Set aside the question of whether Iran is part of an axis of evil. Ask instead: What is Iran?
Iranians, Dabashi (Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature/Columbia Univ.) writes, “have a sense of impermanence about Iran as a nation, a people, a place.” The country is a mix of cultures and religions and geographies, in some ways wholly modern, as with its film industry, while in others drifting toward medievalism. It is also a colonial victim, by Dabashi’s account, of foreign adventurers and plunderers and even today threatened by “a predatory empire” served by the likes of Kenneth Pollack, who, having made a case for invading Iraq, now counsels the same for Iran; and of Azar Nafisi, whose bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran Dabashi seems to consider a near-treasonous document in the service of vampires. Not that Dabashi likes the mullahs or the Pahlavis; it is just, he explains, that he wishes the Iranian people to be conceived as a complex body capable of resisting oppression, whether colonial or internal. Iran served as an important launching point for America’s projection of military power into Asia during the Vietnam era; it is strategically important now, but for ends that are just as wrong, so Dabashi suggests. While making these arguments, he provides illuminating glimpses into episodes that will be familiar at least in part to many nonspecialist readers, such as the constitutional crisis that accompanied the Iran-Contra affair in Tehran as well as Washington. When that crisis came, the Ayatollah Khomeini needed to alter the rules of succession so that a low-ranking cleric could become his successor, and to do this he needed a smoke screen, which is where the fatwa against Salman Rushdie comes in. Today’s leadership, Dabashi closes, flirts with fascism and seeks smoke screens of its own. But, he insists, Iran is a democracy all the same, even if a flawed one.
An eye-opening, if partial, consideration of a nation in need of understanding.