Botching Iran

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

January 3, 2007

Review of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, by Ray Takeyh.

Will the United States attack Iran to set back its nuclear program? With Iraq in an ever-steeper downward spiral of violence, and with deepening military woes in Afghanistan, it seems hard to imagine the administration of George W. Bush undertaking another military engagement. The danger that Iran would react to such action by urging the Iraqi militias in its pay to retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq makes the prospect of such an attack even more remote. Yet, some speculate, a president who took little heed of the peril his Iraq misadventure posed to his party’s 2006 electoral prospects—and who is, as newspaper reports suggest, looking for his reputation to be rehabilitated by historians some decades down the line—might still feel that he had a promise to keep by preventing the world’s worst weapons from falling into the hands of the world’s worst regimes. Despite debacles aplenty, the question hardly seems closed.

The likely prospect of a passel of Middle Eastern Sunni autocracies seeking the bomb as a hedge against Tehran and the clear danger to Israel that a nuclear Iran would pose puts the United States in an extraordinary dilemma. A proximate cause for this mess is that the containment strategy that held Iran in check since its revolution is in tatters, a direct consequence of the botching of Iraq. Bush officials undoubtedly believed that their post-9/11 wars would leave U.S. troops and American-leaning regimes on either side of Iran, providing an encirclement of the Islamic Republic that would have concentrated the minds of its leaders. With the pre-war talk of “shock and awe”, the Bush team appeared certain that the demonstration effect of U.S. military power would also have the mullahs quivering in their robes.

It did not work out that way. But if the Bush team dramatically screwed up the management of Iran, it was, Ray Takeyh writes in his superb Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, only the latest in an unbroken line of U.S. administrations to make a hash of things. As he puts it, “getting Iran wrong has been the single thread that links American administrations of all political persuasions.”

Confounded by the complexity of Iran’s Janus-faced political system, with its unelected theocrats and popularly chosen president and parliament, and unable to fathom the twin impulses of Shi’i Islam and the anti-Western revolutionary heritage, U.S. policymakers have typically missed opportunities to reduce the enmity between the two countries. And, in Takeyh’s view, on the rare occasions when they have mustered the imagination to try, they have either misread their interlocutors, as in the Iran-Contra dalliance, or sent the wrong signals, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did in her 2000 effort to break the ice. She apologized for American interventions in Iranian affairs decades earlier, while simultaneously taking the clerics— “the unelected hands” —who controlled foreign and security policy to task, thereby intervening in contemporary domestic affairs.

Well, making up is hard to do. And the Iranians and plain old bad circumstances also deserve plenty of the blame for the inability of the aspiring hegemon of the Persian Gulf and the United States to come to an understanding and even a modus Vivendi. Although Takeyh admonishes the Clinton Administration for not responding more rapidly to the ascent of Muhammad Khatami, who was elected president in 1997, the White House was somewhat understandably peeved by Iran’s sponsorship of the Khobar Towers bombing the year before.

This, however, is a rare misstep in a work that is probably the best single-volume treatment of Iran available. Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations whose conference appearances and op-eds have made him a star of Washington’s Iran policy set, has written a book that moves briskly and insightfully as it analyzes key aspects of the Islamic Republic and its relations with the world outside its borders. This is a soup-to-nuts treatment—and in the era of Iran’s incendiary President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we need to know about the nuts, especially if they are too menacing to write off as delusional. At a time when, as a New York Times opinion piece by Jeff Stein proved, few people in the U.S. government know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, Hidden Iran is a welcome arrival.

Are there any major countries less understood than Iran? Among our foes, North Korea is more opaque, and, among our friends, Saudi Arabia has managed to fence out the prying eyes of many intelligence agents and journalists. But after those two, Iran surely is one of the more bewildering regional powers. Takeyh does an excellent job of providing a concise account of the history that forged Iran into a modern theocracy with powerful revolutionary impulses, tracing a line that stops at such events as the American-backed coup against Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, and the taking of hostages at the American embassy, which allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to turbo-charge the revolution and purge the moderates who stood in his way, to the ruinous war against Iraq in the 1980s.

Takeyh delivers an informative description of the many different power centers from the bonyads—the religious foundations that control a significant part of the country’s wealth-to the mercantile class of the bazaar, to the Revolutionary Guard. His picture is one of a country whose economic aspirations are woefully blocked but whose reformers remain luftmenschen, incapable of organizing effectively to push through needed changes or limit the role of the clerics. And while the pressure for change from many quarters continues to mount, Takeyh chastises those who share the “presumption in Washington that the Islamic Republic is a fragile state about to collapse if America exerted determined pressure.” Instead he assesses that the “flexibility and decentralization of Iran’s Islamic order ensures that it will perpetuate its ruling elite and retain its ardent supporters”, a judgment validated by the emergence of the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. “The starting point of any judicious policy”, Takeyh argues, “is to set aside the chimera of regime change.”

Unfortunately, the dream-wish of regime change has become all the more desirable as Iran has become a greater problem, especially as its nuclear program has advanced. Today, exceptionally, Washington is eager to sit down at the negotiating table with the Iranian leadership, but of course, this is the result of the recent disavowal of an administration policy not to talk to unsavory regimes. Since Tehran appears unwilling to meet the White House’s condition of stopping enrichment of uranium, the new openness may be too little too late. Indeed, Takeyh excoriates the Bush team for ignoring the window of opportunity for a warming that opened after 9/11 and closed with the designation of Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” That denunciation foreclosed the possibility of any kind of new understanding and strengthened those who contended that America was an implacable foe. Takeyh notes, “The bitter lesson of the Islamic Republic remains that hard-liners have historically been the sole beneficiaries of American antagonism.”

In his final chapter, Takeyh suggests that if we want to make progress with Iran on the issues of greatest concern—the nuclear issue, support for terrorism and opposition to the Middle East peace process—we should get out of the habit of “linkage”, of insisting on progress on all three issues at once, because it has produced paralysis. This may be sound advice, though as Takeyh indicates, it is at odds with how Americans instinctively think about such issues, and it will require courage and a leap of imagination to get a negotiating process going that deals with these issues separately.

One can wonder whether this approach still promises success. Takeyh evidently sent his manuscript in during the summer war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon. Yet since then, Iran appears strikingly more emboldened. It seems satisfied that it is yanking the mantle of leadership in the confrontation with Israel away from the Sunni regimes, and, at the same time, has enjoyed the spectacle of the United States becoming more immured in a deteriorating Iraq. Iran’s sense of being on a roll hasn’t been hurt by the unwillingness of Russia and China to support serious sanctions against Tehran at the UN. Foregoing linkage might have helped steer Iran to some kind of agreement over its nuclear program a few months ago. It is increasingly difficult to see any diplomatic effort that would give the theocrats pause now.