Beneath the Lies

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Review of 'Iran Today', Dilip Hiro, Politico's £9.99

For those of us who are terrified by the prospect of a new war that would turn Iran into another Iraq, this book is a refreshing antidote to the simplistic view of Iranian politics and society pictured in the mainstream.

Dilip Hiro, who has written extensively on the Middle East and frequently travels to Iran, gives an easy to read account of Iran's history which helps us to understand the current crisis.

It includes the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) that gave birth to the parliament (Majlis); the reign of Reza Shah before the Second World War; the CIA and MI6 coup of 1953 which toppled Mossadeq, the democratically elected leader who dared to nationalise oil; the brutal, US supported, rule of Mohamed Reza Shah; the 1979 revolution; and the bloody Iran-Iraq war, in which the US frequently sided with Saddam Hussein.

Hiro shows that the desire of ordinary Iranians for democracy, social justice and independence has repeatedly brought them into conflict with great powers - mainly Britain before the Second World War and the US thereafter.

But the historical focus has a downside. Firstly, the book doesn't entirely live up to its title. In most chapters, the current face of Iranian politics and society only emerges sporadically. Secondly, because Hiro has written the book in ten independent chapters, he ends up repeating some issues several times.

However, this doesn't mean Hiro is quiet about current issues. The epilogue documents very well the "nuclear crisis" and the election of Ahmadinejad in July 2005.

Also the chapter on youth and women is very useful. It points to the paradox of official politics which discriminate against women and the important role women have come to play in the economy and in the movements that challenge the political system.

Hiro's account of Iran's domestic politics shows how simplistic it is to call Iran a "totalitarian state" as Condoleezza Rice has done. The factional fights inside the regime, the debates about the role of religion, women's rights, democracy and other issues show the picture is much more complex.

The resistance of workers, women and students has challenged the political elite and opened up these fissures in the system. The reason for this complexity lies in the nature of the 1979 revolution. Although the revolution was led by the new and traditional middle class, the mass of urban poor and workers participated actively.

The political system that emerged combines institutions like the parliament and the presidency, with other institutions like the Religious Leadership and the Guardian Council, both controlled by the conservative clergy which serve to limit parliament's power. The same contradiction is built into the social and economic system.

While some in the regime have done everything to serve the interests of the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie, others are afraid of clashing with workers on issues like growing inequality, poverty and privatisation. These contradictions have fed into popular resistance and factional fights.

Hiro shows that popular movements in Iran have repeatedly challenged the political and social order - and on each occasion they have had to confront the great powers. Bush and Blair had better not underestimate how much this experience has shaped the politics of those who once again are fighting for change.