Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dwyane Wade and 90s Slang

           In honor of Dwayne Wade's recent return to form since the All-Star Break, check out this throwback post from the spring before Lebron's "Decision" in 2010 from my good friend Andrew Zolot. My nostalgia for the pre-decision glory days is running strong as the playoffs and the impending free agency of the Big Three draws nearer and another glorious rebuild comes ever closer. This article was originally written for The Dartmouth Independent, but their site is unfortunately no longer online, so here it is:

          The phrase “talk to the hand” was popularized by esteemed thespian Martin Lawrence during the five season run of his sitcom Martin.

 Its use, together with the implied second half of the statement “because the face is not listening,” allowed the 90’s American to ward off any homies that were attempting to ice their grill easily and effectively. Then Martin went off the air in 1997, and, sadly, the phrase has been unusable ever since. Unusable, that is, until Sunday afternoon when Dwyane Wade, in the midst of one of the dopest playoffs performances witnessed since these phrases were in vogue, went old school on the Boston Celtics. After scoring eleven points in the first two minutes and forty-seven seconds of the fourth quarter, Wade trotted down the floor, talking to his own hand. And every face in the American Airlines Arena was listening.

            Dwyane’s performance is notable first and foremost for the ease and style with which he converted a six point deficit to a five point lead. At this stage in his career, it’s rarely surprising when Wade goes supernova and almost single-handedly wins a game. He outscored the entire Celtics team by himself in the fourth quarter, posting nineteen points to the Celtics’ fifteen on five of six shooting from the field. He drained all four threes he took. Make no mistake: these are not human qualities. Few other players have that gear, and it’s precisely this type of play that makes Wade the de facto second prize in what will be one of the hottest free agent markets the NBA has ever experienced (second prize after LeBron James, who is hereafter referred to as “Optimus Prime” based on the fact that he is an indestructible basketballing machine, and because we’re keeping this firmly grounded in nineties pop culture). 

            Wade’s antics in those moments when his greatness comes to the fore make him, at least for this Heat fan, the best entertainer in the game. He has only two peers in the NBA skill-wise in Kobe and LeBroptimus. But Kobe is at the point where he is so accustomed to his greatness that game winning shots don’t even faze him. Sure, he’ll knock ‘em down almost every time, but the only reward is a cool nod and possibly a chest bump or two. He’s not in it for the fans, he’s just a creature that needs to win to validate the insane amount of work he puts into the game (and for good reason). Optimus, on the other hand, is very much the greatest basketball show on earth. He is a veritable three-ring-circus, a basketball freakshow from another planet. No other player is as physically gifted, no other player as unstoppable. He jumps higher, passes more accurately, runs faster, and does everything but lay waste to opponents with shoulder-mounted rockets and lasers. But even when LeBron is peering down into the rim – literally – as he tomahawks another two points that feel like they should count for ten, the performance is somehow cheapened by the fact that you simply expect it. The man is six-feet-nine-inches of the greatest athlete you will ever witness. You would be disappointed if he didn’t dominate.

            Wade’s game, on the other hand, is all drama. He stands a mere 6’4”, yet he collects blocks on the biggest players in the league through sheer how-the-hell-does-he-jump-that-high?-ness. He weaves through defenses with a slick combination of wicked handles and changes of direction that are impossible to predict or keep up with. And he has an unmatched sense for the moment. Case in point: March 9th, 2009, Bulls-Heat, three seconds left in the second overtime, Wade steals the ball from John Salmons and dribbles the length of the court, hitting a running three pointer to win the game as time expires. He then sprints over and jumps up onto the scorer’s table, screaming over and over that “This is my house!” just in case it was still in doubt. Or how about the time he blocked Amare Stoudemire (only six inches taller than Wade) with his forearm, launched a sixty-eight-foot shot and danced all the way down court as it splashed through? YouTube that insanity if you haven’t seen it. And then there was Sunday, when Wade screamed at his own hand like a madman after putting in another signature, game-winning performance. As he said after the game, “I was telling [my hand] he was hot. We were having a conversation about that.” This is the attitude and these are the moments that make Wade one of the most adored and sought after brands in the league. And this is why I want him to stay in Miami.

            Of course, four-for-four-from-three is out of character for Wade, a point made all the more salient as he missed all three treys in the fourth quarter of game five. Unable to produce another Herculean effort to pull the rest of the flotsam that fills out the roster into the win column, Wade and the Heat crashed out of the first round of the playoffs for the third time in four years. And so the summer that will make or break the Heat franchise has just about arrived. The speculation over where Wade, Optimus, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, and the rest of the Summer of ‘10 free agent class will land is only barely overshadowed by the playoffs, but it’s no secret that Wade’s preferred option is to build a title contender in Miami. That he will stay is no foregone conclusion, though. His first priority is winning, and after the game five loss Wade made the prediction, “This will be my last first-round exit for a while.”

           The burning question is whether Pat Riley can lure the right free agent to Miami to persuade Wade to stay. The Heat figure to have about $24 million in cap room to work with, more than enough to sign a max free agent and then some. And that’s not even taking into account the possibility that the Heat might be able to move Michael Beasley, James Jones, and Daequan Cook to take their payroll all the way down to zero, aside from Wade. With a projected cap around $56 million next season, that leaves the possibility that two max free agents could join Wade in Miami.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Heat’s future is just as much about what happens after the dust settles and the marquee free agents have signed their max contracts. Signing Dwyane and another max free agent would make the Heat instant contenders in the East, but the makeup of the rest of the roster would determine whether they are good enough to bring home rings. The only three players currently on the roster that are relevant in that regard are Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, and Michael Beasley. Wade has stated before that he would prefer Udonis Haslem (and Dorell Wright) stay with him wherever he signs, going so far as to say in his most recent interview, “I would love for them to be here. I would love for them to be with me for the rest of my career. They’re like my brothers. I love those guys.”

Trying not to read too much into Wade’s use of the word “here” – i.e. in Miami – it’s reassuring that he acknowledges Haslem’s value to the organization. Haslem, the only other holdover besides Wade from the 2006 championship team, is the Heat’s second best player, their most consistent rebounder, and an incredibly clutch shooter from 16-18 feet. Keeping Haslem, a consistent contributor and possible starter with whom Wade is very close and incredibly comfortable on the basketball court, should be a priority. Wright is expendable, but could prove an economic backup if resigned for at or less than the $2.75 he is due in this, the final year of his contract.

Then there are the enigmas of Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley, the Heat’s top two draft picks from the 2008 draft. Mario Chalmers has struggled with his consistency this season after an impressive rookie campaign in which he started every game and proved to be a dynamic backcourt with Wade, providing a consistent three-point option as well as generating plenty of steals. Chalmers should be retained, if only because he represents cheap labor. The Heat have a $847,000 team option for next season that would provide a backup point guard, and possibly a starter, at as much of a discount as they’re likely to find in the market this summer.

Beasley, on the other hand, should be shown the exit. It’s tough to swallow, but it appears that Beasley was, if not a bust, surely not worthy of the second pick that the Heat spent on him two years ago. The monstrous statistics he put up in his freshman year of college have simply not translated to the NBA. He has difficulty scoring against the physically imposing defenses in the league, his shot is streaky at best, and his rebounding has suffered now that he doesn’t hold a physical advantage over his opponents. Add to that his off court issues and lack of focus and discipline in late game situations, and you’d be hard pressed to justify spending the $5 million he would be due next season. His offensive promise is unquestioned, and there will likely be a team out there willing to take a gamble on his upside, specifically in a deal that would be designed to clear cap space for Miami. Beasley could thus be gotten on the cheap, and the Heat could be rid of their failed project in the hopes of building a contender with the money freed up. That brings us to the main event (although how everything will shake out chronologically is the basis of much speculation): assembling a contender. The formula is pretty simple. The Heat won a championship in 2006 with a young Dwyane Wade and an old Shaquille O’Neal. 2006 was Wade’s coming out party, and Shaq’s last year of real dominance. Following that logic, an older Wade in his prime plus another all star in his prime should again catapult the Heat to the upper reaches of the league’s pecking order. It’s only fitting that three of the top four free agents, aside from Optimus and Wade himself, are big men. Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, and Carlos Boozer have all shown the ability to play both power forward and center. Any one of them would slide into the 5 slot that has been vacant since Shaq was shipped to the Phoenix. Center is, of course, the Heat’s biggest need, as the position has only technically been filled in the past couple years by the undersized Haslem and the corpses of Jamal Magloire and Jermaine O’Neal. Stoudemire was nearly traded to Miami at the trade deadline this season, Boozer is on record stating his preference for Miami (he has a house there), and Bosh is widely reported to be seeking to ply his trade somewhere in the south after being trapped with playoff nonentities Toronto.

Of course, then there’s the pipe dream of pairing Wade with Optimus and bringing showtime to South Florida. I’ll be the first to admit that the odds are extremely long, and so won’t spend much time on it, but allow yourself a moment to share the fantasy. How would you play LeBron and Wade if you couldn’t double either of them, because to do so would be to automatically give the other two points?

But before any of this even matters to Miami, they have to ensure that Wade resigns. The repeated insinuations by the Celtics’ color commentator during game four that “this could be Wade’s last game in a Heat uniform” were certainly unnerving. As if! The proposition is a doomsday scenario, and would spell the crippling of the franchise, even if the Heat did sign another all star. I, for one, choose to take solace in Wade’s increasingly suggestive comments in recent interviews while nervously awaiting this summer’s soap opera to unfold. “I’ve said it all year. My heart is here. Everybody knows me, I’m mostly heart more so than anything. That’s all I can say. My heart is in Miami and if everything works out I’ll be in Miami again.” And if everything does work out, Miami, and the NBA, very well might be on the verge of birthing a new basketballing dynasty, one that would demand the creation of an entirely new slang lexicon where “talking to the hand” means the affirmation of greatness. Word? Word.           


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Standardized Tests as a Predictor of Success in College

The SAT and ACT are conventionally thought to be the most important components of a high school student's application to college. This is probably because of the fact that standardized tests are used by colleges as somewhat of a "great equalizer" among masses of high school students with very similar grades. The test provides a means to differentiate among some of these students and also gives admissions officers some idea of what a 4.0 GPA at a random school in Idaho means compared to what it means at an elite college preparatory school in Massachusetts. In other words, when admissions officers have such limited information about students and their schools, the SAT and ACT serve as extra sources of information from which to base their evaluation of applicants. And, as the former admissions officers at inGenius Prep have confirmed, the mantra "the more information, the better" is true with respect to standardized tests.

Although statistics about the strength of the SAT and ACT as predictors of college performance has been out there for awhile, the din of criticism of standardized tests has grown louder over the past few years. These studies citing the tests' predictive ability are all fairly methodologically flawed (a subject for another blog post) because of the inability to control for myriad variables; however, most people accept (not necessarily based on any empirical evidence) that higher standardized test scores reflect higher ability and will result in improved performance relative to lower scores on standardized tests.

A recent NPR article about "test-optional" schools calls this conventional wisdom into question and cites statistical evidence that students who apply to schools with "test-optional" admissions policies who choose to submit test scores only outrank those who choose not to by 0.05 GPA points. The NPR article cites this as evidence that the tests have a poor predictive ability when it comes to GPA. Yet, the tiny sample size, the bias from self-selection of people, and a variety of other factors make this data almost meaningless aside from its rhetorical appeal. The article goes one to discuss how high school GPA is a much better predictor of a student's academic performance in college (measured by GPA), which is certainly an intuitively appealing argument (and one that I happen to agree with). Nonetheless, the purported statistical evidence for the claim is too flimsy to hold up such a weighty proposition.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Greg Oden STARTING for the Miami Heat Tonight

Greg Oden will not only be suiting up for today's game against the Bulls, but he will be in the starting lineup. This marks the first time that Oden will be in an NBA starting lineup since December 2009 and bodes extremely well for the Heat. He's been playing relatively regularly with no notable setbacks (crossing fingers). Miami's training staff has done a great job staying disciplined with its approach to getting Oden back into shape so that he can make an impact in the playoffs against Indiana for the ECF and whoever comes out of the Western Conference for the Finals. With Lebron sitting out this afternoon to nurse his broken nose, this should be a good spark for Miami.

