‘A Little Feu de Joie’

Adam Shatz

  • Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences by James Buchan
    John Murray, 482 pp, £25.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84854 066 8

At the end of the Second World War, an anonymous pamphlet surfaced in the seminaries of Qom, the bastion of Shia learning. The Unveiling of Secrets accused Iran’s monarchy of treason: ‘In your European hats, you strolled the boulevards, ogling the naked girls, and thought yourselves fine fellows, unaware that foreigners were carting off the country’s patrimony and resources.’ Iran, it proposed, should be ruled by an assembly of religious jurists headed by a wise man. In such a state, there would be no need for elections or a parliament, or even a standing army: a religious militia (basij) would ensure obedience to the law.

It’s unlikely that anyone outside Qom read The Unveiling of Secrets; even inside the seminaries few would have embraced its programme. Yet just three decades later the pamphlet’s author, Ruhollah Khomeini, helped launch a revolution against the monarchy and established himself as Iran’s supreme leader, with powers even the shah would have envied. The political landscape was transformed: the Shia of Iran, a minority in the house of Islam, had rewritten the script of revolution in the Middle East. James Buchan’s Days of God shows how a radicalised clergy took control of a popular uprising against a Western-backed dictator and set up the world’s first and only Islamic republic. Buchan tells that story as well as anyone has done, but Days of God is also an erudite reflection on three important questions: why there was a revolution, why it was Islamic and what its legacy has been. The Iranian Revolution was, Buchan argues, a revolt against Western-imposed modernisation in favour of an enchanted path to modernity. It had a spiritual aim that grew out of the history of Shiism, with its themes of martyrdom and redemption, but the attempt to infuse governance with divine authority ended up expanding – and ultimately sanctifying – the authoritarian state the clerics inherited from the shah. ‘In revolt against Pahlavism,’ Buchan writes, ‘the Islamic republic is also its continuation in turban and cloak.’

The Pahlavi dynasty was founded in 1926, when Reza Khan – a soldier in the Iranian Cossack Brigade who had come to power in a British-backed coup against the Qajar monarchy five years earlier – crowned himself shah. Although he and his son Mohammed styled themselves as heirs of Cyrus the Great, their dynasty was never more than a father-and-son operation, dependent on foreign patronage that they groaned about but could never quite shake off. Reza was an authoritarian moderniser in the Atatürk mould who forced nomads to become sedentary; disciplined rebellious ethnic minorities; built railways and roads; and created a modern army and bureaucracy. But his Westernising project, in particular his attacks on the veil, ran up against clerical opposition, and he could never overcome the perception that he was a stooge of the British. In fact he bristled at foreign interference and attempted to renegotiate the reviled 1919 agreement with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, but was outmanoeuvred at every turn. Finally, having declared Iran neutral in the Second World War, he was deposed by Soviet and British troops in September 1941.

Mohammed, the pampered, fragile son, was no fonder than his father of his patrons in the West but learned never to cross them, especially after the CIA-orchestrated coup against his prime minister, Mossadegh, in 1953. Dashing, fluent in French and English, with a worldly sophistication acquired from his years at a Swiss boarding school, Mohammed was a nationalist of a kind, but he made the mistake of imagining he could buy popular support in the absence of national independence. After the 1953 coup, he signed a better deal with British Petroleum that gave Iran 50 per cent of the profits. Though this fell short of Mossadegh’s plans for nationalisation, it underwrote a massive boom, and big, garish projects his father would have admired: dams, hydro-electric schemes, even an enormous steel mill financed and built by the Soviets, a token declaration of independence that soothed his ego. Iran’s population grew from 19 to 30 million, and Tehran became a modern metropolis. Economic growth earned the shah applause in the West, but it failed to win him the love he felt he deserved from Iranians, who turned against modernisation itself: they saw it as a form of imperialism, an existential threat to Iran’s own traditions. Obsessed with plots against the throne, he leaned more and more on the Savak, his intelligence services, which the CIA, Mossad and MI6 had trained in surveillance and interrogation. Those who objected to his friendships with the US, Israel and apartheid South Africa had a choice of exile in Berlin or Paris; or imprisonment in one of Savak’s prisons.

The shah tried to co-opt the left with his ‘white revolution’, an ambitious programme of land reform launched in the early 1960s, but its principal achievement was to disrupt life in the countryside and provoke an exodus of rural migrants to the slums of Tehran, which grew into a centre of opposition. Buchan witnessed the disorienting effects of the white revolution in the early 1970s as an English teacher in Isfahan, whose palaces looked ‘so flimsy you could blow them over with a sigh’. Pahlavism struck him as a ‘blunt saw across the very grain of Iranianness’, and he suggests it was the ‘style of Pahlavi rule’ as much as the shah’s policies that brought him down: his shameless desire to impress the West with his ‘great civilisation’, his haughty indifference to the mass dislocation caused by his reforms, his ill-concealed contempt for the Shia faith and the bazaar, which he saw as backward and dingy. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, one of the Revolution’s intellectual prophets, complained that Iranians no longer knew who they were, that they had succumbed to a plague he called gharbzadegi: ‘West-struckness’, or ‘Occidentosis’. By the time of the 1971 bash at Persepolis, where royals celebrated 2500 years of monarchy with 69 heads of state over a spread flown in from Maxim’s (a ‘feast of bestial gluttony’, in Khomeini’s words), the shah was practically goading his people to overthrow him.

Yet when revolution came, it wasn’t the communist uprising that the shah and his Western patrons had feared, but an Islamic revolution that banned alcohol, forced women to cover themselves and empowered the clergy. The usual explanation for this turn of events is that the shah, by colluding in the overthrow of Mossadegh and repressing the left, created a vacuum that the clergy were able to fill. But this doesn’t explain how the clergy, who had seen politics as unclean, came to think of themselves as political actors and moved to seize power. Suspicion of state power runs deep in the Shia faith, which views all efforts to legislate or govern as ‘at best provisional, and, at worst, usurpations’ until the return of the 12th imam, who vanished in Samarra in 874. Another, more secular reason for the clergy’s quietism is that it was in their material interest. Over the course of the 19th century, they had become rich thanks to their alliance with the bazaar, which channelled its profits – as much as a quarter of which came from the opium trade – into the mosques and seminaries. Although the clergy had joined with the bazaar to oppose commercial concessions to foreigners and to defend modesty in dress, they had otherwise kept themselves to themselves. Ayatollah Hosein Borujerdi, the senior marja-e taqlid (‘source of emulation’) in Qom throughout the 1940s and 1950s, forbade clerical involvement in politics. The virtuous cycle of money-making and mosque-building had to be protected against the intrusions of the state – particularly when the shah began to talk about land reform in the countryside, the clergy’s stronghold. If there was to be an Islamic revolution, it would have to be preceded by a revolution in Islam itself.

During the Borujerdi era, Khomeini was a marginal, even ostracised figure in Qom, known mostly for his austere lifestyle and his expertise in erfan (mysticism). His lectures attracted a following, but they also raised suspicions that he was an infidel, perhaps even a Sunni. He cultivated an air of otherworldliness that entranced his followers, and he disdained his colleagues, the ‘stupid, reactionary mullahs’. He admired men of action who performed their religious duty by assassinating members of the regime. Borujerdi held Khomeini at a distance, fearing that his radicalism might leave the seminary vulnerable to the security services. But after Borujerdi died in 1961, Khomeini started to raise his voice against the shah. His first target was the white revolution, which the shah put to a referendum in 1963. Khomeini believed that by giving the vote to ‘a lot of ignorant ladies’ the referendum threatened to ‘extirpate Islam’. Yet he instructed his followers not to dwell on its contents, a package of land reform and nationalisation of forests that many Iranians – particularly the urban nationalist middle class – supported. Instead, he attacked the referendum as a violation of the constitution. Royalist forces ransacked the Faizieh seminary, and in the clashes a student fell to his death. Khomeini and his supporters turned the mourning ceremony forty days later into a political protest, just as they would during the Revolution’s ‘days of god’. In a furious speech, he called the shah a ‘worthless wretch’ and warned him to ‘learn from your father’s fate’. When Khomeini was arrested, a nationwide uprising broke out; the shah’s forces fired on protesters who were chanting: ‘Khomeini or death!’

‘Why not leave politics to us?’ Hassan Pakravan, the head of Savak, asked Khomeini, whom Pakravan had persuaded the shah to release. ‘Politics is villainy, lies and hypocrisy. Don’t let yourself be sullied by it.’ Such talk might have worked with Borujerdi, but Khomeini was made of tougher stuff. (Once in power, he thanked Pakravan by having him executed.) His religious prestige was now growing: the Qom establishment had promoted him to marja-e taqlid in order to get him released from jail. But Khomeini’s new title gave him no protection when, in 1964, he denounced the granting of diplomatic immunity to US military personnel. ‘If some American’s servant, some American’s cook, assassinates your marja in the middle of the bazaar, or crushes him underfoot, the Iranian police may not arrest him,’ he thundered. But ‘if someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted.’ A week later, Khomeini was expelled to Turkey. A year after that, he moved to a seminary in Najaf, in Iraq. There he set up a network of revolutionary Iranian students, working closely with Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, a wealthy young tier-mondiste who had been living in Paris and who became the first president of the Islamic Republic.

A stern man in a turban, Khomeini was an improbable student leader. But his fearless opposition to the shah and his interweaving of Shiism and anti-imperialism resonated with young readers of Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati, the spiritual fathers of the Revolution. Al-e Ahmad’s Gharbzadegi and Shariati’s Return to Ourselves presented an incantatory blend of Marxism, Shia mysticism and Fanonism. They spoke to a common feeling that Iranian culture was in danger of being overrun, even destroyed, by Western consumer culture. The Islamic leftism of Al-e Ahmad and Shariati was itself a jumble of Western and Muslim ideas, as vivid as it was imprecise, but it testified to the yearning for an alternative modernity, a radical style of will that was – or at least felt – authentically Iranian. The solution to Iran’s problems, they argued, lay not in Western models but in the ‘true’ Islam of national liberation and social justice that had been concealed by the old men in Qom. Islam was not a fixed code of rules and prohibitions, but a religion of freedom, a kind of Persian existentialism, and its home was the individual conscience, not the mosque. ‘The Imam of the Age for whom we are all waiting is within each one of us,’ Al-e Ahmad wrote.

Khomeini came under pressure from Qom to excommunicate Shariati as a ‘deviant’ for his attacks on veiling and polygamy. But, not for the last time, as Buchan writes, he ‘proved more subtle and patient’. He had little to gain from attacking the students’ idol, and Shariati’s criticisms of the clergy made him a tactical ally of Khomeini’s against the conservative establishment in Qom. Khomeini saw that Shariati’s fusion of Islamic and leftist motifs could be a potent mobilising tool. The slogans of Khomeini’s followers during the Revolution – ‘Islam belongs to the oppressed, not the oppressors’; ‘Islam represents the slum-dwellers, not the palace-dwellers’ – owed much to Shariati, who died in exile in England in 1977. Thousands of Shariati’s followers – notably the Islamic leftist guerrillas of the People’s Mujahedin, who helped ignite the Revolution but broke violently with the Islamic Republic – would hang in Khomeini’s jails, but for now, as Buchan puts it, ‘the reckoning with the Shariatists could wait.’

While Shariati spoke of liberation, Khomeini focused on what would happen after liberation. The question of who should rule after the shah was the only question that mattered. In a series of lectures he gave in Najaf in 1970, published a year later as Islamic Government, Khomeini argued that the Quranic concept of the velayat-e faqih, ‘the stewardship of the jurist’, applied not just to widows and orphans (as most scholars believed) but to society as a whole: the Islamic state should be ruled by a group of clerics; even, he hinted, by ‘a single man’, though he could not be a monarch, since Islam was inherently hostile to monarchy. This would have come as news to clerics who had supported Iran’s monarchs since the founding of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century. For all its scriptural trappings, the velayat-e faqih was a fanciful reading of the Quran.

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When Western reporters visited him in Neauphle-le-Château, the village outside Paris where he spent his last four months in exile, Khomeini didn’t mention the stewardship of the jurist. Unaware of his arguments in Islamic Government, the Westerners who sat with him under his apple tree, most famously Michel Foucault, reproduced his claims that he had no interest in power and that women would be free in the Islamic Republic. Few Iranians had heard of the velayat-e faqih; for them, in his seeming simplicity and humbleness Khomeini represented not only opposition to the shah but national honour itself. The spectacle of Khomeini in France, Buchan writes, ‘reinforced in Iranians a notion of themselves that was both vulnerable and precious’. Even the exiled communists of the Tudeh Party swore allegiance to him. (In 1983, the Tudeh’s leader made an abject televised apology, extracted under torture, for the left’s ‘treason’ since the Revolution.) In his serene indifference to the Western gaze, Khomeini had become the ultimate rejoinder to gharbzadegi, the Occidentosis of the Pahlavis.

