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Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran--A Journey Behind the Headlines (Anglais) Relié – 21 septembre 2010

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“Because for us, the war is not over . . .”

FROM HIS FIRST BREATH, the bearded Believer invokes divine power, for among the most devout every communication begins: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate . . .”

This Iranian holy warrior chooses his words deliberately, speaking to me in 1998 in a cramped office in the mosque at Tehran University, where the threadbare furnishings and plain walls mark a monastic preoccupation with issues of the spirit.

His eyes are fearless. And with the certainty of an evangelist on a mission of conversion, Dr. Alireza Zakani is about to take me back with him to the marshy, trench-laced battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He was wounded ten times and survived fifteen major offensives that remain among the bloodiest engagements in modern warfare.

Zakani was just fifteen when he volunteered for the carnage, breaking the age rules to join what he believed to be a “sacred” war. The fight had sparked a spiritual reckoning for Iran, deepened zeal for Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and forged a militant ideology that today forms the bedrock of the Islamic Republic. In their eagerness to get to the war—to prove their faith, their purity of heart—young men would alter the birth date on their identity cards so they could “legally” sign up for combat.

Zakani was as religious as he was eager. His forehead is marked with the indelible dark smudge of a life spent in daily prayer, by the clay disk that Shiite Muslims bend down and press with their heads five times a day, to physically connect with the earth from whence they came.

“We didn’t enter the battlefield to become martyrs, only to defend Islam and the Revolution,” intones Zakani, his paralyzed right hand resting limply by his side.1 “But we knew that if we died, we were going to be martyrs, and that was important to us. So we would have victory either way. If we died, we still won—martyrdom is the highest aim.”

Still today, that collective war experience is alive, and affects every aspect of Iran’s politics and worldview. Iranians call it the “Imposed War,” launched in 1980 when Iraqi forces invaded Iran. The turbulent Islamic Revolution ushered in by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was still young and vulnerable. Then it was beset by a horrific war of attrition and Iraqi chemical weapon attacks that left one million dead and wounded on both sides.

The Revolution survived, but even Saddam Hussein felt obliged to mark the scale of the slaughter. Halfway through the war, in Baghdad, he built the towering crossed-swords monument, its hands larger-than-life metal replicas of those of the Iraqi dictator. When I first saw it in the late 1990s, what struck me most was not the magnificence of the swords, but the nets filled with five thousand Iranian helmets from the battlefield.2

The Iranian beliefs forged in that crucible—where the Iraqi enemy drew overt and covert support from the West—are one cause of the still-bitter estrangement between the United States and Iran. The war became a vehicle to enhance hatred for both sides. In Iran throughout those eight years of conflict, anti-American vitriol became more and more a pillar of Iranian policy. And in America, anti-Revolution disdain led the United States to provide Saddam with satellite intelligence, to make Iraq’s chemical weapon attacks even more lethal.

Inside Iran, the trauma of the conflict meant that ever afterward, True Believers like Zakani would seek to impose their grip on the rest of Iran’s diverse society. After such wartime sacrifices, these ideologues saw themselves as Iran’s self-appointed moral authority, tasked with “defending” the Revolution against all threats, especially those from the West. They wanted to convert their wartime scar tissue into a divine right to rule.

When I first met Dr. Zakani in 1998, that small office was far from the front lines, both in years and miles. At the heart of Tehran University, the mosque is on the edge of a vast asphalted space with a high roof, where carpets are laid down every Friday and prayers attract thousands. Among the revolutionary banners, this saying from Ayatollah Khomeini has long endured: “We will resist America until our last breath.” Prayer leaders hold the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle in one hand while they lead the nation in ritual anti-Western chants.

The rest of the week it is quieter. And so it was when I found Zakani at the mosque office, transported from the present to a past that was very close to his soul. He was back in the reeds, tasting the ingrained dirt of the trenches, breathing the pungent smell of exploding shells, and hearing the air-slicing whistle of blast-hot shrapnel. More than anything, he was reaffirming his conviction that it was God’s war, a battle to proselytize, to convert pagan Iraqis to God’s way, to prove His transcendent supremacy. Zakani was doing divine work fighting along the southern front, and found inspiration and evidence of it everywhere.

But nearly a decade after the conflict, Zakani’s type was no longer the majority. This was because the same war that bonded Iranians with a new national unity—doing so much to solidify the Islamic Revolution—also sowed seeds of deeper division in Iranian society. The spiritual sense with which tens of thousands marched to the front line was not shared by all.

