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Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran--A Journey Behind the Headlines Hardcover – September 21, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


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.com

Advance Praise for


“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)

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


“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...

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (September 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 141659728X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416597285
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #767,280 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Scott Peterson is the Istanbul Bureau Chief for The Christian Science Monitor, and a photographer for Getty Images. One of the most well-traveled and experienced foreign correspondents of his generation, he has reported and photographed conflict and powerful human narratives across three continents for more than two decades, which include making 30 extended reporting trips to Iran since 1996.

Those visits and years of research into Iran's politics, history, and culture form the backbone of Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran--A Journey Behind the Headlines (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2010). It was chosen as one of the "Best Books of 2010" by Publisher's Weekly, which reviews 7,000 titles a year.

Read more about the book, and see color photography from Iran--as well as Iraq (Fallujah), Lebanon, Russia, Africa and elsewhere--at www.s-peterson.com.

In his work, Scott has been partly driven by this ambitious charge--a copy of which was first provided by a high school English teacher--of William Faulkner, who in 1950 advised the "young writer" to leave:

"...no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and worst of all without pity and compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."

Scott first began covering Iran as the Middle East Correspondent for the Monitor based in Amman, Jordan, then as Moscow Bureau Chief. During those years, his coverage stretched from Algiers to Beirut to Tehran, and later all of Russia and Central Asia. In Afghanistan he traveled with the Taliban in 1999, and later was witness to their collapse when Kabul fell in 2001.

He has frequently reported from Iraq, first during the 1991 Kurdish uprising, when he secretly crossed the border from Turkey, before being forced to flee with more than a million Kurds--and a handful of fellow journalists--when Saddam Hussein's armed forces crushed the resistance.

From 1997 until today he has traveled often to Baghdad--except for a two-year period when he was blacklisted by the former regime. He was embedded for one month with US Marines during their November 2004 assault on Fallujah.

Scott won a "Citation of Excellence" for reports from northern Iraq in 2002 from the Overseas Press Club of America. Prior to joining the Monitor, he covered Africa and the Balkans for The Daily Telegraph (London) working throughout the former Yugoslavia on conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he was based in Cyprus.

Scott is also the author of the critically acclaimed Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda (Routledge, 2000), about his work in war zones in Africa during six years in the 1990s. Based on more than 50 trips to Somalia, long forays into Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and extensive front line visits across the continent, that book remains the definitive volume on how US and United Nations operations unraveled in Somalia.

Landmarks in Africa during two cross-continent overland trips included being in South Africa for the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela; traveling 1000 miles down the Congo River by barge; and motorcycling across the Sahara Desert. While earning his degree in English and East Asian Studies from Yale University, Scott also traveled twice to China--once from Pakistan over the Karakoram Pass and across the Middle Kingdom.

As a photographer for Getty Images in New York, Scott's work has appeared in major news magazines, including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Paris Match, and Le Figaro. His images from the Beslan terror attack in Russia in 2004 were recognized by the Missouri School of Journalism's Pictures of the Year-International; those from Somalia in 1992 by World Press Photo.

An avid rock climber, Scott loves nothing more than adventuring with his four fearless children.

Customer Reviews

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I just finished reading Scott Peterson's exquisite book.
Joost Hiltermann
This very complex issue is expained in great detail from the viewpoint of every Level of Iran's Society.
Richard Eaton
I'd recommend it highly to anyone who wants a complete picture of Iran and its people.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Joost Hiltermann on October 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading Scott Peterson's exquisite book. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to gain an understanding of contemporary Iran - and also wants to enjoy the process of edification. This is a lively and enthralling account full of anecdotes and interviews and impressions that together bring out the rich diversity and, yes, openness of Iranian society as well as its politics. This may sound surprising, given dominant perceptions of an autocratic and repressive regime. But as Peterson persuasively shows, there is a lot more to Iran than meets the eye. In the face of repeated regime efforts to suppress dissent, the opposition remains fearless and indomitable, and it is not limited to the so-called reformers but comprises elements deeply ensconced within the state apparatus.

