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The New Hegemon

Author: Vali R. Nasr, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
December 12, 2006
The New Republic

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Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East
By Ali M. Ansari
(Basic Books, 280 pp., $26)

Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic
By Ray Takeyh
(Times Books, 260 pp., $25)

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
By Shahram Chubin
(Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 223 pp., $12.95)

Over the past three years, and with mounting alarm, Iran has steadily held Washington’s gaze, gaining ever more notoriety as one of the most serious foreign policy challenges confronting the United States. An Islamist regime that was being written off on the eve of the second Gulf war is now asserting itself on the world stage and shows no sign of being subdued. Iran sees itself as a great power, and it is pursuing the nuclear capability that would confirm this self-image. It believes that it can play a global role and expects to be treated as a peer by the United States. Washington was certainly caught off guard by the surge in Iranian influence, and more so by the confident and provocative attitude that the country’s hard-line leadership has lately put on display. As Iran has become more important to the United States, so has the problem of dealing with the Iranian question become the bugbear of the Bush administration. America’s Iraq policy is becoming more and more overshadowed by America’s Iran policy, whatever that is. The Bush administration has staked a very great deal on Iraq, but in the end it may be the administration’s handling of Iran, more than of North Korea or even of Al Qaeda, that defines the Bush era in foreign policy. 

Looking at matters from the Iranian side, it is easy to see the Bush years as a turning point. After September 11, Iran faced a bullish Washington that saw no need for engagement and was quick to condemn Iran as a member of the “axis of evil.” The Islamic Republic was then seen as teetering on the verge of collapse, threatened by the democratic ideals of its own youthful population and those of an American president with ambitious plans to change the Middle East in order to help fight the scourge of terrorism—a tired dictatorship on its last legs, collapsing under the combined weight of its sluggish economy (which still cannot create nearly enough jobs for all those young people) and its brutish political regime. All that was needed for Iran to join the other dictatorships born of ideology and revolution in the garbage heap of history was a final nudge in the form of outside support for Iranian dissidents, and the example of democracy arising on either side in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.

How things have changed, and how quickly. Listening now to Iran’s militant president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he confidently rallies the Third World under the banner of anti-Americanism, it is hard to see the Islamic Republic as a government on its way out. The Iranian regime is bold and assertive. It is stronger and steadier now than it was in 2001, and its rulers know this. These hard-liners have weathered the reformist challenge at home and have turned the tables on Washington. Iran has more influence on Afghan and Iraqi politics than vice versa—and this influence is far from friendly to democracy, though it might become helpful from the point of view of stability (in which Iran has a bigger stake than is sometimes realized inside the Beltway).

Ahmadinejad will continue to be a problem. Since his surprising election to the presidency in 2005, he has shocked the world with the things he has said, and with his letter to the American president, part sermon and part diatribe against the West. He never fails to highlight Iran’s defiance; he is never shy about making threats. Ahmadinejad’s continuous references to the Shia messiah have led some in the West to argue that he is gunning for Armageddon, although there is little evidence in Shia eschatology or in Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric to support such an apocalyptic conclusion. His tough words on the nuclear issue, his virulent attacks on Israel, and his denials of the veracity of the Holocaust have been outrageous and alarming. 

It would be comforting if one could simply dismiss Ahmadinejad—arguably the lucky winner of a confused, multi-candidate presidential race—as a not-ready-for-prime-time demagogue and a revolutionary-era relic providing some dark comedy before more pragmatic hands (possibly belonging to the group around unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) take the helm. Yet his brand of militancy is making matters worse at a time of increased tensions in American-Iranian relations, and also of greater uncertainty about which subset of hardliners really rules Iran: the clerical guardians of the revolution, whose outlook may have been tempered by time and experience, or the new breed of militaristic radicals represented by Ahmadinejad and his backers in the Revolutionary Guards. Is he a lone voice or the face of a new and even more dangerous Iran?

