When Christopher de Bellaigue first visited Iran in 1999, he found it irresistably alive: under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami, Islamic revolutionary rule was loosening and the prospects for democratic pluralism seemed bright. But over the remaining six years of Khatami's presidency, de Bellaigue watched as the conservative religious establishment reasserted its power and the hopes of reform slowly died. The country seemed to turn its back on all that Khatami stood for when it elected an unsophisticated Islamist ideologue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to succeed him in 2005.
As the optimism of the reform movement was fading, international tensions over Iran's nuclear program were rising. George W. Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil," depicting it as a malign theocracy determined to acquire nuclear weapons and threaten Israel. Yet de Bellaigue's accounts of the nuclear negotiations make clear that the West's opposition to Iranian nuclear ambitions has helped both to empower those who oppose democratic reform and perhaps even to convince Iran it needs nuclear weapons for self-defense.
Beyond the high political drama, de Bellaigue, a long-term resident of Tehran and a fluent Persian speaker, gives a sense of the complexities of Iranian culture and society through striking portraits of Iranians going about their daily lives—reading the poetry of Rumi, looking at modern art, making films under the threat of censorship, trying to get by despite domestic turmoil and military threats. His keen analyses of Iran's politics and its people offer fascinating insights into a often misunderstood nation that poses some of the most challenging problems facing the world today.