Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy – review

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Contrary to what is often claimed, nations do not have psyches they have populaces. An individual mind contains contradictions, in a nation these contradictions are multiplied exponentially. Take Germany: the land of both Beethoven and Hitler, the Stasi and Gestapo but also some of the toughest privacy laws in Europe today, and has been home to both militarism and a peace movement.
Iran has about the same population as Germany and arguably an equal degree of complexity. Not that we in the West normally get a great deal of nuance in our portrayal of Iran. Khomeini’s description of the US as the ‘Great Satan’ is simply reversed. In the popular imagination it becomes a totalitarian state populated by zealots. Serious consideration is actually given to the notion that it is uniquely dangerous for Iran to get nuclear weapons but a collective pursuit of martyrdom means that it would not be deterred by the threat of retaliation.
Axworthy – a former head of the FCO’s Iran section – tries to introduce readers’ to a more realistic view of Iran. This is a rather daunting enterprise – simpler messages typically make for more compelling writing. Axworthy gets around this in two ways. Firstly, he produces an impressive piece of narrative history. When I was asked about the book, I’d respond by saying what was happening ‘in the story.’ This clear narrative thread makes the book easier to follow.
Secondly, because views of Iran are so simplistic much of what Axworthy says surprises and shocks. For example, Iran may be extremely socially conservative in general but it also carries out more sex change operations than any other country except Thailand. His big revelation is the liberal democratic tradition not only within Iran but within the revolution. He shows that the coalition that overthrew the Shah contained both Islamists and liberals, and that the constitution that resulted attempted to balance the power of clerics and democratic politicians. While power has progressively moved to the more theocratic elements of the constitution, the balance has never been lost altogether. Hence the outrage over the stolen 2009 election that created the Green Movement: the Supreme Leader foisting his choice of president on the nation was not part of the deal. Axworthy also highlights the political divisions within Shia clergy many of whom still hold to the denominations opposition to theocracy.
This is an enlightening book that deserves a wide readership.
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