John Murray, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Days of God, By James Buchan

A gifted historian delivers a riveting account of modern Iran – but why the kid gloves for ayatollahs?

As prospects of military action against Iran loom, former Middle East correspondent and novelist James Buchan dissects events leading to the 1979 Revolution. The ubiquity of the West in Iran's tumultuous history is laid bare. Reza Pahlavi was shoehorned into the throne in 1926 by the expedient British.

Reza's rule was secular, curbing clerical privileges, taxing the public, and introducing Western dress. The British forced his abdication in 1941. His son Mohammed Reza succeeded him. Under both Pahlavis, Iranian revenue rose a thousandfold due to oil, but the "Shah" Mohammed Reza spent billions on arms from Britain and the US.

Mossadeq, the left-wing, secular, pro-democracy prime minister from 1951, was hugely popular and nationalised the oil industry. M Reza relinquished power. Britain had become accustomed to obtaining Iranian oil cheaply, complained to the UN and sent warships to the Gulf. The US and Britain feared Mossadeq's leftism, and returned M Reza via a coup.

M Reza introduced women's rights and land reforms, but the Savak secret police and his prisons killed opponents, real and imaginary. He lavished money on himself: celebration of his reign in Persepolis in 1971 cost $16.6 million. Support for the Shia clergy rose. The cleric Khomeini fomented hatred of the West, and advocated an Islamic state. He returned from exile in 1979, and M Reza defected. M Reza' s "friends" in the West deserted him. The section on the 33 years of the Islamic Republic since the revolution is chilling, stained with the blood of thousands who voiced dissent.

Buchan's prose is excellent, with the vocabulary, range and atmosphere of a literary master, the clout of the sharp historian, and the ability to leaven history with fascinating snippets of intimate information, delightful, droll, or horrifying. His research is thorough, with hundreds of sources. I have a few cavils. Chapoor Bakhtiar, the French Resistance-helping democrat whom M Reza made prime minister as a last resort, and other secular dissenters, are not allocated enough space. Nor is Mossadeq. Bewilderingly, while the failed assassination of Bakhtiar is mentioned, there is no word of his barbaric murder in 1991.

Buchan toes the respectful liberal line towards Islam, labelling as "obnoxious" Reza's orders for veils to be removed from women, his removal of clerical control of charity, and his decision that religious education wasn't mandatory. By contrast, Buchan passes no judgement on the obligatory veiling introduced post-revolution, nor on Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie. He neglects to mention Khomeini's lowering of the age at which girls could legally be "married" to nine. The grotesque rape of females awaiting execution is mentioned, but rape has been widespread against the Greens, the largely middle-class protestors.

The fate of homosexuals in the regime is not touched on, and anti-Semitism is limited to a single paragraph in the epilogue. Barbaric punishments such as stoning for adultery are unexplored.

Buchan wrings out compliments for the religious fundamentalists: Fazlollah Nuri, who ranted against the West and brought in a ruling in 1907 that no law could contradict Islam, is praised as "courageous" and "learned". Such plaudits are not shown to Mossadeq or Bakhtiar. The anti-West, fervently Islamic goals of the assassin Navvab Safavi are described as "an old fashioned vision... [which] for some Iranians still has its charms". It is as if this brilliant, accomplished author is afraid of offending Islam. He also fails to clarify that some of the exultation greeting Khomeini was joy at the fall of autocracy rather than support for clerical leadership.

Still, this is a compelling, beautifully written history of a country which has produced great literature, art, and a warm people whose lives have been manipulated by other countries with ulterior motives and by their own autocratic and theocratic dictators.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments