Now that talks of a kind are beginning again between Iran and the West on the Iranian nuclear program, anyone wanting the back story behind Tehran’s thinking should dip into with Scott Peterson’s excellent book “Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – a journey behind the headlines” (Simon and Schuster, 2010). Reading it is to join the best moments of 30 trips to Iran in the company of an ace reporter – Peterson is Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor – with no need for endless visa forms, corrupting negotiations with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, or the frustration of having to fight tooth and nail for every interview.
After setting the post-1979 revolutionary scene, including a great first chapter on the all-dominating U.S.-Iran relationship, Peterson’s experiences start with the false spring of liberal Iranian hopes that accompanied the late 1990s rise of President Khatami and his “democratic Islam”. False, because “an organized minority [of hardliners] have more power than a disorganized majority”, and Khatami’s downfall follows. A conservative newspaper editor points out to Peterson that his hardline faction won when it realized that the demonstrating moderates lacked the ruthlessness for a final push. As he puts it, “a loaded weapon scares one person, but an unloaded one scares two.”
(That could just as well be a metaphor for the current nuclear talks, since Iran most likely does not have any real weapon pointed at the U.S., and is doubtless as scared as the Americans think they are themselves. Which may be why the Iranians are now signaling they might give a tiny bit of ground.)
Some of Peterson’s most original and memorable sections detail the populist, messianic Shiite cult of the Mahdi. Its adherents notably include President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently leaves an empty seat at his meal table just in case the Mahdi suddenly returns. As for the grim realities of Ahmadinejad’s rule outside his dining room, there are few more shocking accounts than Peterson’s of the suffocating clampdown “in the name of democracy”. The freedom seekers of the 2009 Green Movement were considered a grave threat in the mold of other east European “color” revolutions of that decade. Peterson spares no detail about exactly how this ruthless regime set its thugs onto crushing middle class dreams with beatings, psychological warfare to sadistic sexual abuse.
Along the way, Peterson has a remarkable array of Iranians speak about themselves and their country. They tell how the regime’s Islamist obsessions have made ordinary Iranians “fed up with religion”, in the words of the late Ayatollah Montazeri. Remarkably, even Iran’s grand ayatollahs voted three-to-one against the Islamist regime stalwarts who stole the 2009 elections. The new hardline cabal of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard are indeed shown to be “heedless of the damage they inflict on the lives of individuals and families. They assume everyone else is as indifferent to basic human decency as they”, as jailed scholar Haleh Esfandiari tells Peterson. And one wonders how long it will be before Iran’s rulers wake up to the fact that, in the words of analyst Saeed Laylaz, “Iran cannot make up for its lack of economic might with nuclear technology, missiles and proxy threats in Lebanon and Palestine”.
Peterson’s enthusiasm for the subject can lead to some gushing moments, especially in the introduction, with Iran presented “as a paradise for journalists, where the tree of knowledge is ripe with counter-intuitive succulence”, in which the author finds glimpses of the “fundamental seedbeds of the Islamic Republic” in his role as “a seeker of revelatory experience.” Such bouquets are doubtless partly aimed at persuading the publisher to launch all 733 pages of this volume into the crowded sea of Middle East books. It was worth it, and this feast of reportage is sober, original and meticulous. He is also all-embracing, citing not just his own reporting on the past 15 years, but notable journalism by others too. (Not to mention some of his own fine photos, including a crafty extra two hidden in the cover art).
There are, however, no easy assessments of what it all means or illusory answers to over-simplified issues (e.g. “Is Iran building a nuclear bomb?”) that hurried policy-makers so often want. The merit of the book lies in its assiduous collection of all the paradoxes that make up Iran. And as always, the answer an outsider will get depends on how he asks the question.
Peterson does offer plenty of insights into the U.S.-Iran relationship, in which he sees Iranians as “prideful fighters” who don’t want to be the first to give up. Anti-Americanism is the “critical glue that helped hold together Iran’s Islamic regime” and Iranians are convinced that they must never deal with the U.S. from a position of weakness, but Peterson also foresaw Iran’s empathy for the U.S. after 9/11, a rare thing in the Middle East. He sees many similarities between the two nations, including a national arrogance, a need for an enemy, and a belief in its own exceptionalism. Whether that makes them “natural allies”, as Peterson believes, seems to me debatable. The test will come if and when the U.S. decides to ditch the old blood feud, since, as Peterson quotes Ayatollah Khomeini, “on that day when the United States of America will praise us, we will mourn.”
Such an enlightened U.S. reversal of its Iran policy is, anyway, unlikely. Peterson shows well how Israel seized upon America’s Iran fetish from the 1990s onward in order to bolster its own diminishing importance after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, one Iranian tells Peterson that Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington are all ‘hezbollahi’ regimes, loving and needing each other as essential enemies. Peterson also wisely points out that most Iranian policies are not ideological products of the “Islamist” bogeyman that the U.S. and Israel love to fear, but aim at regime survival.
Iran thinks it has the right to dominate its region, an Iranian newspaperman tells Peterson, but if that is the case, Tehran perhaps needs to consider earning that right first. In a new version of the tale of the hare and the tortoise, the oil-fueled Iranian economy was double the size of neighboring Turkey at the time of the Islamic Revolution, but has long been overtaken and is now half the size of its more plodding rival. Seizing the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was hardly an “achievement” or worthwhile “second revolution”, as Iran portrays it, and is now quite long ago. As the humanity of Iranians bursts through every page of Peterson’s book – from regretful basijis to north Tehran heavy metal bands – the reader keeps wanting to say: come on, Iran. It’s time to move on.