foreign policy disputes, the most pressing issue about Iran for the West is its nuclear program. The best guide to this technical subject is Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment from a team at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) led by Gary Samore, a National Security Council official under President Bill Clinton. The political history of Iran's nuclear program serves as a backdrop to a detailed examination of its current state and informed speculation about its future. There follows a short discussion about Iran's chemical and biological programs and its ballistic missile systems. Appendices present resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The information is well documented, and the tone is scholarly and sober.
Missing is much comment on the flawed evaluation of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. That is a curious omission since, in 2002, the IISS produced under Samore's leadership an influential evaluation, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment, which was on balance not much more accurate than other prewar intelligence assessments. The IISS team would have been better advised to integrate into Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes a full and cautious explanation of how the Iran case compares to the Iraq case. That would have allowed them to pound home the difference in facts known and those inferred. In Iran, the regime trumpets the existence of sensitive facilities whereas Iraq tried to keep its programs murky. While Iraq had a single centrifuge, Iran has more than a thousand and claims to be making more than a hundred centrifuges each month.
Last and least is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other by William Beeman, the director of Middle East studies at Brown University. It is disappointing to find a full professor at an Ivy League school writing a book that claims to examine how Iran views the United States while the author cites only four articles or books in the Persian language. Beeman ignores or remains ignorant of both the rich literature produced by Iranian analysts as well as the issue and opinion polling showing the complexity of Iranian attitudes about the United States. Nor does his analysis of how Iran views the United States refer to a single statement by an Iranian leader, or a single article in the Iranian media, in the last twenty-five years. Indeed, at critical points in his analysis, Beeman does not even refer to secondary English-language sources; for instance, he gives not one single footnote in his 3-page rant on how the U.S. accusation that Iran shipped arms to the Palestinians on the Karine-A was "absurd." The failure to cite primary sources is more troubling given Beeman's intemperate language, more appropriate for talk radio than scholarship. For instance, he refers to "a patchwork of untestable, murky assertions from dubious sources [which have] asserted—or inferred—that there were centrifuges for enriching uranium" at Natanz. In fact, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shown the world's press the enriched uranium Iran produced in the centrifuges. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have issued dozens of detailed and public reports about the centrifuges.
What is more discouraging about Beeman's book is the opportunity missed. As a linguistic anthropologist, he would be well placed to analyze Iranian rhetoric and to elaborate upon the cultural context for themes used in speeches, textbooks, and television images. Instead, he ignores what Iranians themselves are saying, writing, and filming, preferring instead to cite what Westerners writing in English say about Iranians. That is typical of the critics of U.S. policy towards Iran: they themselves make little effort to read or listen to the extensive material available from Iran, and then they project onto the U.S. government their own ignorance of what the Iranian regime projects.