For a textured and lucid history of Iran from the time of the Persian prophet Zoroaster all the way to the 21st century, look no further than Michael Axworthy’s sprawling work Iran: Empire of the Mind. His history of the Islamic Republic, which has governed the country since 1979, is also a great read.
From Iranian writers, A History of Modern Iran and Iran Between Two Revolutions are both by the pre-eminent historian Ervand Abrahamian, and are essential purchases, as is Abbas Amanat’s Iran: A Modern History.
Iranian places and lives
Iran is a beautiful nation. Its rich culture and landscapes often can be forgotten when it’s in the maelstrom of a diplomatic dispute. Take a look at these breathtaking videos, which glide over Iran’s landscapes.
If you want some insights into Iranian culture, in 2009 legendary travel guide Rick Steves was granted (closely-monitored) access to the country. His documentary shows how lively – and secular – Iran feels today. But little can beat this account by the journalist Nicolas Pelham, who at the start of this year turned his seven weeks trapped in Iran into an extraordinary travelogue on Tehran life.
As for the culture of the Iranian diaspora, take a look at Hossein Fatemi’s vivid photo essay for Tortoise, exploring how Iranian émigrés keep tradition alive in exile.
Iranian politics and geopolitics
There is much to recommend here, but some great places to start:
– On Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: ‘The Ayatollah’s War’
– On the power of his paramilitary force, the Revolutionary Guards: ‘The Revolutionary Guards Are Poised to Take Over Iran’
– On the Revolutionary Guards’ late general Qasem Soleimani; ‘The Shadow Commander’
– On Tehran’s huge influence in Iraq: ‘The Iran Cables’
– On threats to the Islamic Republic: ‘The Twilight of the Iranian Revolution’
– On the November 2019 protests: ‘A Deadly Crackdown in Iran’
– On the country’s struggle to tackle the coronavirus: ‘Why COVID-19 Is Ravaging Iran Again’
The conclusions of the Iran Tribunal’s 2012 Truth Commission, which examined the Iranian state’s treatment of political prisoners in the 1980s, is available online. For a historical analysis, Ervand Abrahamian’s Tortured Confessions is an essential work, exploring the role of torture and forced confessions before and during the Islamic Republic.
Many of our interviewees have catalogued their time in Evin. Ramin Jahanbegloo, Marina Nemat, Nasrin Parvaz, and Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, have all written moving and thoughtfully about their time in the prison. You can also see some of Nasrin’s poetry and paintings on her website. Maryam Zaree, who was born in Evin, directed a 2019 documentary exploring her birth.
For something a little different, you can watch Jon Stewart’s stunning 2014 film Rosewater, about the reporter Maziar Bahari’s 118 days in Evin five years earlier, and based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Or Persepolis, the 2007 animated film which follows a young girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution.
If you’re more of a listener, check out Mehdi Rajabian, an Iranian composer who was detained in Evin for making music which fell foul of the authorities. He defied a ban and last year released an album Middle Eastern, which brings together 100 performers from troubled regions across the world. Here is his devastating track, ‘Iran’. Rajabian was arrested again just a couple of weeks ago.
The case of dual nationals
Patrick Wintour’s long read for the Guardian is a definitive account on the diplomatic backdrop to the four-year detention of dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Evin Prison. We had a series of conversations with Nazanin’s husband, Richard, while he was on hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy last year. Richard also spoke at our ThinkIn on Iran earlier this year, along with former foreign secretary Jack Straw. You can follow the campaign for Nazanin’s release here.
A recent BBC Panorama documentary brought attention to the families of several British people currently detained in Iran. Nazanin’s might be the most famous case, but hers is not the only one. There are also ongoing campaigns to free Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Anoosheh Ashoori, and Aras Amiri, amongst others.
How to help
Aside from joining online campaigns in support of political prisoners like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the best thing you could do in the UK is donate to, or at least become engaged with, organisations supporting current or former prisoners.
When it comes to Iran-focussed organisations, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center documents human rights violations in the Islamic Republic; The Center for Human Rights in Iran protects human rights in Iran, along with the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center; and United 4 Iran fights for civil liberties, running the Iran Prison Atlas database.
More generally Freedom from Torture helps support survivors of torture, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remain the biggest organisations dedicated to tackling human rights abuses around the world.