Scott Peterson's account of Iran, "Let the Swords Encircle Me"

By Hooman Majd
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 4:29 PM


Iran - A Journey Behind the Headlines

By Scott Peterson

Simon & Schuster. 732 pp. $32

Almost every day the pages of our nation's newspapers and magazines offer another tidbit of information on Iran, whether an update on the threat it represents with its nuclear ambitions, or an attempt to unravel the mysteries of its internal political and social dynamics. And every year we are treated to new books on the country, many of which purport to present a behind-the-scenes look, as does Scott Peterson's "Let The Swords Encircle Me," subtitled "Iran — A Journey Behind the Headlines."

As a Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor who regularly traveled to Iran for the past 15 years — and has been afforded great latitude by his editors in his Iran coverage — Peterson brings a depth of experience and knowledge to his writing about the country that few Westerners can match. His meticulously researched book is filled with delectable details obtained from private conversations with "Believers" (as he refers to pious, hard-line regime supporters) and encounters with the overtly secular, lost youth of Tehran.

The awkward title, "Let The Swords Encircle Me," comes from a quote attributed to Imam Hossein, the Shia saint martyred at Karbala in the 7th century - a death that defines Shia existence. Peterson begins with an examination of U.S.-Iranian relations, the history of the antagonism and the author's own experiences trying to untangle the complexity of the love-hate feelings that Iranians seem to harbor toward their nemesis in the West. Like other writers, he points out the similarities between the American and Iranian mindsets and emphasizes the countries' affinity for each other, and his scrupulous reportage raises the question why these two countries can't get along. It was the Shah, after all, who once quipped that Iran was culturally more Western than Eastern and that only by an accident of geography does it belong in the heart of the Middle East. This is to a large extent true and helps explain why the Arabs, even Shia Arabs, revile the Persians as much as, if not more than, they do the Israelis, the other alien culture in their midst, and why the Islamic Revolution in Iran failed to inspire Arabs to rise up against their own dictators.

That last question isn't answered, though, and Peterson doesn't offer much in the way of his own opinion or advice, though he provides quotes from experts who conclude that the hard-liner ideologues in Tehran need the United States as the "Great Satan" to justify their ideology and leadership. But left mostly unsaid is that the hard-liners and, indeed, all the Iranian revolutionaries, including the liberals and reformists today, were hard-liners early on and have always been more interested in achieving the opposite of what the Shah once proclaimed: that he wanted Tehran to become the "Paris of the Middle East." Rather, they preferred that Paris one day might lay claim to being the "Tehran of Europe." Peterson to his credit doesn't diminish the support these revolutionaries have among the population, a mistake made by some other writers, particularly Iranian exiles. He provides plenty of evidence for the lingering adverse effects of not just the now-infamous 1953 CIA-backed coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, but also of the Iran-Iraq war and U.S support of Iran's enemy, which he rightly points out plays a large part in the political consciousness of Iranians of all stripes.

As a historical record of Iranian politics, from the rise of the reformists under Mohammad Khatami to their fall with the election of neo-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the fits and starts in U.S.-Iran relations over the past 15 years, "Let The Swords Encircle Me" is enlightening, but one sometimes wishes that Peterson would tell us what he thinks. For instance, he quotes an Iranian exile who asserts that the hard-liners in Tehran have a worldview "that it is much better to be feared than loved." But this point is contradicted by the author's interviews with the hardliners themselves, and Peterson does not step in to mediate the conflict.

Early in the book Peterson introduces us to a Tehran resident whom he calls "The Sage." He has endless cups of tea in the Sage's apartment and goes back to him often to get a read on virtually any political story. The Sage is seemingly full of wisdom, and it would be hard to dispute some of what he imparts, but Peterson's reliance on him as the all-knowing Iranian "veteran observer" gets tiresome, particularly as we don't know who this individual is. Despite its shortcomings, however, "Let the Swords Encircle Me" does deliver exactly what Peterson promises: a journey behind the headlines.

Hooman Majd is the author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" and "The Ayatollahs' Democracy."

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