Recommended reading, films on Iran and Israel

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-chief Emeritus

The following is a selected reading list of books on Iran, Israel and the Middle East, which could be helpful to those seeking clarity on the underlying issues of the ongoing crisis.

On Iran:

• “The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower,” by Robert Baer (Crown Publishers, $25.95). Baer pens a concise, well-researched book on the evolution of Iran from a pro-Western ally of the United States under the Shah into its present theocratic and threatening regime. He offers original diplomatic ideas about weaning the Iranian regime away from its extreme views and determination to dominate the region.

• “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,” by Stephen Kinzer (Wiley, $24.95). In this compelling non-fiction account of the August 1953 coup that ousted a left-leaning and nationalistic premier and restored the Shah of Iran to power, Kinzer fills in the details of a heavy-handed U.S. intervention into Iran’s political affairs. It planted the seeds of anti-American resentment among the Iranian populace, which contributed to the 1979 ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi and his replacement by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ushering in the present theocratic system in Iran. This is must reading for an understanding of an important phase in U.S.-Iranian relations, which Kinzer and others believe contributed to Iran’s fanatic anti-American and anti-Israel stances.

• “Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran—a Journey Behind the Headlines,” by Scott Peterson (Simon & Schuster, $32). Peterson, a veteran and highly respected Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, has compiled a comprehensive, solidly researched compendium of history, journalism, interviews and often-overlooked nuances regarding Iran’s policies and politics. Peterson offers textured analysis and vivid descriptions of all aspects of Iranian leadership and society, including the mullahs and Republican Guards as well as oppositions forces, the merchant class, women and other groups who joined the ill-fated 2009 Green Revolution against the present regime.

• “All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran,” by Gary Sick (Random House, $28.95). Sick, who was the principal White House aide on Iran in the late 1970s and during the hostage crisis, and a senior research scholar at Columbia University, details the roots of the present crisis, which he traces back to the early ambitions of the Shah.

• “The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation,” by Sandra Mackey (Plume, $26). A survey of the historic underpinnings to Iran, which was known for thousands of years as Persia, and its emergence as a heavily-armed, modern nation-state that suddenly collapsed in a revolution led by a frail Imam living in exile in Paris, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

On Israel:

• “A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time,” by Howard M. Sachar (Knopf, $39.95). Sachar, like his late father Abram L. Sachar, is one of the most respected Jewish historians in the world today. In this volume, now in its third edition, Sachar provides the political, religious, philosophical and historic underpinnings to modern Zionism and the State of Israel. He includes extensive information of the Iran-Israel relationship, which had been remarkably positive under the Shah to the fanatic anti-Israel and anti-Semitic policies of the present regime, including Iran’s role in the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and Iran’s support of Hezbollah and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

• “Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” by Martin Gilbert (Macmillan, $6.95).  One of an excellent series of clearly presented maps of Israel and its neighbors through the years since Israel’s War of Independence. A very accessible compilation that show the geostrategic challenges faced by Israel, which is only as large as the state of New Jersey, and has been surrounded by nations bent on its destruction for over 60 years.

• “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky (Viking, $27.95). Ross and Makovsky are both fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Their co-authored book provides “out of the box” thinking for moving forward with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a clear-eyed view of the threat from Iran.

• “What Every American Should Know About the Middle East,” by Melissa Rossi (Plume, $16). Rossi, author of “What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World,” provides a comprehensive and easy-to-read guide to the perplexing, ever-changing, always volatile Middle East. She discusses why Iran is viewed as a threat by most Middle East countries; why the U.S. is “turning the Persian Gulf into an armed fortress”; which resource is more important than petroleum in regional power plays; what is really behind the fighting between Sunni and Shia; how Saudi Arabia inadvertently feeds the violence in Iraq and beyond and which countries in the region show hope for becoming modern, forward-looking, stable and increasingly stable regimes.

• “The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East,” by Kenneth M. Pollack, et al, (Brookings Institution Press, $26.95). A collection of top flight essays by Middle East specialists on the effects of the “Arab Spring” Egypt, Libya and Syria, but also on the reactions of the non-Arab Middle Eastern states—Iran, Israel and Turkey—and those of China, the European Union, Russia and mostly, the U.S. An excellent and comprehensive survey of the convulsive events of the past 12 months in the volatile Middle East and North Africa and how they all interconnect with the conflicting interests of other players in the region as well as the Great Powers. A good companion book on the earlier phases of the Arab Spring is “Rock the Casbah,” by Robin Wright, which traces the initial spark in Tunisia when a young fruit vendor in Tunis, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the long rule of the autocratic president of Tunisia who was forced to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia. He became the first domino before the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (who was also killed), as well as the conflict still raging in Bashar Assad’s Syria.

