Book Review – Iran: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2014)

Professor Francis Robinson at the Department of History, Royal Holloway University of London turns his attention to Professor Ali Ansari‘s latest book, Iran: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2014).

Iran: A Very Short Introduction
By Ali M. Ansari
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
pp. xx, 120. One map, 11 illustrations.


For nearly four decades Iran has rarely been far from the concerns of leading states, both East and West. Yet knowledge of Iran, both amongst leaders and intellectuals in those states, as well as amongst populations at large, has been limited. One problem has been that since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 people on both sides have travelled less frequently to visit the other. This said, Iranians have usually been most welcoming to visitors from the West. A second problem has been that perceptions of Iran have increasingly been influenced by an international political dialogue that often has owed less to the realities of Iran than to the battles of politicians within their nation-states. This makes this Very Short History which takes us close to the heart of Iran and Iranian-ness most welcome.

Ansari, who is Professor of Iranian history at the University of St Andrews and one of the leading interpreters of Iran in the West, begins by reminding us of the dangers of the substantial cultural baggage which distorts Western understandings of Iran and which is deep-rooted – it goes back to classical Greece. His second, and arguably most important chapter, deals with the role of the Iranian past, mythological and actual, in Iranian history. Iranians, he tells us, see ‘the origins of Iran with the creation of the first man.’ The Shahnameh, the great Book of Kings does not accurately describe the history of Iran but does tell essential truths about what it has meant to be Iranian. Iranian mythology about themselves survived both the Muslim conquest and the engagement with the European Enlightenment. He offers legacies in four distinct areas from the ancient world to modern Iran: (1) the Persian language which through the Arab Muslim conquest became the lingua franca of the eastern Islamic world; (2) a distinct religious tradition build around Zoroastrianism ‘which brought with it ideas about life and the cosmos that would have profound influence on broader religious thought and practices; (3) ‘History – a myth of origin and descent which would help establish Iran as a distinct civilization. All of which contributed to (4), a distinct culture and ethical world view, which enjoined at its heart an unswerving adherence to an idea of justice.’
Ansari goes on to examine Iran’s engagement with Islam, an engagement which has taken up a little over half of the conscience existence of the Iranians. He notes the dominance of the contributions of Iranian scholars to Islamic scholarship in Arabic. He reminds us that Iranians only embraced Shiism, which has become such a distinctive part of their identity, under the Safavid dynasty in the sixteenth century. From this moment organised religion became ‘part of the fabric of the state as it had been under the [pre-Islamic]Sasanians, so too did a clerical class, beholden to the state and servants to that state, emerge in force.’ This is followed by an overview of Iranian history from the seventeenth century, in particular Iran’s engagement with the West. We move from Russo-British competition for influence in Iran, to the ideas of the brilliant Jamaluddin al-Afghani, who travelled everywhere from British India, Istanbul and Cairo through to Paris and London. Then he comes to the two great revolutions of the twentieth century: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which was a product of a century of engagement with Europe and left a legacy of ideas which became part of the fabric of the country; and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and the Islamic Republic it created, which he declares to be ‘children of that revolution’. He enjoys the ambiguities of the Islamic Republic which is at once theocratic and autocratic but also has democratic characteristics manifest in its regular elections and in the ‘eccentric’ and ‘outright rebellious’ nature of its peoples. Ansari reminds us that the revolution was one of the most important of the twentieth century: it was the first time in modern Iranian history that Iran had prised itself free of the influence of outside powers; it represented a rejection of US tutelage which to this day the US has found hard to forgive; and it represents a continuing model of assertion to which Muslims throughout the world have responded.
This book is written in a lively and accessible style. It is full of insights into modern Iran, the most important of which is the continuing impact of Iran’s mythology and long history on the present. It should be required reading for anyone proposing to negotiate with Iranians, whether in politics or business.

Francis Robinson


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