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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary