Interviews: Suzanne Maloney
Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, where her research focuses on energy, economic reform, and U.S. policy toward the Middle East. A former U.S. State Department policy advisor, she has also counseled private companies on Middle East issues. Maloney recently published a book titled IRAN’s LONG REACH: IRAN AS A PIVOTAL STATE IN THE MUSLIM WORLD.
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You have a book coming on Rouhani, the new president of Iran. We are fascinated to know what he is like? Is he indeed a “liberal” and should his outreach efforts be taken for real?
I’m midway through a manuscript on Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, due out in fall 2014. Within Iran, Rouhani has never been considered a liberal or even a reformer. Instead, he defined the center of the political spectrum, and he has been a consummate political operator (he has been described by someone who worked for him as a “true Nixonian.”) But he seems to have extraordinary political acumen – his campaign simultaneously managed to electrify young Iranians who are dissatisfied with the current system even as he reinforced his bonafides among the establishment as the best prospect for preserving the system itself. In only a few months in office, he has managed to take some unprecedented steps – including the phone call with President Obama, contact that hasn’t taken place since before the ouster of the Shah in 1979. Still, resolving the nuclear standoff and rehabilitating Iran’s role in the world and its economy will prove enormously complicated tasks even for a savvy politician like Rouhani.
Are there books on Iran you turned to and would recommend to our audience?
Iran has inspired some fantastic books. Some of the best are those written by journalists, including Shaul Bakhash’s classic narrative of the revolution THE REIGN OF THE AYATOLLAHS and Scott Peterson’s more recent history LET THE SWORDS ENCIRCLE ME: IRAN A JOURNEY BEHIND THE HEADLINES. THE TWILIGHT WAR, by Pentagon historian David Crist, offers perhaps the best analysis of US-Iran relations throughout the first decade of the revolution. I think highly of Ray Takeyh’s GUARDIANS OF THE REVOLUTION, despite the fact that it was written by my husband with whom I often disagree on Iranian politics. Iran’s most prominent dissident, Akbar Ganji, has just published an essay in Foreign Affairs on the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
How did you get seized by the topic of Iran back when? Were there books about that region that intrigued you?
I found Iran the old-fashioned way, through wonderful professors who encouraged me to learn languages and dive deep into a subject that interested me. I took a somewhat circuitous path, having originally studied Russian. I focused on what was then called Soviet Central Asia inspired in part by a book entitled THE SURROGATE PROLETARIAT by Gregory Massell. I later studied Arabic and Persian and found so much of Iranian history and politics to be fascinating. Iran is one of those places that draws you in, particularly after having the opportunity to travel and do research there.
Are you primarily a nonfiction reader or are there novels – Iranian or others from that region – you think people should not miss? In this country, we are rarely introduced to fiction from that part of that world. Would love any recommendations.
Iran is a country of poets and writers, and a literary culture somehow survived – at times even thrived – after the revolution. Azar Nafisi detailed this in her memoir READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN: A MEMOIR IN BOOKS. Still, when I was a student there, I was surprised to find that there were salons organized by publishing houses where Iranians discussed the latest books and journals, newsstands on every corner overflowing with publications, bookstores by the dozens in every city stocked with an array of nonfiction and fiction, including many of the Western classics translated into Persian. But Iranian fiction has deep roots. The national epic, known as THE SHAHNAMEH: THE PERSIAN BOOK OF KINGS by the poet Ferdowsi has just been republished in a beautifully illustrated format. The one book that nearly everyone who has ever studied Iran agrees upon is an amazing piece of historical fiction by a Harvard professor, Roy Mottahedeh. The book is THE MANTLE OF THE PROPHET and it deals with all the major events of Iran’s modern history through the experiences of a cleric caught up in the revolution. There are also many wonderful Iranian writers in the diaspora. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels PERSEPOLIS and PERSEPOLIS 2 offer an unexpectedly moving portrait of the impact of the revolution, and the regime that followed, on the lives of individual Iranians. There are also a few novels about the Iranian diaspora that capture the culture and politics really well – probably the most famous is HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus, but Anne Tyler, who was married to an Iranian expat writer, Taghi Modarressi, also has a wonderful depiction of an Iranian family living in the United States in DIGGING TO AMERICA.
What is on your bedside table now?
I just finished NW by Zadie Smith and am reading OUR TOWN by Mark Leibovich, which is hugely fun for anyone who lives and works in Washington. I’m hoping to pick up Peter Baker’s new book DAYS OF FIRE, excerpts of which have offered a really intriguing picture of decision-making in the Bush administration.
Are there books you reread and, if so, why?
I read everything again and again. Our house is literally overflowing with books, and every time I donate a few bags to the local library system, I wind up bringing some others home. GUESTS OF THE SHEIK, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, is one of the first books that had me hooked on the Middle East. Fernea recounts her experiences in accompanying her husband to do ethnographic research in an Iraqi village during the 1950s. She eventually became a highly regarded academic herself. The book is an unparalleled firsthand look at everyday life, especially for women, written in a way that anyone could pick up and enjoy.
Is there something – or some genre – you read for pure brute fun?
I love to read, but the jargon in most academic writing makes my eyes cross. In my spare time I usually gravitate toward fiction. I just read Jonathan Tropper’s ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO, and, like all his books, it’s enormously fun to read. And I love Jhumpa Lahiri and can’t wait to read her latest THE LOWLAND.
Is there a work—or works of history – that you were knocked out by?
The book I come back to again and again is THE PRIZE by Daniel Yergin. He basically tells the story of the century; the book nominally focuses on the energy industry, but he manages to weave in every major historical development of the 20th century in a way that is nuanced and much more rich in detail than most broad historical surveys manage to achieve. Every time I pick it up I’m a bit amazed at the way he manages to convey an enormous amount of information across such a wide range of topics – and still keeps the book a great and exciting read.
If you could tell President Obama something about Rouhani (perhaps you have!), what would that be?
Hassan Rouhani was elected to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the world, and his government has broad popular support, buy-in from the establishment and a slate of senior officials who understand the world and want Iran to return to the world. For these reasons, he offers the last best chance to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability without going to war. But consensus in Iran is fragile, and mistrust on both sides remains high. Rouhani has proven he is willing and capable of taking risks to achieve a deal with the West; we will have to be prepared to do the same. We should be prepared to move quickly and boldly to take advantage of this historic moment before it passes.
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Check back at the beginning of each month for a new interview in which journalist Anne Taylor Fleming asks well-known writers about their favorite books. And if you’ve missed an interview, you can find it here too.