 The United States has found it increasingly difficult to deal with Iran in part because the Iranian challenge is directly tied to changes that have been sweeping the larger Middle East. Not only is Iran important to the fate of its neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq, but lately it has managed to influence developments farther afield, in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Egypt and Jordan fear that Iran will overshadow them regionally, while Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchs—all of whom are Sunnis ruling over sizeable numbers of Shias—worry about the spread of an aggressive Iranian hegemony over their domains. The prospect of Tehran dictating security and oil policy, and—most worrisome—intervening on behalf of local Shia populations, has rulers across the region pressing Washington to contain Iran. Pundits and policymakers in Washington have responded with proposals for an American-led regional alliance for this purpose, but in reality there is not much military power or political will in the region to take on the seventy-million-strong and incipiently nuclear Iran. Iran’s Arab neighbors do not have the military capability to contain Iran and are vulnerable to backlash from an American attack on Iran. They may subsidize a containment strategy, but in truth they want the United States to do the job.  

Tehran has benefited from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fall of the Taliban and the Saddam regime removed significant bulwarks against Iranian ambition and influence. As the occupation of Iraq has depleted American power and prestige, making Iran harder to contain, Iran has seized the opportunity to spread its wings. Rising Iranian clout has fed and been fed by the Shia revival that swept across the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq war. The United States regards Iranian material and moral support for Iraq’s Shia parties and militias as part of the problem in Iraq, but can do little to stop it. But it was not the conflict in Iraq that most vividly advertised Iran’s regional ambitions; it was the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. From the outset, Israel and the United States blamed Iran for the fighting. Tehran denied a direct role in causing the conflict (although it is difficult to believe that Hezbollah would have done as it did without consulting Tehran), but heaped praise on Hezbollah (even as Sunni regimes were condemning the Shia movement) and supplied it with sophisticated weaponry. The latest demonstration of its reach gave Tehran another opportunity to change the balance of power with Washington in Iran’s favor.

What Iran sowed in Lebanon, it expects to reap in Iraq. Washington may debate the merits of talking to Iran about Iraq, but Tehran has already hinted that it, along with its ally Syria, holds most of the cards. Their shadow looms large over Lebanon as Hezbollah has tightened its grip and the specter of civil war has come back to haunt the country in the wake of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the leading anti-Syrian Maronite politician. Before the Iraq Study Group could argue the case for engaging Iran, Tehran held its own security summit on Iraq, suggesting that it does not need an American invitation to become involved, and that if the United States wants to deal with Iran it has to think again about the terms of such an engagement.

 Ahmadinejad’s Iran celebrates defiance. More than any leading Iranian figure since the Ayatollah Khomeini himself, Ahmadinejad appears to take seriously the old revolutionary goal of positioning Iran as the leading country of the entire Muslim world—an ambition that requires focusing on themes (such as hostility to Israel and the West) that tend to bring together Arabs and Iranians, Sunni and Shia, rather than divide them, even as it demands efforts to push traditional Arab Sunni allies of the West off to the sidelines. Far from being eager to appease the West, Iran relishes the attention that its nuclear program and extreme rhetoric have generated. In September, when Ahmadinejad visited the United Nations in New York, he forcefully defended Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology, and did not spare the world body in his tirade against Western oppression of the Third World.  

His stridency at Turtle Bay stood in stark contrast to his smug and crude and obtuse interactions with reporters and academics and opinion-makers, notably at a controversial meeting with members of the Council on Foreign Relations. Ahmadinejad certainly has street smarts. Formally, his office is not even particularly powerful (its last occupant, the putatively reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, found himself reduced to a cipher despite having handily won two elections), but Ahmadinejad has astutely made himself bigger than the office through his high profile. But the street is a narrow place, and street smarts are not the same as world smarts. He quite obviously lacks the wisdom and the foresight needed to navigate Iranian policy through the challenges that it faces today. Despite record-high oil prices, unemployment in Iran continues to fuel political unrest and social ills, and the resentments that helped to elect Ahmadinejad can also be his undoing.

After all, Iran has much to lose if its nuclear gambit galvanizes international support for economic sanctions—and even worse, military action—to scale back its nuclear program. Iran also has to walk a tightrope between asserting regional hegemony and maintaining cordial relations with its Arab neighbors. Iran supports the greater empowerment of Shias in the Middle East, but it stands to lose if the Sunni backlash coming out of Cairo and Riyadh were to capture popular attention. A still greater challenge for the inexperienced demagogue in Tehran is how to prevent the emergence of an anti-Iranian American-Israeli-Arab alliance, as Tehran’s policies continue to generate fear in Washington and in capitals across the region. There is little in Ahmadinejad’s behavior and rhetoric to suggest that he understands the complexity of the challenges facing Iran, or the delicate touch that is needed if Iran is to realize its interests. This may be good news, or not.

