Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; drawing by John Springs

The governance of religion and morals and resurgence of Islamic values is that heightened peak to which the defiled hands of those given to debauchery and whims does not reach, and which the diplomacy of gold and might fails to entrap.

—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, from a speech quoted in his Web site biography at

Throughout the Bush years in Washington, the issue of what to do about Iran was often reduced to a question of whether or not to talk to the Iranian regime. Those who insisted on silence saw Iran starkly as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” controlled by fanatics grimly bent on making atom bombs. Only the threat of force, they claimed, could persuade Iran to change its ways or, better yet, to change its nature as an Islamic republic. An opposing camp declared that America would be wiser to accept Iran as a regional power and to encourage pragmatic elements within its leadership. Their hope was to build trust through diplomacy so that Iran would not feel the need for a nuclear deterrent. The ideal outcome would be a Grand Bargain based on the common interest of forging a more secure Middle East.

By last spring, the argument between these camps had escalated to the point where some conservatives, including President Bush and the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, insinuated that Barack Obama’s declared willingness to talk to Iran amounted to “appeasement,” a term loaded with the shame of Britain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich. Although the US Treasury has recently tightened economic sanctions on Iran, such shrillness has now subsided. In its waning months the Bush administration has broken with its previous policy by sending William Burns, a senior State Department official, to multiparty talks on the Iranian nuclear issue. It has even made preliminary plans to open a “US interests section,” or low-level diplomatic office, within the Swiss embassy in the Iranian capital, Tehran—an initiative that is typically a first step toward restoring normal relations. US officials are also understood to have counseled Israel, the country that feels most threatened by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, to refrain from preemptive action.

These moves have come partly in response to expert advice, much of which warns that the military option is too risky: air strikes cannot guarantee to stop Iran from getting the bomb, yet would likely ignite a cataclysmic regional backlash, particularly in Iraq. The fragility of the global economy has cooled tempers, too, since any threat to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf could destroy chances of a recovery. Bitter experience has also shown that shunning Iran, and brandishing sticks without accommodating legitimate Iranian concerns, have merely served to entrench Tehran’s own hard-liners. Not only has Iran defiantly accelerated its nuclear program, it has also made embarrassing strategic inroads, via such ideological allies as Hezbollah and Hamas, against American interests in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.

The Democrats’ crushing electoral sweep in November has made likely a further shift toward engagement, although the incoming team has added caveats to Barack Obama’s declared preference for diplomacy, such as saying that any meetings with Iranian leaders would have to be well prepared and timely, reiterating that it would be “unacceptable” for Iran to go nuclear, and insisting that the military option remains “on the table.” Meanwhile, the more bellicose parts of America’s foreign policy establishment appear to be regrouping so as to maintain subtler, less overtly partisan pressure against “appeasement.” Even relative hawks such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft now say that diplomacy must be given a chance, if only to build international legitimacy for eventual, stronger US action.

In other words, there is a growing consensus among both conservative and liberal policy analysts in Washington around a strategy of robust engagement with Iran. It is not yet clear how ambitious this approach will be—whether the objective is simply to stop Iran from building a bomb or to aim for the elusive Grand Bargain covering such issues as Gulf security, the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Arab–Israeli peace. It is certain that Iran will prove to be an extremely difficult negotiating partner, if indeed it is willing to put its cards on the table. But at least a stronger effort will be made to coax, cajole, and persuade Iran’s leadership that it has much to gain through compromise, and much to lose without it.

Troublingly, however, there remains at both ends of the Iran policy spectrum a certain vagueness about exactly whom America might be engaging. This is not merely a confusion about whom to address within the Iranian regime’s complex hierarchy. It extends to a broader lack of clarity about where these people come from, what shapes their views, what they really fear, and what they really want. This vagueness entails a danger that the underlying assumptions on which future policy will be based could prove inaccurate or misleading. Often, in the past, it has been precisely such misapprehensions that have undermined attempts at rapprochement, or perhaps more accurately, enabled saboteurs in both countries to undermine them.


In her lucid and enlightening account of Iranian–American relations, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, Barbara Slavin, a longtime diplomatic correspondent for USA Today who recently became a managing editor of The Washington Times and has long been one of the most astute American reporters on Iran, chronicles a sad litany of missed opportunities for improved relations, most of them derailed by the ill-timed intervention of hard-liners on either side. This could even be described as the defining dynamic of the troubled relationship. In both countries, opponents of rapprochement have seized on any hint of hostility to score points against domestic political rivals by raising the tone of nationalist rhetoric. Alternatively, they have brushed off friendly signals as evidence of weakness, and as proof that only hardball tactics produce results. This does not mean that the achievement of an American–Iranian détente would have been certain had such opportunities been pursued, but rather that the delicate machinery needed to produce such a result was never properly constructed, and so never set in motion.

A typical example of this occurred in 2002, when the popular, reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami sorely needed some friendly signal from America to counter its increasingly aggressive conservative critics. But instead of being rewarded for its condemnation of the September 11 attacks or its vital assistance in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan—Iran supported the Northern Alliance and provided intelligence to US forces about Taliban forces—Iran found itself melodramatically branded by George Bush, in a State of the Union speech, as a member of an “axis of evil.” The sudden, sharp escalation of rhetoric shocked Iranians profoundly, leaving proponents of warmer ties dangerously exposed. This logical result was apparently unanticipated in Washington. Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, admitted as much. “What is funny about it is that [the phrase] didn’t really catch my eye,” she told Barbara Slavin, in a stunning admission of diplomatic insensitivity.

Chastened, but still keen to improve relations, Iranian diplomats put out feelers at the time of the Iraq invasion some months later, only to be rebuffed again. Neoconservatives within the Bush administration, it seems, were convinced that the blitzkrieg in Iraq would frighten neighboring Iran into submission, with no need for diplomacy. “We don’t speak to evil” was the blunt retort from Vice President Dick Cheney, supported by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when presented with Iranian proposals for broad negotiations that would address Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq, and Iranian-supported groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, in exchange for full diplomatic recognition and an end to US economic sanctions. As Trita Parsi recounts in his meticulously researched book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, the brusque rejection prompted not an Iranian surrender, but a circling of wagons by revolutionary hard-liners, who subsequently made a determined push to purge the relative liberals who had prospered under Khatami, thus putting an end to hopes for internal reform, let alone for a broader accommodation with the US.

Needless to say, for its part revolutionary Iran has proven even more inept at judging the Great Satan’s moods and responses. The extraordinary obtuseness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president, in questioning the historical reality of the Holocaust is a case in point. Such antics are, understandably, seen by Americans in the context of more overtly provocative acts, beginning with the 1979–1980 hostage crisis, extending through such ugly policies as the assassination of dissidents, and including Iran’s association with groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which official America deems terrorist. And while the chant of “Death to America” may no longer resonate much with ordinary Iranians, it has remained a touchstone for politicians, a reflexive reaffirmation of revolutionary values, rather as the blasting of communism was for American politicians during the cold war.

Yet in the American case, tin-eared diplomacy cannot be explained away as the product of sheer ignorance or as a matter of ritual adherence to a strident ideology. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been the subject of intense American scrutiny. A simple search under “Iran Politics” at produces nearly four thousand titles, evidence not only of a national fascination with one of the very few countries still to proclaim opposition to American power, but also of the abiding interest that Iranian émigrés, who number nearly 400,000 in the United States, take in their homeland.

Sadly, much of America’s intellectual output on the subject of Iran, and particularly since the eruption of the nuclear issue, has been marked by panic-mongering cant. Some of this is generated by disgruntled exiles, including many linked to royalist and leftist parties that have as little resonance inside Iran as did the well-heeled Iraqi expatriates who lobbied for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; and some by a chorus of foreign policy “experts” in Washington, many of them familiar as cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq, such as the columnist Max Boot, the former CIA head James Woolsey, and the right-wing scholar Michael Ledeen. “IS THE WORLD READY FOR NUCLEAR JIHAD?” shrieks the back cover of one typical product, Showdown With Nuclear Iran, a book coauthored by Jerome Corsi, a serial ranter whose muck-splattering “biography” of Barack Obama won brief notoriety this fall.


Wiser minds have also been at work, and the past year’s crop of serious and useful books about Iran has been unusually rich. Barbara Slavin’s look at Iranian–American relations should be indispensable to policymakers, as should Trita Parsi’s seminal work, which argues, persuasively, that America’s aims in the Middle East will continue to be thwarted until it addresses more pragmatically the core underlying problem of Israeli–Iranian rivalry.1

Kasra Naji, a seasoned Iranian journalist, has written a critical and revealing biography of Iran’s controversial president. Tracing his rise through the revolutionary nomenclatura, Naji explains the shadowy links that tie Ahmadinejad to an inner network of radical conservatives. The President’s popularity has now eroded to the point that he may well fail to secure a second term in next summer’s elections, but Naji’s description of Iran’s quirky political mechanics remains essential to understanding how the clash between the country’s theocratic and democratic tendencies, with the former increasingly dominant, can still produce unexpected results.