It was an attack on Khomeini, published pseudonymously in an Iranian newspaper three days after Jimmy Carter’s New Year visit to Tehran in 1978, that led to the Revolution’s first clashes. Yet the shah and his patrons persisted in thinking that the real threat came from the left. The CIA claimed as late as August that year that Iran was ‘not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation’. But after a fire on 19 August at the Rex Cinema in the oil town of Abadan killed more than four hundred, it was clear that the shah’s days were numbered, not because the regime had set the fire, but because no one could believe that it hadn’t. After the Revolution, a former drug dealer confessed to having set the fire with a group of Islamic activists. He said he hoped the fire would attract praise from ‘the people making the Revolution’. Khomeini was known to see cinemas as dens of iniquity. But Khomeini saw where his strategic advantage lay. He said the fire was ‘contrary to all the laws of Islam’ and therefore obviously the work of the shah. In September came the Black Friday massacre of protesters in Zhaleh Square, followed in October and November by wildcat strikes at the Abadan refinery and the burning of banks. The shah’s third wife, Queen Farah, described all this as a ‘little feu de joie by the people’. The shah moved to dissolve the one-party state and introduce what he called ‘responsible democracy’, but it only made him look weak. As unarmed crowds called for him to step down, he lacked his father’s willingness to take the necessary measures. In December, it was Khomeini, not the shah, who persuaded striking oil workers to run enough barrels through the refinery for domestic consumption. In mid-January 1979 the shah fled Iran with Queen Farah, carrying a little box of Iranian soil.

In the two weeks between the shah’s departure and Khomeini’s return, it was not clear who, or what, would replace him. Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, a Mossadegh-era official and a former prisoner of the shah, dissolved Savak, released political prisoners, outlawed the sale of oil to Israel and South Africa, and lifted press censorship. Bakhtiar’s reforms might have satisfied most Iranians – but even before he reached Tehran, Khomeini insisted on his resignation. The American government was divided between those in favour of a military coup, and those, like William Sullivan, the American ambassador in Tehran, who saw Khomeini as a Gandhi-like figure and a potential ally in the fight against communism. The Soviets assumed that America’s loss would be their gain, and that the shouts of ‘God is great!’, the sea of turbans and chadors in the streets of Tehran, were merely a façade for socialist revolution. But Khomeini’s slogan was ‘neither East nor West’, and he meant it: Iranians had made the Revolution in order to break with a history of foreign interference, not to find a new superpower patron – least of all the current incarnation of their old enemy imperial Russia. ‘This is not an ordinary government,’ Khomeini said in Tehran on 5 February, four days after millions of Iranians flooded the streets to welcome him back. Less than a week later, civilians stormed military compounds, soldiers deserted their posts, and Bakhtiar, disguised as a French businessman, flew to France.

A month later, a referendum for an Islamic Republic gained an overwhelming majority. Khomeini’s prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, a cautious, liberal-minded Islamic nationalist who had run the oil industry under Mossadegh, had wanted Iranians to have the choice of a ‘Democratic Islamic Republic’, but Khomeini vetoed it: ‘Islam does not need adjectives such as democratic … It is sad for us to add another word near the word Islam, which is perfect.’ Yet he resigned himself to some of the Westernisms he loathed, including an elected parliament and voting rights for women. The state he fathered was a hybrid of velayat-e faqih and the French republic. But the 73-man Assembly of Experts, dominated by Khomeini loyalists, most of them clerics, had the upper hand; and presiding over it was the Supreme Leader himself, who would rule for life. Khomeini also set up a shadow government in order to consolidate his control of the state, composed of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Islamic Republican Party and the IRP’s militia, who were unleashed on campuses in a violent ‘cultural revolution’ against the left, Khomeini’s former allies. Royalists and others suspected of ‘sowing corruption on earth’ soon found themselves on trial in revolutionary courts, where Sadegh Khalkhali, a minor cleric whom Khomeini appointed as Iran’s hanging judge, oversaw thousands of executions. Their purpose was not merely to punish, but, in the words of state radio, to ‘infuse new blood into the veins of the Revolution’.

