THE IRANIAN LABYRINTH

Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies

By Dilip Hiro

Nation. 418 pp. Paperback, $16.95

Dilip Hiro has good reason to call his book The Iranian Labyrinth. Nothing about Iran under the Islamic Republic seems simple. Civic institutions are weak, but intricate webs of personal, professional, religious and political associations create a vibrant civic society. Politics are repressive, but as the June presidential elections showed, politics are also competitive and participatory. Young men and women are harassed by the morals police, yet they mingle, wear the latest fashions, listen to the latest music and party. Political prisoners are mistreated and forced to make abject public confessions, yet some of them get to go home on weekends. America is the Great Satan, but at the Tehran bazaar, a rug merchant proudly shows Hiro a hand-woven Persian carpet that replicates "a giant $100 bill carrying the image of Benjamin Franklin."

Hiro is a journalist who has written for The Washington Post and the New York Times. He has covered Iran extensively and the author of books on the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war; he guides us through Iran's intricacies by focusing on key institutions, leaders and social groups. He gives us chapters on the Tehran bazaar; the oil industry; the clergy; the Majlis, or parliament; women and youth; and profiles of Iran's recent leaders, both royal and clerical. These are logical selections: Though they have been docile for long stretches in recent Iranian history, the bazaar, the Majlis and the clergy have at critical moments emerged as powerful political players. For nearly a century, the oil industry has served Iranians as a principal source of revenue, hope and heartache. The two Pahlavi monarchs, Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah, created modern Iran; and the two supreme leaders of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei (kingly in their own clerical way), have reshaped it considerably. Women, youth and the intelligentsia frustrate attempts to wrap Iran in a social and political straitjacket tailored to a strict interpretation of Islam.

The strongest impression left by Hiro's book (although he does not explicitly articulate it) is that the Islamic Republic remains an unfinished project. Twenty-five years after the overthrow of the monarchy, all the major constitutional, economic and social issues remain contested. The Majlis, as Hiro shows, has remained an arena for competing factions -- advocates of state control and a free market economy, traditionalists and modernists, proponents of popular sovereignty and clerical supremacy. The shrine city of Qom (whose function, Iranians like to say, is to export clerics and import the dead) is home to both Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who believes that opponents of the Islamic order should be executed, deported or have their hands cut off, and Ayatollah Saanei, who believes sovereignty lies with the people. Some clerics assert that the supreme leader, as God's representative on earth, is due unquestioned obedience, even as student activists campaign to circumscribe the leader's powers. Women have won significant freedoms in matters of dress, employment and political participation, but the return of hardliners to power suggests that these gains remain fragile.

Given these complexities, it is little wonder America's encounter with post-revolutionary Iran has proven difficult. Even though diplomatic relations were ruptured 25 years ago, the two nations keep bumping into each other. As Hiro notes, America and Iran swapped arms for hostages during the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s, found themselves on opposite sides during the Iran-Iraq war, cooperated in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban, and now are at loggerheads over Iran's nuclear program and role in Lebanon. Tehran and the Bush administration clearly need to engage more directly; neither seems to have a clue as to how.

This situation cries out for illuminating analysis, but Hiro fails to provide it. The Iranian Labyrinth, though informative, suffers from the author's propensity to pile on tedious detail and fact, whether about the returns in various Iranian elections or Prime Minister Mossadegh's overthrow in 1953. He describes the Iran-Iraq war phase by phase but never pauses to reflect on the scars the war left on the Iranian psyche and its government's foreign policy.

For an account by a journalist with firsthand experience, this is an oddly "bookish" sort of book. True, Hiro interviewed students, intellectuals and bazaar shopkeepers, and visited Qom, Khomeini's home town, the war front and the campus of Tehran University, but he makes the reader far too aware of the books and newspaper files he has consulted. His text lacks the lively immediacy of other recent works by journalists, including Robin Wright, now of The Washington Post, Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times, or Afshin Molavi, a freelance writer. The book is also marred by inaccuracies -- small but numerous. Shirin Ebadi is not the first Muslim to win the Nobel Peace Prize; both Anwar Sadat and Yasser Arafat were awarded it previously. The intellectual journal Kiyan was a monthly, not a weekly. Faezeh Rafsanjani's newspaper was Zan, not Zanan (which is the name of a weekly magazine). Elahe Sharifpour Hicks is a woman, not a man.

Hiro's chapters also seem too discrete: He never pulls together his accounts of various institutions or explains how they relate to one another. Like Joe Friday, the police officer in "Dragnet," who wanted "just the facts, ma'am," Hiro gives us the facts -- lots of them -- but, in the end, does not quite manage to chart a path through the Iranian labyrinth. *

Shaul Bakhash is a professor of history at George Mason University and author of "Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution."