With Iran under the limelight, this time for its Uranium enrichment Activities , there is renewed interest in a regime that has tried to swim against the tide for more than a quarter of a century.
This renewed attention has inspired an avalanche of articles and books, much of it portraying the Islamic Republic as the newest global public enemy number one.
Dilip Hiro’s “Iran Today” stands out because, sympathetic to the Islamic Republic it does not join the general vilification.
The veteran reporter, who has visited Iran several times since the 1979 revolution, believes that the Islamic Republic has had a bad press, and tires to provide some balance. He portrays the Islamic Republic as a plucky Third World power standing against the American behemoth seeking global hegemony. He brackets the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who led the revolution, together with Ho Chi Minh, Castro and Nasser as stars of the Third World revolt against Imperialism.
Despite its title “Iran Today”, Hiro’s book is more about Iranian history in the past 100 years than the current situation. In fact, the “today” aspect of the story is treated in a 30-page epilogue added as the book was going to the press.
In an age in which everyone does everyone else’s job- note the academics doing punditry on TV and churning out opeds- it would be hard to criticise Hiro for playing historian rather than doing his job of reporting.
Nevertheless, the book’s historical pretensions undermine its reporting credentials.
Because the book is made up of 10 independent essays on different aspects of contemporary Iranian history, the author is obliged to repeat the key events several times. This, in turn, bloats the book into a bigger size than necessary.
In most cases Hiro the amateur historian stands in the way of Hiro the seasoned reporter. Every chapter starts with Hiro, visiting a town, a bazaar, or a shrine and talking to ordinary people. But no sooner has the reader’s appetite is aroused, pops in Hiro the historian to blunt it with a fare of narratives borrowed from others.
When he talks to bazaar merchants, tour guides, taxi drivers, and hotel managers, Hiro is as insightful and informative as any reporter hopes to be.
The big mystery is why he didn’t do more reporting and didn’t talk to more people. One wonders why he did not want to interview any of the protagonists in the Iranian power struggle over the past quarter of a century. For example, why didn’t he talk to Ali Khamenehi, the “Supreme Guide” or Hashemi Rafsanjani, the mullah-cum-businessman, who have been at the centre of Iranian politics since 1979? The answer may well be that Hiro the historian preferred to use published interviews conducted by others.
At times, this reluctance to hear it from the horse’s mouth is even harder to explain.
For example, Hiro is in Qom and a few hundred metres from the home of Ayatollah Hassan San’ei, a pro-feminist cleric. The reader expects Hiro to ring the bell and talk to the ayatollah. But Hiro prefers to continue his walk, later using an American reporter’s interview with San’ei.
Had Hiro used his reporting energies more often and talked to more people he would have heard about Mahmoud Ahamadinezhad, the radical who became President of the Islamic Republic last June. But Ahmadinezhad , never mentioned in the body of the book, makes a cameo appearance only in the epilogue. The main body of the book ends with the prediction that Hassan Rouhani, a junior mullah and businessman, would be Iran’s next president. ( One wonders why that paragraph was not taken out.)
Needless to say Hiro appears to have never heard of such powerful, though semi-clandestine, organisations as the Hojatieh, the Fedayeen Islam, the Itharis , and the Islamic Coalition that have been swept into power in Tehran with Ahmadinezhad as their front-man.
Hiro’s discussion of the nuclear issue is also weak.
He accepts the official Tehran explanation that the Islamic Republic is not after nuclear weapons. But can anyone be that sure?
Another surprise is that Hiro appears not to have heard of any of the leading dissidents- people like Akbar Ganji and Hashem Aghjari, who are household names in Iran and well known in international media and human rights circles.
“ Iran Today” suffers from the recent general decline in editing standards in Britain. A more rigourous reading would have trimmed the book into a smoother read by taking out some of the repetitions. Better copy-editing would have spotted such phrases as “Banisadr flew to Paris incommunicado”, rather than incognito.
More serious fact-checking might have saved the book from literally dozens of errors in names, dates, and events. Some of these are due to the fact that Hiro, a native of India, does not master Persian, the lingua franca in Iran, and must depend on interpreters, always a risky business for journalists. But other errors are the result of inattention and haste.