Khomeini’s decision to support the Followers of the Line of the Imam – the students who took over the American Embassy in November 1979, shortly after the shah arrived at New York Hospital for cancer treatment – was taken with a similar objective in mind. His real target was not so much America as the more moderate nationalists who had helped him to seize power: men like Bazargan, whose university education and hope that Iran might re-establish relations with the West made him a suspect ‘liberal’. The Followers of the Line of the Imam claimed to be preventing a repeat of the 1953 coup, but the Americans were now hoping for a rapprochement, and Khomeini knew as much. When the hostage-takers scaled the walls of the embassy, Bazargan, with Khomeini’s approval, was meeting in Algiers with the US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Bazargan denounced the students for their violation of international law and diplomacy, but the Supreme Leader embraced them, taking the opportunity to paint opposition to the embassy takeover as cowardly surrender to the Great Satan. Bazargan resigned. When the hostages were finally released in January 1981, the hostage-takers’ spiritual leader, Mohammad Khoeiniha, declared that ‘the tree of revolution has grown and gained in strength.’

In fact, the revolutionary tree had been sapped of some of its strength: the Islamic Republic received only $2.88 billion of the $12 billion in frozen assets it was owed; most of the remainder went to servicing the shah’s debts. ‘It was now clear who was hostage and who hostage-taker,’ Buchan writes. Yet for many the financial losses were more than offset by the defeat of the ‘liberals’ and by the psychological victory over America and, no less, over their pre-Revolutionary selves. In the Revolution’s most phantasmagorical set-piece, young women whose grandmothers ‘had knotted carpets in the 1920s’ now pieced together shredded documents in the ‘nest of spies’. With Iran’s destiny in its own hands at last, international isolation, debt and sanctions seemed a small price to pay. And the Islamic Republic could afford to steer a defiant course because Iranian oil was now finally under Iran’s control.

The hostage crisis reinforced the radicalism of Khomeini’s revolution; the war with Iraq gave his republic resilience and popular legitimacy. It began in September 1980 when Iraq staged a surprise attack in the hope of redrawing the border at the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The Americans and French supported Iraq, and even the Soviets tilted towards Saddam. Iran’s only supporters in the region were Syria and, briefly, the Israelis, who hoped Khomeini might become an ally against the Arabs as the shah had been. By July 1982, Iran had driven out the Iraqi army from the south-west of the country, but Khomeini squandered the victory by rejecting Saddam’s offer of an armistice. The Israelis had just invaded Lebanon, and Saddam suggested to Khomeini that they set aside their differences and fight the ‘Zionist enemy’. But Khomeini suspected that Israel’s invasion was a trap set by the West to protect Iraq from Iran’s punishment. As things turned out, Israel’s war was a blessing for Iran, which found a ‘lung’ in the Arab East: the Shia guerrilla organisation Hizbullah, set up by the Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Bekaa Valley in the summer of 1982, is now the Islamic Republic’s most precious regional asset, a shield against an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities.

The continuation of the war with Iraq condemned Iran to six more years of immense suffering, including chemical weapon attacks by Saddam’s forces. Iranian boys who had barely reached puberty were given ‘a weapon and twenty rounds and sent against an artillery position’, and told they were fighting Israeli troops. The new objective of the war was the overthrow of the Baath regime and the expansion of the Islamic Revolution. Well over a hundred thousand Iranian soldiers died before, in late 1988, Khomeini finally accepted a UN ceasefire. He agreed to ‘drink the poisoned chalice’, as he put it, after the USS Vincennes shot down a plane full of Iranian civilians that it mistook for an F-14. Almost three hundred passengers and crew died in the crash, which Khomeini was convinced was deliberate: a message from the US that it would never allow Iran to win the war. The attack on the plane was a genuine blunder but Khomeini read American intentions correctly. Defeat at the hands of the world’s greatest superpower gave him a more honourable exit. Redemption for Iran’s martyrdom would come 14 years later, when Iraq fell into its lap courtesy of the American military.

