In 1979, I was an 11-year-old boy living in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I attended the local Catholic school, where my father was involved at the parish and diocesan levels and my aunt was an Ursuline nun. Priests, nuns and even a bishop made their way to our dinner table. The religious life and those who lived it deserved our respect, and their authority was rarely questioned.
When the Iranian revolution broke out and its leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appeared on American television, I remember asking my father about him. He told me he was like a priest, a cleric in the Islamic tradition. I vaguely understood the respect Khomeini seemed to be getting, as he spoke with authority gained from living an austere and upright life. As events unfolded in Iran, especially the taking of American hostages, though, I was puzzled. How could someone who was like a priest become an enemy of the United States? Why would such a person say that the United States was the “Great Satan”?
Those questions were among the factors that propelled me to study international affairs and the politics of the Middle East. Understanding one’s context matters a great deal when writing about the Middle East, for it is a region that shapes so much of our political, cultural and religious imaginations.
James Buchan’s new book, Days of God: the Revolution in Iran and its Consequences, has its own context, one that begins with him going to Iran in 1974 after studying Persian at Oxford. As the promotional blurbs surrounding the book also indicate, he has been a journalist for the Financial Times and has written non-fiction works on money, Edinburgh and Adam Smith. He is also an accomplished novelist, including one about a man who came to Iran in the 1970s, stayed because he married an Iranian woman, but then went on to suffer under the excesses of the revolution.
This background makes for a good read, one filled with anecdotes and interesting asides about Iranian history, politics and personalities. As a journalist and novelist, he has an eye for detail and has some basis in history (though is selective in his use of it). The book begins with some pre-20th century background, then moves on to more detail about the reign of the Pahlavis, Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah. The author’s focus on individual personalities gives color and background to the rulers who sought to “modernize” Iran, though they did it through coercive and brutal tactics.
When it comes to the revolution itself, Buchan is at his best. Describing how the regime of the Shah tried to undermine Khomeini by printing a newspaper article saying he spent time in India and was influenced by the British, Buchan reinforces Aristotle’s point (as a good Oxford graduate, Buchan makes the reference to Aristotle) that trivial episodes can lead to revolutionary outcomes . Trying to undermine Khomeini’s authority as a source of Islamic learning and a national symbol of resistance, the article backfired, leading to protests and the collapse of the government.
The book nicely conveys the complicated politics of a revolution. On Aug. 19, 1978, the Rex Cinema in Abadan caught on fire, and in the resulting blaze over 400 people died. The fire crippled the Shah’s government; and the Shah fled into exile, underwent surgery in the U.S. and eventually found asylum in Egypt. This led to Khomeini’s triumphant return in February 1979. Khomeini and other opposition figures blamed the regime for the fire, but it eventually came out that the culprits were revolutionaries inspired by Khomeini, who had long argued that cinemas were an affront to Islamic decency and Iranian nationalism (though there is no evidence that Khomeini knew anything about this episode). At his trial in post-revolutionary Iran, the main arsonist, Hosain Takbalizadeh, confessed to his crime even as the judge tried to blame it on the “Pahlavis and their Israeli and American overlords.” He was executed by the revolutionary government, a reminder that “revolutions devour their young,” the famous adage about the French Revolution, which this trial and others that followed most certainly demonstrate.
Buchan fails to deliver on the book’s subtitle, though, as there is less about the consequences of the revolution. It describes the horrors and politics of the Iran-Iraq war, which shook the new political system to its very core. Its narrative ends with Khomeini’s death, followed by some brief reflections on the politics that followed. There is little about the current supreme leader, Ali Khamani, who has been the sole figure to follow Khomeini in this central position within Iran’s political order. The book also says little about the politics of the different presidents who have taken Iran through its turbulent recent years, or the surrounding politics of its parliament. Indeed, these institutional heritages of the revolution deserve more treatment in a study of the consequences of the revolution, especially because so much Western scholarship on Iran often papers over the complexities of its internal political dynamics.
Buchan also cannot escape his own context as a British, Oxford-educated observer of the “Orient.” In the preface, he notes that he quit his job at the Iranian military college because he was asked to give a bribe to the clerk who paid his salary. Admittedly, he was a 19 year old student at the time, but the episode echoes a British colonial attitude, where abiding by bureaucratic rules is more important than appreciating the wider social and economic context in which bribery may be better understood as part of daily economic transactions. As anyone who has spent time in the Middle East knows, many of our basic cultural assumptions about daily life do not translate very well. When I lived in Cairo, I had to give a bribe to the Egyptian clerk for my son’s birth certificate.
Other asides are just as problematic. Buchan writes, for instance, “As in Russia and Southern Italy, the Iranian criminal class is devoted to religion.” Not only is this an unsubstantiated statement, it also creates a subtle link in the reader’s mind between the clerical regime and criminality, to say nothing of its assumptions about Catholicism in Italy or Orthodoxy in Russia. We can certainly be critical of Iran’s political system for its violations of human rights and its disruptive policies in the wider Middle East, but simplistic and unfounded statements like these are not the way to do this. Writers like the historian Ali Ansari and the political scientist Said Arjomand provide much more nuanced and informed critical perspectives without falling into stereotypical descriptions of Iran.
Zhou Enlai, the Chinese communist leader, famously said in the 1970s that it was “too early to tell” if the French Revolution has had an impact on the world. Iran’s political system will continue to evolve, and its revolutionary heritage will be part of that evolution. Buchan gives us some help in understanding the revolutionary moment, but less help in understanding its consequences. This book is a start, but it is certainly not the last (or best) on the subject.