Does Iran deserve a role in the Axis of Evil? To judge by this book, probably not, no matter what the current headlines.
Iran had a shining moment in the 1990s, writes journalist and longtime Tehran resident de Bellaigue (In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, 2005), when a reform movement arose to challenge fundamentalist, theocratic rule. The rebellious titans in this movement quickly shrank away, however: they “turned out to be, if not pygmies, then as frail and as human as their predecessors in Iran’s century-long, unconsummated flirtation with democracy.” The reform movement collapsed, and previously political people stopped talking about politics and became apathetic—a necessary condition for any authoritarian regime. Still, the author observes, small changes are afoot, particularly among Iran’s baby boomers, born well after the Islamic Revolution and not inclined to put up with being swatted for holding hands or punished for listening to rock music. Several of the essays touch on cultural matters, as when he takes issue with Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi’s rosy view of the possibilities for reform today. Elsewhere he examines the complex politics of the region, considering the many and perhaps good reasons Iran has for wanting to join the nuclear club; the state’s various nuclear programs “have become central to the Islamic Republic’s wider ambition in foreign affairs,” which may well include expanding its influence into neighboring, unstable Iraq and Afghanistan, if only to harass Americans on the ground sufficiently to keep them from threatening Iran directly. George Bush’s militant attitude toward Iran, de Bellaigue concludes, gives Iran’s leaders plenty of reason to believe that the U.S. is trying to topple their regime—and, in a vicious circle, “one of the ways they reacted was by intensifying their assault on liberalizing, reformist Iranians.”
In other words, the line is hard because we have hardened it. A provocative view of a defiant nation and its foes.