With the war over, Khomeini began to fret about the future of his revolution, and launched a new round of purges. The first to be executed were nearly three thousand members of the People’s Mujahedin, who had fought with Saddam. Next in line were those convicted of ‘warring against god’: the victims included the 13-year-old daughter of a fellow cleric of Ayatollah Hosein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s protégé and designated successor. Montazeri wrote to Khomeini to protest against this ‘act of vengeance and spite’ and to remind him of Islam’s belief in mercy – Khomeini ignored him. On the Revolution’s tenth anniversary, Montazeri wrote again, deploring the restrictions on liberty. This time Khomeini told him that he would never be Supreme Leader and warned that unless he shut his mouth, ‘I will definitely be obliged to do something about you. And you know me, I never neglect my obligations.’ Montazeri took refuge in Qom. Khomeini convened a special constitutional assembly, most of whose members he had appointed, which amended the articles requiring that the Supreme Leader be a marja-e-taqlid. This cleared the way for Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who was not a marja but was a redoubtable Khomeinist, to replace him after his death. By a single stroke of its author, the scholastic foundation of the velayat-e faqih was abolished.

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Efforts to democratise the Islamic Republic in the Khamenei era have come to grief. The reformist president Mohammed Khatami, a former student of Montazeri, was undermined from within by hardliners, and from without by the Bush administration, which thanked Iran for its help in Afghanistan after 2001 by spurning its peace overtures and grouping it with North Korea and Iraq in the ‘axis of evil’. The demonstrations in 2009 by the Green Movement, in response to the apparent rigging of presidential elections, were suppressed by the basij militias with Khamenei’s blessing. The state apparatus is now comprised of hardline clerics led by Khamenei and anti-clerical Islamists in the Revolutionary Guard Corps; these groups dislike one another but have closed ranks against reformers. Islam still gives the republic a more indigenous source of legitimacy than communism did in the Soviet Union, but a growing number of clerics have either joined the opposition or returned to the aloof quietism of an earlier generation. Among the intelligentsia, the Islamic Republic is at best tolerated, and mostly despised.

Yet Iranians aren’t eager for another revolution, or regime change from abroad. There’s a crucial difference between the tyrannies of the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic: the latter is the product of a homegrown revolution, and has deeper roots. Belittled by the Pahlavi monarchs for their backwardness and superstition, Khomeini and his clerical allies established what Reza Shah and his son could only dream of: an independent modern Iran, with the status and prestige of a regional power whose reach now extends to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. The revolution’s great casualty has been the vision of freedom that Al-e Ahmad and Shariati put forward, and to which Khomeini paid lip service in Neauphle-le-Château. Since the collapse of Khatami’s reform project, the state has grown more authoritarian, more paranoid and more brutal in its treatment of dissidents. Young people, chastened by the ferocity of the basij, are cynical about the potential for reform and have turned away from politics. Their main concern is making ends meet in an era of punitive sanctions.

The sanctions are intended to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme, which, not very plausibly, it insists is for merely peaceful purposes. But the sanctions aren’t likely to work. Iran has nuclear-armed enemies and fresh memories of being attacked by chemical weapons while the world looked the other way; and in any event, refusing to back down under foreign pressure is a first principle for the Islamic Republic. Though it craves international recognition, it has weathered isolation before and is in some ways more comfortable with it. (In this it is not unlike Israel, a state which also speaks in the name of a persecuted minority and justifies its defiance of international law with a rhetoric of religious nationalism and righteous victimhood.) Isolation has nourished self-reliance, self-reliance has encouraged sacrifice, and sacrifice is widely seen as proof of virtue. The Islamic Republic’s tenacity during the war with Iraq should give pause to anyone who imagines that it will bend under sanctions – or as a result of Israel’s assassination of its nuclear scientists. The nuclear programme is broadly popular with the public, which sees it as a deterrent and can’t understand why Israel, Pakistan and India should be allowed the bomb, but not Iran. Resistance to Western pressure has defined Iranian nationalism for more than a century, and remains one of the few cards the otherwise unpopular regime has left to play. Buchan concludes his book with the hope that Iran will prove less stubborn than he believes it was in 1953, when Mossadegh was removed from power for taking on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. But Khamenei and his colleagues may draw a different lesson from the events of 1953, especially if they are of a mind to compare the fate of Gaddafi, who ended his nuclear programme, with that of the North Korean regime, which did not. They may be devout Shia, but that does not mean they wish to become martyrs.