A History of Iran
Empire of the Mind
Basic Books, 2016, 384 pages
Book Review published on: June 30, 2017
Michael Axworthy’s A History of Iran was first published in 2008, and the only change to the 2016 edition is an epilogue that covers the period between 2008 and 2015. Axworthy’s thorough account of the development of Iran allows the reader to better understand Iran today.
Axworthy begins his account of Iran’s history by tracing its people back to the earliest recorded tribes in 1000 BCE, and he continues through modern-day Iran in 2015. If you are looking for a short history of Iran, then this is not the book for you. At times, Axworthy’s detailed account seems insignificant and overwhelming; however, by the end of the book, you realize these details were necessary in order to understand present-day Iran.
The significant events in Iranian history are more fully understood when Axworthy presents them in the full context of history. He covers the invasion of the Arab Empire, which had a profound and lasting effect on the people of Iran, in that it brought Islam to Iran. The Empire had a lesser impact on the Iranian people, as the Iranians resisted the integration of the Arab culture. Nonetheless, they embraced Islam, and they eventually split from the Arab Sunni Islam and adopted Shi’a Islam.
The many Persian dynasties that ruled Iran for centuries are thoroughly covered, and Axworthy provides an analysis of the possible impacts these dynasties have had on the development of Iran. The nineteenth century brought the European influence to Iran, with the British, French, and Russians all vying to dominate it. The Europeans used Iran as a pawn in their fight to control their own empires but at the expense of Iran’s development.
The discovery of oil in Iran led to the exploitation of Iran by the British and then the Americans. The shahs became puppets of these foreign governments and their oil companies, with no regard for the people of Iran. The shahs became focused on maintaining control and exploiting the Iranian people in order to sustain their lavish life styles.
Axworthy explains how this exploitation of the Iranian people reached a tipping point with the 1979 revolution by Iranian students. This revolution was ultimately hijacked by the cleric Ayatollah Khomeni, and at its end, a secular government was established, which was controlled by an Islamic cleric council. However, the power of the secular government has diminished over the years as the power of the council of clerics, specifically the supreme leader of the council, has greatly increased.
This book does an excellent job of stressing the importance of understanding the culture and history of a nation in order to understand its current situation. A nation’s actions are rarely the result of a simple decision but are formulated by the culture, history, and religion of that nation. And as Axworthy suggests, despite Iran’s development from 1000 BCE to the present being disrupted by a series of invasions by many different empires, nations, and religions, the Persian people have always managed to survive and retain their unique identity.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Michael Jones, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia