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Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4. 1979.

AFP/Getty Images

  • Title: America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present
  • Author: John Ghazvinian
  • Genre: Politics/ History
  • Publisher: Deckle Edge
  • Pages: 688

When the Iran hostage crisis begun at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November, 1979, Washington and Tehran’s diplomatic relations rapidly deteriorated. Iran created more history that year than most countries do in a century. It saw Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini return from forced Parisian exile to help overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty. The Imperial State of Iran thus became the Islamic Republic of Iran. John Ghazvinian keenly reminds readers here why that swift transfer of power occurred – it was backed and supported by millions of ordinary Iranians. First by public street demonstrations. And secondly by a national referendum.

But Iran’s Islamic Revolution is just one small dot on a much wider trajectory of Iranian history this book explores with rigorous analysis, invaluable interviews and archival evidence – from Iran and the United States, respectively. The Iranian-born American journalist and historian kicks off the narrative in the late 18th century, noting how America’s Founding Fathers felt an atavistic affiliation to ancient Persia – a civilization with Aryan racial roots stretching back to antiquity. We also learn how Iran differs from most of its Sunni Muslim neighbors across the Middle East. The world’s largest Shia nation was never formally colonized by European powers, but international interference over oil is a recurring theme in modern Iranian history.

The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was a crucial turning point. It saw Russia and Britain carve Iran into two separate zones for their own commercial interests. By 1924, Iran’s vast petroleum bounty was almost entirely in Britain’s hands however. The United States then entered into the diplomatic dogfight, ostensibly to defend Iran against the blatant greed of British imperialism. This was the naive view Iranian liberals clung to at least. But the rules of realpolitik across the sphere of geopolitics drastically changed once the Cold War begun.

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In August, 1953, a coup d’état saw the ousting of Iranian Prime Minister and ardent nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh. CIA dollars, intelligence and propaganda helped hired lackeys undermine Iranian democracy. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was in on the secret deal. The last Shah of Iran was given an infinite supply of cash and weapons on one non-negotiable precondition: loyalty to Washington.

In 1954, Iranian oil was divvied up into a consortium of American oil companies. The next two decades saw Iran become the world’s largest customer of American military hardware. The Shah’s eventual demise had echoes of Louis XVI’s last days at Versailles – a delusional megalomaniac King who misjudged reality and his people.

As soon as Iran disposed of its monarchy, it had a war with neighboring Iraq to deal with.

A million perished on both sides in a brutal conflict that dragged on for eight years. But conservative Shia clerics saw it as a useful opportunity to solidify their ideological concerns with messianic effect.

The liberal and socialist elements of the Iranian revolution were silenced as Islamic fundamentalism pervaded every aspect of Iranian public life. Those Shia values then went into export mode – the Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah, in Lebanon, being the most influential and long standing example.

There are numerous reasons why Washington and Tehran are still stuck at a political impasse today. This book explores many of them. The economic sanctions the U.S. imposes on Iran that continue to cripple the Iranian economy. Trump’s tearing up of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. A frosty relationship between Israel and Iran. Ghazvinian says the possibility of the Islamic theocracy engaging in an all-out nuclear conflict with the Jewish State are slim. He sees the constant threats as mere muscle flexing from two countries competing for greater geopolitical dominance. But how Israel behaves with Iran greatly influences how the United States does, too.

This is what makes America and Iran: A History such a compelling and insightful read. It tells a nuanced version of history that is normally presented as a catastrophic eschatological clash of civilizations – where the end road always hints at a Third World War. Ghazvinian eschews these headline-grabbing histrionics and makes a much more convincing argument instead – that olive-branch offerings and measured international diplomacy can lead to roads of reconciliation between two sworn enemies who have been at loggerheads for the last four decades. How the forthcoming Biden administration approaches the Middle East over the next four years will determine if those bitter wounds of history between both nations can harmoniously heal in the near to medium future.

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Three other books to help you understand Iran

Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (Thomas Dunne Books) is a brilliant and balanced analysis into the mind of a radical religious ideologue who drastically altered the course of modern Iranian history when he assumed the position of Supreme Leader in the newly formed Islamic Republic in 1979.

The 11th-century epic Persian poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) contains 60,000 couplets that were laboriously constructed over thirty five years. This recent English translation from Dick Davis (Penguin Classics) guides readers to the main point and purpose of Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s literary masterpiece – it aimed to revisit and reevaluate the legacy of Persian culture that was purposely neglected following the Arab conquest of Persia during the seventh century.

The Iran-Iraq War (Belknap Press) is an impeccably well-researched account of the longest conventional war of the 20th century. French historian Pierre Razoux also points to the conflict’s most troublesome lasting legacy, namely a deep-rooted distrust between Sunni and Shia Muslims across this region of the Middle East today, where sectarian strife and killings are continually rising.

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