Selected as one of the "Best Books of 2010" by Publishers Weekly: "A veteran reporter on the region brings us the best account we have of Iran—its rich history, artistic legacies, profound internal contradictions—in a copious, balanced, and readable narrative."
"Peterson's style is riveting...
"From sweaty political rallies in dusty provincial mosques, to vast cemeteries dedicated to Iran's war dead, from the tea and macaroons of government offices, to the private thoughts of a necessarily very private people, Peterson brings a living, breathing, all-too human Iran into the reader's hands, and one emerges with a sense of having gained intimate knowledge of, and compassion for, a place too often treated as inscrutable.
"Nothing in these 600 pages is superfluous; all of it is fascinating."
—The Dallas Morning News
"A panoramic page-turner.... Peterson has fashioned recent history into an enthralling saga, infused with suspense and tragedy, and featuring a cast of recurring characters whose unfolding fates offer more than a few surprises....
"The picture of Iran that emerges in the course of Let the Swords Encircle Me is much more complex than that held by most Westerners, but rather than lecturing his readers to this effect, Peterson embeds this truth in the irresistible momentum of his story. As the hard-liners grow ever more oppressive and the 2009 election approaches, you know what's coming, and like a good novelist, Peterson has kept every thread in play....
"There's a Tolstoyan panorama to Let the Swords Encircle Me that's likely to have readers checking the newspaper each day in a fever to find out what happens next."
—Laura Miller, Salon.comAdvance Praise for LET THE SWORDS ENCIRCLE ME “Journalist Scott Peterson has written a marvelous chronicle of Iran’s policies and politics. Drawing on an unparalleled body of interviews with both the mighty and the powerless, he paints a picture of the country in all its fascinating complexity and color. Peterson is a persistent and sympathetic interviewer, but he is also a sophisticated observer of Iranian history and politics. There is simply no better portrait of the tumultuous past fifteen years in Iran—from the intrigues at the top, to the attitudes of ordinary people trying to live their lives in the turmoil of the Islamic Republic.” --Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University, author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran“Deeply researched, fair-minded, and scrupulous, Scott Peterson’s Let the Swords Encircle Me is foreign-correspondent journalism at its highest level.” --Alan Furst, author of Spies of the Balkans and The Foreign Correspondent“This insightful and thoughtful exploration of Iran’s revolution comes at a critical juncture. Drawing on 15 years of travel throughout the Islamic republic, Peterson provides an insider’s tour of the people and issues that have made Iran one of the most fascinating and frustrating countries in the world for three decades.” --Robin Wright, author of Sacred Rage and Dreams and Shadows “With amazing access and dogged persistence, Peterson penetrates deeply into one of the world’s most inscrutable regimes. His reporting is fast-paced, detailed and timely. A must read to understand where Iran is headed, and why.” --Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent, author of War Journal“A fascinating and nuanced account of life in contemporary Iran; the veteran journalist Scott Peterson has drawn on years of experience to provide a detailed yet personal account of political and social developments in modern Iran with particular attention to the rise of the hard line conservative movement under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His account of the presidential election of 2009 is especially gripping and essential reading for all those who want to understand and appreciate the depth of the political crisis facing the Islamic Republic. An extraordinary achievement.” --Ali M Ansari, Professor of Iranian History, University of St. Andrews, Scotland“With a superb journalist’s sense of narrative and a scholar’s mastery of the subject, Scott Peterson gives us a searing insight into one of the most complex, mysterious, and dangerous regimes on earth. A book that should be on the desk in the Oval Office.” --William Shawcross, author of The Shah’s Last Ride
“In a wonderful and detailed account, Peterson presents a unique perspective on Iran that weds geopolitical maneuverings with intimate conversations with the man on the street in Iran. Few people in America have had Peterson’s access to both ordinary Iranians as well as their rulers. This is a book that should be read by anyone who wishes to understand this ancient civilization.” --Trita Parsi, president, National Iranian American Council“Incisive, humane, and full of vivid reportage . . . perhaps the best account we have of Iran’s complex, embattled reality.” --Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Because for us, the war is not over . . .”
