Review of Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 310 pages.
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 sponsorship of global terrorism, immediately brought the new Islamic republic into conflict with Washington. A member of 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 the recent 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 Iranian scholar Ray Takeyh in his useful and engagingly written new book, Guardians of the Revolution. At various points in its 30-year history, the Islamic Republic reached out to the United States as part of a larger, pragmatic shift in foreign policy. America, for its part, consistently failed to respond to these overtures. 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 and the war with Iraq in the 1980s to the rise of the reformers and ultimately 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, even though both countries were repressing their own Muslim populations. More dramatically, Shi’ite Iran 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.
As a reward for working with the country it regarded as the Great Satan, Iran received little more than harsh rhetoric and a flawed containment policy. As Takeyh points out, a more imaginative U.S. policy of engagement “might have tipped the internal balance of power in favor of the reformers.” [p. 5] He writes: ”Dialogue, compromise, and commerce, as difficult as they may be, are a means of providing Tehran with a set of incentives to adhere to international norms and commit to regional stability.” [p. 264]
Rather than focus on resolving its bilateral grievances with Tehran, Washington should think regionally. As Takeyh points out, 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, provided 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.
Yes Magazine, December 15, 2009