Contact Press Images

A portrait of Ayatollahs Khamenei and Khomeini above a street in Tehran, May 2005; photograph by James Hill

The more enigmatic, far more powerful figure of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s sixty-nine-year-old Supreme Leader, is the subject of an extremely timely and thorough, albeit concise, investigation by Karim Sadjadpour, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Sadjadpour observes that Khamenei’s contempt for America has proven to be “remarkably consistent and enduring” throughout a career that has spanned two terms as president of the Islamic Republic (1981–1989), followed by nearly two decades as Supreme Leader. Yet he also notes that Khamenei has shown flexibility at times. “The day that relations with America prove beneficial to the Iranian nation I will be the first to approve of that,” declared the Supreme Leader earlier this year.

For a broader and deeper exploration of contemporary Iran, Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Struggle for Iran offers both fine sensibility and a keen critical eye. A fluent Farsi speaker and frequent contributor to these pages, de Bellaigue experienced firsthand both the heady rise of the reformists under Khatami and their subsequent, depressing fall. His collection of essays, though observed over several years, illuminates his subject all the more because its eclectic parts reflect the kind of slow, subtle shifts in mood that instant reporting inevitably fails to capture. Three years before Ahmadinejad’s surprise electoral triumph in 2005, de Bellaigue judged presciently that

unless reformers can muster allies in the conservative establishment, or find new ways to bring public pressure on it, Iran seems fated to an unyielding form of Islamic rule.

More lighthearted but equally profound in insight is Hooman Majd’s delightfully unclassifiable book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. Part travelogue, part reminiscence, and shifting between bemusement, grudging respect, and despair, this digressive essay in cultural interpretation reflects the unique perspective of a thoroughly cosmopolitan Westerner who also happens to be the grandson of a turbaned senior cleric. While blithely exposing hypocrisies and paradoxes, Majd does not spare the Islamic Republic’s critics, either. Happening on a gaggle of New Yorkers demonstrating against a visit by Ahmadinejad, he discovers that at least one has been lured from the Bowery Mission with the promise of $15 and a T-shirt.

This book is a vital antidote to both the wishful thinking of exiles who declare the Islamic Revolution’s inevitable doom and to the exaggerated alarm of those who see it as an existential threat to the world order. It also provides some very American clues to understanding the Iranian experience. “It is in some ways as if evangelical Christians had had their way in the White House, in Congress, in state governments, on the Supreme Court, and in the schools for a generation,” Majd writes. “Perhaps not a perfect analogy, for America is far more diverse than Iran and the majority probably less religious, but an analogy of sorts nonetheless.”

Given the legacy of mistrust and the range of prickly issues that separate America and Iran, the Obama administration faces immense obstacles in trying to steer toward less troubled waters. But at least some excellent charts are at hand for gaining a better fix on Iran’s tides, reefs, and shoals.

Persia’s many empires, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty in the sixth century BC, have come and gone. Its modern avatar seems far removed from the benign overlordship for which ancient Persia was known, although behind the Islamic Republic’s drearily monochrome façade the country remains an amalgam of tribes, ethnicities, and faiths, spread across a continental range of climates and topographies. Yet there does linger something haughtily imperial in the Iranian worldview. It is an attitude that should be familiar to present-day Americans, or to Britons of recent generations: a certain defiant insularity, combined with a sense of national entitlement to respect as a great and morally superior power.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Even in its reduced state, Iran looks out over a wider sphere that includes numerous kinsmen. Links of language tie it closely to speakers of Dari (a form of Persian that is the main language of Afghanistan) and Tajik, as well as more distantly to Pashtuns, Kurds, Baluchis, and even Ossetians. The state religion of the Islamic Republic, the Jaafari or Twelver form of Shiism professed by nine out of ten Iranians, happens also to be the majority faith in neighboring Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Bahrain. Twelver Shia minorities in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan also regard Iran as a pole of their religious identity. And then there is the wider Muslim world: it is overwhelmingly Sunni in sectarian terms and so rejects the claim of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to the supplementary title of Commander of the Muslims. Yet Muslims admire Iran both as a wellspring of Islamic civilization and as a unique political experiment.

