Essential Readings: Iran

Originally published in Jadaliyya on June 4, 2011.

In recent years, there has been a deluge of popular English-language writings by Iranians in exile, as well as hand-wringing public policy books by U.S.-based think tank pundits, all insisting on the same basic message: Iran represents a geo-political problem of unparalleled importance. While the stated goal of these books and organizations is to educate the English-reading global public about Iran, very often the message comes laced with support for militarily enforced regime change and full-scale neo-liberalization. Case in point: the mission statement of the Iran Democracy Project, a well-established California-based think tank, claims that its “central goal is to help the West understand the complexities of the Muslim world, and to map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran.”

From problematic bestsellers to superficial fare treating Iranian politics as an impossible paradox needing U.S. expertise to be solved, what so much of this literature lacks is a historical understanding of Iranian political modernity and social movements. Without this understanding, the daily news coming out of Iran, not to mention U.S. and European state responses to that news, seems inscrutable at best and terrifying at worst.

Thirty years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution catapulted Iranian affairs to the forefront of global politics, the world witnessed an explosion of popular domestic opposition to the apparent electoral fraud of the Ahmadinejad regime and his clerical backers in 2009. Despite some mainstream coverage of these unprecedented events, not enough context was provided by a global media quick to denounce the regime’s violence but less eager (or able) to give credit to the ongoing peoples’ movements — most importantly women’s, students’, and labor organizations — that provided the strategic and moral backbone of these (as well as earlier) anti-regime protests. Frighteningly, the Iranian citizenry’s outpouring of deserved frustration and anger was painted by many in the U.S. government as a valid excuse to import the same kind of “democracy” that had been militarily delivered to the Iraqi and Afghan people. To add to the confusion, some factions of the U.S.- and Europe-based left rushed to support the Iranian state against the protesters’ accusations of systematic violence, brutal repression, and economic malfeasance, ostensibly because of the regime’s illusory anti-imperialist credentials. (For Raha’s response to this messy discourse see our recent statement.)

Despite the above, the situation is not so grim. We in Raha know that — much like in neighboring countries experiencing the Arab Spring — people’s aspirations and movements in Iran flourish despite both domestic and international pressure. Below we have put together a list of historical texts, artistic works, and links to political statements and videos that offer a richer and more nuanced understanding of Iran and Iranians.

Historical Context:

Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982) and A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Iran’stwentieth century history is bookended by two major revolutionary movements: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, and what came to be known as the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The first revolution was an attempt to implement constitutional law and to curtail the Qajar regime’s dealings with then imperial powers Russia and Britain. The second revolution was an attempt to wrest power away from the repressive, U.S.-backed Pahlavi regime, which held the dubious distinction of maintaining one of the largest military and prison apparatuses alongside one of the poorest populations in the world. That is to say, in their formative stages, both revolutionary surges were attempts to fight what many Iranians have long considered their twin oppressors: este’maar and estebdaad, or external colonialism and internal despotism. Contemporary Iranian politics cannot be understood without this important historical framing. Abrahamian, one of the most prolific and thorough historians of modern Iran, provides just this context. Importantly, he also provides a detailed analysis of the Iranian left in this formative era. The first book listed here is the longer text; there really is no better introduction to twentieth century Iranian political history in English. For a shorter version of the same narrative, see the second book. (For other excellent works that cover the same era see also Iran: A People Interrupted by Hamid Dabashi and Modern Iran by Nikki Keddie.)

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men (Wiley Publishers, 2008)

Kinzer is an American journalist who has written the most accessible analysis of the CIA-engineered coup against democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, which returned the American puppet Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. Though Kinzer’s diplomatic history doesn’t delve into Iranian sources, he adequately reveals the secret machinations that led to the overthrow of the popular Mossadegh, whose apparent crime was attempting to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. The coup remains a formative event in the historical memory of Iranians, though most in the country today are too young to have lived through it. This incident casts a long shadow that continues to lend emotive weight to the current regime’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, and fuels the necessary skepticism toward U.S. motives from those who nonetheless oppose the current Iranian regime.

Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran After His Successors (Oxford University Press, 2009)

For those interested in the major players of the post-Khomeini era and the changes at the level of the state, as well as those who don’t necessarily understand the important differences (and struggles for control) among powerful individuals such as Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, etc., this is the book.

The Modern State:

Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran (University of Washington Press, 2008)

Despite the often-racialist rhetoric of many stringent Iranian nationalists — who boast of an ancient greatness often pitted against Iran’s Arab, Central, and South Asian neighbors — Iran is a multi-ethnic society whose history is intimately bound up with that of its neighbors. Iran, as a national entity, is as modern a political construction as any other nation. In this text, Marashi masterfully reveals the twentieth century colonial origins of the myth of “Aryan-ness” shared by some Iranian and Indian nationalists alike, a mythology that has unfortunately colored the analysis of too many Iranian nationalists and members of the Iranian left. We in Raha believe that for Iranian politics to move forward, Iranians must abandon their insistence that they are a people apart from their region.

Darius Rejali, Torture and Modernity (Westview Press, 1994)

One of the popular tropes in U.S. and European mainstream discourses is that the Islamic Republic is nothing but a giant prison. Rejali, on the other hand, reminds us that the contemporary situation in Iran has its roots in the Pahlavi era, when prisons were modernized along American lines and the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) was trained by the CIA. Rather than seeing the prison system (and its employment of torture) in the Islamic Republic as a barbaric throwback imposed by “Islam,” Rejali argues that Iran’s security apparatus is a direct outgrowth of its establishment as a modern state. (For an interesting interview with Rejali, see “Six Questions with Darius Rejali” by Scott Horton. Here, Rejali reminds us that, “the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is talking, the man who tortures . . . People joined the revolutionary opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the U.S. so, all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture in Iran.”)

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2011)

In her most recent work, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet reveals the degree to which women’s sexuality and health has become a near-obsession of the modern Iranian state. Rather than re-hashing those gendered questions that obsess the U.S. media (such as veiling), Kashani-Sabet shows the extent to which the modern state (both in its secular and religious forms) has shaped debates on gender, sexuality, and health in Iran through a discourse on “nationalist” motherhood. That is to say, Iran – much like its Arab and South Asian neighbors – has seen a gendered nationalist rhetoric claiming that the role of women is the raising of “strong/good” (male) citizens. Gender is an undeniably critical component to understanding Iran, though probably not in the ways we have been led to believe.

Arzoo Osanloo, The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2009)

This book — which spans a later era than Kashani-Sabet’s work — examines the means through which gender has been reconfigured as part of the new state-building project of the Islamic Republic. Osanloo looks at the government’s use of human rights and women’s rights discourses, as well as how that language trickled down into the lives of women in unpredictable ways.

Social Movements:

March 1979 Women’s Protests


This documentary — made by French documentary filmmakers — offers a vivid depiction of the Iranian women’s movement amidst the revolutionary fervor of March 1979. This short film is mandatory viewing for those interested in the events of the 1979 revolution, insofar as it captures a moment when women vied for an alternative vision for post-revolutionary Iran.

Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

This book offers a historical perspective on the relationship between Western women/feminism and women in Iran, with a chapter specifically about the March 1979 events featured in the documentary listed above. A must read for anyone interested in transnational solidarity and feminism that doesn’t reproduce imperial hierarchies.

One Million Signatures Campaign


This brief video gives an overview of the major grassroots women’s rights movement that began in 2006. The One Million Signatures Campaign has gained prominence as an organization that insists on non-hierarchical organizational structures and on face-to-face encounters in their daily work. They are an inspiration.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Letter from Tehran” (June 2010)

On the anniversary of the Green uprising, Raha-member Manijeh Nasrabadi interviewed Iranian feminist activists in Tehran about their year(s) of upheaval.

“Three Decades of Labor Struggles in Iran”


This video outlines the work of the Iranian labor movement, as well as the difficult conditions facing working people in Iran today. Also see Iran Labor Report and especially the most recent May Day statement issued by several workers’ organizations.

Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (Zed Books, 1987) and Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (Columbia University Press, 1997)

Bayat is the pre-eminent scholar of the remarkable democratic people’s councils (shuras) that emerged in the wake of the 1979 revolution, as well as other working class struggles in the Islamic Republic. Again, these books give a sense of the revolution as a contested struggle over the future, rather than a homogenous movement under Khomeini’s thumb.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postal, eds, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011)

Featuring important pieces by some of the most vocal commentators on the Green Movement that began in 2009 (among them Hamid Dabashi, Mohsen Kadivar, Juan Cole, and a number of green activists based in Iran), this anthology includes essays that were circulating during the most active months of the protests, and thus serves as both primary and secondary documentation of this democratic protest wave.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Gender, Class and Security Politics in Iran”

This talk from a February 2011 NYU teach in sponsored by Social Text considers the impact of the Arab Spring on the volatile situation of repression and dissent in Iran.

Fiction and Poetry:

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Missing Soluch, translated by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, 2007)

Written just a few years before the 1979 revolution, Missing Soluch is among the masterpieces by Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Focusing on life in a small village in Khorasan, Iran, this novel beautifully reveals the limitations and failures of the Pahlavi development project as well as the dynamics of a working class family. Dowlatabadi was himself a sympathizer of a major revolutionary Marxist guerrilla organization in the late 1970s; though this novel doesn’t deal explicitly with those politics, it is nonetheless mandatory reading for those interested in pre-revolutionary life in Iran.

Forugh Farrkhzhad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzhad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)

Forugh Farrokhzhad is one of the most beloved modern Iranian poets. Her work explores sensuality and femininity unlike that of any other writer; her poetry features both lyricism and a sense of the ironic that few have matched. Her short film, The House is Black, is also a masterpiece. She is for many of us a feminist and anti-authoritarian hero.


The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi, edited and translated by Donne Raffat (Syracuse University Press, 1985)

Bozorg Alavi was a well-known novelist and among the founders of the Marxist Tudeh party in the 1940s. This book includes his Scrap Papers From Prison, the first Iranian prison memoir as well as a classic of Iran’s modern literature. Alavi’s brilliant, Kafka-esque narrative serves as a damning reminder of the first Pahlavi monarch’s authoritarian policies and reveals the degree to which political repression had been entrenched in Iran before the filling of the prisons of the Islamic Republic.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (Vintage Press, 1982)

This is a movingly written and politically astute account of the conditions that led to the 1979 revolution. Kapuscinski, a journalist who wrote about many anti-colonial revolutions, travelled to Iran in the final years of the Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. His account chillingly portrays the paranoia among ordinary Iranians due to the ubiquitous presence of the Shah’s notorious secret police force (SAVAK), as well as the poverty and despair created by the Shah’s “modernization” policies.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003)

This bestselling graphic memoir (also an animated film) chronicles the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl whose parents are leftists. Satrapi gives a nuanced account of Iranians’ twin struggle against foreign intervention and internal despotism while also telling a moving coming of age story that challenges many Western assumptions about Iranian women and society.

Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran (Stanford University Press, 2011)

This newly published book is arguably the best memoir written in English by an Iranian about Iran, though it will almost certainly not receive the praise that more sensational fare has received. Talebi is an activist who spent over a decade in Iranian prisons, first under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, and then again for many years in the Islamic Republic. Unlike texts such as Prisoner of Tehran and My Life as a Traitor, which seem to believe that the Islamic Republic created repression out of thin air, Ghosts of Revolution is an explicitly political book that recounts the important historical events that have shaped both the pre- and post- revolutionary years. Talebi is a sensitive storyteller and politically savvy narrator who reminds us that notorious Iranian prisons Evin and Ghazal Hesar are part of the same political universe as the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay; unfortunately, the Islamic Republic doesn’t have a monopoly on repression or torture, despite what some of its detractors may think. On the other hand, this book should serve as an eye-opener for those who naively want to believe that the Islamic Republic represents a successful revolutionary/people’s movement. If you read only one book off of this list, this should be the one.