It should be interesting to see how many minutes Oden logs this afternoon. His conditioning is getting better, but he still has only broken double digits in minutes a couple times thus far. I'd like to see him get at least 15 minutes tonight. Starting should help him stay warm when he re-enters the game (to start the second half) while giving him plenty of rest in between spurts on the court.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Granger to Heat?

It's unlikely that Philadelphia agrees to buy out Danny Granger's contract for the remainder of the year. But, if for some reason this actually does happen, that opens the window for Granger to go to the Heat, which will make the Turner/Allen-Granger Trade a colossal mistake for Indiana. Even if everything goes right though, it seems like Granger might prefer to go to the Thunder or Spurs. Both of those teams might actually have the ability to afford to pay him on a new deal next year and can offer Granger significant playing time. The Spurs have a knack for salvaging veteran players whose careers have been threatened by prolonged injury or other fit issues and Granger would be a great fit in their system. The Heat, on the other hand, have also demonstrated the fountain-of-youth-type ability to resuscitate the careers of yesterday's stars. Granger would have to hold a serious grudge against Indiana to run off and join the Heat, but if he's truly hungry for a championship, he might just do that. Miami is probably the best stage for him to show off the mark he can make on a new team and the role he will be able to play on a championship contender; he needs to prove he can still make a big impact in order to get the type of new contract he would have been all but guaranteed had he not continued to have injury struggles over the past couple of years.

Still, any scenario in which Granger leaves the Sixers before the end of this season remains a long shot, even if Granger gives the them a big financial break on the buyout. Essentially, they would have been giving up Lavoy Allen and Evan Turner for some minor salary relief and a second round pick if they agreed to that. Granted, that situation isn't terrible, but you'd have to assume Sam Hinkie was intrigued by the sign-and-trade possibilities for Granger to squeeze out another pick or two or some more cash when he made this deal. If the Sixers got Granger to buy into the idea that he was showcasing himself for his next contract, he could fit well into their permanent fast-break style of offense and really pad his stats.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Exclusive Lecture at with Stephen Kinzer

October 28th, 2009: Best-selling author and veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer gives a short lecture to a history seminar co-taught by Professors Garthwaite and Navarro at Dartmouth College regarding the U.S. involvement in coup attempts in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. Kinzer's lecture is followed by a Q&A segment.

Exclusive Lecture with Stephen Kinzer at Dartmouth College from David Mainiero on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

inGenius Prep's Partnership with the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance

inGenius Prep is proud to announce that its non-profit division will be working closely with the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance to identify promising students and guide through the college admissions process!

Check out David Mainiero's weekly blog series on the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance site.

Median Grade Reporting Leads to Middling Grades...and Confusion

For three years, I’ve tried to convince myself that Dartmouth’s inclusion of median grades on our transcripts makes some sense. There must be some discernible benefit, I’ve told myself, to students, or at least to the institution as a whole; if not, why would the board have ever implemented the policy? Now that I’m applying to law schools, my latent frustration with the idea of median grades has reached a tipping point.

Obviously, the Board believed that the inclusion of median grades on transcripts would serve as an effective weapon against grade inflation at Dartmouth. In this regard, the policy can only be described as a failure; since 1994, the average overall GPA has increased from 3.25 to 3.33 as of 2001. Recording median grades on students’ transcripts is Dartmouth’s way of conveniently deflecting responsibility for grade inflation to its students. The policy is an example of the administration papering over the problem; it exacerbates grade inflation, facilitates easy class selection, and encourages a culture of academic mediocrity.

All of these problems are linked. The median grade system urges students to seek out classes with A and A- medians so that they can skate by while achieving higher GPAs than those that take classes with lower medians. Even worse, professors are given license to unilaterally implement their own grading systems, which only makes grades more meaningless. I’ve had professors tell me that if the median isn’t an A or A-, then they have failed as educators; on the other hand, I’ve had professors tell me on the first of class that only two A’s would be given out. The latter group of professors, who try to keep their median grades low, in order to stave off the ire of administrators or department heads, believe that median grade reporting solves any problems associated with their approach. Moreover, some classes (especially sciences) also have quotas for each letter grade, so students can get exactly the same grades as a student the year before me in the same class, but get a completely different grade. Because the GPA system remains unchanged, an A- in a class with a B+ median will always look better than a B+ in class with a B median. Sure, graduate schools might take notice of the median grades, but they still calculate your GPA in the same fashion. Mental asterisks can only do so much.

