All foreign correspondents dream of writing the Important Nonfiction Book, the work that explains a critical region at a vital time, in the vein of David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb” or Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” Scott Peterson, Istanbul, Turkey, bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor, makes his attempt at greatness with Let the Swords Encircle Me, a mammoth book about contemporary Iran that is the product of more than 30 visits to the country over a 15-year span.
Previously the Monitor’s Middle East correspondent and its Moscow bureau chief, Peterson aims here to give readers a comprehensive understanding of Iran, mixing original reportage with history to attempt an overall understanding of the country’s complexities. The book has separate chapters recounting the history of US-Iranian relations, President Mohammad Khatami’s rise and fall, last year’s inspiring Green Movement for democracy, and the coalition of hard-liners that includes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The most original chapters focus on the cult surrounding the 300,000 martyrs who died during the bloody Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, providing the kind of insight into a part of Iran that rarely emerges in even the most detailed accounts.
“Let the Swords Encircle Me” comes at a critical point, when the debate in the United States about bombing Iran is fueling up. The current issue of The Atlantic has a cover story saying that Israel is readying to bomb Iran, implicitly normalizing the idea of a strike on the 2,500-year-old Persian nation.
Knowing the stakes, Peterson takes his job as field guide seriously, and confronts the controversial question. “[W]hile many Iranians despise rule by men in turbans, I have learned that few would accept any outsiders toying with that rule on their behalf,” he writes. It’s a point that is made persuasively and repeatedly, and is explained thoroughly; Iranians have a long history of outsiders determining their fates, from the British Empire to the US supplying Iraq during the 1980s war. They would not respond to an attack kindly.
Peterson is also at pains to point out that Iran is far from the unanimously orthodox nation Americans might imagine from the statements of Ahmadinejad and the late Ayatollah Khomeini. After reading this book, nobody will think Iran is simple, or monolithic, or united on anything but opposition to foreign intervention. In the scale of their division, and in many other respects, Iranians are like Americans, Peterson writes.
Reading “Let the Swords Encircle Me” is like taking a seminar on modern Iran with a patient guide who knows and loves both Iran and the US, and wants only for them to reconcile. The book’s deep understanding of the nuances and many shades of Iran are valuable.
Unfortunately, however, Peterson takes on a bit too much. He writes that he “aims to challenge the reader’s perception of Iran by providing a revealing and realistic understanding of the Islamic Republic and the voices of its people.”
Noble though this aim may be, it is overly ambitious. “Let the Swords Encircle Me” assumes that readers are ignorant of Iran. But few nations dominate US news coverage as Iran does, and any citizen interested enough to pick up a 750-page tome on the subject will likely have at least a basic understanding that the youth-oriented Green Movement represents Iran as much as the ignorant Ahmadinejad does.
With the important exceptions of the chapters on the martyrs, there is just not enough here that cannot be found, with greater efficiency, in the recent books of Hooman Majd, Afshin Molavi, Azadeh Moaveni, and Afsaneh Moqadam.
If “Let the Swords Encircle Me” is too long, however, it cannot be faulted for much else. Like a Shakespeare play, everyone is given a time to speak and fair context for their feelings. If the hard-liners come out looking bad, it is only because most readers will instinctively sympathize with those fighting for democracy and civil liberties.
The reverence with which the revolutionary Khomeini is held, even by opposition groups, means that US-led military strikes on Iran would be the only thing that could unite the fractured, troubled Persian country.
Any readers who think otherwise should read Peterson’s book. They will find much to enlighten them.