Recommended films

• “A Separation,” directed by Asghar Farhadi, won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells a candid and believable portrait of a family stuck in the reality of theocratic Iran, forthrightly depicting the free-spirited wife as wanting to leave Iran, the husband’s dogged refusal to do so, and the religious concerns of a hired caregiver about what Islamic law will or won’t permit vis-a-vie her doing her job. The film reminds us there are millions of ordinary people living in present-day Iran and not all Iranians are religious fanatics who spend their days railing against the U.S. and Israel.

• “The Debt”—both the Israeli and U.S. versions depict the skills and limitations of Mossad, Israel’s famous espionage agency, which is believed to have played a role in killing some Iranian nuclear scientists and possibly destroying an Iranian missile factor, as well as sabotaging centrifuges with the Suxnet virus.

• “Not Without My Daughter,” directed by Brian Gilbert, 1991. Sally Field stars in this film based on the true-life experience of Betty Mahmoody, an American wife and mother who accompanies her Iranian-born husband on a visit to his homeland. Once there, he decides to stay. She learns, to her horror, that under the theocratic regime in Iran she has no legal domestic rights as a wife or as a woman. Regardless, she sets out on a harrowing quest to escape with her daughter from Iran.

• “Exodus” and “Cast a Giant Shadow”—early, romanticized versions of the birth of the State of Israel, which despite some corny qualities still contain some vivid and inspirational moments.


• “Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama,” by Dan Senor. The Wall Street Journal, op-ed, March 5, 2012. Published the week of President Obama’s speech before AIPAC and his later meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dan Senor, co-author of “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” sets forth the various episodes during the Obama Administration which caused some supporters of Israel to doubt the President’s support of the Jewish State.

• “Not the Time to Attack Iran,” by Colin H. Kahl, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2012. Kahl, associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Affairs and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, offers a strong reply to a previous Foreign Affairs article by Matthew Keoning which claimed that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was the “least bad option.” Kahl warns: “The lesson of Iraq, the last preventative war launched by the United States, is that Washington should not choose war when there are still other options, and it should not base its decision to attack on best-case analyses of how it hopes the conflict will turn out.” He comes to an opposite conclusion to that of Koening: “now is not the time to strike Iran.”

• “Iran, Israel and the United States,” editorial, The New York Times, March 6, 2012. This editorial succinctly summarizes most aspects of the United States-Israel relationship since President Obama took office. While acknowledging that both Obama and Netanyahu “share responsibility for the strains in their relationship,” the editorial stresses, “But there should be no doubt about Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security. When he warns that an Israeli attack on Iran could backfire, and that ‘there is still a window’ for diplomacy, he is speaking for American and Israeli interests.” The same basic positive interpretation of Obama’s stance on this issue was taken by Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times. Both articles should be read in the context of the interview of President Obama by Jeffrey Goldberg for the April edition of The Atlantic magazine, in which Obama said he is “not bluffing” when he warns Iran that his goal is “not containment” but “prevention” of Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

• “American Jewish Committee Praises President Obama’s Ongoing Commitment to Isael’s Security,” by David Harris, executive director of the AJC. In his March 5 news release, Harris states, “President Obama has made clear, lest there be any doubters, that the solid foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship endures. As Israel today faces exceptionally challenging diplomatic and security challenges, it is gratifying to hear President Obama declare that ‘when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back’” Harris also praised Obama’s statement that “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction.”

• “Israel’s Right to Survive,” by Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Gordis writes, “International exasperation of Israel’s role in its conflict with the Palestinians has created an atmosphere so poisoned, that in the name of ‘fairness,’ even proposals that could lead to the destruction of the Jewish State are now given serious hearing. Has the international community become so corrupted that we now compare Israel’s moral compass to Ahmadinejad’s?” He adds, “If Iran is a rational actor, the only factor preventing its attacking Israel is Israel’s second strike capacity. And if Iran is not rational, all the more reason Israel should not bear sole responsibility for ensuring that Iran not acquire such a weapon of mass destruction.”

• “The ‘Jewish’ President,” by Bret Stephens, op-ed, The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2012. Stephens asks, “Should Israelis and pro-Israel Americans take President Obama at his word when he says—as he did at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washginton, D.C.—‘I have Israel’s back’”? Stephens answers his own question, stating, “Here is a president who fought tooth-and-nail against the very sanctions on Iran for which he now seeks to reap political credit. He inherited from the Bush administration the security assistance to Israel that he now advertises as proof of his ‘unprecedented’ commitment to the Jewish state. His defense secretary (Leon Panetta) has repeatedly cast doubt on the efficacy of a U.S. military option against Iran even as the president insists it remains “on the table.” His top national security advisers keep warning Israel not to attack Iran even as he claims not to “presume to tell (Israeli leaders) what is best for them.”