A young boy stands behind a flag as he and his mother, supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wait for his arrival at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport May 5, 2010.
Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

The agony and ecstasy of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the Islamic Republic established in its wake, have inspired a profusion of literature. In literally thousands of books and articles, academics, pundits, historical figures, and even cartoonists have dissected Iran, its convoluted politics, its rich culture, and its troubled relationship with the rest of the world. This breadth of material reflects not only the captivating drama of recent Iranian history but also one of the Islamic Republic’s many paradoxes -- that for a supposedly closed society, contemporary Iran is surprisingly open to journalists, researchers, and occasional travelers. Despite this abundance, understanding Iran presents a perpetual challenge for external observers, thanks to the layers of complexity and contradictions beneath Iran’s surface and the country’s proclivity for unpredictability. The difficulty is magnified in the United States, where long estrangement has deprived most Americans of direct exposure to Iran and generated an appetite for sensationalism or sentimentality in place of serious analysis.
The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. By Roy Mottahedeh. Simon & Schuster, 1985.

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The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. By Shaul Bakhash. Basic Books, 1984.
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Iran scholars are a fractious bunch, but one book commands nearly universal respect. Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet, they agree, offers an unparalleled perspective on the revolution and its antecedents as seen through the eyes of an archetypical cleric. Mottahedeh brilliantly weaves the themes of Iranian history and culture through his narrative in a way that illuminates their central influence in shaping the country’s political development. Its brief, poignant epilogue reads as an elegy for the ideals of the revolution’s protagonists. Shaul Bakhash, meanwhile, is both a journalist and historian, and he applies these complementary skills to this classic account of the revolution and the first decade of the Islamic Republic. The Reign of the Ayatollahs is a gripping read that is rich in detailed analysis of the political, ideological, and economic transformations wrought by the revolution. The book is particularly compelling on the formative role that the turbulence of the Islamic Republic’s early years played in shaping a sense of profound insecurity among its leadership.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. By Marjane Satrapi. Pantheon, 2003.
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Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. By Marjane Satrapi. Pantheon, 2004.
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Through austere black-and-white drawings and stark dialogue, these graphic novels recount the revolution and its aftermath through a tale of exile from and eventual return to Iran. The Persepolis stories, which were eventually translated into a film, form a thinly veiled version of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography but speak powerfully to the traumas experienced by a generation of Iranians born in or after the revolution.

The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic. By Asghar Schirazi. I. B. Tauris, 1997.
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Although ultimate authority in Iran is wielded by an unelected religious figure, the country’s post-revolutionary political order incorporates a number of popularly elected institutions. Enshrining this duality is a written constitution whose initial draft was modeled on that of the French Fifth Republic. This meticulously researched book analyzes the fundamental contradictions embedded within the constitution and their resolution in practice, which has gone largely in favor of nondemocratic institutions and precepts.

Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran. By Mehdi Moslem. Syracuse University Press, 2002.
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Conservative, reformist, radical, and everything in between: Iran watchers are all too prone to cataloguing the ideological and political factions within the Islamic Republic, often to the point of analytical futility. Mehdi Moslem’s book rises above abstract terminology to chronicle the evolution and institutionalization of Iran’s fierce competition for power. The book is most valuable in its exploration of the internecine internal skirmishing of the early 1990s that helped lead to the emergence of the reform movement, including considerable attention to Mir Husayn Musavi, who has recently returned to political prominence by contesting the June 2009 presidential election. Unlike many other authors writing during the reformist heyday, Moslem presciently anticipates the influence of Iran’s neo-fundamentalists, a faction that would include current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Youth Exclusion in Iran: The State of Education, Employment, and Family Formation.” By Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Daniel Egel. The Wolfensohn Center for Development and the Dubai School of Government, September 2007.

Nearly every analysis of contemporary Iran refers to its disproportionately young population, at least two-thirds of which have been born since the revolution itself. The policy debate often focuses on the threat that such a significant youth element might pose for the Islamic regime. In this thoughtful paper, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Daniel Egel examine the mundane challenges facing young Iranians in obtaining a practical education, achieving steady employment, and getting married and starting a family. They recommend specific policies to mitigate the problems and capitalize on what is really as much a potential boon to Iran’s future as a destabilizing factor.

 “The Struggle Against Sultanism.” By Akbar Ganji. The Journal of Democracy. 16, no. 4: pp. 38–51. Read
“The Latter-Day Sultan.” By Akbar Ganji. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008, pp. 45-66. Read
The Road to Democracy in Iran. By Akbar Ganji. MIT Press, 2008.
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Akbar Ganji’s biography itself offers a trenchant commentary on the ebb and flow of ideological orthodoxy in the Islamic Republic. Having served during the regime’s early years in the Revolutionary Guards and the fearsome Intelligence Ministry, Ganji progressively became disenchanted. By the mid-1990s, he had transformed himself into an influential political journalist, assailing Iran’s senior leadership in newspaper columns on the regime’s excesses. Arrested in 2000, he later spent nearly six years in prison, where his fate attracted worldwide attention. Today, Ganji remains passionate about realizing a genuine representative state in Iran, although he effectively lives in exile. These writings present his erudite denunciation of Iran’s current system and his effort to chart a path forward.

Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader. By Kasra Naji. University of California Press, 2008.
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The unexpected election in 2005 of a little-known radical populist to Iran’s presidency, along with his emergence as a figure of worldwide repute and revile, generated a spate of inquiries into Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the political conditions that spawned his ascendance. This biography, by the Iranian journalist Kasra Naji, is the widest-ranging and most descriptive, and draws on the author’s personal experiences covering Ahmadinejad as a reporter. The portrait that emerges -- of a provocative and politically savvy hard-liner -- is fascinating, although the lack of independent corroboration leaves doubts about some of the book’s more explosive claims.

  • SUZANNE MALONEY is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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