Who are the authors?
This is an unusual book—written by 50 seasoned experts on Iran as well as a handful of rising young talent. Although this volume has no political agenda and no single political perspective, the authors approach the subject of Iran with a wide range of views. The goal was to be inclusive of many think tanks and universities around the world. The book also features as many Iranian voices as Western authors to ensure the book is sensitive to both sides of the issues.

What makes this volume different from other Iran books?
The scope is unprecedented. The collection explores 50 aspects of Iranian politics, society, the economy, the military, and the nuclear program. It details Iran’s foreign relations with a dozen nearby countries or regions. It also chronicles U.S.-Iran relations under six American presidents—by the men who crafted policy. It probes the West’s five options in dealing with Iran in the future. And it provides a wealth of data, including a who’s who of Iran’s political elite and four detailed timelines on key events since the 1979 revolution.

Why a primer?
For Americans, Iran is one of the most stereotyped and least understood countries in the world. Relations have been cut off since shortly after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy. Three decades later, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is sparking even deeper debates on policy. A briefing book that would provide context and background about Iran to policymakers, practitioners, academics, and students was the goal.

Many of my longstanding colleagues and fellow Iran experts also saw the value in such a volume and thus agreed to provide unique and critical information. On each subject, the authors lay out the little-known basics and then analyze key events, trendlines, major leaders and political movements. Each author volunteered time and expertise in a joint effort to provide hard information, thoughtful analysis and historic context about key issues at a critical time.

Indeed, the material is accessible enough to be understood by any layman, specific enough to help college students, and rich enough with hard information to be useful for policymakers, yet also sophisticated enough to be fully appreciated by experts. Each chapter ends with guidelines to help understand what lies ahead.

You write, “Iran now represents a far more complex challenge than other hotspots—Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Korea.” Why?
Iran has always been an important geostrategic country, and the confluence of challenges—defiance over its nuclear program, rising repression, support for extremists, and menacing rhetoric—has created a sense of impending crisis both at home and abroad. Tensions with the international community have been reflected in a series of U.N. sanctions since 2006 over Iran’s refusal to convince the world it was not building a bomb. In the end, even Russia and China (two of Iran’s biggest trading partners and supporters) voted for a series of punitive sanctions.

Iran’s actions will be pivotal to global events in the early 21st century because of its resources, ideology, weaponry, allies and location. International concern has reached a new high because of Tehran’s refusal to cooperate with the United Nations to prove its controversial nuclear program is not intended to develop a bomb.

Strategically, Iran spans three of the world’s most volatile regions and its most vital shipping lanes for oil. Iran has the potential to help stabilize or destabilize all four.

Politically, Iran has been the most dynamic and controversial experiment in blending Islam and democracy—and the experiment is far from over. It continues to play out in the domestic political crisis ignited by the disputed 2009 presidential election. The outcome of its experiment could affect the wider Islamic world as profoundly as its revolution.

Militarily, Iran has the largest armed forces in the Middle East and, with the exception of Israel, Egypt and increasingly Saudi Arabia, the greatest array of weaponry. It has also armed militant allies from Lebanon to Afghanistan.

Economically, Iran is one of the world’s largest and most valuable properties, rich with oil and natural gas. Its assets in turn give it leverage and political leeway globally.


In the 20th century, Iran’s revolution was one of three transformative events in the Middle East. What impact is Iran likely to have on the Islamic world in the 21st century?
In the 21st century, Iran’s unique version of God’s government must prove its viability on earth—and that it can deliver what its people want—or risk the same fate as other utopian ideologies.

No Islamic country is likely to replicate the Iranian experience. The costs are too high, the results too controversial. The Shiite character of the revolution also makes it unlikely to be repeated among Sunni-dominated societies.

Yet Iran’s Shiite alliance remains a major power bloc capable of heavily influencing the outcome of elections and conflicts—and sparking tensions with Sunni communities.


What are Iran’s assets and vulnerabilities three decades after its revolution?

Iran’s geostrategic location bridges the world’s most volatile blocs of countries—the Middle East to the west, the Asian subcontinent to the east, and the Caucuses and the Central Asia to the north. Peaceful relations with Iran are critical to the stability of many countries.

In addition, Iran’s resources create a huge cushion for the government against punitive actions such as economic sanctions. In an oil-hungry world, they also undermine international cooperation. But the regime’s chronic mismanagement of its wealth also makes it vulnerable to domestic backlash.


How does Iran’s political system affect its relations with the United States?

Iran’s labyrinthine political system—and competing sources of power—complicate all forms of diplomacy. Engagement, especially with the United States, has become a domestic political issue unrelated to the merits of rapprochement.

 

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