There are other reasons for the self-importance of Iran’s rulers. They hold what may be the world’s second-largest reserves of both liquid oil and natural gas. For Europe this makes Iran a potential counterweight to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which currently, to Europe’s considerable anxiety, supplies most of the continent’s imported gas. Asian countries, particularly the booming giants India and China, also thirst for Iran’s poorly exploited hydrocarbons. So does America, yet the global superpower’s main contribution to inflating the Iranian ego has been the chorus of Bush administration officials, right-wing think tanks, and, most recently, a “bipartisan” panel,2 all proclaiming the Islamic Republic to be the most significant single threat to America’s interests.

The revolutionary regime can cause trouble, as when it attempts, quite successfully, to thwart American ambitions in places such as Lebanon and Iraq, where it has been able to exert influence through its ties to several of the leading Shiite parties and clerics and through its financial support for Shiite holy sites. Or when it threatens to seal the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow bottleneck through which vast volumes of oil pour forth from the Persian Gulf. The very real possibility of Iran achieving nuclear status is cited as a terrible peril, too. Fearful of the bombast of Iranian leaders who have said that the Jewish state will be “erased from the pages of history” and of Iran’s development of long-range missiles that could reach Israeli cities, Israelis have raised the specter of a new Holocaust. Others fear an accelerated arms race in the region, with powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt rushing to balance Iran’s strength with their own nuclear weapons. Much cited is the possibility that Iranian nuclear weapons could be acquired by foreign terrorists.

Yet for all its bluster Iran remains a strategic featherweight. In the event of any real conflict, the Islamic Republic would prove decisively outmatched. A glance at the map of forces arrayed around the region, which includes not merely a ring of US bases and facilities in nearly every neighboring country, but also such nearby, nuclear-armed powers as India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia, suffices to make clear Iran’s strategic isolation. The country is also poor, starved of foreign investment, clumsily managed, and wholly dependent on energy exports. Its universities are good but far from outstanding, and Iran has suffered a crippling, two- generation-long drain of much of its best talent.

It is notable, too, that until the Bush administration opened unexpected opportunities for Iran to do so, the Islamic Republic had proved remarkably incapable of extending its political or ideological influence, except perhaps among Shia Lebanese and the Iraqi Shiites with whom it continues to have relations. As Christopher de Bellaigue notes:

The revolutionaries found it hard to sell a political philosophy that is based on Shia exclusiveness and informed, despite Iran’s claims to be advocating supranational ideas, by Persian chauvinism.

Indeed, it is precisely the mismatch between revolutionary Iran’s vaulting ambitions and its modest achievements that underpins other important aspects of its leaders’ behavior. In attempting to explain why their theodemocratic experiment has failed to produce either worldly or spiritual greatness, the mullahs and militants who are currently ascendant harp repeatedly on two perceived causes, one internal, the other external.

The first excuse is that the Islamic project remains incomplete because it has been insufficiently revolutionary. This, as Kasra Naji reminds us in his biography of Ahmadinejad, is a standard trope for regimes suffering from public disenchantment. Much as Stalin, Mao, or Castro sought to reinvigorate their aging revolutions with varied, often brutal forms of mass mobilization, Iran’s true believers have tried to recharge theirs. Hence we find Ahmadinejad promising voters before his election somehow to extract every policy, project, and method “from the heart of Islam.” “If we return to the culture of Islam,” de Bellaigue quotes him as saying, “you’ll see tomorrow what kind of heaven this place becomes.”

Predictably, along with the heightened rhetoric came increased attention to revolutionary symbols such as “Islamic” dress, a silencing of dissent that included a fierce clampdown on the press and sweeping purges of personnel, and a reconcentration of power in the hands of a trusted “vanguard.” The Revolutionary Guards, or Sepah, the parallel military force created at the time of the revolution to counterbalance the national army, came to function, in the words of Hooman Majd, rather as an Iranian version of the École Nationale d’Administration, the school that supplies France’s managerial caste. Barbara Slavin estimates that during Ahmadinejad’s term, Sepah alumni have come to fill half the cabinet, two thirds of the provincial governorships, a third of parliamentary seats, and much of the top management in the religious foundations, or bonyads, that control a giant slice of Iran’s economy.3

Ahmadinejad also reintroduced an element of class animosity that harked back to the 1980s. His modest style, rumpled suits, shaggy haircuts, and preference for his own house over a grand official residence served as a reprimand to political rivals guilty of backsliding from revolutionary austerity. Hooman Majd tells the amusing tale of seeking out the President’s chief press adviser and finding the important official, after some effort, in a dingy unmarked office wearing plastic sandals. Conversely, he discovers that the rich, hedonistic Iranians who bemoan such things from behind high walls seem to resent their leaders less because of their policies than because of their lowly origins.

