The Labyrinth described in Greek mythology was an intricate maze devised by Daedalus to hide the Minotaur, a half-human, half-bull abomination born to Pasiphaë. Dilip Hiro’s The Iranian Labyrinth does not require anything so fantastic to weave an intricately detailed sojourn full of real-life Minotaurs that are far more deadly. Over the course of ten chapters, Hiro details the role that various aspects of Iranian society and politics play in its theocratic state. From the bazaar to the Majlis, from Mussadeiq to Khomeini, he develops a series of influences that emphasize just how complex (and central) Iran is to the region.
Previous works by Hiro include The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (1991); Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (2002); and The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (2003). I have relied upon all of these in courses on Middle East politics for their candidness and clarity. Once again, he does not disappoint. The premise of Iran’s importance provides a certain urgency to the work. “Iran…is probably the most strategic country on this planet (p.xxxvii).” He follows that statement with an exhaustive review of the role of the bazaar in the sociopolitical journey through Iran. Hiro offers a unique insight: “Being economically independent of the government, bazaaris were in the same category as students and intellectuals. They were an economic force” (p. 13).
That force, he contends, became a power base for Khomeini and then later for the reestablishment of the Majlis.
Next, Hiro moves from the bazaar to the Majlis. Beginning with the formation of the Majlis in 1906, he takes the reader through its stages of development and the inevitable setbacks under the Pahlavi monarchy, Mussadeq and Khomeini. Although his major focus is on how the Majlis established, lost, regained and lost again its ability to be a viable force in Iranian politics, he remains positive about the importance of a legislative branch striking a balance with the clerics. He provides numerous examples of the Majlis acting independently, especially during the Khomeini era. Often the debates in the Majlis set the tone for public debates on issues like freedom of the press (p. 38).
The chapters on Mussadeq, the shah, Khomeini and Khamanei find the author deep inside the Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Hiro appears the least comfortable here. These chapters are the least insightful and are often supported by the past research of the author. Limited resources, however, do not limit the author’s straightforward writing style. Still, each of the topics has received a more thorough analysis elsewhere.
Hiro is back on more stable ground with his chapter on the city of Qom and the importance of religious life inside Iran. Much of this chapter is based on his direct experiences: “What is common between ayatollahs and their superiors is their right to practice ijtihad (interpretative reasoning). Since this inevitably leads to different interpretations, Shiism is not monolithic” (p. 159). As he does at the end of each chapter, he follows this critique by laying a foundation for the next one.
In the chapter on oil, Hiro makes the case that so much about Iran’s struggle with the West (first with the British and then with the United States) is based on controlling the vast resources that are the “lifeblood of modern Iran” (p. 183). The selling and granting of oil concessions is a well-worn path. Hiro follows it to another one: the impact of rising oil prices on areas as sundry as the domestic budget process and urban pollution. He describes how Iran was forced to establish an Oil Stabilization Fund so that it “deposited its oil revenue above the budgeted amount to cover any future deficit due to a fall in petroleum prices” (p. 206). One of the benefits of the surging revenue stream was the elimination of older-model cars, “It came as no surprise…that I saw more and more newer cars on the road. The old polluting vehicles had almost disappeared (p. 206).”
Chapter nine finds Hiro back on firm ground. He takes a hard look at Iran’s relationship (albeit a dysfunctional one) with the United States, and then Europe. What is striking is how pragmatic Hiro makes the ayatollahs, especially Khomeini, appear. If Khomeini was such a hard-line ideologue, why did he ever accept peace with Iraq? He then writes about the “peaceful” nuclear development program being pursued by Iran in quite technical, bureaucratic language. It might have been better to rely less upon his “own straw polling” (p.293) and more on analytical tools. But his point is clear: Iran is going to continue pursuing a nuclear program that may or may not have peaceful intentions.
Hiro takes the Labyrinth analogy full circle. In chapter ten, he looks to the future: the youth and women. With roughly half the population being below the age of eighteen and at least half the adult population being female, Hiro identifies a potential counterweight to the clerics. One of the “success” stories involves Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has seen her career rise and fall and rise again depending on the politics of Tehran (pp. 3013). It is in these personal narratives that Hiro excels. He gives a sense of emotion to the characters inside this Labyrinth. He does not just talk about women’s issues; he tells the reader about a precise woman and her specific journey. In many ways, this is far better than employing statistical or other empirical measures.
No doubt, because of an inability to access direct information and conduct meaningful comparative analysis on Iran, such scholarship is difficult. In many places, the source material was not copious, and the bibliography is quite underdeveloped. Sometimes Hiro simply quotes himself from earlier works. Mostly, however, the author succeeds at taking the reader inside and out of the Iranian Labyrinth, while encouraging the reader to venture back.