So the war experience magnified the social rift in Iran between those who fought and bled, and those others—most often wealthy residents of north Tehran who had the means to flee the country—who rejected all notions of a “sacred war” and skipped out on its dangers. Even among war veterans, many were growing disillusioned by the repressive authoritarianism and incompetence of the clerical regime, traits which they thought were undermining the very freedoms they had fought for.

It was all these Iranians, the moderates who sometimes leaned toward the West, and war veterans and other revolutionaries adrift in their fear of permanent social and political stagnation, who had in 1997 voted President Mohammad Khatami to the highest elected position in the country, by a landslide. Those voters wanted to keep their Revolution, but they also wanted to reform it.

The back-and-forth between these hard-line and reformist factions—sometimes taking place brutally on the streets, beyond the ballot box—has defined politics in Iran since the Revolution. The winner determines whether Iran should be more a militarized Islamic theocratic state, issuing orders from on high to a spiritualized and compliant populace—which doesn’t really exist so neatly in Iran—or whether Iran’s self-declared status as a “republic,” dependent for legitimacy on the democratic will of the people, should prevail.

That very contest was at the root of the disputed election of June 2009, when the controversial archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the unexpected landslide victor. What is not in dispute is that more than 80 percent of Iranians turned out to vote—the highest level ever in a presidential race—because many thought their vote could dislodge the hard-line incumbent. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei immediately praised the result as a “divine assessment.” But many Iranians called it a coup d’état against democracy. Weeks of violence and bloodshed ensued, searing the legacy of Iran’s Revolution with unprecedented division.

Now the regime was creating new martyrs—for democracy. Officially, just thirty-six Iranians died in that first burst, though some reports said there were more than two hundred in Tehran alone. Among the dead was Neda Agha Soltan, a twenty-six-year-old activist shot at close range by a basiji militiaman passing on a motorcycle. Cell phone footage of her death, of the blood flooding obscenely out of her mouth and nose and across her face, turned Neda’s demise into the iconic image of Iran’s tumult.

The mask had slipped.

Thirty years after the Revolution, its innate savagery was exposed again and now raw. Many Iranians were enraged. Many were afraid. Some were murderous. Some burned posters of the Supreme Leader. The streets echoed with the chants of “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei.” The Islamic Republic—at least down the militarized path where Khamenei had chosen to steer it—had created its own crisis of legitimacy. In the minds of countless Iranians, the regime itself was subverting the Revolution’s original founding principle of freedom.

“The Revolution is your legacy,” opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi declared to rally his supporters.3 “To protest against lies and fraud is your right. Be hopeful that you will get your right and do not allow others who want to provoke your anger . . . to prevail.”

At the peak of the violence in June 2009, Khamenei called the protesters “enemies” who sought to depict Iran’s “definitive victory as a doubtful victory.”4 Those enemies would be crushed. There was no fraud. How could there be compromise over “God’s blessing”?

The Revolution was no longer about the will of the people, the gold standard that had often been held up by Ayatollah Khomeini as a crucial basis of legitimacy. Instead, in one decisive power play in 2009, the contest was hijacked by the most extreme factions in politics. Iranians had witnessed the culmination of a years-long effort to revitalize hard-line conservative rule and make it permanent. With critical roles played by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia, religious ideology was morphing into militarism.

“Do not be worried about th...

Revue de presse

Selected as one of the "Best Books of 2010" by Publishers Weekly: "A veteran reporter on the region brings us the best account we have of Iran—its rich history, artistic legacies, profound internal contradictions—in a copious, balanced, and readable narrative."

"Peterson's style is riveting...

"From sweaty political rallies in dusty provincial mosques, to vast cemeteries dedicated to Iran's war dead, from the tea and macaroons of government offices, to the private thoughts of a necessarily very private people, Peterson brings a living, breathing, all-too human Iran into the reader's hands, and one emerges with a sense of having gained intimate knowledge of, and compassion for, a place too often treated as inscrutable.

"Nothing in these 600 pages is superfluous; all of it is fascinating."

—The Dallas Morning News

"A panoramic page-turner.... Peterson has fashioned recent history into an enthralling saga, infused with suspense and tragedy, and featuring a cast of recurring characters whose unfolding fates offer more than a few surprises....

"The picture of Iran that emerges in the course of Let the Swords Encircle Me is much more complex than that held by most Westerners, but rather than lecturing his readers to this effect, Peterson embeds this truth in the irresistible momentum of his story. As the hard-liners grow ever more oppressive and the 2009 election approaches, you know what's coming, and like a good novelist, Peterson has kept every thread in play....

"There's a Tolstoyan panorama to Let the Swords Encircle Me that's likely to have readers checking the newspaper each day in a fever to find out what happens next."

