Scholarly portrait of a nation that resists easy categorization—and containment.
Less than a year ago, writes Saikal (Political Science, Arab and Islamic Studies/Australian National Univ.; Weak States, Strong Societies: Power and Authority in the New World Order, 2016, etc.), a wave of popular protests swept across Iran, “calling for an end to theocratic rule and costly involvement in regional conflicts,” among other demands. Because the United States immediately jumped in to denounce the government of the country’s moderate—compared to past leaders, at least—president, Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian leadership convincingly charged that the protests were orchestrated from abroad and did not represent the will of the Iranian people. As a result, the theocracy imposed 40 years ago by the Ayatollah Khomeini lives on in a different guise. In studying the contemporary Iranian regime, Saikal observes that American efforts to contain Iran as a regional power have been met with blowback, not least the effect of pushing Iran ever closer to Russia, relations with which “have expanded to include a strong geostrategic dimension,” which is especially pronounced in Syria today. That nation is a point for the projection of power for both nations—and uncomfortably close to areas where American interest is strong. As the author shows, not all is well within Iran’s borders. Its uneven economic development, despite oil wealth, has been the result of numerous missteps in the last four decades, not least a savage war with Iraq that cost Iran at least 500,000 young people who could have contributed to the economy. It did not help when the Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power and mismanaged the nuclear issue, which brought substantial Western economic sanctions. Saikal notes that Iran’s future is uncertain for internal reasons, some economic and some political, including the lack of a clear plan of succession for the current government, and the Trump administration’s “gunboat diplomacy," which only raises the odds of war.
Useful reading for students of contemporary geopolitics, in which Iran has proven a constant, often destabilizing presence.