The same concern for Christianity led to the arrival of American Presbyterian missionaries in Iran at the end of the 19th century. They went there not to convert Muslims, but to provide “spiritual enlightenment” to the Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians who lived in Iran but whose Christianity was deemed to be “twisted and degenerate.” Zealous Christians, however, were not the only Americans on the scene. It is almost certain that “the first Americans and Persians to interact in person” were not missionaries but “rum traders.” Even then, in spite of public pretenses of piety, Iranians were and still are great consumers of what was called “Boston Particular (rum laced with whiskey).”
It was not all Bible and booze. From the mid-19th century, Persian reformists and potentates were keen on establishing diplomatic ties with the United States as a countervailing force against Britain and Russia. But none of these efforts and inducements, including invitations for America to invest in Iranian oil, were enough to entice a United States preoccupied with domestic challenges. No less serious an obstacle was Britain, which, after the discovery of oil in 1908, did all it could to prevent American involvement in a country the United Kingdom saw as the empire’s cash cow. Ghazvinian offers a fascinating look into what he calls “one of the great unspoken rivalries of the 20th century: the competition between the United States and Great Britain for Iran’s vast petroleum bounty.” Oil is a subject the author knows much about. A previous book was “Untapped: The Scramble for African Oil” (2007).
But if the first section of the book, spring, has fascinating nuggets of insights and facts, the narrative of the last three seasons becomes choppy, falling prey to what Ghazvinian rightly describes as the problem with so many recent studies of United States-Iran relations — the tendency to look for “someone to blame, or something to defend.” The root of the problem might well be the noble instincts of what can be called “progressive” historiography. These well-intentioned accounts — attempting to correct what they often rightly dismiss as one-sided narratives by offering the perspectives of the historically oppressed — sometimes teeter dangerously close to legitimizing the Islamic Republic of Iran with its claims to represent the marginalized, anticolonial forces, although it is itself the embodiment of harsh forms of authoritarianism.
“America and Iran” rightly posits that “antagonism between Iran and America is wholly unnecessary,” and, as Ghazvinian affirms, there is in the United States a powerful chorus that wants nothing to do with Iran. There are also elements in Israel and Saudi Arabia working against normalized relations between the two countries. The book is commendably exhaustive in its effort to expose the machinations of these forces.
No less powerful, however, are the leaders of the current regime in Iran, particularly Ali Khamenei, who thrive on United States-Iran antagonism. A historian’s commitment must be to all the facts, but Ghazvinian makes only passing reference to the government’s rash radicalism. Perhaps because of his instincts as a progressive historian, he is more dogged in the pursuit of exculpatory arguments or suppositions that could place less blame on Iran’s leaders. In the last few years thousands of critical new documents have been declassified — in both the United States and Iran — that shed new light on the relationship between Washington and Tehran. But there is little trace of them in “America and Iran.”