Insights into Iran can be gleaned from these masterly works, says Middle East expert Michael Ledeen
Wall Street Journal
October 6, 2007; Page W8
1. The Strangling of Persia
By W. Morgan Shuster
Iranians tend to believe that their destinies are shaped by powerful forces beyond their reach — and it’s not just a collective fantasy. In the early 20th century, control over Persia was brutally exercised by Russia and Britain. Desperate Persian rulers of the time turned to the U.S. to find an expert who could sort out the kingdom’s ransacked treasury. The man they chose, W. Morgan Shuster, fell in love with Iran and worked feverishly to introduce virtuous financial practices. He never had a chance; the Russians and Brits sent him packing. “The Strangling of Persia” is a remarkable account of life in a failed, corrupt state and a tale of heartbreak for an American who foolishly believes that he can prevail by force of will and hard work. Lessons for strategists abound.
When Reuel Marc Gerecht worked for the CIA as a Middle Eastern specialist (1985-94), the agency would not allow him to venture into Iran. But when he left the CIA to become a scholar (he is a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute), he decided to sneak into the country by hiring a driver and hiding in a padded box on the floor of a truck. In “Know Thine Enemy,” written under the pen name Edward Shirley, Mr. Gerecht describes the trip and what he found. “An Iranian can scream ‘Death to America!’ one moment and ask you sincerely a minute later to help his sister get a visa to the States, a land they both adore,” he writes. “Those feelings are not contradictory; they are sequential. Commitments come and go, then return.” Given Iranians’ similar love-hate feelings about the mullahs who rule them and the West’s decadence, he asks: “How do you know when Iranians aren’t lying to themselves?” Mr. Gerecht doesn’t know. How could he? They themselves don’t.
3. The Adventures of Haji Baba of Ispahan
By James Morier
James Morier, a British diplomat in Persia in the early 19th century, published “The Adventures of Haji Baba of Ispahan” to great success in 1824. Morier’s tale, about a barber’s son who seeks his fortune, is a delightful series of encounters that cut to the heart of Iranian society. We see the Chief Executioner explaining to Haji: “Do not suppose that the salary which the Shah gives his servants is a matter of much consideration with them: no, the value of their places depends upon the range of extortion which circumstances may afford, and upon their ingenuity in taking advantage of it.” The culture of corruption is little changed in contemporary Iran. And the religious fanaticism that Morier tweaked also echoes down the years: A character named Nadan who wants to become Tehran’s religious leader, Morier writes, has no peer “either as a zealous practiser of the ordinances of his religion, or a persecutor of those who might be its enemies.”
Kenneth M. Pollack spent years at the CIA, then migrated to the National Security Council during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Like every other government official who has tried to normalize relations between Iran and the U.S., he came to grief. And like most such failed dreamers, he continued to believe that there must be a way. His odyssey is the best account we have of recent Iranian history and U.S.-Iranian relations. “The Persian Puzzle” is remarkably candid about the illusions and failures of the men and women for whom Mr. Pollack worked — people he often admired.
5. Prisoner of Tehran
By Marina Nemat
Free Press, 2007
Marina Nemat was arrested at age 16 in 1982 and held in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison for more than two years, accused of antiregime activity. She was not an activist but a friend of leftists and a Christian. In prison, she was interrogated and tortured, then sentenced to death. But a guard named Ali had fallen in love with her and saved her from execution. She remained in prison, though, and Ali became her husband — as well as a new source of menace when he forced her to convert to Islam by threatening her family. In “Prisoner of Tehran,” her gripping, elegantly written memoir, Ms. Nemat, who now lives in Canada, reminds us that it is through the details of daily life that the evils of a regime such as the Islamic Republic are best understood.