Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad by William R. Polk (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) Reviewed by Farideh Farhi

Written by admin on March 15th, 2010

I must admit that I began reading William R. Polk’s book on Iran with quite a bit of skepticism. The rather immodest ‘everything you need to know’ subtitle, claiming both historical depth and breadth, made this short book suspect. But this is a book that should not be missed by those who would like to read a short, accessible, and well-written précis of Iranian history, political culture, and paranoia and fear-inducing historical memories and how this history has framed how Iran understands its relations with the United States.

Polk has been both an academic and a policymaker and while a good deal of the book covers Iran’s ancient and early-modern history – in a lively and enjoyable way that highlights key moments and the impact they have had on Iran’s historical consciousness and mental torments – he comes into his element when talking about events in the twentieth century.

By the end it is clear that the intent of highlighting Iran’s tormented history is to contribute to the thriving ‘what to do with Iran’ industry that exists in Washington.

What makes Understanding Iran decidedly different from other works, however, is Polk’s attempt to “appreciate” the influences, fears, and motivations which “in sum define Iranians.” The result is an argument that challenges the common perception about Iran as political or militarily expansionist state. It also rejects the religious aggressiveness of the Iranian state, pointing that Shi’a Islam is eschatological and not messianic.

Most importantly, the Islamic Iran Polk presents is not a caricature or a country led and shaped by a few deranged men intent on challenging the United States’ good will for no reason but spite.

Polk’s narrative makes it clear that one cannot adopt such a faulty approach toward a political system that arose out of a genuinely popular revolution and was a world historical event that changed the Middle East, even if the ensuing system ended up being a major disappointment to many of its participants.

Polk also reminds his readers that threatening, bullying, and containing Islamic Iran has been the norm in US policy for the past three decades. These policies have added to the older bitter memories of British, Russian and American machinations, invasions, and dominance. Despite it all, Islamic Iran has survived but it has done so with a chip on its shoulders and pursues policies that, given what it has faced, are merely rational for its preservation and security.

These policies include the imposition of stern ideological and security controls to make espionage impossible, creation of a capacity for guerrilla war that could survive an American and Israeli attack, cultivation of non-Western friends and allies, and attempted acquisition of the “ultimate defense.”  Polk is quite clear that he considers it both “ahistorical and illogical for Iran not to be acquiring at least the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon.”

Accordingly, the solution to the “Iran problem” for Polk essentially lies in giving Iran sufficient security guarantees. The US must renounce its assertion of the right to attack Iran preemptively and it should take steps to create a nuclear-free Middle East.

Polk’s points are of course well-taken. There is no doubt that US policies, by threatening Iran and by ratcheting up the sanctions noose, have led to a more security-conscious Iran. Instead of pushing Iran in the direction of compromise or giving in to external demands, these policies have created a hardened and securitized country. Different US policies should lead to different results.

But the reality is that external pressures are only one part – albeit a big part – of Iran’s story in the past 30 years. The other part of Iran’s story is its highly contested political environment that has made relations with the United States political football inside the country.

By mostly focusing on the “interests” of the Iranian state vis-à-vis the United States, Polk somewhat shortchanges the impact of domestic politics on Iran’s foreign policy and in the process assumes that drastic change of policy in the United States – no matter how unlikely that may be – will be reciprocated soon enough.

This is while in Iran, like in the United States, 30 years of animosity has created stakeholders who have a stake in maintaining the animosity for the sake of political power. While it is true that the imposition of stern ideological an security control is one way of making externally-inspired espionage impossible, it is also a path for certain forces insides Iran to maintain political power. At this point, it is not clear if these forces merely find American policies a threat or the whole idea of relations with the United States is something they reject.

After the June 12 election and the ensuing crackdown, it is also not clear if reconciliation with the United States is possible without some sort of reconciliation among key players and forces in Iran who are now openly in war.

Polk’s book went into print before the Obama Administration’s decision to engage with Iran, which as of now is in tatters after only one short meeting among the principals in Geneva, with Tehran turning even more defiant and distrustful of American intentions and the Obama administration talking about options that can be considered neither effective nor not dangerous. In short, yet another attempted encounter between the US and Iran intended to build confidence led to more mistrust on the part of both sides.

The Obama administration’s mantra of change regarding Iran appears more and more like the Bush administration policies of threatening Iran with sanctions or worse.  Conversely, the chronic chaos of Iran’s domestic politics reinforces for many American policymakers what seems to be Iran’s perfidy and brutality.  Still, Polk’s basic point remains valid that the solving of the “Iran Problem” cannot come about without patience and understanding Iran and its fears.

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Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua (University of Illinois Press) and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and was most recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.

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