Despite the deep political chasm that separates Iran and the United States, they have repeatedly tried to communicate. These two wary powers have made significant overtures to each other at least nine times since the end of the hostage crisis in 1981. First was the U.S.-Israeli initiative in 1985 (better known as the Iran-contra affair); most recently, in May 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a conditional offer of direct talks. In between, there were official attempts at dialogue from the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, collaboration between Tehran and Washington following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and, more recently, three high-level Iranian communications on the nuclear issue. There has also been a steady stream of unofficial "Track II" meetings between former Iranian and U.S. officials, as well as persistent but unverified rumors of covert meetings.
Although all of these efforts have failed, the very fact that so many officials in both countries have persevered, risking their careers and reputations in the process, is a testament to the importance they attach to getting U.S.-Iranian relations right. Iran and the United States are the two most consequential powers in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It does not take a Clausewitz to recognize that the region's fate may well be determined by these two antagonists.
In his new book, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tries to strip away some of the misconceptions about Iran that have bedeviled Western policymakers. Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic addresses the fundamental questions that plague policy officials (and ordinary citizens) in the West: Is Iran exploiting its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to covertly build a bomb? Does Iran control terrorist attacks against Israel via its surrogates in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories? Is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with all his bluster and wild pronouncements, really in charge of his country? If not, who is? Just how do policies get made in the Islamic Republic? Takeyh wrote his book well before Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and set off a major confrontation with Israel last summer, but these events have merely highlighted the need for the wider optic that Takeyh provides.