By John Ghazvinian, Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, hardcover, 667 pp. MEB $35
Reviewed by Dale Sprusansky
“It’s complicated” is the refrain often used by the media and casual observers to eschew an honest review of the root causes of the Israel-Palestine “conflict.” When it comes to Iran, however, “it’s complicated” is rarely uttered by the same individuals. Rather, simplistic narratives are often uncritically regurgitated ad nauseam. We’ve all heard them: Iran is ruled by “radical mullahs” who possess a dangerous nuclear weapons program and regularly lead chants of “Death to America”; The ayatollahs held Americans hostage in 1979 and continue to arrest U.S. citizens to this day; Iran is the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and its malign activities cripple the hopes of peace from Yemen to Gaza. Khomeini—or is it Khamenei?—it doesn’t matter, they’re all bad.
In this midst of these simplistic and antagonistic narratives, historian John Ghazvinian’s America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present provides a necessary dose of perspective. Right from the get-go, Ghazvinian makes his intent in writing the book explicit: to show that the U.S.-Iran relationship doesn’t have to be acrimonious. To be clear, he is no naïve idealist, nor does he seek to solely pin blame for the current state of affairs on the U.S. or Iran. Rather, through his reputable scholarly work, he hopes his readers digest more than random historical facts and anecdotes and come to see how the twists and turns of history show there is no etched-in-stone rule that the U.S. and Iran must be enemies.
As one would expect, Ghazvinian devotes due time to the two years most etched in the brains of leaders in Tehran and Washington: 1953 and 1979. He pinpoints the 1953 U.S.-British overthrow of the Iranian prime minister and the 1979 hostage crisis as the “original sins” of the U.S.-Iran relationship, sins both sides have allowed to fester. His book, however, seeks to place these events within the broader history of the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Doing so, Ghazvinian believes, shows the U.S. and Iran have “far more in common than either cares to admit.”
In the book’s opening pages, Americans may be surprised to learn that their founding fathers admired Persia, seeing the long-enduring empire as a potential model for the burgeoning United States. Even before the revolutionary era, colonial Americans were enamored with Persia. Many held favorable Biblical associations, viewing Persia as the land of the Magi and Cyrus the Great. Perhaps more importantly, Persia was seen as a bulwark against Ottoman aggression, and thus viewed favorably by American settlers who saw the Ottoman Empire as an existential threat to Christendom.
In an about-face from what we’ve come to expect today, upstart colonial newspapers grew their readership by publishing articles that cheered on Persia as it endured a revolt launched by an Afghan rebel (who was suspected of being backed by the Ottomans). “The American media in the 1720s were uniformly, passionately and unapologetically pro-Iranian,” Ghazvinian notes. Throughout the later portion of the book, he details how today’s U.S. media is also one-sided, regurgitating anti-Iran talking points, even when they “[bear] absolutely no relation to reality.”
Despite this early American fascination with Persia, it wasn’t until the 19th century that Persia began to take an interest in the U.S. Squeezed on all sides by insatiable British and Russian imperialistic forces, Persia reached out to the U.S., hoping the international community’s rising power would intervene to help the empire defend its sovereignty. In yet another 180-degree turn from today, the U.S. was uninterested in being coaxed into such a foreign entanglement.
While America’s isolationist response disappointed Persia, readers can see how it was this very U.S. policy that made the country endearing in the first place. Persians, Ghazvinian notes, admired the U.S. because it “minded its own business and seemed to respect the sovereignty and dignity of powerless nations.”
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the U.S. began formal relations with Persia, opening what Ghazvinian describes as an “amateurish” diplomatic mission. In fact, the U.S. didn’t end its “aloof neutrality” toward Iran until the 1940s, when it sent its first official ambassador to the country. As we know, it didn’t take long for things to go very awry.
Fast-forwarding to today’s standoff, Ghazvinian does a masterful job of outlining how U.S. policy toward Iran has been deeply influenced by Israel and its lobby. He notes that in response to the prospect of Arab-Israeli peace offered by the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel needed a “new radical ‘threat’ to position itself against” in order to guarantee continued American support. Iran “was an obvious choice.”
From that point on, Ghazvinian chronicles how Israel lobby pressure led to the “dual containment” strategy, a never-ending series of sanctions that not even the oil lobby could veto, and hysteria over the Iranian nuclear program, even though Israel’s leaders believe Tehran has no interest in pursuing—let alone using—a nuclear weapon. The constant Israeli haranguing about Iran serves one purpose, Ghazvinian concludes: “To prevent a thawing of relations between Iran and the United States” so as to preserve Israel’s U.S.-supported supremacy in the region.
Ghazvinian’s masterful historical account achieves his goal of offering readers a holistic understanding of the U.S.-Iran relationship. The twists and turns over the centuries—many of them ironic in light of modern realities—reveal how quickly history can change and solidify his argument that today’s forced acrimony ought to be rethought.
Americans and Iranians who want to know how we got to where we are today and why we ought to pivot in a new direction would be well-advised to pick up this book. While the book is lengthy, the writing is clear, digestible and approachable to all readers. Ghazvinian delivers a piece of work that is as enjoyable and easy to read as it is essential to consume.
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