Life Atop a Highly Sought After Piece of Real Estate: 'Iran: A Modern History'
Professor Abbas Amanat shines the light of reason and rationality upon this greatly misunderstood nation.
For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.
Iran: A Modern History
It is the images that follow these momentous events which have reinforced this definition – at least in western eyes – of modern Iran. These are images which are ingrained upon the way in which Iranian identity is perceived across the world, particularly in Europe and the US. These are images of the solemn-faced Ruhollah Khomeini, of burning American flags, of hostage-takings, of public hangings, of bloody clashes with Iraq, of confrontations with Israel, of nuclear ambitions, of oppression. These are images which have become so deeply woven into the fabric of the Iran that we see in our news sources that they have become almost synonymous with the nation itself.
Viewed through this prism, it's easy to cast Iran as 'the Other' on the stage of global geopolitics; as the bogeyman bridging the gap between the unstable Middle East and the booming economies of China and India. In this sense, Iran becomes a bastion of hatred and intolerance towards the West, a land in which no westerner dare tread. This is the false visage of Iran; scary, certainly, but far enough away not to be too scary, as long as the politicians in Washington and London keep that nuclear program at bay.
But shine the lights of reason and rationality onto this façade and it soon begins to crumble. Of the five million tourists who visited Iran in 2016, a little under ten percent were from the USA or Western Europe, and this figure is rising. In a cultural sense, if not in a political one, boundaries are being broken down between Iran and the so-called West. So what is it that draws these intrepid adventurers out from behind the safety curtain and into the 'wilds' of Iran? Perhaps it's the famously friendly and welcoming people, the incredible natural landscape, or a history that stretches back at least four millennium. Or it could be the fascinating and dynamic culture, shaped by the confluence of these three factors; of history, people, and landscape.
This is Iran. This is the country whose modern history Professor Abbas Amanat has set out to tackle in his sprawling work, which takes us from the 16th century Safavid Empire through to the present day. On this journey, Amanat moves through five centuries worth of struggle, success, defeat, secularisation, Islamisation, and the myriad of blessings and curses which come from living atop a highly sought after piece of real estate.
Amanat makes his aims clear from the outset. He's not here to plot the course of the Iranian state through history, nor is he intending to map out Iran's modern development from point A to point B. Instead, the Yale University professor is seeking to explore the circumstances and catalysts which led to Iran's modernization. At some point over the last half a millennium, the modern state of Iran was born; Amanat is not out to identify precisely when this was, but he's keen to illuminate the areas directly adjacent to it.
Navigating a history as rich and diverse – not to mention as violent and desperate – as that of Iran is no easy feat but Amanat succeeds in his task with aplomb. His route down this turbulent course is as thoroughly researched and painstakingly structured as it is fascinating. As a reader with some passing interest in Iran but with little to no academic grounding in the nation's history I found the book's clarity and integrity supremely beneficial to my understanding.
But it's also a personal work, just as no study of recent history can ever fail to be personal. We can try our best to extract ourselves from the unfolding narrative, but as organic beings we are doomed to succumb, at least a little. Amanat may have spent much of his life outside of Iran studying at Oxford in the UK and later accepting the position of Professor of History and International Studies at Yale, but he was born in Tehran and spent his formative years there. He is the son of Mousa Amanat and the brother of Mehrdad Amanat, both of whom have penned histories of their country. Abbas is building upon the political, cultural, and social, but also family and tradition; this cannot help but be a passionate and personal work.
Amanat recognizes this. He pursues his subject matter with academic rigor and care, but also with the zeal and drive of someone who truly cares about what he's doing. The author is a professional at heart; a consummate historian whose work always comes down on the right side of that line, but such a broad and comprehensive work cannot be achieved without conviction, and those who delve into Amanat's work will feel a debt of gratitude to the man and his convictions.
TAmanat's book is an academic work, first and foremost, but it's not an inaccessible one. For the layperson, Amanat's writing works to elucidate and clarify rather than to willfully obscure, and the result is a fascinating examination of a nation thatcontinues to play a pivotal role within world politics.
But the grounds of these world politics, at least in recent years, have shifted once again. Under the current administration, relations between Iran and the USA – which had been steadily building for the last two decades – are taking a downturn. Iran, never fully redeemed in the eyes of the American public, is being re-cast as a new villain for the modern age. The accepted narrative is being written, and Iran and its people are being written into the wrong side of history.
We need works like Amanat's, if only to deliver a little understanding to those who have already made up their minds, who have consumed the imagery and bluster of politicians at face value, those who cannot – or will not – differentiate between the sins of a government and the humanity of a people. A little more of this understanding – a little more ability to think outside of the box – is badly needed in these times.