—Laura Miller, Salon.com

Advance Praise for


“Journalist Scott Peterson has written a marvelous chronicle of Iran’s policies and politics. Drawing on an unparalleled body of interviews with both the mighty and the powerless, he paints a picture of the country in all its fascinating complexity and color. Peterson is a persistent and sympathetic interviewer, but he is also a sophisticated observer of Iranian history and politics. There is simply no better portrait of the tumultuous past fifteen years in Iran—from the intrigues at the top, to the attitudes of ordinary people trying to live their lives in the turmoil of the Islamic Republic.”

--Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University, author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran

“Deeply researched, fair-minded, and scrupulous, Scott Peterson’s Let the Swords Encircle Me is foreign-correspondent journalism at its highest level.”

--Alan Furst, author of Spies of the Balkans and The Foreign Correspondent

“This insightful and thoughtful exploration of Iran’s revolution comes at a critical juncture. Drawing on 15 years of travel throughout the Islamic republic, Peterson provides an insider’s tour of the people and issues that have made Iran one of the most fascinating and frustrating countries in the world for three decades.”

--Robin Wright, author of Sacred Rage and Dreams and Shadows

“With amazing access and dogged persistence, Peterson penetrates deeply into one of the world’s most inscrutable regimes. His reporting is fast-paced, detailed and timely. A must read to understand where Iran is headed, and why.”

--Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent, author of War Journal

“A fascinating and nuanced account of life in contemporary Iran; the veteran journalist Scott Peterson has drawn on years of experience to provide a detailed yet personal account of political and social developments in modern Iran with particular attention to the rise of the hard line conservative movement under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His account of the presidential election of 2009 is especially gripping and essential reading for all those who want to understand and appreciate the depth of the political crisis facing the Islamic Republic. An extraordinary achievement.”

--Ali M Ansari, Professor of Iranian History, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

“With a superb journalist’s sense of narrative and a scholar’s mastery of the subject, Scott Peterson gives us a searing insight into one of the most complex, mysterious, and dangerous regimes on earth. A book that should be on the desk in the Oval Office.”

--William Shawcross, author of The Shah’s Last Ride

“In a wonderful and detailed account, Peterson presents a unique perspective on Iran that weds geopolitical maneuverings with intimate conversations with the man on the street in Iran. Few people in America have had Peterson’s access to both ordinary Iranians as well as their rulers. This is a book that should be read by anyone who wishes to understand this ancient civilization.”
--Trita Parsi, president, National Iranian American Council

“Incisive, humane, and full of vivid reportage . . . perhaps the best account we have of Iran’s complex, embattled reality.”

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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12 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A must-read to understand contemporary Iran 9 octobre 2010
Par Joost Hiltermann - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
I just finished reading Scott Peterson's exquisite book. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to gain an understanding of contemporary Iran - and also wants to enjoy the process of edification. This is a lively and enthralling account full of anecdotes and interviews and impressions that together bring out the rich diversity and, yes, openness of Iranian society as well as its politics. This may sound surprising, given dominant perceptions of an autocratic and repressive regime. But as Peterson persuasively shows, there is a lot more to Iran than meets the eye. In the face of repeated regime efforts to suppress dissent, the opposition remains fearless and indomitable, and it is not limited to the so-called reformers but comprises elements deeply ensconced within the state apparatus.

Indeed one of the book's most interesting revelations is the extent to which the regime itself is riven by discord and dissent, reaching back to the Islamic Revolution's early years, from Khomeini's arrival in Tehran to the US embassy hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the Khamenei succession, and onward. Defections occurred from day one. Several of today's prominent reformers and regime critics took part in the embassy takeover. A number of hard-line militia members have joined the ranks of the opposition, disaffected with the turn the revolution has taken toward a repression that stands in clear defiance of the revolution's religious principles - a point made most forcefully by senior religious leaders who exceed the supreme guide in credentials and rank.

The book's leitmotif is the transformative importance of the Iran-Iraq war to a generation that has reached the highest rungs of leadership today, be it in government or opposition. The war has been mythologized by all who fought in it, but they all extract their own meaning. The war's legacy is now deeply contested, and this battle forms the backdrop to many of the disputes that divide the political class. Peterson shows that you cannot fully understand contemporary Iran if you don't also have a grasp of its roots in this war.

