America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present by John Ghazvinian One World, 667pp, £16.99
John Ghazvinian has written a magnificent, bold, wide-reaching and potentially significant book on the thorny subject of Iranian-American relations. A subject that has been covered elsewhere (Barry Rubin’s Paved with Good Intentions, for example), Ghazvinian throws fresh historical light on the original exchanges between Americans and Iranians, and shows us fascinating historical characters, brought vividly to life with pen portraits and amusing anecdotes.
He does all this with the added advantage of having actually travelled to Iran, and of speaking the language. We can see both sides of the story, in full Technicolor, and with all the detail and personal touches required to do such a huge topic justice. It covers empire, oil, excess, religion, nuclear power and present-day geopolitics, and is a history of so much more than the relations between these two nations. The framing of the book into four seasons, ending with winter, is a stroke of genius as it lends to his overall argument a poignant resonance: there are better days ahead.
The book charts the US-Iranian relationship from its positive, hopeful beginning, when the US was looked upon favourably by a succession of beleaguered Iranian monarchs beset by Russian and British imperial interference. In 1765, Harvard started teaching Persian language classes, and American interest in Iran was political as well as cultural: the lives of Xerxes, Darius and Cyrus, their exemplary leadership abilities were seen as models for a new republic. Nineteenth-century Persian monarchs, the Qajars, saw the US as a benign power, capable of partnership with Iran, not colonial exploitation. The US was, for Iran, a beacon of independence, pragmatism and upright moral standing.
Indeed, one of the first martyrs for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906 was an American missionary, Howard Baskerville, “a Lafayette of Tabriz”, as one American paper described him. Ghazvinian takes us through the high 20th-century years of British imperialism, as the US stood up for Iranian rights at the United Nations, and covers the American-Pahlavi alliance, beginning with the CIA-MI6 orchestrated 1953 coup d’état (which toppled a democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq, and placed a young Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne).
Ghazvinian describes well how the US became entranced by the wealth of the Pahlavi oil boom, and the obscene decdence of the 1970s as an increasingly close association with the hated and brutal Pahlavi regime turned sour, culminating in the Islamic Revolution. The post-1979 to Trump era is covered more as a piece of long-form journalism and occasionally lacks the brilliance of his earlier chapters, but nevertheless Ghazvinian tells his story with a lightness of touch and an eye for a catching and pithy sentence: his writing is masterful at points.
The killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ General Qassem Soleimani in December 2019 ends the book on a sombre note, but an epilogue expertly lays out the case for Iranian-US alignment, and puts forward a bold proposal for a Grand Bargain to break the deadlock. Given the depth of entrenched animosity on both sides, however, such a Grand Bargain is unlikely.
Yet despite doing a fine job of deconstructing the self-defeating nature of the US approach to Iran since 1979, Ghazvinian stops short of calling Tehran to account for its regional policy adventurism and occasionally reckless behaviour. Iranian support for proxy groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, groups that killed many hundreds of US and UK service personnel, is not something Ghazvinian covers in detail, and this can appear lopsided in a discussion about US-Iran relations, and the nuclear issue especially. The US, rightly or wrongly, left the 2015 Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) because of Iran’s destabilising regional policies.
This is history as history should be written: accessible, humane, thoughtful, insightful and in places extremely funny. It is wise, too, avoiding the pitfalls of shrill moralising and obtuse theoretical musings that bedevil much writing on Iran. Yet above all, this is a story about the folly of imperial power and the irksome challenges that come with global dominance. Ghazvinian skilfully shows us the limitations of global hegemony, the traps this can pull nations into and the limits it places on the requirement of imperial strategists to use their brains.
The same blockheadedness displayed by the British in 1951, in refusing to come to an agreement with Iran about the extraction of its oil, can be seen in the Trump administration’s belief in its ability to get everything it wants at the drop of a hat. Brute force and arrogance do not work with Iran.
When put like this, Ghazvinian’s stated aim of using history to bring peace doesn’t seem too far-fetched: someone just has to get a copy of this book to the White House, fast.
CPW Gammell’s book The Pearl of Khorasan: A History of Herat is published by C Hurst & Co