Toronto, Ontario–In today’s global geopolitical disorder, Iran is largely seen as a country that is bent on challenging the West and as an actor with its own hegemonic regional designs. It is assumed that Iran is bent on controlling the world’s vital sources of energy and forcing the regional order into line with its geostrategic interests. But if we wish to develop a serious understanding of the country and formulate sound and long-term policies toward it, such daily sensational characterizations do not and cannot be useful tools.
Michael Bonner’s new book on Iran is an essential and timely source for anyone — researchers and policy makers alike — who intends seriously to understand Iran and conduct strategic analysis of its politics. Dr. Bonner’s meticulously researched book on Dīnawarī’ is a study of the earliest work of Persian historiography that has survived. This work was written in Arabic after the Arab conquest of Iran in AD 651, and it purports to cover all human history from the creation of the world down to the author’s own day. Dīnawarī dwells on Persian history before the coming of Islam and evinces a great deal of sympathy for Iran’s ancient language and religion.
The Sasanian dynasty lasted from AD 224 to 651 and it was under the leadership of those kings that Iran became a world power of an equal stature to the Roman empire. This Iranian dynasty eventually collapsed under the force of the Arab invasion. But its culture and traditions were so strong that the victorious Arabs had no choice but to adapt to them. Over time the Muslim caliphate came to resemble a revived Sasanian empire.
The modern Middle East often appears to be suspended between two extremes. On the one hand, regional identities are very strong and the second Gulf War lifted the lid on a cauldron of ethnic and religious hatreds. On the other hand, there is a vision of a single Muslim caliphate stretching from North Africa to the Hindukush mountains, and the fanatics of ISIS seem to be dominated by this fantasy. But the history of Iran proves that the political organization of Eurasia and the Middle East can be different.
Dr. Bonner believes that Iran is a transcontinental power whose span of influence is not only limited to the Middle East, but one that includes Central and Western Asia as well as North Africa. The study of Dīnawarī’s exposition of the rule of the Sasanian dynasty helps us understand today’s Iranian political and cultural dynamics. In fact, as Dr. Bonner explains, it is the Iranian cultural influence that fuels the country’s geopolitical influence and shapes its strategic imperatives in the Middle East and beyond.
The Hellenistic historian Polybius wrote that historians should be ‘men of affairs’. Dr Bonner seems to have taken this to heart, since he has spent the past several years of his life working within public policy. He has been a political adviser at both the federal and provincial levels in Canada, and has never held an academic position. This is unusual, since most historians are professional academics with little or no involvement in public policy.
When it comes to analyzing the Middle East and Iranian affairs, Canada fares very poorly among Western countries. In Canada, much of the analyses and literature on Iran—including those produced in departments of international affairs—are based on deeply ideological affiliations of the so-called experts, who not only demonstrate poor knowledge of Iranian culture and its role in shaping the region’s history, but also produce works that reflect ideological views of their respective organizations. Dr. Bonner is a unique Canadian expert on Iranian affairs and his book is a rarity that offers a refreshing change and much-needed new perspectives on Iran especially at a time when Canada and Iran strive to open a new chapter in their relations. Equally unique about Dr. Bonner’s work is his deep understanding of Iranian culture and the role of Persian classic literature in shaping Iran’s national psyche and its current conduct on international stage.
This book should be read profitably by academics and policy-makers alike.
Photo Credit: Statue of Sasanian king, Khosrau I, (Khosrow Anūshirvan), in a courthouse in Tehran. Courtesy of Ancient History Encyclopedia