Solving the Iran Puzzle

December 21, 2010

When I picked up this morning’s paper (yes, I still read a printed newspaper), the first story I read concerned the opening of a franchised Iranian ice cream parlor in Baghdad’s Green Zone. As I read, it struck me that this small development epitomizes the complexities of Middle Eastern politics – specifically, the role of Iran as a regional power and its continuing friction with America. For example, the Iraqi owners of the Ice Pack franchise stated that they would have preferred owning a McDonald’s, but it was cheaper and less expensive transportation-wise to deal with the Iran-based company – and there was less chance of having their store blown up! Yet the article also pointed out that Iran is not popular among Iraqis, and the owners were not publicizing the origins of their store. Economic power, political pariah – how does Iran fit into the Middle Eastern puzzle?

You can find some interesting answers in The Iranian Puzzle Piece: Understanding Iran in the Global Context, a slim but substantive collection of articles from the Marine Corps University Press. The experts whose opinions appear in this little book generally agree that, despite the outlandish and outrageous pronouncements of some of its leaders, Iran’s rulers are not “mad mullahs” mindlessly fostering apocalyptic violence, but faction-ridden yet eminently hard-headed realists whose foreign policies are more influenced by nationalism and Iran’s role as a regional power than by religious fanaticism. One author points out, for example, that despite the 1988-1994 conflict between Shiite Azerbaijan (the only predominantly Shiite nation besides Iran and Iraq) and Christian Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabagh territory, Iran did not support Azerbaijan – seemingly more concerned about possible secessionist impulses within its own province of Azerbaijan than with any sectarian solidarity. Another article notes that Mesopotamia was for centuries a battleground between the Ottoman and Persian empires, leaving a legacy of mutual national distrust not moderated by a common religion (a readable book on these wars would be both interesting in itself and enlightening as to the roots of Iraqi-Iranian relations over time – I wish I had the linguistic knowledge to write one).

The Iranian Puzzle Piece has a lot of information packed into its 100-plus pages, including an Epilogue covering the disputed Iranian presidential election and subsequent repression of the political opposition. I came away with a greater understanding of the complex and ambiguous Iranian political scene, the motivations of its various factions, and insights into the problems stemming from Tehran’s nuclear adventure and implacable animosity towards Israel. I recommend this one highly. You can read it here, get your own copy here, or find it in a library.

One thing about that newspaper article – it said that Ice Pack carried 34 flavors but didn’t say what they were – quince, pomegranate, apricot, Persian melon? I’d love to know!

Country Studies

October 8, 2010

I don’t know about anyone else but, for me, a new Country Studies volume is always a welcome sight. These handsome white hardbacks with the really striking black and red cover graphics are easy on the eyes and first-rate mental nourishment for fact seekers everywhere. The latest one, on Colombia, caught my eye and made me dig around a little for some background on the rest.

The Country Studies/Area Handbooks series, to give it a more official ring, has been funded over the years by the Department of the Army and, since FY 2004, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J-5 to those in the know). Since 1988, the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress has prepared these excellent books. I haven’t been able to run down how far back in time the series extends, but it’s been around for more than 30 years – first as Area Handbooks (when the volumes had green covers) and then Country Studies.

Country Studies present “a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.” They originally were intended to focus primarily on lesser-known areas of the world or regions in which U.S. forces might be deployed, so not every nation is included. For more about the series, go here.

Like all of these books, the Colombia volume presents a concise history of the country, followed by sections on geography, population, religions, education, and social movements. Economic structure, transportation and communications, financial regulations and markets, government and politics, the military and national security – you name it, and the subject is covered, and covered well. Of particular interest are a brief section on Illegal Drugs and a historical and political overview of social violence and the development of insurgencies in modern Colombia. I can’t think of a better serious introduction to the problems and prospects of this key Latin American country than this book.

Although most of the Country Studies series done in the past 25 years or so are available online only, printed copies of Colombia, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba are still available. You also can find these and other Country Studies in libraries (WorldCat is a good search tool) and via various bricks and mortar and online used book outlets.


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