What Makes Tehran Tick? The Sources of Iranian Conduct

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Can Republicans and Democrats find common ground on Iran? In his savvy and accessible Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (Times, $25), Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that administrations from both parties have already managed to unite around something rather basic about one of America's main foreign policy challenges: They all get Iran wrong.

That consistent misreading of the country's behavior arises, Takeyh argues, because a broad spectrum of U.S. leaders, from Jimmy Carter to Dick Cheney, has seen Islamist Iran as a grim totalitarian state with an arid political life akin to North Korea's. But Iran's domestic politics are in a state of constant churn, helping produce what Hidden Iran describes as a reasonably pragmatic foreign policy prone to spasms of baffling dogmatism and raving rhetoric. Tehran's national security apparatus, Takeyh writes, is riven by feuds that make the current U.S. splits between State Department and Pentagon officials look mild; in Iran, the disputes are driven by "three competing elements -- Islamic ideology, national interests, and factional politics -- all constantly at battle."

In the 1990s, an odd array of reformist clerics and cranky hard-liners -- with the blessings of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- coalesced reluctantly "around the notion that Iran cannot remain isolated from the global order" and began reaching out to China, Russia and other major powers. But that overture is now under threat from a new generation of ascetic, doctrinaire mullahs who feel that the revolution has grown calcified and corrupt -- a cohort exemplified by the current rightist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems equally passionate about Islamist puritanism, economic populism and Holocaust-denying anti-Semitism.

Takeyh has written a shrewd, timely guide to Iran's schisms, interests and ambitions, as well as offering a bracing and often nicely acerbic look at U.S.-Iranian relations -- from the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran's popular, nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, to the politics of the Persian Gulf in the post-9/11, post-Saddam Hussein era.

So how can America get Iran right? Takeyh urges U.S. policymakers to "to set aside the chimera of regime change," acknowledge the durability of the theocratic republic, resign themselves to a mature U.S.-Iranian relationship that combines competition and cooperation, and start direct talks on such crucial issues as Iran's nuclear program, its sponsorship of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, its reported willingness to harbor al-Qaeda fugitives and its drive for greater influence over the Shiite majority of neighboring Iraq. Takeyh sees Iran as "a problem to be managed," not solved. But, he warns, Washington doesn't have much margin of error left.

-- Warren Bass


© 2006 The Washington Post Company