This is a book that blends historical analysis with philosophical and psychological analysis as well to give readers a poignant and deep look into this infinitely complex nation. I found this book to be the most important work I have read to date on Iran. My understanding of the history of this country and its recent political past has been greatly enhanced by this book.
It starts off by challenging some of the assumptions held by the "West", and tries to show how Iranian culture, society and polity is and has been very fluid maintaining an ebb and flow of change much like the rest of the world. The author delves into the political philosophies that have influenced these changes, and analyzes these changes for a Western audience.
Next the author gives readers a brief history of Iranian politics. One of the big surprises for me was his analysis of the Mosaddeq era of Iranian history. Many times it seems that if you read a book written from the political right this history is largely glossed over, and if you read one from the left then this era tends to read as Iran's golden era cut short by Western intervention. What this author has given readers is a very sober accounting of a tumultuous premiership that had some very real successes along with very real failings as well, and the picture painted is one of uncertainty as to whether or not democratic changes were on their way to being institutionalized or not. This uncertainty in no way exculpates British and US meddling, of course, but it does challenge the prevailing myth of the golden era.
From there the author delves into the recent era of Iranian politics focusing in on the Rafsanjani up until the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. The Rafsanjani era is described as an era of aggrandizement for the economic elite to the detriment of the rest of society. Rafsanjani oversaw a political alliance whereby the mercantile bourgeoisie of Iran were left to solidify their elite status while the conservative elite were left to run the rest of the country as they saw fit. These elites ran a paternalistic type of government that basically discounted the citizenry. They saw themselves as the good fathers who knew what was best for their children. This type of arrogant discounting of the people would prove to be their undoing in the presidential elections of 1997.
Khatami and the reformists came about at another revolutionary moment in Iranian history. With the huge numbers of young Iranians feeling more and more alienated from a government that was failing to provide them with promised opportunities these young people started organizing like never before to make their voices heard. The reformists swept into power with an unprecedented mandate of a huge electoral success in 2000, and that is the moment that two powerful blocs began a struggle for power; the citizenry represented by their elected representatives against the unelected elites. Unfortunately the promised reforms were bogged down through bureaucratic minutia, and the refusal of Khatami to force the conservative's hand by using popular resistance and demonstrations.
Even though the people eventually tired of the sluggish pace of legislative reform, and the next elections of the Majlis and the election of Ahmadinejad were marred by political gerrymandering by unelected elites the genie is out of the bottle. Many of the conservatives recognized after their "wins" that their grip on power had no popular legitimacy. The conservatives have been left with two choices; either jettison the idea of a true Republic state and continue to rule without the people, or begin to rule in the interest of the people and hope for their support thereby ensuring the Republican legacy.
This was an excellent book that shows that Iranian politics are far from static, while at the same time just as far from perfect. Change is coming for Iran, but what we Westerners need to understand is that we may not recognize it. The Iranians are not going to follow our models for development. They are seeking their own path, while being influenced by the world. Whatever limitations there are on the democratization of Iran now the situation is still fluid and ever changing, and as such will look much different in 5-10 years.