Indeed one of the book's most interesting revelations is the extent to which the regime itself is riven by discord and dissent, reaching back to the Islamic Revolution's early years, from Khomeini's arrival in Tehran to the US embassy hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the Khamenei succession, and onward. Defections occurred from day one. Several of today's prominent reformers and regime critics took part in the embassy takeover. A number of hard-line militia members have joined the ranks of the opposition, disaffected with the turn the revolution has taken toward a repression that stands in clear defiance of the revolution's religious principles - a point made most forcefully by senior religious leaders who exceed the supreme guide in credentials and rank.

The book's leitmotif is the transformative importance of the Iran-Iraq war to a generation that has reached the highest rungs of leadership today, be it in government or opposition.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By E. A. L. Aspbury on May 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In Let the Swords Encircle Me, Peterson draws from a vast amount of first-hand interviews to paint a 3D image of modern Iran, not just about hard-liners and the Western-looking youth, but all the complex shades in between that make up the Iranian political spectrum. He shows how long a shadow the Revolution and the war with Iraq have over the dynamics of modern Iranian politics and how deep the destructive love/hate obsession with a America runs. There is insight into the basis and origins of the histrionic rhetoric of the neo-hardliners; there is a substantial chapter dedicated to the rise of Ahmedinejad. Peterson charts both the rise of the neo-hardliners that Ahmedinejad surrounds himself with and how far they are willing to go to protect their "revolutionary" ideals, and the rise of the Reformist movement that culminated in the 2009 elections.

But Peterson refrains from attacking the hardliners and lamenting the case of the Reformists; it would have been very easy to make a litany of the Islamic Republic's crimes and to criticise the arguments and opinions of those he interviewed, but Peterson lets the events and people speak for themselves (the Western reader will naturally be drawn to a particular conclusion without ideological direction from the author). This is perhaps the strongest element in the book as there is much opinionated journalism on Iran out there without reference to the actual dynamics of thought of any political persuasion in Iran. Let the Sword's Encircle Me is very much rooted in the words of Iranians themselves and not speculative blogging from 5000 miles away. Thus there is a very intimate feeling to the book which, for me, made the recent events in Iran that it describes all the more disheartening.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Darius Navidi on February 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover
If You are interested in human right issues in the middle east Let the Swords Encircle Me is a terrific read, written by prize winning American Journalist Scott Peterson. Peterson's journey goes beyond the newspaper headlines and tells the brutal injustice within the Islamic Republic of Iran. His book relates to many other injustices in the world (including the recent Egyptian protest), and that a majority of the population is being suppressed by their tyrannical rulers, which many no longer support.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Neil Stahl on September 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
We need to understand Iran, and not from some ideologically colored perspective but as objectively as we can, first because we have important policy differences with them that could all too easily lead to a war everyone would lose. And second Iran is a theocracy with the curtailments of freedom you'd expect when the power bases of government, and religion, and now more and more business, are all in the same hands. There are those who want that kind of thing to happen in America, too.

"Swords" is short, but I think adequate, on history. It's more than adequate on first hand testimonies by Iranians of several sides, from hard liners to freedom fighters, taken through the years while Iran went from having the chance to be a democracy to being under the heel of its religious and militaristic rulers.

It lets us see, I think, how Iran came to be what it is and to understand many of the politico/religious groups there and it reminds us of the strong yearning for freedom so many of them bravely showed just a few years ago and which must be bubbling under the surface now. It reminds us of our history with Iran and why even Iranians who hate their rulers might not welcome help from the US that sold Saddam's Iraq poison gas and gave it intelligence to use against Iran.

We see much about the character of Ahmadinejad and his relationship with the Basiji militia and the ruling theocrats. I was disappointed Peterson did not help clarify whether Ahmadinejad wants to end the current government of the country Israel or to do in the Jews in Israel, a vital distinction and one both Ahmadinejad and Israel seem to find it to their advantages to not clarify.
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