It's a big book but every page is justified. I highly recommend it.
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
In depth look at modern Iranian politics and mentality 19 mai 2011
Par E. A. L. Aspbury - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
In Let the Swords Encircle Me, Peterson draws from a vast amount of first-hand interviews to paint a 3D image of modern Iran, not just about hard-liners and the Western-looking youth, but all the complex shades in between that make up the Iranian political spectrum. He shows how long a shadow the Revolution and the war with Iraq have over the dynamics of modern Iranian politics and how deep the destructive love/hate obsession with a America runs. There is insight into the basis and origins of the histrionic rhetoric of the neo-hardliners; there is a substantial chapter dedicated to the rise of Ahmedinejad. Peterson charts both the rise of the neo-hardliners that Ahmedinejad surrounds himself with and how far they are willing to go to protect their "revolutionary" ideals, and the rise of the Reformist movement that culminated in the 2009 elections.

But Peterson refrains from attacking the hardliners and lamenting the case of the Reformists; it would have been very easy to make a litany of the Islamic Republic's crimes and to criticise the arguments and opinions of those he interviewed, but Peterson lets the events and people speak for themselves (the Western reader will naturally be drawn to a particular conclusion without ideological direction from the author). This is perhaps the strongest element in the book as there is much opinionated journalism on Iran out there without reference to the actual dynamics of thought of any political persuasion in Iran. Let the Sword's Encircle Me is very much rooted in the words of Iranians themselves and not speculative blogging from 5000 miles away. Thus there is a very intimate feeling to the book which, for me, made the recent events in Iran that it describes all the more disheartening. Despite the recounting of these relentlessly disheartening events, in his boundless American optimism, Peterson tries to end on an optimistic note, which is, like the book, rooted in the people of Iran.

Peterson is a journalist and the prose remains light and journalistic despite his extensive research and knowledge on Iran, which makes for easy accessible reading. This is not an academic book but nonetheless this should not deter the academic because, to truly understand why Iran is the way it is today, one needs to get inside the minds of Iranians and Let the Swords Encircle Me provides unrivalled access.
Aafarin Agha-ye Peterson!
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
We Need to Know What's in This Book 6 septembre 2011
Par Neil Stahl - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
We need to understand Iran, and not from some ideologically colored perspective but as objectively as we can, first because we have important policy differences with them that could all too easily lead to a war everyone would lose. And second Iran is a theocracy with the curtailments of freedom you'd expect when the power bases of government, and religion, and now more and more business, are all in the same hands. There are those who want that kind of thing to happen in America, too.

"Swords" is short, but I think adequate, on history. It's more than adequate on first hand testimonies by Iranians of several sides, from hard liners to freedom fighters, taken through the years while Iran went from having the chance to be a democracy to being under the heel of its religious and militaristic rulers.

It lets us see, I think, how Iran came to be what it is and to understand many of the politico/religious groups there and it reminds us of the strong yearning for freedom so many of them bravely showed just a few years ago and which must be bubbling under the surface now. It reminds us of our history with Iran and why even Iranians who hate their rulers might not welcome help from the US that sold Saddam's Iraq poison gas and gave it intelligence to use against Iran.

We see much about the character of Ahmadinejad and his relationship with the Basiji militia and the ruling theocrats. I was disappointed Peterson did not help clarify whether Ahmadinejad wants to end the current government of the country Israel or to do in the Jews in Israel, a vital distinction and one both Ahmadinejad and Israel seem to find it to their advantages to not clarify.

At times as you read this you may feel it's become bogged down but I urge you to read on and soon you'll get to new and revealing material, or at least that was my experience.

Anyway this book yields information important to keep in mind both when our militarists want us to attack Iran and when our worst fundamentalists try to turn the US into a theocracy like Iran.
3 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Journey beyond Iran 8 février 2011
Par Darius Navidi - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
If You are interested in human right issues in the middle east Let the Swords Encircle Me is a terrific read, written by prize winning American Journalist Scott Peterson. Peterson's journey goes beyond the newspaper headlines and tells the brutal injustice within the Islamic Republic of Iran. His book relates to many other injustices in the world (including the recent Egyptian protest), and that a majority of the population is being suppressed by their tyrannical rulers, which many no longer support.
An excellent field-based account of today's Iran, as Iranians see it 1 juin 2012
Par Hugh Pope - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Anyone wanting the back story behind Iranian thinking - on anything from the talks with the West about nuclear issues to the return of the Shia's Messiah - should dip into this excellent book. Reading it is to join the best moments of 30 trips to Iran in the company of an ace reporter - Peterson is Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor - with no need for endless visa forms, corrupting negotiations with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, or the frustration of having to fight tooth and nail for every interview.