More importantly, median grades sustain the middling tendency whereby it becomes relatively easy for most students to reach the B+/A- mark with a reasonable amount of effort, but extremely difficult to actually make the next leap to an A. In other words, grade inflation at Dartmouth rewards the average student at the expense of the “exceptional” (most syllabi use this word to describe work meriting an A) student. At Dartmouth, largely because of median grade reporting, grade inflation is more about grade distribution then it is overall inflation. It’s grade inflation on a bell curve --- everyone is pushed toward the middle, but the middle is artificially elevated.

If I were paid as a consultant to graduate schools, I could by no means reliably distinguish between a difficult course selection and a schedule loaded with what many would call “lay-ups” based solely on the median grades reported for the class that term. And, if I can’t do it, how would an admissions officer be able to do so? For instance, according to median grades, my HIST 59 class was comparable in difficulty to ENGS 11 because both had median grades of A-. However, I did approximately eight hours of work total during the entire term exploring the various technologies used by the Department of Homeland Security, while I did maybe twenty times that amount of work studying the History of Warfare. But, the consensus on inGenius Prep’s staff of over 45 former admissions officers from elite graduate schools is that admissions committees love Dartmouth transcripts.

The fact that admissions officers seriously value those median grade statistics is really frightening. Not only do they spend very little time reviewing your file, but they also seem to think they can reliably glean information about the strength of your schedule from these median grade reports. If Dartmouth intended for median grades to serve as some indication of the strength of a student’s course selection, they should also include the cumulative median grade for all classes each term so that there is a baseline for comparison. Although I am by no means advocating this as a solution, it would undoubtedly be an improvement from the status quo.

Despite my strong bias, I believe that the only solution is no solution. Everyone should just get over the fact that grade inflation is inevitable, and not necessarily such a terrible thing. Schools across the country are always going to try to improve their reputations and put their students in the best position to attain admission into graduate programs and top jobs. Just the other day, one of my friends from a state school in Florida was lamenting the fact that the school had just changed its grade policy so that an A- no longer counted the same GPA value as an A. Oh, and my other friends there have near-perfect GPAs and haven’t been to a physical classroom in two years because they take their classes online.
These sliding grading scales are ubiquitous. Ivy League schools just tend to get more heat for it. However, their impetus for grade inflation is not quite the same. Dartmouth admits 12.6% of its applicants, and approximately 35% of all high school valedictorians. Is it really a surprise that these kids are getting good grades? If Dartmouth is admitting exceptional students, why would it not expect to see exceptional grades?

In three classes at Dartmouth, I earned a 94, a 95, and a 95, and received A-‘s in all three along with an explanation from the professor that the cut-off for an A was one point higher than I had earned. This type of lack of uniformity both within and across departmental boundaries makes GPA figures even more worthless. These seemingly inconsequential inconsistencies in grading policy add up, especially when they are on paper in front of an admissions officer who is tasked with wading through various grade-inflating perks to evaluate candidates. Certainly, these admissions officers will take into account the disparity between academic reputations when evaluating candidates, but they could never possibly keep track of all of the intricacies of grade inflation. To compound the problem, Dartmouth throws them a whole new set of median grades so that you can be judged, albeit inaccurately and unfairly, against your peers, while another candidate is not weighed down by such comparisons.

Median grades could only begin to even be partially effective if every school recorded them on transcripts, along with some kind of cumulative median grade for each term as I mentioned before and changes to the GPA system. But, it would still only chip away at the tip of the iceberg. Nothing will work because grade inflation is inevitable. The crux of the issue is that fighting too hard against grade inflation would disadvantage the student; meanwhile, not doing anything about the problem gets you a bad rap in the eyes of graduate schools, employers, and the media. In that vein, Dartmouth’s unique attempt at “fighting grade inflation” makes quite a bit of sense. They’re just spinning their wheels.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two Ships Colliding in the Night: A Review of Ray Takeyh's Guardian of the Revolution

