Understanding Iran: Everything you Need to know, from Persia to the Islamic Republic, from Cyrus to Ahmadinejad, by William R. Polk. New York: Palgrave macmillan.xvii+213 pages. Notes to p. 237. Index to p. 247. $25:00.
Reviewed by R. K. Ramazani
This is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary author.
An exceptional combination of longtime scholarship and U.S. policymaking experience on the Middle East underpins the authorship of this book. It portrays masterfully and humanely the evolution of the complex realities of Iranian history and culture and its profound impact on contemporary Iran and its relations with the United States.
Past is ever present in Iran. Iranians remember even their remote past by repeating “poetry, folktales and ceremony,” by their “real and hidden memory” of what they accept as their heritage and the guide to what is “normal,” and by the implicit “social contract” amongst them and in relationship to their institutions and to their leaders (xv).
Four chapters portray the multifaceted historical evolution of the Iranian society before the Iranian Revolution. These capture the overall influence of such factors as geography, ethnicity, language, religion, clergy, lineage, divine blessing, legitimacy and their interactions on the rise and fall of four Iranian empires and on momentous modern political and social developments including the Constitutional Revolution, the social changes during the Pahlavi shahs, and the 1979 revolution.
Some root causes of the revolution, particularly the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh’s government in 1953, are analyzed succinctly in Chapter 4. Mossadegh’s National Front Movement, Polk states, “had given Iran its most important move toward democracy. Had it survived it might have prevented the 1979 revolution.” (p.115). Other causes are taken up in Chapter 5 which examines the rise and consolidation of the revolutionary regime, including the failure of Shapour Bakhtiar and Mehdi Bazargan to understand that the “fall of the shah had voided Iran’s ‘social contract’.” (p. 131).
Chapter 6, which analyzes the Iranian-American relations in great detail, draws in part on Polk’s practical experience. In a fascinating interview, he criticized Mohammad Reza shah for his massive arms purchases and his economic and social policies that failed to open up the political system to a broader swath of the Iranian public. Polk told the shah bluntly, and in retrospect, predictively, “Economic and social development combined with autocracy makes for revolution” (p.188).
Polk explains Iran’s domestic crisis objectively, looking both at how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election campaign mobilized the electorate and examining charges of fraudulent election results. In the build-up to the 2009 election, Polk suggests, Iranian society consisted of three tiers, divided partly by age--the “old guard,” including Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the “second tier,” including Ahmadinejad, and the “third tier,” the educated younger generation.
With the growth of the younger generation, Polk sees it as likely that in the next few years, “Iran will experience a shift away from the theocracy toward a secular government. Whether or not this shift will be toward a civilian regime, it will be at least partly and probably largely determined by what happens in the relations between Iran and the United States…” (p. 167).
Polk criticizes as “fatally flawed” the methods—war game theory and National Intelligence Estimate-- that the United States uses to predict Iran’s behavior. He believes, they dehumanize Iranians and disregard their emotions, perceptions, norms, mores, fears and hopes that shape their reactions to American policies.
Polk argues that Iran’s nuclear policy, for example, is essentially defensive. It aims to protect Iran against attack in the same way that the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel understand that a capacity to threaten nuclear retaliation constitutes the “ultimate defense.” He concludes, “I believe, it would be ahistorical and illogical for Iran not to be acquiring at least the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon” (p. 209).
To resolve the nuclear standoff, Polk suggests that the United States advance several multilateral and unilateral initiatives, in particular, that it sponsor an internationally guaranteed statement recognizing Iran’s sovereign political independence, that it push for the establishment of a nuclear-free Middle East, that it move to prohibit any state-- particularly the U.S. or Israel-- from attacking Iran, and that it renounce the right to attack Iran preemptively (pp. 210-12).
In 2009, Polk believed that the incoming Obama administration enjoyed “a window of opportunity” in relations with Iran. So did this reviewer who now thinks that the window is being slammed shut precipitously by continued U.S. sanctions and the threat of military attack. These strategies have not worked in the past and will not work in the future. Iran’s indelible memory of a long and bitter experience with external pressure, intervention and invasion has created a fierce sense of national resistance to foreign coercion.
R.K. Ramazani, who has written extensively on Iran since 1952, is the Edward R.Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia.