When George W. Bush declared in 2002 that there was an “axis of evil” threatening world peace and stability, what surprised most observers was his naming Iran as a part of this axis alongside Iraq and North Korea.
After all, although its government was hostile to America, Iran showed no signs of becoming a rogue state, and its government was in part democratically constituted. But Bush’s belligerent rhetoric not only thrust the spotlight on Iran internationally, it also, as journalist Christopher de Bellaigue notes in his new book, The Struggle for Iran, decisively altered the domestic political climate in Iran.
A reform movement of modest proportions, opening doors to greater social freedom for Iranian people, was eventually quashed by the hardline clerics who run the country. In the presidential elections of 2005, a divided electorate ended up voting in the Islamist ideologue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to replace the moderate and liberal government of Mohammad Khatami. “Iran’s pro-democracy movement,” writes de Bellaigue, “could not survive in the atmosphere of protracted crisis that Bush helped create.”
De Bellaigue’s book, his second about Iran, builds upon and serves as a companion volume to the first, the widely acclaimed The Rose Garden of the Martyrs (2005), an impressionistic account based on his travels around the country as a reporter.
In his new book, de Bellaigue, now a resident of Tehran and not just a traveller, is more carefully focused on explaining Iran to the world, refuting misconceptions about the regime and its people and adding nuance to the broad-brush arguments made about the country around the world. Bringing together long essays originally published in journals such as The New York Review of Books and The Guardian, The Struggle for Iran thoughtfully illuminates the politics, history, social life, art and cinema (Iran’s biggest export to the world after oil) of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
Bellaigue’s book often harks back to the most decisive moment in the history of modern Iran—indeed, one of the towering events of the 20th century—the Islamic revolution of 1979, in which the corrupt and unpopular monarch Reza Pahlavi was toppled by the forces of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini and his followers inaugurated “the modern world’s only clerical state”, in which even elected representatives of the people of Iran could be vetoed by a council of religious leaders.
Although there was widespread support for the Revolution in its first decade (especially since Iran was fighting a bloody war with Iraq for most of the 1980s), in recent times, Iran’s staunchly religious, censorious and socially conservative establishment has seemed more and more out of touch with a vibrant society in which three-fourths of the population is under 30. Even so, the Iranian state plays a directive role in every walk of ordinary life and controls more than 60% of the economy, its inefficiencies compensated for by booming inflows of petrodollars as world oil prices escalate.
The struggle for Iran, then, is a struggle between the hardline establishment, able to cock a snook at the world because of its oil resources and nuclear technology, and of moderate and liberal forces, who now find themselves in disarray in Ahmadinejad’s Iran.
But Bellaigue cautions the reader against making the fallacy, implicit in the attitude of the Bush government, that if the present regime is somehow toppled, the path will be clear in Iran for a western-style liberal democracy.
Even Iran’s most liberal politicians, he writes, do not go so far as to demand a secular democracy—for good or bad, faith will continue to play a role in the construction of the state. As the failed experiment in Iraq shows, democracy, while no doubt the best kind of political system, only stokes resentment and rebellion when imposed from above.
If democracy has to successfully take root, the perceptive Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan has written, it must be “framed in recognizable terms, based on familiar ideologies and rooted in indigenous values and traditions”. This insight could be applied to many situations other than that of Iran.
As in his previous book, de Bellaigue is alert to the voice of the people, soliciting the opinions of Iranians across classes and ideologies. Additionally, his work highlights the wonders of pre-Islamic Persian civilization, a period of history that the present regime understandably seeks to obscure. He has a beautiful essay on attending group classes on the Sufi poet Rumi (Rumi believed, he writes, that an observant person who is ignorant of Islam’s spirit is “more dangerous than an irreligious person”).
Elsewhere, de Bellaigue notes the irony that Iran still owns the finest collection of western art outside of Europe and America, put together by the former Shah’s wife, even as the establishment has, for three decades, inveighed against the corruption of western culture.
The fascinating diversity of thought and practice of a complex society in flux—a necessary antidote to simplistic axis-of-evil, good-or-bad thinking—is opened up by this sophisticated and elegant book.
Four more titles about Iran’s journey through autocracy and revolution
Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1992)
The legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died earlier this year, toured the world during the decolonization of Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, reporting on as many as 27 revolutions.Shah of Shahsis a superb account of the tyrannical and hedonistic last Shah of Iran and his overthrow following an Islamic revolution in 1979. Kapuscinski’s autobiography,Travels With Herodotus, was launched in the US in May 2007.
Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by Shirin Ebadi (2006)
Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, was a judge under the Shah’s regime. When women were declared unfit to be judges following the 1979 revolution, she took up legal work, taking on human rights violations by the new regime. If Kapuscinski’s book illuminates life in pre-revolutionary Iran, Ebadi’s can be read as a portrait of the country in the decades after it.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (2004)
Azar Nafisi’s memoir, a surprise best-seller around the world, recounts her years teaching western literature to some of her cherished female students in Tehran. Nafisi’s demonstration, to a group of women marginalized even by their own society, of how literature offered “a critical way of grasping and appraising the world” makes ‘Reading Lolita’ an unusual work of literary criticism.
My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad (1970, translation published in 1996)
One of the most popular Iranian novels ever, Iraj Pezeshkzad’s brilliant comedy takes up the themes of youthful love and family intrigue through the contrasting figures of Uncle Napoleon, a dominating patriarch who rules over a large extended family, and his least favourite nephew, who has fallen in love with his daughter.
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