Despite the rhetoric you hear from many of the leading politicians of the western world, and even from sections of the more liberal establishment, Iran is not the monolithic Islamic state that they would have us believe.
Elaheh Rostami-Povey's multi-layered book explores in detail the country's history, its part in the wider economic, political and cultural history of the Middle East as well as the role of various political forces, religions and external influences in shaping it, to give us a rounded and useful understanding of the country today.
Quite rightly, Rostami-Povey argues that no country is monolithic. In particular she demonstrates that despite the view of some, the Islamic regime that consolidated its power following the 1979 revolution against the Shah, was one that had immense popular support, and hence helped introduce a huge variety of popular reforms that made a real difference to the lives of ordinary people in Iran.
Again, contrary to the view that today's Iran is a conservative country dominated by those who would restrict women to wear full body coverings and stone those who commit adultery, she shows an Iran were there are competing political and ideological forces, many of whom are lead by women and trying to resist the further strengthening of conservative forces.
But in terms of the forces shaping modern Iran, the biggest factors are external - the existence of Israel and its continued assault on the Palestinians and the US's imperialist ventures in the region. This has a historical importance because the 1979 revolution against the Shah was as much against his role in supporting Israel and backing Western interests as against his internal repression. The support for the regime post 1979 hence also stems from the perception of it as anti-Imperialist and anti-Zionist.
This causes problems for those inside Iran who want to change the country. The pro-democracy movement that burst onto the streets of Iran in 2009 following the election there, is often viewed with suspicion because of the Wests support for it. Even though those involved are very clear that they reject the vision the West (particularly the US) has for the Middle East, the actions of the US etc in the Middle East have the effect of strengthening the conservative position in Iran. The real threat of US attack leads to a strengthening of the existing government.
Rostami-Povey is particularly strong on two aspects of the history of Iran and the region - firstly the role of women in the various anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and pro-democracy movements that exist today and have existed in the past. This is essential because often we are presented an image that all Islamists are against women's participation in society, and this is clearly untrue even in Iran.
She is also very strong when she writes about how other forces in the Middle East are influenced by Iran's anti-imperialism and its political support, but don't necessarily follow its line or instructions. Most importantly the role of Hezbollah and Hamas in resisting Israel in Lebanon and Palestine. Both these movements enjoy Iran's support, but economically they are far more dependent on international and local donations from those impressed by their ability to stand up to the Zionists and to provide the basic needs for the people whose lives have been destroyed by war and imperialism. Rostami-Povey is particularly impressive when she traces the way in which Hezbollah for instance has be so central to providing basic healthcare and food, that it receives the support of people (rich and poor) from across the religious spectrum, including substantial numbers of non-Muslims.
Rostami-Povey is firmly on the side of those who want to see more democracy, more rights for women, more involvement of minorities and less sectarianism. She shows how the simple demonisation of Iran will make this worse, as in the past when the destruction of secular, nationalist and leftist movements by the US helped to create the Taliban and Al-Qqaeda. In her conclusion she says
"The impact of sending more ships and missiles to the Persian Gulf by Obama has been negative for the democracy movement in Iran, as the conservatives within the regime have used the pressure from outside as an additional protect to clamp down even more fiercly. In this context, history is repeating itself: the West in the past destroyed the secular and nationalist movements that were fighting for democracy and independence in Iran and the wider region; now they are destroying the Islamist modernists through the constant threat of military intervention."
The wider support for Iran across the Middle East comes because it is seen precisely as a country that has stood up to the US and western intervention. Iran's own history shows however, that the ordinary people of the wider Middle East are the force best positioned to overthrow dictators and right-wing leaders. Rostami-Povey also shows how these people want solutions that mean those from different cultures, religions and communities can live together. To do this means changing the power relations in the Middle East and that means uniting against oppression and foreign intervention.
For those wanting to get a good understanding of the current situation in the Middle East, this is an essential read. Sadly the price of £18.99 for a 264 page book (including references and index) will put many off. I hope that should it get republished, the publishers will consider that such high prices limit readership.
Marshall - Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Iran
Rose - The Myths of Zionism
A useful short introduction to the current political situation in Iran can be found in this article here.