In this lucid, nicely written and well-paced work, Michael Axworthy provides a compelling overview of contemporary Iran and its relations with the outside world. He focuses on events since the Islamic revolution in 1979 but places them in a wider historical context.
The author, a former British diplomat who teaches at Exeter University, avoids the war-mongering terminology that has distorted debate on Iran. He refers to "insurgency" instead of "terrorism", and rather than inanely accusing Iran of "aggression" emphasises it "has not waged serious aggressive war" for three centuries. He accepts the Tehran regime has interfered in post-Saddam Iraq but points out that Saudi nationals have been far more instrumental in undermining the peace, even though Washington has been reluctant to acknowledge the malign role of its key ally.
Axworthy's measured perspective becomes clear in other ways. He does not parrot the oft-made claim that an Iranian bomb will "trigger a nuclear arms race across the Middle East", pointing out Israel's acquisition of the bomb did not prompt any such reaction. And while never denying brutal repression inside Iran, he also emphasises the Western democracies, in which free debate is some- times stifled and manipulated, are barely in a position to lecture others.
Such a perspective is far more persuasive, and interesting, than the neocon line that has dominated the Iran debate. Axworthy continues by making bold, but quite defensible, statements: Iran's rulers "are right to be worried" about deals with the West, because"there are genuine reasons to dislike some of the consequences", including Western imports such as "drug abuse".
When he describes post-Saddam Iraq and discusses allegations of Iranian subversion, it is hard not to see how much moral high ground the US and its allies have lost: we cannot condemn the Iranians for "intervening" in their neighbourhood when we have never had any business there ourselves. However, this book is an overview of Iran. The discursive style will not suit a reader wanting to know more about Iran's relations with the US, or everyday reality of life as an ordinary Iranian.