Washington - The idea for The Iran Primer came to journalist Robin Wright because, as she put it, her fellow Americans know so little about a country that is a major American concern.
"We are arguably more ignorant about Iran than virtually any other country except North Korea," she said. "I've been going to Iran virtually every year since 1973, and there is a wealth of knowledge about Iran within a select group of people with a wide range of views. And rather than see the kind of polarization we've seen over other hot foreign policy issues, I decided why not bring a wide cross section of people together, use their expertise - no opinions, just fact and analysis on their specialties - and make sure that it's all-inclusive."
So Wright, a former Washington Post reporter and now a fellow of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, asked more than 50 experts from governments, universities and policy research organizations, from the United States and the Middle East, to write 62 chapters of 2,500 to 4,000 words each with information about all facets of modern Iran: its politics, its society, its economy, its military, its nuclear program and its relationships with the United States and the rest of the world - "concise enough pieces so that anyone could absorb them."
The reader won't know everything about Iran but should come away with a basic understanding, she said.
"I kept saying [to the authors], 'This is for everyone from a college student to the Iran staffer at the NSC [National Security Council], and you really want to write for as wide an audience as you can because even that guy at the NSC is not going to know everything, particularly because he's never served in Iran and doesn't, probably, speak the language,'" Wright said.
The book came together with improbable speed, spurred by the goal of having it in print before talks about Iran's nuclear program reconvened between Iran and representatives of the six nations - Great Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - collectively known as the P5+1.
"I came up with the idea in July, and I had all the pieces in" by early September, Wright said. All but one of the experts she approached agreed to write for the book. Most stayed close to the lengths Wright requested for their pieces, despite the experts' temptation to provide far more. All sent their manuscripts in on time, with some badgering from Wright - and some were early, allowing her to begin editing them.
"Nobody got a penny out of this - nobody - which was another astounding thing," she said. "But everyone felt that it was really something that needed to get done because there's no resource out there like this."
The different writers offer different perspectives, sometimes conflicting perspectives, in analyzing aspects of Iran. "The whole idea was to get the full range of backgrounds. We didn't want to be considered left, right, whatever," Wright said.
Wright said the need to educate Americans about Iran is compelling. "One of the things that Iranians complain about the most is how little Americans know about them when in fact Iranians know so much about us," she said.
What does Wright hope Americans come to understand about Iran? That a majority of Iranians "actually like Americans. Refreshing," she said. "I mean, for all the enmity or the rhetoric from the regime, that the Iranian people kind of yearn for acceptance from Americans. And that there's another Iran that we began to see last year when people took to streets" to dispute the official results of the 2009 presidential election.
Even before the primer came out in print in early December, an online version was getting attention.
"The most innovative part of the project, and the one I'm proudest of in many ways, is the website," said Wright, who called it "a living, organic project. The whole book is on the Web. And not only that, but we have one of the 50 authors posting every two days a new piece of analysis" tied to something in the news.
"We put up the website as soon as we could, and within the first two weeks, with no publicity, we had 32,000 page hits from 103 countries," Wright said. Iran had the third- or fourth-highest number of hits.
"The State Department's a big user; so is the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. You never know. But it's being assigned in classrooms as well," Wright said.
"All it is is a primer, and we know that, but you've got to start someplace," she said.
The primer is available on the website of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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