 Taking their cues from Ahmadinejad, Iranian diplomats now brazenly drag their feet in negotiations and tease Europeans with hints of compromise before balking at the prospects of a settlement. Defiance, they seem to argue, has benefited Iran so far. On the nuclear issue, it has softened the position of the West, which has made far more concessions since Ahmadinejad became president than it did before he won the office. Defiance has also made the Persian-speaking Shia Iran popular on the infamous Arab street and given Ahmadinejad the aura of a Third World champion, a latter-day Sukarno or Nasser. What is rightly worrisome to America is that Ahmadinejad is clearly determined to use his newfound prominence to ratchet up tensions in the Middle East and beyond. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran is bolstering the Arab rejectionist position on the Israeli-Palestinian question, scuttling all talk of peace and regularly denying Israel’s right to exist. This hostile and mischievous posture, coming at a time of impasse in Arab-Israeli relations, can only serve to deepen the chasm between Israel and its neighbors. When he is in Jakarta or Caracas, Iran’s maverick president strikes other notes, lamenting imperialist exploitation of the Third World and manipulating anti-globalization sentiment in order to stir up anti-Americanism and show that Iran is not alone in holding a grudge against the United States. 

This is not, to put it mildly, the Iran that America expected. Ahmadinejad may confirm the image of the “axis of evil” in Washington, but no one expected Iran to wield as much power as it does today. It is difficult to fathom how quickly Iran has changed and how ambitious it has become, regionally and globally. It wants to claim nothing less than great-power status, and it sees nuclear weapons as the short road to that goal. Iran craves recognition from and engagement with the West, and above all the United States, but it wants these things on its own terms. Iranian officials no longer fear America’s wrath, and they often remark that America needs them more than they need America. Iran, they intimate, is not looking for security guarantees, but rather is willing to give them. Iran covets a sphere of economic and political influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. The economies of Dubai, Herat, and Najaf are already closely tied to that of Iran. Iran has invested in clients and allies across the region, expecting to exert influence through them. What Iran wants is for the United States to accept Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf as Iran’s “near abroad”—a zone of influence in which Iran’s interests would determine ebbs and flows of politics unencumbered by American interference—and to recognize Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon. If Tehran’s current ambiguous stance on talks with the United States is any indication, the masters of the Islamic Republic believe that they can afford to wait until Washington comes around to their point of view. 

In sum, a torment and a problem.

II.

A tall hurdle that American policymakers must clear in order to formulate effective ways of dealing with Iran is to figure out just who is making which decisions in a country that often looks utterly inscrutable from the outside—and maybe from the inside, too, for all we know. Iran’s opaque political scene includes different centers of power: the Supreme Leader’s office, the parliament, the presidency, the Revolutionary Guards, and the clerical elite, but also a constellation of formal and informal foundations, organizations, and councils. At the top of this labyrinthine structure sits the Supreme Leader, who under the Islamic Republic’s constitution holds all the strings. Unelected and unaccountable, Ayatollah Khamenei has the last word on where Iran stands on the nuclear issue and its posture toward the United States. But Khamenei is not a decisive leader; he prefers to consult and “build consensus,” which in practice means letting various points of view fight it out before he chooses whom to support. A great deal of debate and lobbying surrounds each decision as it meanders its way through the councils of power. More happens behind the scenes than in formal meetings. The result is that decision-making has been slow and chaotic, though the final compromises end up being more durable.  

This is far from a model to look up to, and many in Iran fault the disorganized process for the country’s many problems. To solve the problem, in recent years more authority has been given to the Supreme Council for National Security in the hope that it would cut the Gordian knot of endless jockeying and deliberation. But the confusion has persisted. The Security Council’s chief, Ali Larijani, reports directly to the Supreme Leader and is officially in charge of the nuclear negotiations, but what he says is routinely at odds with Ahmadinejad’s statements. In August 2006, for instance, Larijani told Javier Solana, the chief European negotiator, that Iran was pondering a voluntary two-month suspension of uranium-enrichment activities, and promised to finalize the matter at a meeting in New York in September, when world leaders converged at the United Nations for the General Assembly session. The prospect of a deal even led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to suggest that she would be willing to meet with her Iranian counterpart. But Ahmadinejad showed up in New York before Larijani, and he quickly denied that Iran had made any such offer, leaving the impression that either Solana had missed something in translation or that Larijani had spoken out of turn. Larijani never showed up, and Ahmadinejad dashed any hopes for a high-level U.S.-Iran meeting in New York. 

In recent months Larijani has done the negotiating, but Ahmadinejad has set the tone. It is an open question whether episodes such as this are signs of an intense power struggle between the Islamic Republic’s old guard and Ahmadinejad’s Young Turks, or an unintended result of a chaotic policymaking process, or a deliberate strategy of good cop, bad cop. In recent months Ahmadinejad has used rallies and interviews to put his own stamp on Iran’s foreign policy. He has also appointed close associates, most with no foreign-policy experience but plenty of ideological zeal, to key positions. Kazem Jalali, who helped write Ahmadinejad’s epistle to Bush, has been elevated to deputy foreign minister. Another senior adviser, Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, was dispatched to Paris in late summer 2006 to discuss France’s troop deployment in Lebanon with President Chirac. Samareh was subsequently named deputy interior minister. 

The Iranian president is clearly doing his best to get a tighter grip on power. But it is not at all clear how far he can go, or whether he has the Supreme Leader’s support, or whether he even needs it. Ahmadinejad is a genuine ideologue with extremist religious views, but he is also a clever opportunist. The immediate task before him is political survival at home. America is important to him at this point insofar as its opposition and humiliation gives him an advantage in the dogfight in Tehran. Washington should not look for clues about Iran’s intentions in Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric alone. It must better understand what is at stake in the struggle for power in Tehran. Since Ahmadinejad has already brought Washington into that fight, perhaps Washington should figure out a way to have a greater say in how it will influence the outcome.

 If ever American policymakers needed level-headed analysis to help them understand how Iran sees the world and its role in it, and who makes decisions in Iran and how, it is now. These books by Ali Ansari, Shahram Chubin, and Ray Takeyh, scholars all, go a long way toward serving this need. For those who want to know how we got to where we are, Ansari provides a fresh perspective. His book is an informative account of American-Iranian relations, spanning some five decades, and it is particularly useful in explaining why Tehran and Washington have so far failed to bury the hatchet. In this telling, historical memories and mutual recriminations loom large, overshadowing the rational thinking and the strategic interests that should draw the United States and Iran together. It is true that Iranian involvement in Iraq has been an irritant to Washington. But so far Iran has supported the political process—elections, constitution, and governments included—that the United States introduced to Iraq. Iran does not want Iraq to fail or break up, and the idea of a civil war next door is certainly worrisome to Tehran. Iran wants the Shia government in Baghdad to succeed, and for Shias to consolidate the gains that they have made since 2003. So why has Iraq failed to bring Tehran and Washington together? 

It is the vitriol against America and Israel on the Iranian side, and the “ritual condemnation of Iran” and the fact that “no rhetorical flourish, no level of hyperbole, seems excessive” on the American side, that Ansari sees as the root cause of the estrangement. Confronting Iran covers familiar terrain: the CIA-backed coup of 1953; the hostage crisis of 1979; confrontations during the Iran-Iraq war, and later in Lebanon and Iraq; and above all the nuclear issue. What is unique here is that Ansari relies extensively on the impressions that he has gathered from his many encounters with Iranian leaders and opinion-makers. The narrative is very much an insider’s view into the Iranian political mentality.

Ansari laments that Iran has been unfairly castigated by Washington. Iran, he writes, is neither as uncooperative nor as aggressive as it is made out to be: “After all, Iran, unlike Iraq, had not invaded anyone, nor had it been defeated in war.” Iranian behavior, he says, is driven not by ideology or malice, but by ambition and self-interest. But there is precious little in the rhetoric coming out of Tehran to merit such optimism in the West. Ambition and self-interest are there, no doubt, but surely Ansari sees Iranian leaders as more pragmatic than they themselves claim to be. Ideology still matters to the Islamic Republic; it must be given its due in continuing to shape Tehran’s worldview.

