This book is a timely journalistic account that provides some insight into the enigma of Iran. During the late 70s Iran rose to the top of the news in the United States when as a reaction to the Westernizing influences of the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power, referred to the U.S. as the "Great Satan", American hostages were taken, and Iranians demonstrated in the streets chanting "death to America". There followed a period of relative silence during which Iran tried to mend itself after the ravages of the Iran-Iraq War and then actually reform itself during the Khatami presidency. Lately, it has risen again to prominence in the news, this time as the bugaboo of the Bush Administration, as part of the "axis of evil".
The author made a series of visits to Iran starting in 1996, and has structured this book principally on the basis of her observations, interviews with Iranian and American officials, and talks with ordinary Iranians. What we get here is a picture of a country that has a very tangled government - the author compares it to an American square dance - in which the ultimate arbiter is the supreme religious leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. Though some change has occurred (notably during Khatami's presidency and as a result of globalization) and there are some democratic elements, Iran is still a very long way from having any clear separation between the state and an authoritarian religion. The Shiite form of Islam dominates and tries to extend its influence to other parts of the Middle East such as Iraq and Lebanon. The Iranian city of Qom, the "mullah factory", is along with Najaf in Iraq the center of Shiite Islam; and is described as something like a medieval enclave where religious law is rigorously taught and applied. This religion is steeped in the masculine Old Testament tradition of the desert, in which woman are largely excluded. It's myths feature the twelfth Imam, a Messianic figure who will return some day to save believers.
During the Clinton Administration diplomatic overtures were made to Iran, small steps taken with quite a lot of discretion in view of terrorist acts attributed to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Those overtures gained momentum when President Khatami took office and the "death to America" signs started coming down. After 9/11 Iran responded with sympathy and held candlelight vigils, unlike other Islamic countries. At that point, the United States had much in common with Iran: Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were both mutual enemies; Iran had fought a war against Saddam and almost gone to war with the Taliban. And, in fact, Iran cooperated with the U.S. aims in Afghanistan and provided assistance to the Northern Alliance in turning back the Taliban. It could have been a perfect time to establish diplomatic relations, but the Bush Administration was too busy exerting its dominance. Bush proceeded to label Iran as part of an "axis of evil". Then, the Administration squandered an opportunity for peaceful engagement when they rejected an Iranian initiative in 2003. Instead of an ally they now had an enemy whom they empowered by taking out a common enemy Saddam and freeing the Iraqi Shiites. The occupation of Iraq also convinced the Iranians that the U.S. only had belligerent intentions, and that they were quite probably next on the list of countries to be invaded. With that threat at their door, they elected the right wing hardliner Ahmadinejad, who has since denied the Holocaust and threatened the development of nuclear technology, and who sees the world in the narrow way that the American President does when he says that countries are either with us or against us. So, here we have two leaders on opposite sides, but both convinced that they are on the side of the forces of light against the forces of darkness, as in the old Persian Zoroastrian myth.