Caricatures and Cliches

How many of your friends and neighbors know, as Barbara Slavin writes in Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, that during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini vetoed the use of unconventional weapons because Islam forbids the killing of innocents? Do they know that Iran aided the United States in the first Gulf war, strongly and consistently condemned the attacks of 9/11, and was key in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan?

At a critical moment in U.S.-Iran relations, Slavin, a USA Today senior diplomatic correspondent, provides an insightful, nuanced reading of Iran’s pluralism, culture, religious life, evolving politics, and love-hate relationship with the U.S. Not a mi­nute too soon.

Slavin explains Iran­ian history, de­bunks stereotypes, and reifies dozens of recent Iranian officials, religious leaders, reformers, dissidents, journalists, and students. Focusing primarily on the Iran-U.S. relationship since 1979 and where it might be headed, Slavin offers just enough clear, cogent description of Islamic history, theology, and Shiite-Sunni differences to educate readers for whom Iranians are shrouded in mystery and fearful intrigue.

This book might also evoke a measure of humility for American readers, considering that Iran has existed for 2,500 years as a unified nation. Slavin reflects on the Shiite Islam that Shah Ismail made the state religion in the early 16th century. Within an Islam in which scholars are taught to learn by questioning, much like students of the Jewish Talmud, Shiites prefer to challenge those with unrestrained temporal power and “instinctively identify with the underdog,” Slavin writes (see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in 2005). In contrast, Sunni Muslims traditionally tend to accept authoritarian government (see Saddam Hussein). Understood in terms of their spiritual roots and Persian (not Arab) culture, the democratic features of Iran’s theocracy—its maze of checks and balances—begin to make sense to the Western mind.

Slavin scrutinizes a system in which the supreme religious leader and the councils and assemblies that name him trump the president in areas of foreign policy, nuclear power (and potential weapons), and even in many domestic administrative decisions. Ahmadinejad is not Iran’s commander in chief. When Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei goes on state television to rebut Ahma­dinejad’s statements on Israel and America, it gets “almost no attention outside Iran,” Slavin laments. Indeed, Ahmadinejad might well be defeated in his 2009 reelection bid.

Memory always matters. Irani­ans remember 1953, when the CIA overthrew their prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in a coup and put a shah back on the throne. They also remember 1980-88, when a supposedly neutral U.S. was providing intelligence and weapons, including biological and chemical components, to Saddam Hussein, whose attack on Iran left nearly 1 million Iranians dead or injured.

The U.S. remembers the Ayatollah Khomeini and the newly formed Republican Guards holding U.S. hostages in an embassy from 1979-81. They also remember Iranian factions (in or out of power) aiding terrorist attacks on U.S. soldiers in various countries. And on it goes, in what Slavin describes as a 30-year undeclared war. Both partners in this geopolitical dance have good reasons for fear and mistrust.

If history is prologue in this ongoing morality play, glimpses of reconciliation and understanding form a theme parallel to the current and uneasy U.S.-Iran relationship. The years 1997-2005 found moderate President Mohammed Kha­tami—elected in 1997 with almost 70 percent of the vote—initiating reforms that had gathered broadening intellectual steam since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. This time period might be more instructive of Iran’s future than the Ahmadinejad regime that is now so feared, though Slavin makes a strong case that U.S. sanctions and threats on Iran might be driving it toward a more authoritarian rule.

During the Khatami presidency, openings for detente (mostly ignored by both Presidents Clinton and Bush) became more common. Some opportunities were large and public, others were small and personal. Near the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy seizure, former revolutionary ringleader Abbas Abdi met in Paris with former hostage Barry Rosen. They shook hands. Rosen later reported that over a shared meal, Abdi “privately apologized for what he had done to myself and my family.”

Slavin’s narrative of the region’s history and the power dynamics between its countries is concise and straightforward. Her frequent and humanizing vignettes of Iranian affection for American culture (even Kenny G!) and Americans as people are also appropriately brief and heartfelt. She demonstrates respect for Iranian culture and the broad sweep of its civilization. However, she occasionally slips into moments of cheeky condescension toward individual Iranians, such as drawing attention to mistakes they make with English syntax or spelling.

Iran’s population is 70 million. It has three times the land mass of the war-ravaged, occupied country on its western border and more than double the population of the other war-torn country on its eastern border. This primer on many things Iranian prepares the reader for the sobering final chapter, in which Slavin considers the costs and benefits of increasing diplomacy—in tandem with Europe and the U.S.’s Middle Eastern friends—of continuing sanctions and a cold war, and the worst-case scenario: a pre-emptive U.S. attack on Iran. Consequences, indeed.

Robert Roth is a freelance writer in East Lansing, Michigan.

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