The alternative excuse for the Islamic Republic’s failings is that foreign enemies are to blame. Because they are fearful that Iran’s Islamic model will emerge triumphant over ideologies such as capitalism or socialism, the sermon-like argument goes, foreign governments have plotted at every turn to undermine the Islamic regime. It is Iran’s noble fate to struggle for justice against such global tyranny, just as the Iranian people fought to overthrow their Shah. In particular, and to an exaggerated extent, Iran’s revolutionaries have actually come to define themselves by their opposition to America, which they see as the force of international arrogance that personifies worldly injustice.

Religious imagery infuses such ideas. “Shias are always Davids,” says Hooman Majd, using the oft-cited biblical tale mentioned in the Koran.


Alvaro Barrientos/AP Images

A protester with a poster of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a demonstration against a visit to Lebanon by Tony Blair, Beirut, September 11, 2006

To them, there is no Goliath today greater than the United States. The Ayatollahs and all their little Davids are determined to stand up to it whenever necessary, whenever the cause is just, and to never lose, even if, or maybe because, they can’t win outright.

In a typical speech quoted by Sadjadpour, Ayatollah Khamenei asserts that what America expects from Iran is nothing less than submission and surrender to its hegemony. “This is the real motive for US claims regarding weapons of mass destruction, human rights or democracy,” the Supreme Leader adds.

Sadly, recent history provides plenty of reinforcement for this self-image as the perpetual underdog. True, Iran avoided outright colonization by the West, unlike most of its neighbors. Yet Britain and America did conspire, in the 1950s, to overthrow the liberal, nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstate the Shah, mainly in order to secure better terms for Iranian oil.4 (Ironically, the coup plotters’ allies included senior mullahs who disliked the liberals’ secular tendencies.) America and its many allies also, shamefully, supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the appalling carnage of its 1980–1988 war against the Islamic Republic, one of whose many ugly chapters included the shooting down of a scheduled civilian Iranian airliner by the US Navy.

Understandably, many Iranians saw the war as a cynical attempt to bleed their revolution dry. In fact, its main results were to provide nationalist cover to Ayatollah Khomeini as he went about crushing internal opposition to his Islamist project; to enshrine the Islamic revolution within a national myth of martyrdom; and to generate the embittered class of veterans, united by memories of wartime sacrifice and camaraderie, that gave rise to such figures as Ahmadinejad.

Even so, the xenophobia of the revolutionary elite does seem to verge on the pathological. Hooman Majd notes with some amusement that one of Ahmadinejad’s closest advisers, Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, actually wrote a guidebook for Iranian diplomats titled The Psychology of the Infidels. It advises, among other things, that representatives of the Islamic Republic should never wear lace-up shoes or sharply creased trousers, since these might be taken as telltale signs of their having neglected prayers. The removal of dozens of experienced ambassadors under Ahmadinejad, and their replacement with firmer ideologues, may have been the work of Hashemi-Samareh. This would go some way to explaining why Iran’s hectoring style of diplomacy over the past few years has won so few friends.

We cannot know to what degree such a figure as Ayatollah Khamenei shares this mix of extreme paranoia regarding the outside world and quiet dread that the Iranian masses no longer believe in the revolution’s utopian promise. Yet it is highly likely that such insecurities contribute to his regime’s tenacious determination to master the uranium enrichment process needed to build a bomb.

To a foreign observer, Iran’s pursuit of a costly nuclear program can only be seen as quixotic or threatening, considering such factors as the country’s vast but underexploited conventional energy supplies, its record of hiding atomic research, its development of long-range missiles, and its expansion of the program into uranium enrichment with the excuse that this will make Iran energy-independent, even though the country has limited uranium reserves and no functioning reactors to consume the enriched fuel. But to Iran’s revolutionary elite the nuclear program has come to be seen as crucial for its symbolism far more than for its practical utility. In their view, it addresses internal and external troubles at once.

