Book Review by Amir Taheri
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.)