FROM HIS FIRST BREATH, the bearded Believer invokes divine power, for among the most devout every communication begins: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate . . .”
This Iranian holy warrior chooses his words deliberately, speaking to me in 1998 in a cramped office in the mosque at Tehran University, where the threadbare furnishings and plain walls mark a monastic preoccupation with issues of the spirit.
His eyes are fearless. And with the certainty of an evangelist on a mission of conversion, Dr. Alireza Zakani is about to take me back with him to the marshy, trench-laced battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He was wounded ten times and survived fifteen major offensives that remain among the bloodiest engagements in modern warfare.
Zakani was just fifteen when he volunteered for the carnage, breaking the age rules to join what he believed to be a “sacred” war. The fight had sparked a spiritual reckoning for Iran, deepened zeal for Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and forged a militant ideology that today forms the bedrock of the Islamic Republic. In their eagerness to get to the war—to prove their faith, their purity of heart—young men would alter the birth date on their identity cards so they could “legally” sign up for combat.
Zakani was as religious as he was eager. His forehead is marked with the indelible dark smudge of a life spent in daily prayer, by the clay disk that Shiite Muslims bend down and press with their heads five times a day, to physically connect with the earth from whence they came.
“We didn’t enter the battlefield to become martyrs, only to defend Islam and the Revolution,” intones Zakani, his paralyzed right hand resting limply by his side.1 “But we knew that if we died, we were going to be martyrs, and that was important to us. So we would have victory either way. If we died, we still won—martyrdom is the highest aim.”
Still today, that collective war experience is alive, and affects every aspect of Iran’s politics and worldview. Iranians call it the “Imposed War,” launched in 1980 when Iraqi forces invaded Iran. The turbulent Islamic Revolution ushered in by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was still young and vulnerable. Then it was beset by a horrific war of attrition and Iraqi chemical weapon attacks that left one million dead and wounded on both sides.
The Revolution survived, but even Saddam Hussein felt obliged to mark the scale of the slaughter. Halfway through the war, in Baghdad, he built the towering crossed-swords monument, its hands larger-than-life metal replicas of those of the Iraqi dictator. When I first saw it in the late 1990s, what struck me most was not the magnificence of the swords, but the nets filled with five thousand Iranian helmets from the battlefield.2
The Iranian beliefs forged in that crucible—where the Iraqi enemy drew overt and covert support from the West—are one cause of the still-bitter estrangement between the United States and Iran. The war became a vehicle to enhance hatred for both sides. In Iran throughout those eight years of conflict, anti-American vitriol became more and more a pillar of Iranian policy. And in America, anti-Revolution disdain led the United States to provide Saddam with satellite intelligence, to make Iraq’s chemical weapon attacks even more lethal.
Inside Iran, the trauma of the conflict meant that ever afterward, True Believers like Zakani would seek to impose their grip on the rest of Iran’s diverse society. After such wartime sacrifices, these ideologues saw themselves as Iran’s self-appointed moral authority, tasked with “defending” the Revolution against all threats, especially those from the West. They wanted to convert their wartime scar tissue into a divine right to rule.
When I first met Dr. Zakani in 1998, that small office was far from the front lines, both in years and miles. At the heart of Tehran University, the mosque is on the edge of a vast asphalted space with a high roof, where carpets are laid down every Friday and prayers attract thousands. Among the revolutionary banners, this saying from Ayatollah Khomeini has long endured: “We will resist America until our last breath.” Prayer leaders hold the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle in one hand while they lead the nation in ritual anti-Western chants.