Iran’s attitude has been hardening as of late, reflecting a growing willingness to challenge international norms and the American position in the Middle East. But this, Ansari maintains, is owed to a purely strategic calculation: as Iran seeks to assert its position in the Middle East, it will have to contend with American power and Israeli interests, which Ansari argues have much to do with American policy toward Iran. Why would Iran challenge rather than accommodate the United States in this quest for power—is it ideological fervor and anti-Western Islamic radicalism? Not according to Ansari. Iran still nurses bitterness toward the United States, he writes, and this colors its strategic outlook. Iran’s posture is born of a feud that continues to smolder on the embers of the memory of the CIA-backed coup of 1953 and America’s help to Saddam’s army in the 1980s. Iranian leaders see history and interpret its grievances through the distorted lens of their ideological outlook, which demonizes America and absolves Iranian rulers of the violence that they have visited on America.

This is not an adequate analysis. There is no country without historical grievances: why must Iran’s be so destructive to itself and to its relations with the world? Is it the gravity of the wrongs of the past or the dogged determination of Iran’s leaders to nurse grudges that is the problem? It is difficult to accept at face value that the United States bears the brunt of the blame for the sorry state of U.S.-Iran relations, or even that there is equal blame to go around. The United States is guilty of many mistakes, but the blame for the hostage crisis and the brazen anti-Americanism of Iran’s revolution surely does not lie with America. The image of an Iran wronged by history may not persuade many in policymaking circles in Washington to adopt a gentler approach to Iran, but understanding the grievances that Ansari enumerates may help many to better understand the mindset at play in Tehran.

For those primarily interested in the imbroglio over nuclear weapons, Shahram Chubin provides a concise and insightful look into why Iran wants nuclear capability and how it intends to go about getting it. Chubin traces the origins of Iran’s nuclear program back to the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war that Saddam launched against the infant Islamic Republic in 1980, but he is quick to point out that “the principal motive for developing nuclear technology appears to be domestic legitimation of the regime ... exploiting nationalist sentiments.” The program went into overdrive in 1999, when Saddam’s Iraq was still being at least somewhat contained by sanctions, and when the United States and Iran were closer to a breakthrough in their relations than at any other time since the Iranian revolution. But 1999 was also the peak year of the reformist movement, when the flowering of intellectual activity combined with boisterous student demonstrations and a flurry of civil society activism to threaten the Islamic Republic with the prospect of having to make serious political changes. Chubin suggests that nationalism galvanized by pride in the nuclear program (the potent combination of nukes and nationalism in Pakistan and India was surely not lost on Tehran) and fueled by a sense of confrontation with the West was one tool that the ruling clerics used to help blunt the reformist challenge. Generally speaking, it is impossible to understand the problem of nuclear proliferation unless one grasps the domestic dimension, the cultural and political valence, of this awesomely powerful weaponry. 

As the nuclear program expanded, so did the confidence of Iran’s leaders. By the time the program attracted international attention, the reformist challenge was gone, but not the nationalist rhetoric and posturing associated with the regime’s effort to squelch the reformists’ appeal. Iran closely tied its nuclear ambition to the “demand for independence, equality and respect,” Chubin observes. Rather than by strategic arguments, Iran’s unwavering demand for acceptance of its nuclear ambition is driven in equal parts by a feeling of aggrievement and a feeling of entitlement. Iranian leaders see their country as a great power, and would like their compatriots to give them credit for gaining Iran its due place in the world. The leadership also believes that the nuclear issue provides the strongest lever that Iran can wield in order to realize its international ambitions, ranging from normalization of relations with the West to asserting Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. 

Iran’s leaders believe—at times it appears naÔvely—that they can rally support for their position so long as they claim that they seek only civilian nuclear energy and that their program remains within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The nuclear issue, both a mark of power and a bargaining chip, can therefore serve as the fulcrum for changing Iran’s international status, but only up to a point. This is a strategy that will work only so long as the international community does not reach a consensus on stopping Iran’s program in its tracks. Once that line is crossed, the nuclear program will likely be as much a burden as an asset to an ambitious Iran. But Iranian leaders do not believe that they have reached that point yet. It is fair to assume that even if they did, Iran would accept the costs, absorb international pressure, and continue on its march to nuclear status. Chubin’s analysis does not hold much hope for negotiations to stop Iran’s nuclear program. There is certainly no evidence that Tehran is even considering such a possibility. 

