A penetrating portrait of daily life in the Ayatollah's Iran

Inside Iran: Life Under Khomeini's Regime, by John Simpson. New York: St. Martin's Press. 256 Pages. $16.95. Senior BBC correspondent John Simpson shuddered through seven hours of a frigid French winter day on Jan. 31, 1979, to cover what journalistic instincts told him would be ``one of the turning points of modern history.'' He wanted to be among those selected to fly to Iran the next day with Ayatollah Khomeini.

For Khomeini, the event marked the end of 14 years in exile and the culmination of the stunning Iranian revolution. For Simpson, the journey launched his fascination with the people and culture of a land that has captivated - and often confused - outsiders dating back to Marco Polo's visit.

What started as a single story has ended up as an immensely readable book or, rather, portrait of the political upheaval and the subsequent eight tumultuous years based on his ongoing study of and travels to the Islamic Republic.

``Inside Iran'' is different from most contemporary works on the country, which focus largely on how the Pahlavi dynasty's Iran was ``lost,'' the errors of US policy, and the early revolutionary excesses, particularly the 1979-81 ordeal of 52 American hostages and links with Middle East terrorism.

Instead, like the early English explorers of Iran between the 17th and 19th centuries whom he quotes extensively to show historical Western views of exotic Persia, Simpson wanders the cities and countryside of what is, once again, one of the world's most isolated societies.

Along the way, ``Inside Iran'' takes readers through an Islamic divorce court and Tehran's southern slums, on tours of Caspian beaches and 11th-century mountain fortresses of the original Assassins sect, and for close-up views of the Iran-Iraq war and of the backroom politicking among the ruling mullahs. Throughout, Simpson has interwoven his conversations with the wide variety of people who make Iran the most diverse of all Gulf societies.

The most comprehensive book yet about daily life under Khomeini's rule, ``Inside Iran'' makes even the mundane, such as a divorce case involving an 18-year marriage and an astute cleric-cum-judge, insightful.

```How much do you earn?' the judge asked [the husband].

```About 3,000 rials a day.' The answer was directed at the floor, and it irritated the judge.

```Those are the wages of a labourer. If you work so cheaply, come to my house and work for me.'''

Simpson then outlines how two assessors, chosen jointly by the couple from their respective families, had worked out details of a settlement that totaled 7,000 rials a day for the wife. Appalled, the husband then appealed for a lump settlement. The judge, almost like a rug merchant, bartered, in effect, on behalf of the wife until a handsome settlement was agreed on.

The vast majority of Iranian divorce cases, as in the West, center on claims of irreconcilable differences. And the rights of women are not automatically ignored.

Throughout his narrative, the author effectively replaces stereotypes formed from afar with first-hand perspective. ``A system of pass laws was introduced in the Soviet Union soon after the revolution there, for instance. But in many ways the revolutionaries in Iran were not dirigiste, at all, except along the lines of the Muslim fundamentalist agenda,'' he writes.

``They did not, for instance, interfere much in economic matters; they did not launch a campaign of birth control; and they did not tell people where to live. There were times when they seemed more like 19th century liberals than like revolutionaries.''

Simpson also makes tangible the fervor of this revolution, so uncomfortable and unfamiliar to outsiders, and of the Iran-Iraq war, now the bloodiest modern Middle East conflict.

On a harrowing trip to Fao peninsula after it was captured in 1986, Simpson, eyes watering from the lingering chemical gas dropped from Iraqi warplanes, encountered exhausted Revolutionary Guards who had swum the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway a few days earlier and forced out the better-armed and better-trained Iraqis.

The commitment that largely accounted for the victory was evident when Simpson met a bus full of gas victims. ``Many of them were unable to open their eyes and were sitting, swaying with the pain and the discomfort.... At last someone who was less badly gassed realized that we were there and began a feeble chant of `Allahu Akbar!' [God is great.] Gradually more and more men took it up, chanting the words slowly and weakly.''

Simpson, a veteran diplomatic and war correspondent, is not, however, an apologist for the Islamic Republic. He probes its many flaws as well as the aspects that have allowed a 20th-century theocracy to survive almost a decade. Both Middle East specialists and ordinary readers should find ``Inside Iran'' one of the best books to date on a complex but vital subject.

Robin Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former Middle East correspondent.

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