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Dr. John McNeill is a professor in the School of Foreign Service and History Department at Georgetown where he teaches courses in World History, Environmental History, and International History. His publications include Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1640-1914, The Human Web: A Bird’s-eye View of World History, and Something New Under the Sun: A Environmental History of the 20th-Century World.

"He maintains that even if the majority of Iranians alive have scant knowledge of the Achaemenid dynasty...they are nonetheless influenced by it..."
"He claims that American diplomats, spies, and analysts failed to foresee the revolution of 1979 because they were insufficiently versed in Iranian history and culture..."

William R. Polk. Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, from Cyrus to Ah-madinejad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 247 pp. $17.

William Polk, born in 1929, is one of the more successful scholar-diplomats in American life. He has written more than a dozen books, mainly on the modern Arab world, some for trade publishers and some for university presses. He taught Middle East and Islamic history at Harvard and the University of Chicago. He also served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff and later as an adviser to McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson’s National Security Adviser, charged with handling the aftermath of 1967’s Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

His latest book is his first on Iran. He has visited the country from time to time since 1956, and in the 1960s met the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and some of the Iranian political elite.

Aware of the stalemate that bedevils U.S.-Iranian relations, and frustrated by what he sees as the narrowness of war-game exercises and the field of international relations, Polk wrote this book “to bring forward what war games omit: in short, what it means when we speak of Iran and Iranians.” He feels American policy-makers pay insufficient heed to the history and culture of Iran and Iranians, and are thereby baffled by what seems to them illogical behavior. If they had adequate grounding in things Iranian, he believes, they would better understand Iran, its government, its policies, and its people.

Adequate grounding, in Polk’s view, extends back 2,500 years. He maintains that even if the majority of Iranians alive have scant knowledge of the Achaemenid dynasty they are nonetheless influenced by it. Indeed, he writes, “I am certain that the inhabitants of Iran today are largely governed by their past regardless of whether they consciously remember it.” He appeals to Carl Jung’s notion of “collective unconscious” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “social contract” to make his case... (purchase article...)