Understanding the Iranians; Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience in Iran, by Barry Rubin. New York: Oxford University Press. $17.50; Garden of the Brave in War, by Terence O'Donnell. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields.

For those seeking a better understanding of Iran -- its relations with the United States, the hostage crisis, and even the feelings behind its war with Iraq -- Barry Rubin's "Paved with Good Intentions" provides an excellent, readable starting point.

In 335 pages, Rubin, a fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, traces the history of US-Iranian relations from 1829, when the first American missionaries arrived in Persia, through the unsuccessful attempt last April to rescue the US hostages in Tehran.

He makes plain that cooperation between the two nations, however well intentioned, was based on misconceptions: Iranians overestimated Washington's influence on the Shah, and the US overestimated (until too late) the Shah's ability to put through what Washington saw as vital reforms. There were fundamental misconcepts, as well, over Iran's place in Washington's foreign policy.

Of the overthrow of the Shah, Rubin writes: "It is not necessary to ascribe the success of the Iranian revolution to some failure of American foreign policy. . . . Those who assumed that the Shah had been a pillar of strength and that his policies had been relatively seccessful at home found it hard to comprehend the nature of the revolt against him. But, on the contrary, if the Shah's strength had been partly illusory and if his policies had caused discruption and dissatisfaction among Iranians, then the uprising's appeal becomes understandable."

Rubin's well-documented history shows that some of those false images resulted from gaps in America's understanding of Iranian history, culture, and the role of Islam. others were perpetuated by the Shah, who felt that allowing US diplomats to communicate with his opponents was a sign of weakness, still others by US policymakers who censored the unfavorable assessments offered by some of their colleagues.

Until very late in the game the American news media also missed the cues from rank-and-file Iranians, who insisted the Shah's familiar image as a well-intentioned reformer leading his country into the 20th century was false.

In the closing chapters of his book, Rubin gives what he sees as the reasons for the Shah's fall from power, based not merely on recent history, but also on Iran's cultural and religious tradition.

Terence O'Donnell's "Garden of the Brave in War" can be read as an interesting and useful companion to Rubin's history. The O'Donnell book is based on a journal he kept during a 15-year stay in Iran that ended in 1972. The book's title is taken from the name of a small farm on which the author lived for 10 of those years. O'Donnell gives us a warm, humorous, somtimes dark, occasionally licentious look at Iranians he has known. He succeeds in complementing the TV-borne image of Iranians as shouting, gun-toting fanatics by illuminating their professional and family and personal lives.

Based on his experiences, O'Donnell interprets the puritanism and fantacism of the revolution as aberrations in the Iranian character. Iranians, he contends, are voluptuaries, as indicated by their folklore, poetry, traditions, and conversation. They are also given to tolerance and forgiveness. O'Donnell believes these traits ultimately will temper the zeal of the revolution.

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