The nuclear breakthrough is meant to inspire jaded citizens, providing much-needed proof of Iran’s return to glory, as well as evidence that technology and theocracy, Islam and modernity, can fruitfully coexist. Official propaganda, referring to statements by Ayatollah Khamenei that abjure use of atomic weapons by Muslims, insists that the program is purely aimed at producing nuclear energy for Iran’s civilian needs. Ordinary Iranians may be skeptical of this, but even so demand to know why their ancient and proud country should be denied atomic bombs, if such dangerous parvenus as Israel and Pakistan can have them.

As for the foreign menace, Iran’s nuclear prowess is meant to announce its reemergence as a power to be reckoned with. This does not necessitate actual building and deployment of weapons, but merely showing the ability to do so. Obviously, because they profess peaceful intent, Iran’s leaders have not articulated a military rationale for a weapons program. To the outside observer, however, it seems clear that should Iran develop nuclear weapons, they could only serve as a deterrent rather than as offensive weapons, since their use would invite annihilation.

The scenario of Iran passing nukes to terrorists sounds fanciful, too. Its ayatollahs are certain to remain sharply at odds with the Sunni jihadists who abhor Shiism. And much as Iran’s leaders dote on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite party’s own pragmatic commanders are well aware that any Iranian gift of nonconventional weapons would invite their instant ostracism from Lebanese politics, let alone the full destructive wrath of Israel.

In other words, the nuclear project is most likely conceived not so much as a means for projecting power as it is part of a strategy for regime survival. Trying simply to prise this toy from Iran’s leadership, then, is likely to prove futile. The current alternative, of piling on trade sanctions that make clear to ordinary Iranians their diplomatic isolation, as well as the burdensome cost of pursuing the nuclear option, is not much better. Iran’s more extreme elements thrive on such punishment, while those worst affected are private businessmen whom many Iranians regard as sharks and profiteers anyway.

The fact is that despite the weariness of many Iranians with their regime, the combination of innate nationalism, political fatigue, and fears for personal livelihoods have rendered the Iranian public relatively quiescent. In the view of Hooman Majd:

the Ayatollahs may from time to time silence dissent at home, they may rule autocratically and with their infuriating manners they may annoy and even repulse many in the West, but they rule for now with the confidence that they do not face a population that seeks to overthrow them.

To deal with such leaders will require diplomatic skills of the highest order, including understanding, careful coordination with allies, and, above all, patience. Current trends within Iran, although difficult to read, suggest a slight swing of the power pendulum away from hard-liners. Elections last year to the council that will eventually choose a Supreme Leader to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei produced a centrist majority. President Ahmadinejad faces growing challenges from both conservative pragmatists and reformers, and may not survive beyond next June’s elections. Yet even should the ebullient radical remain in office, some analysts assert that he would be better placed to make diplomatic concessions than a more conciliatory politician, who would be exposed to attacks from the nationalist right.

Inklings of a more positive American– Iranian dialogue are already emerging over Iraq. Following initial, fierce resistance to any deal that would legitimize a continued US military presence, Iran has proved surprisingly supportive now that Iraq’s government has ratified a status-of-forces agreement. This reflects not only relief that America is committed to eventual withdrawal, but also tacit recognition that Washington and Tehran share some common strategic goals in Iraq, such as reducing the level of violence, strengthening state institutions, curbing Kurdish separatist ambitions, and preserving a semblance of democracy in which the Shiite majority is likely to remain dominant.

Issues such as Iran’s opposition to American peacemaking efforts in the Arab–Israeli conflict, defining an Iranian role in Gulf security that is acceptable to its smaller neighbors, and Iran’s nuclear program, could each prove far trickier. Useful quid pro quos do exist for all these questions, but arranging for exchanges of concessions by multiple parties, in a sequence that enhances mutual confidence, is no easy task. While a large-scale agreement on all the issues is obviously unlikely, it would still be wise for American policymakers to keep the big picture in mind, and to focus on the positive allure of a region-wide peace rather than to fret over lurking dangers.5

The key task will be to prove to the Iranians that the potential rewards for releasing Iran from its current dilemma are immense. To a purely rational observer this might seem easy, when we consider the country’s enormous, unrealized economic and human potential, and its lack of real, as opposed to largely imaginary, enemies. But Iran’s clerical rulers, whose job it is to chase demons, will surely find devils in every detail. The biggest of all may prove to be one spotted by Christopher de Bellaigue. “It is clear that Iran’s leaders are trying to stem the tide of history,” he says, “which tends, sooner or later, to submerge inflexible ideologies and their autocratic proponents.”

—December 17, 2008

This Issue

January 15, 2009