The story of America’s relations with Iran needs a reexamination. Why have these two nations nurtured such obsessive antagonism toward each other? Former journalist John Ghazvinian steps into the charged arena with a doorstop of a book that promises to answer the question. But after some brassy assertions in the preface, Ghazvinian’s uneven and often tendentious account only compounds the confusion.

The relationship started well. There was mutual fascination. In “America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present,” Ghazvinian describes some enchanting early encounters. The American Founding Fathers, rum dealers and missionaries were all drawn to Iran. This was not unusual. Wide-eyed Westerners were often intrigued by the Orient and its seemingly mysterious ways. Just as China, with its opulent palaces, porcelain and scholar-gentry, would dominate the landscape of Western imagination, Persia invited its own share of adventurers. The appeal was not only about profits and souls; the Americans also built schools and hospitals. And at the invitation of various Persian kings, American experts like Morgan Shuster and Arthur Millspaugh were dispatched to straighten out Iran’s finances.

In the 19th century, however, Iran had the misfortune of being a pawn in the Great Game as Russia and Britain eyed its oil and warm-water ports. America stood alone, untainted by imperialism, a beacon of hope to many who looked for a counterweight to colonialists rampaging across the globe. As Ghazvinian acknowledges, Iran’s leaders desperately wanted American leverage against their imperial tormentors. To entice Washington, they offered oil and commerce. Despite Iran’s entreaties, the Americans, nestled between two great oceans and comfortable with their isolationist torpor, demurred.

After modest excursions into these early centuries of U.S.-Iran relations, the bulk of “America and Iran” deals with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his clerical successors. And it is here that the book essentially falls apart. Americans, in Ghazvinian’s telling, morph from high-minded idealists to reckless Cold Warriors as the United States plays its own version of the Great Game, manipulating Iran’s politics to its advantage. The author is quick to charge that the United States enabled the shah’s dictatorship. The Cold War needed allies in critical regions of the world, and too many Americans turned a blind eye to the shah’s misdeeds. The fact that most U.S. presidents who encountered the shah urged him to reform his politics and broaden his governing coalition is largely neglected.

Nor was the shah the one-dimensional despot depicted by Ghazvinian. He was a genuine modernizer who built cities, factories and universities and took land away from aristocrats to give to peasants. His undoing came because he refused to grant political rights to the large middle class that he himself created. The author’s account is too much of a caricature to serve as a guide to a complex and contradictory personality.

As the book proceeds, there are curious choices. The momentous 1946 crisis, when the United States helped Iran rebuff Soviet attempts to saw off a large chunk of its territory, merits two pages. No matter how ingenious Iranian statesmen may have been, Joseph Stalin would not have disgorged his gains without President Harry Truman’s muscle. Like so many analysts, the author chooses to skip this significant occasion to make room for a recounting of the 1953 coup that toppled the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Yet once more, an important event is scrubbed of all its complexity and presented in simplistic terms: CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt overthrows a prime minister who had the backing of a nation. Ghazvinian then takes his imprecise understanding of the coup and uses it to sanction the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 that led to the 444-day captivity of American diplomats. “Twenty-five years after a plot launched in the bowels of the U.S. embassy had crushed their national aspirations, it seemed, Iranians desperately needed something like this — a symbolic act that might even the score for the humiliation of 1953.”

One of the more disappointing aspects of “America and Iran” is that it adds next to nothing to our understanding of Iran’s revolution of 1979. This was one of the great populist revolts of the 20th century, and yet all the questions about it are ignored. Why did Iran have a revolution? Was the collapse of the monarchy inevitable? Could the shah have made adjustments to save his throne, and if so, when? How did an exiled cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, come to dominate the revolutionary coalition? Even if the revolution was bound to be an Islamist one, did it have to result in a rigid theocracy? None of these questions are tackled in a meaningful way as the book merely recaps events familiar even to a casual reader.

The Islamic republic that the author describes bears little resemblance to the regime that has been in power for the past four decades. Iran’s clerical rulers are depicted as well-meaning moderates whose sincere and persistent overtures to the United States have been rebuffed by presidents of both political parties. Israel looms large here as a malevolent actor that manipulated the benighted Americans into sharing its hostility toward Iran. And, in the author’s telling, all along the Israelis knew better, for despite their fulminations, their private “assessment of Iran was that it was following a foreign policy surprisingly similar to that of the shah — one based on traditional, pragmatic imperatives of national interest and self-preservation.” Here the ayatollahs’ internationalism seems untouched by Islamist ideology. Iran’s quest for the atomic bomb is explained away as a legitimate search for civilian nuclear energy. Ghazvinian similarly downplays Tehran’s decades-long engagement in and funding of terrorism as nothing more than a cheap accusation by those wishing to prevent a reconciliation between Washington and Tehran. Hezbollah, Iran’s most lethal protege, is, after all, just another liberation movement.

All these claims are familiar shibboleths long bandied about in progressive salons. There is simply nothing new here. Despite boastful claims of archival excavation, the author does not deeply engage the primary source material available in American repositories. On the Iranian side, there is a similar lack of engagement with real sources. This is a pity, as Persian statesmen and the clerical rulers have not lived unexamined lives. Memoirs and oral histories abound. The Islamic republic itself has released many of the shah’s records, including the files of his secret police. A book that is supposed to bridge the gap in our understanding of Iran and America seems incurious about both nations’ official records.

There is a need to better understand the tangled relations between Iran and the United States from their beginnings. Unfortunately, one has to look elsewhere.

America and Iran

A History, 1720 to the Present

By John Ghazvinian


688 pp. $37.50