Iran: Stuck in Transition

  • Published

Iran: Stuck in Transition by Anoushiravan Ehteshami. Routledge, 2017, 296 pp.

In this 2017 monograph in the Contemporary Middle East series, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, a professor at the University of Durham Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, grapples with the challenge of understanding and clarifying the results of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Assessing the nature and progress of the revolution at nearly the 40-year point—with its contradictions, ironies, and ambiguities in terms of, primarily, politics, economics, and foreign
policy—Professor Ehteshami attempts to provide “a better understanding of change in a revolutionary regime” (2). He largely succeeds, if one is willing to allow for a degree of flexibility in what constitutes change—and of which the subtitle’s Stuck is a clear indicator.

The book’s four major chapters each focus on a key area. The first is the forming of the modern Iranian state (from the 1790s) with its Persian-inspired self-identity and pride. The second is the politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), birthed in 1979, and its struggles to lay claim to its uniqueness and consideration as a revolutionary model. The third is Iran’s political economy, which remains highly oil dependent. The fourth chapter’s focus is on the country’s international relations, in which Iran’s nuclear program poses the most prominent—and threatening—element. Perhaps the most important chapter, it highlights the many seemingly irreconcilable elements of Iran’s nuclear program with the nation’s self-perception and traditional values—not to mention its relations with other states, both nuclear and nonnuclear.

In short, while specialists in Iran or the Middle East likely will find a wealth of detail in the chapters on politics and political economy, nonspecialists (such as the reviewer) will probably find the first and last chapters to be more beneficial as they deal with modern state formation and international relations, respectively. To nonspecialists, the compactness and detail of material in the middle chapters can, at times, become burdensome.

The author’s thesis is clear, commonsensical, and convincing. It holds that after nearly four decades, revolutionary Iran appears caught between ideology and pragmatism, revolution and conformity, “globalism and isolationism; pluralism and authoritarianism; [and] exceptionalism and universalism” (28). For instance, with the election of Iran’s fifth president in 1997, Khatami sought to continue Rafsanjani’s efforts to improve relations with the West and “to end revolutionary dogma as a policy instrument” (200). But by the time the presidency transitioned from Khatami to Ahmadinejad—by which time 9/11 had changed the geopolitical landscape—“Tehran had buried dialogue” and returned to “ ‘we will do what we want and there is nothing that anybody can do about it’ ” (218). Perhaps largely as a result of the Iranian president’s nuclear rhetoric and ambitions, the United States’ 2006 National Security Strategy labeled Iran as the nation’s number one threat from a single country (226).

While Ehteshami concentrates on Iran, the book offers insights with respect to neighboring Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, among others. In the 1970s, the high price of oil had enabled the Shah’s Iran to become a significant actor on the world stage for the first time in 150 years. However, things changed quickly when Saudi Arabia refused to implement an Iranian-led OPEC-sponsored price increase at the end of 1976. Ehteshami writes, “Ironically, in trying to control their unruly [and increasingly arrogant] ally whose appetite for petrodollars had become a zero-sum game over the stability of the world economy, the United States had . . . prepared the ground for the collapse of its most ‘trusted’ and reliable regional ally anywhere” (176–78). Thereafter, Saudi Arabia quickly replaced Iran as America’s closest partner in the region, arguably aside from Israel. The episode provided a sobering reminder that perceived stability does not necessarily preclude a state’s rapid demise. Referring to the Iranian presidential elections in the last decade, the author states that “elections . . . do not make the Islamic republic a democracy or a pluralist political system”—a point well worth remembering for US/coalition partners regarding the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (104).            

At times, the book’s readability is hindered by little annoyances such as the overuse of terms like “securitization” or “securitized” or an incorrect phrase (“write him off” rendered as “right him off”) (60). A few statements come off as truisms, such as “revolutionary states are inherently securitized and their fate and survival are intrinsically linked to their behavior in the international (external) realm” (218). Regardless of such minor issues, Ehteshami’s Iran should be read by researchers seeking a better understanding of one of the most significant countries­—one that has managed since 1979 to remain mostly at odds with the United States. Not only specialists in Iran or the Middle East/Southwest Asia will find this book instructive but also military officers, government officials, academics, and private scholars. And in the end, this very useful book might have been entitled, quite accurately, Iran: Stuck in Contradiction.


Forrest L. Marion
Air Force Historical Research Agency

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."