Of all the relationships between the United States and its adversaries, the rift with Iran appears to be particularly long, deep, and difficult to repair. Iran’s seizure of U.S. diplomats just after the 1979 revolution, its attempted export of Islamic fundamentalism, and its sponsorship of global terrorism inevitably brought the new Islamic republic into conflict with Washington. A member of what George W. Bush called the “axis of evil,” Iran has also been accused of meddling behind the scenes in Iraq and building a secret nuclear weapons program. If that weren’t enough, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad manipulated last June’s elections and has cracked down hard on pro-democracy advocates.
However, Iran and the United States do not have to remain eternal enemies. So argues Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-born scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, in his useful and engaging new book, Guardians of the Revolution. Over its 30-year history, the Islamic Republic has reached out to the United States as part of a larger, pragmatic shift in foreign policy. America, for its part, has consistently failed to respond. The result, Takeyh argues, has been a tragedy for Iran, the region, and the United States.
Guardians of the Revolution traces the development of the Islamic Republic from its birth in the 1979 revolution to the rise of the reformers and eventually to their eclipse by new conservatives like Ahmadinejad. As happens with revolutionary states, Iran inevitably moved toward greater pragmatism. It built close relations with Russia and China and eventually buried the hatchet with the Sunni-led governments of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
But the best example of diplomatic pragmatism has involved the United States. Under the reformist administration of Muhammad Khatami, Tehran played a constructive role during the first Gulf War and helped win the release of American hostages in Lebanon. Later, Khatami was one of the first world leaders to send condolences after 9/11. Subsequently, Tehran sided with Washington in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In return, Iran received little more than harsh rhetoric and a flawed containment policy. Washington remained too focused on Iran as an avowed enemy of Israel and supporter of Islamic insurgents in the region. As Takeyh points out, however, a more imaginative U.S. policy of engagement, through “dialogue, compromise, and commerce” could provide Iran incentives to commit to regional stability.
Instead of containing Iran, the United States should acknowledge the country’s influence and work to channel it in peaceful and stabilizing ways. Takeyh notes that Iran is key to any plan to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, a future regional security framework will require the kind of cooperation between Iran and Iraq that Germany and France, also once dire enemies, provide for Europe. The United States helped bring Germany and France together. With an avowed pragmatist in the White House, the United States could play the same matchmaking role in the Middle East—if it listens to the advice of Ray Takeyh.