Five Best


by Shorts

Insights into Iran can be gleaned from these masterly works, says Middle East expert Michael Ledeen
Wall Street Journal

October 6, 2007; Page W8

1. The Strangling of Persia
By W. Morgan Shuster
Century, 1912

Iranians tend to believe that their destinies are shaped by powerful forces beyond their reach -- and it's not just a collective fantasy. In the early 20th century, control over Persia was brutally exercised by Russia and Britain. Desperate Persian rulers of the time turned to the U.S. to find an expert who could sort out the kingdom's ransacked treasury. The man they chose, W. Morgan Shuster, fell in love with Iran and worked feverishly to introduce virtuous financial practices. He never had a chance; the Russians and Brits sent him packing. "The Strangling of Persia" is a remarkable account of life in a failed, corrupt state and a tale of heartbreak for an American who foolishly believes that he can prevail by force of will and hard work. Lessons for strategists abound.

2. Know Thine Enemy
By Edward Shirley
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997

When Reuel Marc Gerecht worked for the CIA as a Middle Eastern specialist (1985-94), the agency would not allow him to venture into Iran. But when he left the CIA to become a scholar (he is a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute), he decided to sneak into the country by hiring a driver and hiding in a padded box on the floor of a truck. In "Know Thine Enemy," written under the pen name Edward Shirley, Mr. Gerecht describes the trip and what he found. "An Iranian can scream 'Death to America!' one moment and ask you sincerely a minute later to help his sister get a visa to the States, a land they both adore," he writes. "Those feelings are not contradictory; they are sequential. Commitments come and go, then return." Given Iranians' similar love-hate feelings about the mullahs who rule them and the West's decadence, he asks: "How do you know when Iranians aren't lying to themselves?" Mr. Gerecht doesn't know. How could he? They themselves don't.

3. The Adventures of Haji Baba of Ispahan
By James Morier

James Morier, a British diplomat in Persia in the early 19th century, published "The Adventures of Haji Baba of Ispahan" to great success in 1824. Morier's tale, about a barber's son who seeks his fortune, is a delightful series of encounters that cut to the heart of Iranian society. We see the Chief Executioner explaining to Haji: "Do not suppose that the salary which the Shah gives his servants is a matter of much consideration with them: no, the value of their places depends upon the range of extortion which circumstances may afford, and upon their ingenuity in taking advantage of it." The culture of corruption is little changed in contemporary Iran. And the religious fanaticism that Morier tweaked also echoes down the years: A character named Nadan who wants to become Tehran's religious leader, Morier writes, has no peer "either as a zealous practiser of the ordinances of his religion, or a persecutor of those who might be its enemies."

4. The Persian Puzzle
By Kenneth M. Pollack
Random House, 2004

Kenneth M. Pollack spent years at the CIA, then migrated to the National Security Council during Bill Clinton's presidency. Like every other government official who has tried to normalize relations between Iran and the U.S., he came to grief. And like most such failed dreamers, he continued to believe that there must be a way. His odyssey is the best account we have of recent Iranian history and U.S.-Iranian relations. "The Persian Puzzle" is remarkably candid about the illusions and failures of the men and women for whom Mr. Pollack worked -- people he often admired.

5. Prisoner of Tehran
By Marina Nemat
Free Press, 2007

Marina Nemat was arrested at age 16 in 1982 and held in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison for more than two years, accused of antiregime activity. She was not an activist but a friend of leftists and a Christian. In prison, she was interrogated and tortured, then sentenced to death. But a guard named Ali had fallen in love with her and saved her from execution. She remained in prison, though, and Ali became her husband -- as well as a new source of menace when he forced her to convert to Islam by threatening her family. In "Prisoner of Tehran," her gripping, elegantly written memoir, Ms. Nemat, who now lives in Canada, reminds us that it is through the details of daily life that the evils of a regime such as the Islamic Republic are best understood.