The rest of the week it is quieter. And so it was when I found Zakani at the mosque office, transported from the present to a past that was very close to his soul. He was back in the reeds, tasting the ingrained dirt of the trenches, breathing the pungent smell of exploding shells, and hearing the air-slicing whistle of blast-hot shrapnel. More than anything, he was reaffirming his conviction that it was God’s war, a battle to proselytize, to convert pagan Iraqis to God’s way, to prove His transcendent supremacy. Zakani was doing divine work fighting along the southern front, and found inspiration and evidence of it everywhere.
But nearly a decade after the conflict, Zakani’s type was no longer the majority. This was because the same war that bonded Iranians with a new national unity—doing so much to solidify the Islamic Revolution—also sowed seeds of deeper division in Iranian society. The spiritual sense with which tens of thousands marched to the front line was not shared by all.
So the war experience magnified the social rift in Iran between those who fought and bled, and those others—most often wealthy residents of north Tehran who had the means to flee the country—who rejected all notions of a “sacred war” and skipped out on its dangers. Even among war veterans, many were growing disillusioned by the repressive authoritarianism and incompetence of the clerical regime, traits which they thought were undermining the very freedoms they had fought for.
It was all these Iranians, the moderates who sometimes leaned toward the West, and war veterans and other revolutionaries adrift in their fear of permanent social and political stagnation, who had in 1997 voted President Mohammad Khatami to the highest elected position in the country, by a landslide. Those voters wanted to keep their Revolution, but they also wanted to reform it.
The back-and-forth between these hard-line and reformist factions—sometimes taking place brutally on the streets, beyond the ballot box—has defined politics in Iran since the Revolution. The winner determines whether Iran should be more a militarized Islamic theocratic state, issuing orders from on high to a spiritualized and compliant populace—which doesn’t really exist so neatly in Iran—or whether Iran’s self-declared status as a “republic,” dependent for legitimacy on the democratic will of the people, should prevail.
That very contest was at the root of the disputed election of June 2009, when the controversial archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the unexpected landslide victor. What is not in dispute is that more than 80 percent of Iranians turned out to vote—the highest level ever in a presidential race—because many thought their vote could dislodge the hard-line incumbent. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei immediately praised the result as a “divine assessment.” But many Iranians called it a coup d’état against democracy. Weeks of violence and bloodshed ensued, searing the legacy of Iran’s Revolution with unprecedented division.
Now the regime was creating new martyrs—for democracy. Officially, just thirty-six Iranians died in that first burst, though some reports said there were more than two hundred in Tehran alone. Among the dead was Neda Agha Soltan, a twenty-six-year-old activist shot at close range by a basiji
militiaman passing on a motorcycle. Cell phone footage of her death, of the blood flooding obscenely out of her mouth and nose and across her face, turned Neda’s demise into the iconic image of Iran’s tumult.
The mask had slipped.
Thirty years after the Revolution, its innate savagery was exposed again and now raw. Many Iranians were enraged. Many were afraid. Some were murderous. Some burned posters of the Supreme Leader. The streets echoed with the chants of “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei.” The Islamic Republic—at least down the militarized path where Khamenei had chosen to steer it—had created its own crisis of legitimacy. In the minds of countless Iranians, the regime itself was subverting the Revolution’s original founding principle of freedom.
“The Revolution is your legacy,” opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi declared to rally his supporters.3 “To protest against lies and fraud is your right. Be hopeful that you will get your right and do not allow others who want to provoke your anger . . . to prevail.”
At the peak of the violence in June 2009, Khamenei called the protesters “enemies” who sought to depict Iran’s “definitive victory as a doubtful victory.”4 Those enemies would be crushed. There was no fraud. How could there be compromise over “God’s blessing”?
The Revolution was no longer about the will of the people, the gold standard that had often been held up by Ayatollah Khomeini as a crucial basis of legitimacy. Instead, in one decisive power play in 2009, the contest was hijacked by the most extreme factions in politics. Iranians had witnessed the culmination of a years-long effort to revitalize hard-line conservative rule and make it permanent. With critical roles played by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia, religious ideology was morphing into militarism.
“Do not be worried about th...