Top critical review
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on 3 June 2014
Engaging, well written survey. While the history of post-Revolutionary Iran offers much material, the relatively short period makes the book work rather better than the author's 'Empire of the Mind', which covers Iran from its beginnings.
A considerable part of the book - nearly 300 out of 420 pages - concerns the build-up to the 1979 Revolution, the Revolution itself and the 1980-88 war with Iraq. This makes the account of 1988 to 2013 rather truncated, other than perhaps for a general reader.
The book is based mainly on secondary sources, some of which are far better than others - Ervand Abrahamian is acknowledged for many of the best points made, but some claims Axworthy makes are sourced to books and authors that are far from reliable. Axworthy makes some good points about Iranian cinema as well, but, again, some of the quotations from 'ordinary' Iranians drawn from other books are less than convincing.
There is also very little analysis of the factional struggles in Tehran in more recent times, which leads to some rather loose generalisations about forces at work, and some strange claims, like for example that Ahmadinejad wanted to push economic policy in a free-market direction (his subsidy reforms were the result of fiscal pressures, partly brought on by his own policies, and were in any case never carried through).
There is also surprisingly little analysis of the impact on Iranian policy of the US removal of Saddam, the growth of Saudi hostility to Iran, the Arab spring and its aftermath. There is nothing really on the impact of the war in Syria.
Axworthy has tried very hard to be balanced, and in many ways he succeeds, but he also writes from time to time like a former official in the British foreign office, including a strange section where he suggests "we in the west" would like Iran to become a "normal country" by, among other things, stopping its support for Hizbollah and Hamas. What is a "normal" country?
The election of Hassan Rouhani as president is another problem - especially given Axworthy's account ends in early 2013 with the book proclaiming the marginalisation of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a close Rouhani ally.
The author has, I would say, set out to write an accessible general account of post-1979 Iran and has broadly succeeded. But those looking for anything like a definitive account based on thorough research will be disappointed.