Book Review

Understanding Iran: A History of Philippines-Iran Relations. Mariano A. Dumia. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2016. 246 pp.

book review
The historic Iran nuclear deal signaled Iran’s prominence as an important regional power and a major international player. Soon after the lifting of the Western-imposed economic sanctions and the improvement of diplomatic relations with the United States and Europe, there has been a flurry of excitement over Iran’s massive potential as a trading partner and as a prime tourist destination. Given these developments, retired Foreign Service Officer Mariano A. Dumia’s pioneering book “Understanding Iran: A History of Philippines-Iran Relations” is therefore a timely reference for Filipinos to better understand this distinct Middle Eastern country and appreciate what it has to offer.
The author, who served as Charge d’ Affaires at the Philippine Embassy in Tehran from 2010 to 2012 and Minister and Consul General from 1996 to 1997, comprehensively introduced the readers to Iran’s more than 4,000-year history and the Philippines and Iran’s centuries of encounters.  The book combines academic research, interviews with former Filipino diplomats and the Iranian-Filipino community in Tehran, and the author’s first-hand experiences, which makes the book valuable not only to students and Middle East enthusiasts but also to diplomats and policymakers.
The first half of the book provided highlights of key moments of Iran’s history that have shaped its culture, society, politics, and its foreign relations. The author gave justice in portraying Iran’s great sense of ownership to its culture and civilization all throughout the years of its imperial ascendancy, defeat, and renewal. This is crucial in emphasizing the distinctiveness of Iran from its Arab neighbors, historically and linguistically. Filipinos are often guilty of confusing one with the other. The author stressed that Iranians are not Arabs; they are “proud progenies of more than 4,000 years of history and civilization.” Unlike other territories, therefore, Persia was not simply Arabized despite the Arab conquests and subsequent Islamization. Rather, Islam only reinforced Iran’s national identity.
The author acknowledged the Filipino’s limited and oftentimes inaccurate, perception of Iran and Iranians. Iran, often confused with Iraq, conjures images of war and terrorism due, mainly to the simplistic media portrayal of the Middle East. The author quashed these perceptions in his narrative which highlights Iran’s rich cultural heritage and unique experience as a nation, which is the product of a long, complex historical interplay of Persian identity, Shi’a Islam, and modernity. While a large part of the book tends to romanticize the height of the mighty Persian civilization, it managed to also adequately explain the historical grievances of foreign intervention that underpin Iran’s relations with its Arab Sunni neighbors, Israel, and the United States.
While Iran still remains an unfamiliar territory among Filipinos, the author amply described the strong people-to-people links between Filipinos and Iranians throughout history. The author made an impressively detailed history of the Philippines’ encounters with Iran that goes back to pre-colonial times up to the present in the context of each country’s historical and political developments. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1964, the Philippines has recognized Iran’s role in regional and international affairs. Iran has supported the peace process in Mindanao through the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), insured the flow of Iranian oil to the Philippines, and safeguarded the rights and welfare of Filipino nationals in Iran.
The change in leadership and the radical shift in foreign policy after the Khomeini-led Islamic Revolution in 1979 did not affect the diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Iran. The author highlighted the influence of strong people-to-people contacts through trade, labor migration, education, sports, and intermarriage in fostering Iran’s goodwill for the Philippines despite being an ally of the United States. Therefore, engaging Iran is not only beneficial but also unavoidable, regardless of the changes in leadership in Manila, Tehran, and Washington.
While the author is optimistic about the prospects of Philippines-Iran relations, especially in terms of trade following the lifting of economic sanctions, he is aware of the challenges that come ahead. The adverse perception of Iran is preventing Filipinos from visiting the country and establishing further contacts. This book’s publication is opportune as Iran, thirty-eight years after the fateful Islamic Revolution, has become a major player not only in the Middle East but also in the world. More and more people are now taking an interest in Iran. Therefore, this book is an excellent invitation for Filipinos to develop their understanding of Iran beyond the headlines and stereotypes. Filipinos and Iranians must overcome the misperception and misunderstanding. After all, as the author accurately said, strong people-to-people link is the “strongest pillar of Philippines-Iran relations”.