Mr. Ledeen
is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, "The Iranian Time Bomb" (St. Martin's), has just been published.


more from Shorts

Ledeen doesn't know shit about Iran

by Q on

The "Edward Shirly" book has been discredited as mindless drivel by a dillusional loser. Ruel Marc Gerecht doesn't even cite this book anymore. Is Ledeen really that far gone? Here's what some of the reviews say on



Mr. Shirley was wise to use a nom de plum with this Garbage, October 10, 1999 By Edward W. Jawer (WYNCOTE, PA USA) - See all my reviews (REAL NAME) Mr. Shirley sneaks into Iran, hiding in the box of a truck, where he should have stayed. He spends 3 or 4 days in Iran, most of it trying not to be seen. He walks around for a few hours. He speaks to 3 or 4 truckdrivers, 2 or 3 shopkeepers, and a few assorted others, from which he assembles a complete picture and understanding of the Political and Social infrastructure of Iran. Along the way he explains, on just about every other page, how the CIA is a complete failure in every facet of it's existence, how all the career people in it's employ are arrogant idiots who are devoid of all compassion and intellect. He explains each of the Cia's mistakes, along with his explanation of what they ought to have done. He is, of course, ex CIA himself, having left it because no one there understood anything about anything.


A self-promoting CIA agent's view of Iran, June 29, 2003 Reviewer: A reader The author was CIA employee who was merely in charge of interviewing Iranian "walk-ins" at the US embassy in Turkey but apparently felt like he was an Iran expert because he had a couple of Iranian girlfriends and learned the language from a CIA course or two (though he had never actually been to Iran.) So, apparently going no where at the CIA, he retires, jumps into a box in the back of a truck and "infiltrates" into Iran where, by his own account, everybody knew he was coming and nobody cared (His truck driver had already alerted everyone including his relatives) So the guy eats some kabob, walks around a bit at truck stops, fantasies about how the female relatives of the truck driver must really be sexually attracted to him, etc. Then, apparently unable to bear the pain of having been ignored by the authorities, he makes up a fantasy story about how unseen agents of the government must be chasing him. So he gets back in his box and returns to Turkey. He claims that he couldn't just travel to Iran normally as other tourists from the US do because there was a risk that he may be idenitied on the street by one of the "walk-ins" he had interviewed in Turkey. Sure, but is getting caught hiding in a box any less suspicious? In fact, he apparently never considered for a moment the potential harm to US interests if the Iranians had wanted to make an issue out of the capture of even a retired agent of the CIA. But I guess self-promotion was more important to him. But here's the more ironic thing: since then, the author (real name: Reuel Marc Gerecht) has gone on to join the right wing think tanks that advise GW Bush on foreign policy issues, and is treated by them as some sort of Iran expert: A very sad statement on the nature of US-Iran relations.


Read it as a joke book for laughs, don't take it seriously, April 15, 2000 Reviewer: A reader This book is completely bogus. It's basically about an ex-cia agent who becomes obsessed with Iran and goes on a journey to Iran. Instead of going as a tourist or using the many other ways he must have learned as a CIA agent, he sneaks into Iran in the back of a truck, much safer than going legitimately isn't it? What an idiot. The man who drives him tells his familly to welcome the guy by making kabob for him, a barbeque, what a secret agent indeed. Throughout his short stay in the country (a few days) he makes stupid conclusions like: I was being followed by UN-seen forces, which I never saw. He has no proof that anyone was even after him but yet he says they were. He's been watching too much X-files. On the other hand he says that ALL Iranian women secretly wanted him. Again, he has no proof, he just assumes this. What a moron. He says the best undercover agents in Iran are those who speak English, they seem like Iranians to Iranians. The last time I checked the official language in Iran was Farse. His statements don't make any sense. He always tries to make his work poetic by referring to himself using Persian, Iranian history and metaphores. It's just sounds ridiculous. At one point he says that he was called "The Angle" by people he had just met, but that angels have mercy and he would not. LOL. This guy lives in this psychotic paranoid world thinking that he's James Bond or something when no one even cares about him. This guy needs to get out of this illusion he is living in and come into the real world. As the title says: Read this book and laugh, it's really a joke, nothimg more.


Of the rest, the Ken Pollack book is not badly written, but really mediocre. But since Pollack was an enthusiastic cheeleader of the Iraq war, I don't trust his judgement at all.


Nazanin Ghasemian should be sleeping.

by Anonymous_ocd (not verified) on

When I saw no comment on your post regarding Mr. Ledeen's recommendation, I thought Nazanin G. should be sleeping :)