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.