After setting the post-1979 revolutionary scene, including a great first chapter on the all-dominating U.S.-Iran relationship, Peterson's experiences start with the false spring of liberal Iranian hopes that accompanied the late 1990s rise of President Khatami and his "democratic Islam". False, because "an organized minority [of hardliners] have more power than a disorganized majority", and Khatami's downfall follows. A conservative newspaper editor points out to Peterson that his hardline faction won when it realized that the demonstrating moderates lacked the ruthlessness for a final push. As he puts it, "a loaded weapon scares one person, but an unloaded one scares two."

Some of Peterson's most original and memorable sections detail the populist, messianic Shiite cult of the Mahdi. Its adherents notably include President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently leaves an empty seat at his meal table just in case the Mahdi suddenly returns. As for the grim realities of Ahmadinejad's rule outside his dining room, there are few more shocking accounts than Peterson's of the suffocating clampdown "in the name of democracy". The freedom seekers of the 2009 Green Movement were considered a grave threat in the mold of other east European "color" revolutions of that decade. Peterson spares no detail about exactly how this ruthless regime set its thugs onto crushing middle class dreams with beatings, psychological warfare to sadistic sexual abuse.

Along the way, Peterson has a remarkable array of Iranians speak about themselves and their country. They tell how the regime's Islamist obsessions have made ordinary Iranians "fed up with religion", in the words of the late Ayatollah Montazeri. Remarkably, even Iran's grand ayatollahs voted three-to-one against the Islamist regime stalwarts who stole the 2009 elections. The new hardline cabal of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard are indeed shown to be "heedless of the damage they inflict on the lives of individuals and families. They assume everyone else is as indifferent to basic human decency as they", as jailed scholar Haleh Esfandiari tells Peterson. And one wonders how long it will be before Iran's rulers wake up to the fact that, in the words of analyst Saeed Laylaz, "Iran cannot make up for its lack of economic might with nuclear technology, missiles and proxy threats in Lebanon and Palestine".

Peterson's enthusiasm for the subject can lead to some gushing moments, especially in the introduction, with Iran presented "as a paradise for journalists, where the tree of knowledge is ripe with counter-intuitive succulence", in which the author finds glimpses of the "fundamental seedbeds of the Islamic Republic" in his role as "a seeker of revelatory experience." Such bouquets are doubtless partly aimed at persuading the publisher to launch all 733 pages of this volume into the crowded sea of Middle East books. It was worth it, and this feast of reportage is sober, original and meticulous. He is also all-embracing, citing not just his own reporting on the past 15 years, but notable journalism by others too. (Not to mention some of his own fine photos, including a crafty extra two hidden in the cover art).

There are, however, no easy assessments of what it all means or illusory answers to over-simplified issues (e.g. "Is Iran building a nuclear bomb?") that hurried policy-makers so often want. The merit of the book lies in its assiduous collection of all the paradoxes that make up Iran. And as always, the answer an outsider will get depends on how he asks the question.

Peterson does offer plenty of insights into the U.S.-Iran relationship, in which he sees Iranians as "prideful fighters" who don't want to be the first to give up. Anti-Americanism is the "critical glue that helped hold together Iran's Islamic regime" and Iranians are convinced that they must never deal with the U.S. from a position of weakness, but Peterson also foresaw Iran's empathy for the U.S. after 9/11, a rare thing in the Middle East. He sees many similarities between the two nations, including a national arrogance, a need for an enemy, and a belief in its own exceptionalism. Whether that makes them "natural allies", as Peterson believes, seems to me debatable. The test will come if and when the U.S. decides to ditch the old blood feud, since, as Peterson quotes Ayatollah Khomeini, "on that day when the United States of America will praise us, we will mourn."

Such an enlightened U.S. reversal of its Iran policy is, anyway, unlikely. Peterson shows well how Israel seized upon America's Iran fetish from the 1990s onward in order to bolster its own diminishing importance after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, one Iranian tells Peterson that Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington are all `hezbollahi' regimes, loving and needing each other as essential enemies. Peterson also wisely points out that most Iranian policies are not ideological products of the "Islamist" bogeyman that the U.S. and Israel love to fear, but aim at regime survival.

Iran thinks it has the right to dominate its region, an Iranian newspaperman tells Peterson, but if that is the case, Tehran perhaps needs to consider earning that right first. In a new version of the tale of the hare and the tortoise, the oil-fueled Iranian economy was double the size of neighboring Turkey at the time of the Islamic Revolution, but has long been overtaken and is now half the size of its more plodding rival. Seizing the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was hardly an "achievement" or worthwhile "second revolution", as Iran portrays it, and is now quite long ago. As the humanity of Iranians bursts through every page of Peterson's book - from regretful basijis to north Tehran heavy metal bands - the reader keeps wanting to say: come on, Iran. It's time to move on.
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