Courtesy Reuters

A Selective Partnership: Getting U.S.-Iranian Relations Right

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.

Iran is unique. A non-Arab (and non-Arabic-speaking) state in the Middle East with its own ancient history and culture and a distinctive political style, it is the only Shiite theocracy in the world. It has both a revolutionary regime and a deeply traditional and conservative society, and its decision-making system relies on shifting coalitions among competing power centers. Iran does not yield easily to the standard tools of Western political analysis. Takeyh, a regular in Washington policy circles and himself of Iranian ancestry, sets out to demystify this conundrum for a Western audience. His book's introduction is entitled "Getting Iran Wrong," and its conclusion, "Getting Iran Right." The chapters in between examine Iran's political history and changing role in the region since the Iranian Revolution, U.S.-Iranian relations, terrorism and the relevance of 9/11 for Iran, Iran's nuclear program, the implications for Iran of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Iran's relationship with Israel.

Takeyh examines these subjects without any of the hysteria that characterizes so much of what passes for political debate about Iran (and without the jargon that often clutters the writing of Washington insiders). His tone is explanatory rather than censorious. If he has any agenda at all, it appears to be the promotion of rational pragmatism -- a stance unlikely to ingratiate him to ideologues on either the left or the right.

SEEING STRAIGHT

"From its inception," Takeyh argues, "the Islamic Republic was a state divided between competing centers of power and profoundly differing conceptions of political authority." Yet even if U.S. officials and pundits can agree that Iran today is not Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Kim Jong Il's North Korea, they seem incapable of resisting the temptation to treat Iran as a unitary, totalitarian, and implacably evil entity. Takeyh views this persistent misjudgment not as the failing of any particular administration but rather as a congenital condition that has plagued U.S. policymaking ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Still, even if demonizing one's adversary is a common tactic of international politics, such careless rhetoric can be costly when it produces policies that do not work.

For Takeyh, there is no question that change is coming to Iran. The country's "sophisticated and youthful populace can be neither appeased by cosmetic concessions nor silenced by threats of coercion," he writes. But he thinks change will come from Iran's internal dynamics and at its own pace. External powers eager to shape or accelerate reform must recognize, Takeyh cautions, that crude appeals for regime change undermine local proponents of transformation by making them look like imperialist lackeys; the forces of repression seize on such statements to stifle the opposition on grounds of national security.

Takeyh aptly shows how President George W. Bush's inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" (alongside Iraq and North Korea) and his calls for regime change in Tehran have produced precisely the opposite of what Bush hoped for. The label may have had a nice ring to American ears, particularly at a time when the United States was beginning to prepare its case against Saddam. But it dealt a severe blow to those in Iran who were fighting for political liberalization. Bush proclaimed the "axis of evil" in January 2002, soon after Tehran and Washington had cooperated in setting up the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan -- their only successful joint venture since the Iranian Revolution. At the time, the reformist administration of Muhammad Khatami was struggling to sustain itself against its radical opponents. Although President Khatami's failure in Iran was due to many factors, not least his own timid leadership style, Washington's contemptuous dismissal of his democratization program appears to have been phenomenally self-defeating, especially considering the slash-and-burn rhetoric Ahmadinejad favors today.

The 14-month period between President Bush's "axis of evil" speech and his triumphal appearance on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, in May 2003, was a time of unparalleled hubris in U.S. foreign policy. Washington had eliminated tyrannical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, briskly and with remarkably little loss of life. Proponents of the audacious use of U.S. power to reshape the Middle East were openly debating whether the next target should be Iran or Syria. In the midst of all the self-congratulation, few U.S. officials were interested in Tehran's offer to hold direct talks on all outstanding issues between Iran and the United States. According to former officials and even Secretary of State Rice, not only was the message studiously ignored, but the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represented U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran, was chastised for exceeding his authority simply by having delivered it.

Wherever one looks in the Middle East today, the specter of Iran hovers like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's table. Quite inadvertently, the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq empowered Iran by eradicating its two most potent enemies, the Taliban and Saddam. And for the first time in history, Iraq's majority Shiite population, which is far more sympathetic to Iran than were the formerly dominant Sunnis, has taken the reins of power. At least partly as a consequence, Iran has become much bolder in challenging the West over its nuclear-enrichment program and in offering gratuitous advice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A NEW BALANCE

These events, together with the fact of Iran's long-standing alliance with the Alawite rulers of Syria, whom many regard as crypto-Shiites, have led some to suspect the United States of having hatched a secret plan to replace its old Sunni allies -- the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- with new Shiite partners. Such a view may seem outlandish to most Americans. But Sunni rulers are genuinely concerned about a possible Shiite renaissance, which, along with the Islamist political revival seemingly under way, could threaten their political and religious legitimacy. Such fears prompted Saudi Arabia and other Arab states initially to condemn Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers last summer. Later, when popular outrage soared over the collateral damage inflicted by Israel on the civilian population of Lebanon, they had to backtrack. But even their momentary willingness to denounce an Arab-Shiite force opposing Israel was evidence that fears of Iran's rising power throughout the region are more than idle mutterings about a new "Shiite crescent."