            Ray Takeyh’s latest foray into the complex narrative of Iranian politics accurately captures the essence of factional politics since the Islamic Revolution while presciently wading through the history of mistrust and paranoia to structure the terms of today’s debates about how to approach a country that has “confounded the West’s anticipation of a forward historical progression.” Where several other scholars have failed in operationalizing the critical concept of respect that must figure into any dealings with Iran, Takeyh prescribes not just a policy shift, but rather a paradigm change in regard to the United States’ interaction with the Islamic Republic of Iran; in doing so, he effectively weaves the history of Iranian and American interactions into his advice for moving forward. By removing much of the emotional charge from the debate about Iran, Guardians of the Revolution is able to paint a clearer picture of the dynamics of the Iranian political system.
According to Takeyh, the interaction between three powerful forces – Islamism, pragmatism, and the quest for hegemony – has prefigured Iran’s often paradoxical policies both on the domestic front and in the international arena. In order to understand how Iran functions as a country “simultaneously capable of both revolutionary agitation and pragmatic adjustment,” one must understand the competition between the different factions that claim to be the guardians of (their own interpretation of) the revolution. Takeyh postulates that, in spite of the inevitability of setbacks, the balance is tilting toward opportunistic pragmatism over revolutionary ideology and imaginative forms of engagement could lead to rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Despite being criticized as an apologist’s account, Takeyh’s approach proffers a nuanced perspective on Iranian politics that both avoids the pitfalls of rigid conceptual framework and improper analogies to Western institutions and behavior while retaining its analytic utility. Accordingly, this review will first dispel many of the allegations of Iran’s purported messianic militarism and irrational politics and then consider how a nuanced understanding of the complex situation would advance the discourse of what Khatami called a “Dialogue Among Civilizations.”
The most common misconception about Iranian politics is that they are completely devoid of the type of rationality that serves as the core of realist models of behavior. Takeyh deftly deploys the historical record to demonstrate that Iran’s leaders are more interested in retaining power than hastening the return of the Mahdi. And while detractors seemingly have a litany of evidence such as the hostage crisis to Iran’s support of Hezbollah and pursuit of nuclear capabilities to discredit such a rational-actor model, Takeyh properly contextualizes these happenings to bolster his thesis that Iran is “subversive but only to the point where subversion is not self-threatening.” He adroitly acknowledges the tendency to view such events as supportive of preconceived threat/enemy constructions, and warns that Iran “defies easy characterization” and is filled with “complexities and contradictions.”
For instance, it is easy to paint a picture of the Revolutionary Guard funneling money to Shi’a insurgents in Iraq out of a desire to confront United States forces in a proxy war; yet, Takeyh describes Iranian support of Shi’a militias as an insurance policy to prevent a reversion to Sunni dominance (which would minimize Iranian influence) if political reconciliation were to fail. Incidentally, some of these weapons may have been used against US troops, but that was certainly not Iran’s intention. This novel account, Takeyh argues, is much more consistent within the framework of casting Iran’s provocative actions “as regional power ploys rather than evidence of apocalyptic desire.” The Iranian regime’s restraint during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War, its cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rafsanjani’s billion dollar offer to an American oil firm, and recent warming of relations with the Gulf monarchies all point to a theory of rational actor with pretensions for regional hegemony.          
Takeyh points to America’s historical relationship with China as a sign of encouragement in achieving some sort of d├ętente. America’s opposition to China’s dealings with Taiwan does not preclude commercial relations or cooperation in six-party talks about North Korea and since Nixon’s engagement of China in 1972, China’s revisionist impulses have been tempered as they have been increasingly integrated into the global market. In a similar vein, Takeyh argues that the U.S. should “conceive a situation whereby Iran…sees benefit in limiting its ambitions,” a seemingly paradoxical situation in which it finds some mode of “containment” agreeable. Unfortunately, to this day, such inventive approaches to overcome the U.S.