There’s no use pretending Iranian politics can be boiled down to simplicities. It’s not just the bad, old conservatives vs. the good, new reformers (although it’s that to a fair degree). This review of three key recent books on Iran provides some urgently needed background. It digs into the centuries-old roots of Iran’s Shiite religious establishment, then moves briskly to the present. Among the intriguing nuggets: Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in his war against Iran underpins Tehran’s stubborn nuclear policy; Iran’s impressively high literacy rates for both sexes, with women a majority among college students, suggests why women are so key to the current pro-democracy push; George W. Bush blew a chance to improve U.S.-Iran relations during a brief rise of relative moderates opposed by the clerical elite.