Fall and Decline

Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran

by Nikki R. Keddie, with a section by Yann Richard
Yale University Press, 321 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Inside the Iranian Revolution

by John D. Stempel
Indiana University Press, 336 pp., $17.50

Mission to Iran

by William H. Sullivan
Norton, 296 pp., $14.95

Revolution, like death, seems to concentrate the mind wonderfully—at least the minds of publishers. Since the Iranian upheaval, both commercial and university presses have run off a spate of books on Iran, a country not previously the object of much publishing attention. In a short time, we have had at least two books on aspects of the Iranian economy,1 two more on the Iranian clerical establishment and its relations to the state,2 and several on the special relationship between Iran and the United States.3

There have been at least two collections of essays.4 Three or more accounts have appeared on the American hostage crisis, all of them the work of newspapermen or television reporters.5 The first of the hostages has meantime produced an account of his days in captivity.6 More books are forthcoming. It is therefore pertinent to ask whether the addition of any new book to this growing heap contributes significantly to our knowledge of the country, or provides a fresh interpretation of the already known facts.

Nikki Keddie, the author of Roots of Revolution, has devoted many years to the study of modern Iran. Her work in the 1960s on nineteenth-century political and religious movements resulted in two books, one on the tobacco protest movement of 1891-1892 and one on the Islamic reformer Jamal ad-Din Asadabadi (Afghani). In the 1970s, Professor Keddie worked, and wrote a number of essays, on socioeconomic developments in Iran in the twentieth century.7 Roots of Revolution brings together the results of her earlier and more recent research.

The book, a survey of Iranian history over the last two centuries, does not avoid all the pitfalls of this difficult form of historical writing. It is sometimes repetitious. Although her approach is largely interpretative and concerned with long-term trends, the sections covering the 1890-1921 and the 1951-1963 periods tend to straightforward narrative history. For a book of interpretative history, there is surprisingly little on the institutional changes brought about by the revolution of 1906, when the Shah was forced to accept a constitution establishing a parliament.

But Professor Keddie has a strong grasp of historical material. She displays a characteristically impressive capacity for compression and consolidation of recent historical research. Her opening discussion on Shi’ism is highly competent, emphasizing how “from 1501 until this century Iranism and Shi’ism were for many people parts of a single blend.” On these matters, it is to hers rather than to the two other books under review that we must turn. John Stempel and William Sullivan, in their own much briefer comments on recent Iranian history and religion, are less sure-footed and less reliable.

Professor Keddie’s book bears very much the stamp of the particular moment in which it is published. She has, for example, revised her earlier and more positive assessment of the impact on Iran of land reform. Writing at a time of revolution, she seeks to emphasize the previous history of social unrest, calling attention to earlier instances…

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