Commentary Magazine


The “Pragmatists” in Tehran

Staking out a distinctive position in today’s debate over Iran is no easy matter. Every foreign-policy maven has a formula to suggest or a wider strategy in which to embed our dealings with the Islamic republic. Regime change or containment, carrier groups or sanctions, rhetorical confrontation or bilateral talks, Sunni balancing or Shiite cooptation—what’s the right mix? But most analysts agree on one thing: Iran is a problem, a growing threat, an ambitious and aggressively ideological power with designs on regional domination. Here, then, is where there’s room to make a mark with a bold counterintuitive claim: maybe Iran isn’t so bad.

So says Ray Takeyh in an article entitled “Time for Détente with Iran” in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Islamic republic has been misunderstood. In the American imagination, “a perception of Iran as a destabilizing force” has been allowed to “congeal,” based on little more than “visceral suspicion.” Whatever Iran may have been in the early days of its Islamic revolution, it is no longer, in Takeyh’s estimation, a “revisionist” or “revolutionary” state. Indeed, its foreign policy has long been “quite pragmatic.” To take advantage of this fact—and to deal with the “manageable challenges” posed by Iran’s nuclear program and its “penchant for terrorism”—the U.S. must accept a “paradigm shift,” offering immediate normalization as the “starting point of talks” and ending the regime’s economic and diplomatic isolation.

Takeyh’s benign assessment of Iran’s intentions will come as news, of course, to its increasingly alarmed neighbors. It’s hard to name a major conflict or tension in the region that hasn’t been inflamed by the Islamic republic. Iraq has been thoroughly penetrated by Iran’s political and military agents. Syria has become its pliant ally. Hezbollah—a creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—has established itself as an Islamist state-within-a-state in Lebanon, while at the same time importing weapons of unprecedented sophistication with which to threaten Israel. Iran has become the leading patron of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and has talked openly of using its emerging nuclear capacities to rid the world of the Jewish state. For their part, the region’s Sunni powers—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states—have embarked on an arms build-up to counter the Iranian threat, and are even declaring an interest in nuclear programs of their own. Can the regime responsible for this turmoil and escalation really be described as a pragmatic, status-quo power?

In fairness to Takeyh, even he cannot consistently defend the proposition that Iran is just an ordinary mid-sized state looking to solidify its regional influence. While paying tribute to the supposed pragmatism of Iranian foreign policy in recent years, he also (and with no awareness of the self-contradiction) argues that “the prospect of a new relationship with the United States” would tip the “balance of power” in Tehran to the “pragmatists” and put them in a position “to sideline the radicals.” But why would the U.S. want or need such a shift? If current worries about Iran are just a bogeyman invented by the American Right, why not embrace Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei?

Like other practitioners of foreign-policy “realism,” Takeyh cannot resist the wiles of the occasional “pragmatist” who pops up in an expansionist, ideologically aggressive regime. During the cold war, some Kremlin figure or another was always being touted as a clear-eyed moderate, ready to do business with the U.S. in the name of shared “national interests.” Today, Takeyh tells us, there is a promising “new generation of leaders” rising in Tehran. Reformers? Liberals? No, let’s not get carried away. They are “young conservatives” who, while still deferring to “the elders of the revolution,” stress “Iranian nationalism over Islamic identity and pragmatism over ideology.” But of course.

Takeyh doesn’t say how long we should wait for these peace-minded theocratic mavericks to produce an Iranian Gorbachev, but he seems to think that such figures can prosper only if the U.S. rains down sweet carrots on the Islamic republic instead of brandishing long, pointed sticks. His logic here is hard to follow, though. Won’t the “pragmatists” (such as they are) look all the wiser for their counsels of restraint if Iran suffers for the excesses of its “radicals”? Are conciliatory gestures really the only way for the U.S. to try to change the balance of power in Tehran? Judging by Takeyh’s delusions, these are questions that need further study in the more sober precincts of the realists.