The United States' Arab friends in the Middle East have vivid memories of Washington's alliance with the shah, and they recognize that, as Takeyh points out, U.S. and Iranian "strategic interests coincide in the region." As they watch the United States systematically eliminate Iran's worst enemies and install pro-Iranian governments in Kabul and Baghdad, they may understand these developments as inadvertent byproducts of the larger U.S. enterprise. But they know that such changes will necessarily strengthen Iran -- and that they will have to live with the consequences.

Iran has not been shy about exploiting the new opportunities. In only a year, President Ahmadinejad has placed Iran in the vanguard of a radical anti-American alliance that includes Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and other populists around the globe. Ahmadinejad belongs to a generation of Iranian leaders who won their spurs in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and his virulent anti-Americanism has embarrassed many of the aging Iranian clerics and revolutionaries who led the revolt against the shah and who regard the Islamic Republic as theirs to rule. But, as Takeyh observes, by quoting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and continuing to parrot anti-Israel slogans that have become ritual since 1979, Ahmadinejad has made it difficult for the old guard to chastise him. And the popularity of his shenanigans has offset his lack of a viable economic strategy. These play well in Iran's provincial capitals and throughout the developing world; in some places, he has attained rock-star status.

Iran is emerging as Israel's main rival. As Takeyh notes, such a rivalry did not always exist. Under the monarchy, these two non-Arab states fashioned a close and productive relationship involving shipments of Iranian oil to Elat in exchange for covert collaboration on missile development, as well as joint agricultural and other projects. That relationship continued well into the 1980s. But the two states have become bitter enemies since. With its incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric, Iran now appeals directly to the Arab people, often over the heads of their more cautious governments. Israel, in turn, has come to see Iran as a threat to its existence on the grounds that Iran's nuclear program and missile development will, in Israel's eyes, inevitably result in a deliverable nuclear weapon unless something is done to stop it. Israel has long regarded Hezbollah as part of Iran's deterrence strategy -- a force that could be unleashed against Israel if it or the United States ever attacked Iran. That reasoning partly motivated Israel's massive retaliation after the Hezbollah kidnappings, and it seems to have played a role in Washington's initial decision to give Israel the leeway to destroy Hezbollah's military and command structures. Many in the region see the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict as a proxy war, the real war being between the United States and Iran. Although Iran's relationship with Hezbollah is no doubt more complicated than the bond between master and servant, there is no question that Iran is deriving both satisfaction and prestige from Hezbollah's reputation as the only Arab force capable of standing up to Israel's might.

Takeyh does not pretend to have a silver bullet for all the problems, but he does offer some sage advice based on his careful and sophisticated reading of the recent history. In his view, effective policy must begin with a willingness to see Iran as it is, on its own terms, rather than as a caricature or a clumsy model of a rogue state. He warns against facile claims that Iran is so fragile that it is about to collapse -- an assessment solemnly repeated for more than a quarter of a century. Takeyh sees Iran as a state in transition, with multiple centers of authority and constant power struggles. It has changed and will no doubt change much more, but, he argues, its basic system is remarkably resilient to wars, economic crises, and intense domestic rivalries.

The United States has relied heavily on sanctions as a way of containing and weakening Iran. But these have had a dismal record, and Takeyh advises U.S. policymakers to consider more effective alternatives. Similarly, he sees Washington's refusal to consider settling one problem, such as the nuclear question, without also addressing Iran's behavior on other major issues, such as the Middle East peace process and terrorism, as a recipe for paralysis.

In Takeyh's view, the first step toward a mature relationship with Iran would be "to commence direct negotiations" on issues of critical importance. (This view is now shared by a growing chorus of analysts.) The crucial issues of Iran's nuclear development, Iran's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Iraq should be handled separately, with progress on one not necessarily dependent on progress on the others. "It is neither inevitable nor absolute that Iran will become the next member of the nuclear club," Takeyh argues, but a more inventive U.S. diplomacy will be required to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. He continues: "The essence of this new approach is an appreciation that for the foreseeable future the Islamic Republic will remain a problem to be managed. This approach is neither one of containment nor an alliance but a policy of selective partnership on an evolving range of issues. By integrating Iran into the global economy and the regional security dialogue, the United States can foster links that allow cooperation on issues of common concern."

Hidden Iran is a skillful policy brief, written in a smooth, graceful style that is accessible to nonspecialists. Takeyh does not underestimate how difficult it is for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America to find ways of dealing with each other, but he demonstrates persuasively that a policy of more of the same will only produce more of the same. Surely, the United States can do better than that.