The great debate in Iran, writes Chubin, is between those who argue that the country can get more cooperation from the West by cooperating more with the West, and those who believe that the West responds better to defiance and that Iran does not have to accommodate the West to achieve its goals. The first camp set the tone for Iran’s conciliatory attitude toward the International Atomic Energy Agency until 2005. It was then that Ahmadinejad became president and quickly changed the nation’s course. His anti-Israel rhetoric, Chubin remarks, amounted to a “complete and studied indifference to and contempt for international opinion.” He writes: “In its twenty-seventh year, it is not clear whether the Islamic Republic of Iran ... still rejects the international system and seeks to overturn it, or is striving to improve its position within the system.” Therein lies the challenge: how to approach an Iran that is struggling to decide its own future, and more important, how to influence that choice. Is it engagement or containment that will most effectively nudge Iran in the right direction? Unfortunately, Chubin’s fine analysis provides few clues in this regard.

 The task is made all the more difficult by America’s misreading of Iran. Washington has come to see Iran as a crude totalitarian regime still driven by Islamic ideology—and since Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, also by millenarianism—and divorced from its population. And Iran’s provocative rhetoric has done little to change this stereotype in Washington, where Iran continues to be seen only as a rogue state, a sponsor of terrorism, a member of the “axis of evil.” Yet there is more to Iran, argues Ray Takeyh in his smart, persuasive, and timely book. If Washington is going to get it right, then it must see Iran as it is. Takeyh incisively dissects Iranian foreign policy and meticulously explains how history, ideology, and nationalism combine to decide how and why Iran sees the world as it does.  

Takeyh’s narrative is rich and accessible, laying bare the paradoxes that dominate Iranian politics and the complexities that the United States faces in dealing with them. Takeyh also shows great dexterity in looking through the jumble of Islamic ideology and nationalism, driven by intense factional and institutional rivalries, to identify Iran’s strategic logic. He argues that Iran is no longer a revolutionary state eager to export its ideology and to shape the region in its own image. It wishes, rather, to influence the politics and the economies of its neighbors to its own advantage. It is driven more by what it sees as national interest than by ideology—although one no doubt colors how the other is interpreted. 

Iran is “a state divided between competing centers of power and profoundly differing conceptions of political authority.” The Islamic Republic, since its inception, has claimed to represent the popular will. The populist and Islamist ethos of the revolution was encapsulated in a theocratic constitution that vested ultimate authority in the office of the Supreme Leader, a cleric who is not elected, is not accountable to any authority, and, as “guardian” of the masses, is the final arbiter and interpreter of all laws, with total veto power over the decisions of all branches and institutions of the state and society. Yet the Islamic Republic also distributes legislative and executive offices through regular elections. Both the theocratic and the elected bodies of the state claim populist legitimacy. The Islamic Republic is thus based on competing and contradictory claims to legitimacy. It is difficult to determine where authority really rests in such a system—in the “Islamic” or the “republican” dimensions of the state—or how this confusion finds its mandate in society. One thing, though, is clear: thinking of Iran solely in terms of Saddam’s Iraq or Qaddafi’s Libya is a mistake. 

It is also not useful to assume that the Iranian leadership is deeply divided in a way that leaves some camps ripe for American co-optation. Iran’s leaders, writes Takeyh, share a keen sense of history—colored by the experience of the revolution and the imprint of Islamic ideology—and they think in terms of national interest. Yet there is also much debate in the halls of power in Tehran, and there is far more room for pragmatism than is often acknowledged. The United States may not get obvious cooperation, let alone friendship, from the Iranian regime, but it could potentially influence its policies and find ways to deal with it. 

To underscore his point, Takeyh provides an accessible history of Iran’s outlook on the world since the revolution of 1979. The picture that emerges is of a radical leadership that has come of age and is eager to expand and exert power, but is cognizant of the need to immerse Iran in the world. In the 1990s, Iran’s leaders sought to end their country’s isolation by building relations with Russia and China and expanding trade with Europe. Today, even as Iran courts international sanctions by refusing to relent in its quest for nuclear power, it continues to see its future as tied to hopes for engagement with the larger world. Even Ahmadinejad’s defiance is designed to extend Iran’s influence in the Arab and Muslim world and more broadly in the Third World. But defiance and Third Worldism will take Iran only so far, and that may prove to be the limit to Ahmadinejad’s power in Iran. A country determined to be recognized as an international power broker will sooner or later recognize the problems with Ahmadinejad’s way and look beyond him. 

