Iran and the Americans

Revolutionary Iran: Challenge and Response in the Middle East

by R.K. Ramazani
Johns Hopkins University Press, 311 pp., $27.50

In the fall of 1985, R.K. Ramazani, a historian at the University of Virginia, urged in an article in Foreign Policy that the United States “bury the hatchet” with Iran and seek a reconciliation with the Islamic Republic. He emphasized, of course, the strategic importance of improving relations with a country of over 45 million people that borders on the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey. More important, he detected a new and more pragmatic direction in Iran’s foreign policy. This moderating trend, he believed, provided the opening for an American initiative. He felt that exploiting this opening should be a matter of some urgency. “America’s failure to temper its containment policy [toward Iran],” he wrote, “could destroy any chance for exploring any opportunity for reconciliation that may already exist.”

Ironically, at the very time Mr. Ramazani was making his plea, the Reagan administration was taking the first tentative steps to establish contact with Iranian officials. That initiative, we now know, turned out very badly. While there is much to be said in favor of talks between the US and Iran, the Reagan administration’s approach to Iran was ineptly handled. Aside from the domestic effects of this much publicized affair, the bungled initiative suggests, at the very least, a misreading of the play of politics in Iran itself.

It is on the Iranian side of this equation that Mr. Ramazani’s book, which elaborates the argument of his Foreign Policy article, is particularly useful. He provides an account of the ideology, practice, and evolution of Iran’s foreign policy since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. He believes this policy must be seen in its regional setting, and examines the reaction of the neighboring states and the countries of the Middle East to the Iranian revolution. Hence the “challenge and response” of his book’s subtitle.

The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic, from the beginning, displayed a mixture of revolutionary zeal and pragmatic calculation. It dramatically reversed some of the foreign policies pursued under the Shah and continued others. Iran broke off relations with Israel and South Africa. Relations with the United States grew strained and then cracked after American hostages were taken in November 1979. A mood of national and Islamic assertiveness and a strong reaction against foreign influence led most Western businessmen and technicians to leave the country.

Clerics associated with Iran’s religious leaders toured the Persian Gulf states preaching revolution and Khomeini’s message of Islamic militancy. To the consternation of the foreign ministry, one senior cleric, Ayatollah Sadeq Ruhani, revived the Iranian claim to Bahrain and warned its ruler he would have him overthrown if he did not treat his people with more consideration. Iran’s first president, Abolhasan Bani-Sadr, predicted the conservative regimes of the Gulf would be “swept away like dust in the wind” once their peoples followed the Iranian example.

Iraq’s invasion of Iran greatly exacerbated this radical temper. When he sent his divisions …

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