Iran Rising by Amin Saikal

Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic
By Amin Saikal
Princeton University Press, 2019

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Amin Saikal’s The Rise and Fall of the Shah stands as a landmark of dispassionate scholarship, and as its title implies, it had a discreet end-point: the ousting of Shah of Iran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Saikal’s new book Iran Rising is a natural follow-up to that earlier book, bringing the story of the Islamic Republic through the throes of revolution and down to the present day.

Crucial to that whole story, of course, is the fiercely polarizing figure of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shia cleric who’d been an exile during the Shah’s reign and in 1979 became, as Saikal underscores, a figure such as modern-day Iran had never seen:

Never before had a political leader as theologically driven, defiant, and popular as Khomeini burst onto the world scene to lock horns with a superpower like the United States while loudly denouncing another, the USSR … Khomeini’s defiance injected a new catalyst for global political realignment that alarmed regional ruling elites and the United States. The rise of the Ayatollah was to shake the post-Second World War Pax Americana at its foundations in the Middle East - with a dramatic and lasting impact on regional geopolitical dynamics.

Khomeini dies one-third of the way through the book (his tomb is now a pilgrimage site), but his shadow looms over the entire narrative here. Saikal clear objective is to present a distanced and even-handed portrait of what is by any measure a remarkable performance in politics and theocracy; Iran Rising is calm and methodical in its broad-view assessment of such more recent figures as Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose pivotal presidency is given a more searching and intelligent (albeit necessarily abridged) analysis in these pages than it has yet received in English.

But the dead hand of Ayatollah Khomeini set the new Iran on the path of what Saikal refers to as “pro-Islamic foreign policy” (the book’s effort at conceptual neutrality can sometimes, to put it mildly, feel a bit strained), and this in turn has led to what Saikal calls “foreign policy dilemmas and contradictions” resulting in “frequent ideological and realpolitik clashes between Tehran and the United States.” These clashes spring from intensely entrenched differences:

The bilateral relationship - or the lack thereof - between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States has proved extremely volatile, challenging, and costly for both sides over the last forty years. The Islamic Republic has viewed the US as an arrogant, hegemonic power intent on, at best, limiting and, at worst, destroying the Iranian Islamic government. The US, on the other hand, has denounced the Islamic Republic as a repressive theocracy and treated it as a regional menace and a sponsor of international terrorism, and thus a threat to America’s interests in the Middle East and beyond.

That last bit is worrying, of course, particularly since it crops up throughout the book, that one-step-removed distance between Iran being one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism and Iran being “treated as” or “seen as” one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism. The subject can’t be avoided, and there are points in Saikal’s book that feel like avoidance. Iran Rising describes a “very turbulent journey” in an inevitable tandem: Iran’s relations with the United States are never far from center stage, and American readers may find elements of Saikal’s even-handedness a kind of default apologia that’s tough to square with the facts. But the book’s complete lack of the cheap partisan rhetoric that so often infuses this subject will have those same readers thinking deeply and sometimes re-assessing to the last pages.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is