Takeyh leaves no doubt that Iran is in the throes of change, not least as a consequence of the cultural dynamism that still exists in this authoritarian state. The only country in the world that compares with Iran in the size of its gap between a high level of social development (as measured by such widely recognized indices as Internet connectivity and female literacy) and a low level of political and social freedom is the nervous little city-state of Singapore. The chasm that divides the vitality of Iranian society from the leaden-handed Islamist state is real, and suggests that in the long run the Islamic Republic will not be able to keep the lid on. Yet the expectation of eventual change does not warrant the assumption that the Islamic Republic is presently unstable or about to fall to a democratic revolution. Nor is there any reason to expect that a democratizing Iran will swiftly renounce nuclear ambitions. Democracy promotion is not a substitute for non-proliferation strategy.   

Rather than waiting for a different Iran or pursuing the “chimera of regime change,” argues Takeyh, the United States should accept that for the foreseeable future it will be competing with the Islamic Republic in the Middle East, but that within the framework of competition opportunities for cooperation might be found and exploited. One such opportunity could have to do with the question of an Iranian stake in the stability of Iraq. While Tehran is no doubt playing the game of backing certain elements—some of them none too benign—among the Iraqi Shia, an Iran that aspires to prestige and influence in the wider Muslim world cannot welcome the prospect of an all-out Sunni-versus-Shia throwdown in the Land Between the Rivers. The Iranian leaders know that while Shias may be a majority in their own country and in Iraq, they are a fairly small minority (maybe 15 percent) in the larger Muslim world, which is and will remain overwhelmingly Sunni.

 Takeyh argues that “getting Iran right” will help Washington bring greater stability to the Middle East and more effectively manage the Iranian challenge. But will it also help Iran “get America right”? Will a more sober American policy toward Iran change Iran’s attitude toward Israel? Iran has routinely underestimated the American commitment to Israel’s security, and Ahmadinejad seems to think that Iran can engage the United States while also ratcheting up the rhetoric against Israel. Without a change in Tehran’s attitude, it is difficult to see how Iran’s rocky relationship with Washington can evolve toward stability. Takeyh seems to suggest that not much is likely to change until the relations between the United States and Iran get past the current confrontational phase to find a stable rhythm. The United States is likely to get more from Iran—including on Israel—once the two countries have a mature relationship. Such a relationship will have to begin with serious engagement, and that is likely to succeed, Takeyh says, where U.S. and Iranian “strategic interests coincide.” Iraq and Afghanistan provide such a possibility, and in the coming months those countries may serve as the venue for engagement. 

Iran, after all, is not the first regional challenge of this kind that the United States has faced. America successfully engaged communist China at the height of the Vietnam War, and embraced a leadership in Beijing that was responsible for the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. And that engagement brought stability to Asia and laid the foundations for change in China. Five years ago, moreover, the United States engaged Iran over the fate of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was about to fall, and the United States was eager to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan after decades of war. Both Iran and America had opposed the Taliban, and both were allied with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Iran, much like the United States, wanted stability in Afghanistan. A common interest provided a framework for cooperation. But successful engagement did not go far; it did not lead to normalization of relations. 

Iraq now presents a similar opportunity. Iran, like the United States, does not want Iraq to fail. The collapse of Iraq would lead to a civil war that would prove costly to Iran in every way. Such a war could produce an independent Kurdish state; it could force Iran to intervene militarily in Iraq or to finance the Shia campaign in that country. Civil war would also sour Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors and tarnish its image from Cairo to Jakarta. More so than Iraq’s other neighbors, Iran has supported the American-backed government in Baghdad. At face value, then, there is strategic common ground between the United States and Iran in Iraq. But for now the United States is not keen to adopt a strategic road map with Iran; and Iran does not see Iraq as Afghanistan redux. Washington wants minimal gains in the form of better security in Iraq from any contact with Iran, whereas Tehran will yield only if there is a path to normalization of relations. The two countries are so close and yet so far from seeing eye to eye on Iraq and beyond.

All the wisdom of these books, and all their sense of complexity and possibility notwithstanding, there remains the Ahmadinejad problem. He is still the popular president of his country. But as Takeyh makes amply clear, Iranian foreign policy does not begin or end with the former mayor of Tehran and his brand of rambunctious radicalism. There is a rough road ahead, but he may still end up as a casualty of a more mature American-Iranian relationship.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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