-Iranian impasse have been stifled not only by the deep enmity and mistrust between the two nations resulting from centuries of foreign meddling in Iran, the American-sponsored Mossadegh coup in 1953, the hostage crisis, American support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and the accidental shooting of Iran Air flight 655, but also the failure of imaginative engagement efforts amid the tension of the past few decades. For instance, Takeyh cites the Iran-Contra affair as a historical stumbling block for creativity and behind-the-scenes negotiations for diplomats on both sides. Similarly, the strategy of linkage of foreign policy priorities, especially on the American side, has inhibited any improvement in relations and encouraged a “one step forward, two steps backward” pattern to relations in recent times. To compound the problem, the political momentum from cooperation both in Afghanistan and Iraq after the respective U.S. invasions was completely eradicated when Bush isolated Iran along with North Korea and Iraq as part of the “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Along with contributing to aspirations for regional hegemony, the war with Iraq figures quite prominently in the minds of the current generation of Iranian leaders. Ahmadinejad and his followers, and even the more liberal or moderate elements of Iranian society, are reluctant to look past the injustices of the war, particularly in regard to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, which are believed to have been one of the tipping points in breaking the Iranian people’s resolve. Takeyh argues that this particular historical grievance is one of the primary roots of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States’ failure to condemn Iraq’s unbridled use of these weapons reduces any security assurance from major world powers a futile gesture.
In order to move forward, Takeyh encourages a detailed understanding of Iran’s factional politics as the root of much of inconsistent foreign policy prerogatives. Americans and several other major international players seeking to positively interact with Iran remain befuddled by the breakdown of the usual political lexicon of conservative, liberal, moderate, left, right, or centrist when dealing with Iran; the fluidity of these categories and the constant realignment and reformulation of factions has made diplomatic breakthroughs rather elusive. For instance, Takeyh chronicles the evolution of the “radicals” after the revolution, who have now emerged as the most vocal proponents of uninhibited democratic pluralism. At first, these “radicals” emphasized anti-Americanism, aggressive export of the revolution abroad, and a command economy at home; as the most pro-democratic of the post-revolutionary factions, these politicians were severely repressed and resurfaced as the reform party that enabled Khatami’s presidency and continue to be the most progressive element in Iranian politics. Takeyh has demonstrated that “what may seem alien and dangerous to us today can morph into something more approachable tomorrow.”
Conversely, those who rest their hopes in the supposed moderation represented by pragmatic conservatives like Rafsanjani should not conflate crass economically rooted opportunism with aspirations of political progressivism. Takeyh is correct to highlight Rafsanjani’s proclivity toward pragmatic policy as an outgrowth of his crass opportunism; however, that conclusion should not be seen as evidence of any sort of liberal sympathies given his track record and status as one of the fore figures of the revolution. Thus, this is another instance in Takeyh’s account that appropriately clears the historical record in a manner that gives credit for creative diplomatic overtures, but avoids falling into the trap of apology by concluding that “too often Rafsanjani’s conciliatory moves were negated by his own conduct.” By underscoring gross opportunism as the major principle guiding Rafsanjani’s political machinations, Takeyh is able to coherently explain how the same man could both play an integral role in organizing a public celebration of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister and actively contest on the degree of fairness and legitimacy in 2009 presidential election. Perhaps the most important factional dynamic that Takeyh keenly fleshes out is that fracture within the “New Right” between the adamant hardliners Ahmadinejad and the more realist elements. Instead of focusing on empowering the reformers or funding dissident students in hopes that they might rebuke Khameini or even topple the regime, a “more calibrated U.S. policy [would] potentially expose the divisions within the ruling conservative elite.”
The best road map for productive interactions between the United States and Iran must begin with imaginative forms of engagement that strive to chip away at the foreign policy myths on each side (the U.S. positing Iran as the “crazy outlaw” standing in the way of the guardian of democracy and Iran vilifying the United States as “the Great Satan”) that cast any attempt at compromise as a subversive maneuver. Both sides need to heed the timing of their actions, too, given that past overtures, such as Madeleine Albright’s apology speech and partial lifting of sanctions, have been stifled by domestic political realignments. Obama’s video message to the Iranian people on the Persian New Year that called for a new relationship based on “mutual respect” was a well-conceived gambit that may figure to be a very important step toward rapprochement. Although the aphorism to not judge a book by its cover generally holds, in this case, the image of Khomeini ominously looming over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accentuates the obstinate legacy of the ayatollah on modern Iranian politics. Whether or not there is another Mossadegh-like leader in the making among the ranks of the Iranian youth, the world will have to reckon with the power of the leader of the thirty year old revolution even from his mausoleum.