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
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
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.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?