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on 13 April 2017
Excellent. Well and clearly written. Easy to read. for greater depth after reading chapter 1 read Keddie the Roots of Revolution. Then return to this.
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on 7 November 2015
(Disclaimer: the reviewer has no professional experience with Iran and indeed, has never visited that country. Also, "Enqilab" refers to the Islamic Revolution and its institutions.)

This is a brilliantly well-done book which reminds me why I love to study history so much.

The general outline of the book is not surprising: in order to help readers understand the Iranian Revolution as a phase of Iran's extremely long, complex history, Michael Axworthy has to explain, or interpret, the "short" 20th century. During this "short" 20th century (1906-1979), Iranian politics was characterized by popular concern with national development along mainly secular lines. Before this time, Iran was an absolute monarchy with a very weak central government; after this time, Iran had experienced a revolution in which it rejected not only the previous regime, but secular modernity itself (1).

One item worth discussing is whether or not the first chapter is adequate. I believe it is, considering the book's target audience (non-specialists). I've read a few books on this topic, and I think it does one of the best jobs I've seen explaining the prehistory of the Enqilab-e Islami. Axworthy has a severe challenge in so far as, what is perceived to have happened is typically more decisive than what actually did happen (2). His treatment of the events of 1953 are probably as close to perfect as one can ask for; likewise, the Rex Cinema fire (pp.108-109; both events took place exactly 25 years apart) and the 1963 Demonstrations.

Both this book and Axworthy's 2008 book, A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind follow a well-trodden editorial path: Alessandro Bausani's books, the Cambridge History of Iran, and many other works cover the same key events with about the same emphasis. Owing to the crushing urgency for Axworthy to condense these events into something manageable, one can bicker about all sorts of omissions. But his choices are all very defensible, and his coverage of later events like the actual revolution and war with Iraq are outstanding.

One benefit that Axworthy brings to the table is his experience in the Foreign Office of the UK. He is more familiar with the fissiparous character of national governments, especially that of the Islamic Republic in its early days; other people, prone to conspiracy theories, tend to imagine that nations are totally cohesive, client leaders are sock puppets of their foreign patrons (3). The chaos and panic of the Enqilab are described very well, as are the conditions under which fateful decisions were taken.


The book's treatment of this horrible war makes it essential reading. Axworthy demonstrates how the War was absolutely decisive not only in shaping the Iranian national security state, popular politics in Iran, and the actual goals of Iranian foreign policy. Long after Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster, Iran's role in Iraq had been institutionalized by the war (though ISCI/SCIRI, a powerful exile group now established in government there). Just as with all other powerful nations, foreign policy and notions of patriotism are molded by vendettas from the past, and Iran is no exception. The War created a permanent commitment in Iran to revolutionary ideals; enemies of the revolution, including Iranian exiles like the MKO, burned most of the Revolutionary government's bridges to the rest of the world.

Axworthy's treatment of the fighting is very well-done; his discussion of tactical issues such as the capabilities of the F-14's in Iran's air force, are directly and obviously relevant to the narrative. His handling of the 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes is also handled with great skill and care. The challenge is to avoid the hyperventilating outrage of partisan zealots, but also convey the enormity of this catastrophe--and its grotesque aftermath. In some respects, the event may have led to the decision by the Iranian leadership to end the War (p.277). He clearly recognizes the central importance of the War and ties all the confusing elements into a remarkably coherent narrative.


Domestically, the Iranian leadership "used" the last days of the war to massacre a vast number of political prisoners--alleged to be members or sympathizers with the MKO, which had undertaken its own delusional invasion of Iran (26 July 1980; the executions continued until the end of the war three weeks later, and Axworthy estimates a death toll of 4,000-5,000-p.288). The massacre was a bloody thread between the carnage of the battlefield, and the decades of political repression that followed. Axworthy resists the characterization of 1989 as an "Iranian Thermidor" (p.299 et alibi), on the grounds that the religious radicalism was firmly entrenched; but the modality of radical Islam shifted from a "social gospel" to the familiar alignment of religious and economic conservativism (4). Iran's political establishment has long contended with the vagueness of Imam Khomeini's vision of an Islamic society; economics was to have been transformed into a moral economy rather than a capitalist (market) economy, but coping with the transformational momentum of contemporary Iranian cities and their employers has defeated this ambition. Iranian cities have grown remorselessly, imposing their own logic on the Revolution and its moral course.

Axworthy is mainly interested here with the challenges of Iran's renewed engagement with the rest of the world. As logic would suggest, its main priority has been relationships with BRICS (or "non-status quo powers"); negotiations with the UK or USA had long been taboo in Enqilabi politics, especially because of the sunk costs of lost development, wartime deaths, and privation. But the BRICS have not been able to meet Iran's international concerns: protection of the Shi'a outside of Iran, access to credit and oil markets, and cultural affinities to the West. Iran's leadership likewise has a strong interest in renewing its moral authority; the vocational clergy are finding themselves eclipsed in revolutionary fervor by lay militants like Pres. Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Sepah-e Pasdaran/Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani.

Iran's democratic forces may well be doomed by their small "class" size: most urban Iranians are poor, not rich, and need a democracy with protection of their livelihoods. This may leave any possible pro-democracy movement vulnerable to groups like the violent, paramilitary _hezbollahi_. But the Iranian regime is no longer (if it ever was) a totalitarian state; it remains malleable to pressure--and opportunity.



Saïd Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors, Oxford University Press (2009); see my review on Amazon (link in comments)

Peter Avery & Gavin Hambly, & Charles Melville, editors, The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 7: From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic (Volume 7), Cambridge University Press (1991); see especially K.S. MacLaughlan, "Economic Development, 1921-1979" (chapter 17, p.608) and Hamid Algar, "Religious Forces in Twentieth-Century Iran" (chapter 20, p.732). This book really needs a 2nd edition with serious, brutal editing.

Michael Axworthy, A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, Basic Books (2008); see my review on Amazon (link in comments)

Alessandro Bausani, The Persians (1961/1971), Religion in Iran(1959/2000), et alibi.

James Buchan, Days of God, Simon & Schuster (2013); see my review on Amazon (link in comments)

Mohsen M. Milani, The Making Of Iran's Islamic Revolution, 2nd Edition Westview Press (1994)

Encyclopedia Iranica, especially
"Anglo-Persian Oil Company" (F. Kazemi--1985; accessed 1 Nov 2015)
"Constitutional Revolution (enqel'b-e mašr''a) of 1323-29/1905-11" (multiple authors--1992; accessed 27 Oct 2015);
"Coup D’etat of 1332 Š./1953" (Mark J. Gasiorowski--1993; accessed 2 Nov 2015);
"Qašq''i Tribal Confederacy I. History" (Pierre Oberling--2003; accessed 1 Nov 2015)
and many others.



(1) Fernand Braudel appears to have coined to coined the idea of a "long" century, in this case, the "long" 16th century (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1, 1949). One key measure of Iran's (central government's) pursuit of centralized control was its perennial struggle with the Qashqai (Qašq''i) Tribal Confederacy, which reached its bloody climax in 1982 during the massive war with Iraq. The tragic fate of the Qashqai can be likened to nomadic/aboriginal peoples all over the world.

Another point about the phrase "short"/"long" nth century: I usually avoid this term because it assumes a century is all about a particular sequence of historical events. In Southwest Asia/North Africa, the 21st century, however, has seen the universal rise of (technologically sophisticated) militant anti-modernist, religious totalitarianism. Here, I think the concept is apt.

(2) The prime example of this is the 1953 Coup against Mohammed M*ssad*q. One of the powerful myths of this event is that "it is unknown in the West," despite being the single most famous covert operation of all time. Please see comments for a further discussion of this event.

(3) I've despaired of getting this idea across to anyone, but here it is: the world is, and always has been, full of client-patron relationships between rulers of different countries. Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was a notorious client of Washington, and it is therefore assumed by radicals everywhere that the White House or the CIA was able to tell him exactly what to do. Although the subservience of the Shah to Washington was indeed quite exceptional, his contacts in the US government were never ignorant of the fact that, when he opted to go his own direction, they had no choice but to tolerate it: the Shah could be upbraided, but never dismissed.

Likewise, ISCI/SCIRI was founded in Iran in 1982 with Shi'a exiles from Iraq; its armed wing, the Badr Brigades, has long been seen as an arm of Iranian influence in post-invasion Iraq. But the Badr Brigades split off from ISCI (2012), became the Badr Organization, and now remains tied to the Sepah-e Pasdaran/Quds Force, while ISCI has become more definitely an Iraqi Party. See Joel Wing, "Badr Organization A View Into Iraq’s Violent Past And Present," Musings on Iraq (blog) (20 Jan 2015--accessed 2 Nov 2015).

(4) The "social gospel" is a term from the 1870s in the USA and Canada, when some Christian clergymen embraced political radicalism and progressive causes. The social gospel movement tended to refer to biblical texts such Matthew 5 (Sermon on the Mount), or Leviticus 25 (Jubilee). There are obvious analogies to Islam; many of the radical clergy in the Enqilab argued that the main transgression of the Shah was economic injustice. By tradition, religions are usually aligned with landlords (if there are any) and merchants, and Shi'ism in Iran is no exception. By the mid-1980s, the clerical establishment was mainly concerned about social justice in other countries, not Iran.
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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2015
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Although this book finishes before the 2013 Iranian elections, and it speculates at the end on the outcome, this still covers enough ground to give you the background to those elections (and events since). This is primarily a political history which covers some aspects of culture and society. It gives an overview of the history before the 1979 revolution and provides in-depth analysis of the events since the revolution.