For example, the 25th centenary celebration of the Persian Empire was not meant as a party for the Shah’s 50th birthday. At the time the Shah was already in his 53rd year.
The Twelfth Imam’s “grand occultation” occurred in 940, not 873.
Khorramshahr labeled “ a leading oil city” never produced a drop of oil.
Rasht, capital of the Gilan province, is an inland urban centre, not “a port on the Caspian Sea.”
Dezful is not “a city built along the Karun River” but, as its name indicates, is located on the River Dez.
Saqqez is not a village in northern Iran but a town in western Iran.
Robert MacFarlane was not National Security Advisor when he led a secret mission in Tehran. And he did not talk to “low level officials” but had as interlocutor Qorban-Ali Dorri Najaf-Abadi who was, at the time, Chairman of the Islamic Majlis’s Foreign Affairs Committee and contact man for Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Islamic Majlis (Parliament).
Iran’s coastline on the Arabian Sea is 11, not 480 kilometres long. Turkmenistan is also Iran’s neighbour in the waters of the Caspian.
Rafsanjani could not have been a major figure in the Mussadeqist movement in 1951; he was only 15 at the time.
Khomeini need not have “ acted against Reza Shah” in 1942; the shah had gone into exile, in September 1941.
The pro-Communist Colonel Nasseri was not in any way involved in the dismissal of Prime Minister Mussadeq in August 1953.
He was subsequently imprisoned along with dozens of other officers sympathetic to the Tudeh (Masses) Party.
The Iran Democrat Party was led by Ahmad Qavam, a cousin but an opponent of Mussadeq, and was not part of the pro-Mussadeq front.
Ahmad Aramesh could not have given Ayatollah Kashani $10,000 on behalf of the CIA in 1953 because he was, at the time, working with Muzzaffar Firuz and other pro-Soviet figures, and would not have been trusted by Americans to deliver cash to anybody.
Shaaban Jaafari, presented as the leader of the assault on Mussadeq’s house on 19 August 1953 was, in fact, in prison at the time, and released by the new government several days later.
In 1993 Rafsanjani was re-elected president of the Islamic Republic with a two-third majority, not a “plurality”.
President Ahamdinezhad’s father was an ironsmith, not a barber.
In 1999 Tehran had 27 seats in the Islamic Majlis, not 15.
The name of the newspaper “Touss” means “Desert Tree” not “peacock”.
Hezbollah was created in 1975 and not after the 1979 revolution.
There is no “Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Qomi”, but there is one called Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi.
US President Jimmy Carter launched his ill-fated operation in April 1980 not to “ re-take the American Embassy in Tehran” but to rescue the US diplomats held hostage by pro-Khomeini radicals at the time.
The claim that Carter was “ the mastermind” behind Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 is simply untrue
Khomeini was certainly not behind the seizure of the US Embassy. The ayatollah learned about the event many hours later, and did not approve it until the following day when he was assured that the US would not take any retaliatory action.
It is unlikely that Ibrahim Yazdi, who briefly served as Foreign Minister after the revolution, was the “contact man” between President Ronald Reagan and Rafsanjani. Yazdi, a naturalised US citizen, was never close enough to Rafsanjani to be assigned such a delicate secret mission.
There are countless other similar errors that a fact-checker might have spotted.
Although sympathetic to the Islamic regime, Hiro shows that support for it has declined. He cites several polls that indicate that up to 70 per cent of Iranians, especially the younger generation, have a favourable view of the United States. He cites one poll that shows that only five per cent of young Iranians watch religious prorgammes on television and only six per cent take any interest in religious literature.
It is with some sadness that Hiro observes that the new generation of Iranians is “contaminated” by such ideas of Western political culture as transparency and accountability. But why “contaminated”? Does Hiro regard transparency and accountability as “pollutants”?
Hiro also claims that the Islamic Republic, if subjected to reform, will go the way of the former USSR and disintegrate.
One merit of Hiro’s book is that does not join the “what-to-do-about-Iran” debate”. Instead, he shows that change in Iran can only come through its internal dynamics, and treating Iran as a mere object of power politics would be a mistake. Despite its many weaknesses, the book deserves attention if only on that score.
Hiro ends the book by warning that “A major crisis is in the making.”