Mostly covering political events it goes some way to explaining the apparent contradictions in Iranian society and, at least since the revolution, the antagonism between liberal reform and autocratic status quo. On a wider scale it shows how politics, and revolutions, are never black and white (no matter which country you live in) and informs on all the factions and personalities struggling for power and influence - politics is essentially a balancing act between competing interests - and revolutions do not always have a cut and dried 'happy' outcome. In essence the Iranian revolution is still continuing.
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Most of what the general public knows about Iran has come via the media - which is not known for its accuracy or lack of bias. This superb book takes the reader from the earlier history of the region, which then leads into the major events that occurred from 1979 onwards. But it is not just a dry, factual history book, it is very human in its approach - bringing in the real stories of crucial events, with verbatim quotes from many of those involved. We learn not just of rulers and revolutionaries - but those interfering from outside, for their own ends.
It goes into a great amount of depth, so you get a real feel for people and events, with academic quality research, reference list and notes (46 pages) - and it is an incredibly exciting and interesting read. For anyone interested in the country and the region, it has to be one of the best resources available. Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 4 September 2014
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This serious looking tome has a lot to offer for any reader of modern history. The author is a widely respected expert in matters Persian and approaches the subject rigorously in such a way that this book will be appreciated by the academic and also the 'interested reader'. It does not require any prior knowledge, but informs the reader of the local political context of the book, explaining both the British role and that of other nations. At time you will think that the author is trying to write from an Iranian viewpoint, but the more I got into this book the more I realised that it wasn't particularly biased.
I found my memories of the revolution, the Shah and those characters central to the events of my youth all came flooding back to me , but this time with a genuine historical context to set them in.
To anyone interested in world affairs, modern history or the rise of Islam, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.
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Following a coup d'état instigated by the UK and the US in the early 1950s, Iran gradually became despotic. Growing conflict against foreign influence and political repression culminated in the Iranian Revolution, which led to the establishment of an Islamic republic on 1 April 1979. Under the Shah there had been arbitrary arrests and torture by his secret police - SAVAK, and were used to crush all forms of political antagonism. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an active critic of the Shah's government and publicly denounced it. Khomeini was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months. After his release in 1964, Khomeini publicly critiqued the United States government role in the country. Eventually Ruhollah Khomeini and his supporters drove the shah into exile and all but in the process demolished the royal army. Then, under the blanket of the war with Iraq, they wiped out their allies and rivals - leftist, liberal and other groups perceived as a threat. This authoritative work by Michael Axworthy, a former British diplomat who headed the Iran Office from 1998 - 2000, does much to give a good readable history of that time, and then up to the relative present

It should be noted that Iranian oil reserves in, according to its government, rank third major reserve in the world at roughly 150 billion barrels as of 2007, although it ranks second if Canadian reserves of unconventional oil are omitted. It has foreign policy that is affecting the civil war in Syria and its active support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its policy towards Israel - makes this a regional player that should not be ignored. There is the unsuccessful and controversial leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's' fore ray into nuclear research, which has been seen as veiled attempt to obtain its own domestic nuclear weapons programme. Yet, it seems, that a lot of people seem to know so very little about the country. This is an insightful tome brimming with information, as well as policy advice on how best to deal with Iran.

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I have been for sometime wanting to read a book about the recent history of Iran.
This volume has filled in many gaps in my knowledge and understanding of this important middle east country.
It was also good to read a author who is so openned minded. What we get here is the history, as it happened not clouded by western thought.
This book takes the reader from the start of the revolution, through the Iran - Iraq war to the present day.
Chapter one starts off with the background and says
"The Iranian revolution of 1979 is sometimes spoken of as the third great revolution of modern times" and this is how the author writes. Good use of pictures/maps etc. Good index. Well written and very interesting to get the real background.
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VINE VOICEon 10 December 2014
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There really is so much to learn about countries like Iran. I am really pleased with this Michael Axworthy book as it has been a massive eye opener as far as learning about one of the worlds so called rogue states goes. If for years like me you have been fed western media mud slinging about Iran after the Shah was overthrown in 1979 this is a great way to read an excellently balanced account of a country that rightly or wrongly always gets a bad press. Empire Of The Mind is now on my to read list.
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on 15 November 2014
Excellent book to think about Iran, balanced views all around. The only regret I have is that it could have had some fifty pages more to treat the past ten years in equal depth as it did with the previous periods but on the other hand that would touch on journalism not history as a lot has been declassified since about the earlier times but closer you get the more obscure it gets. To describe the dynamics is well attempted. I felt though that the SEPAH (revolutionary guards) and their role, both origins and near past, were left little under-touched to shed more light on it shaping the Iran's development. The epiloge is bit confusing as it referes to the time further ahead of the publication of itself and doesn't give the date of the paperback amendment, rather unfortunate compromise I think to treat 'current development' of 2013-14 in few sentences in the book on history, as the future can go many ways. Overall I enjoyed the book very much.
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on 12 July 2015
A full and fair explanation of today's iran. Highly recommended to anyone with any interest in iran and what made it.
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