Guardians of the Revolution book 248 88.
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Guardians of the Revolution
Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs
By Ray Takeyh | Oxford University Press | 310 pages; $27.95
US President Barack Obama's Cairo speech and the recent student uprising following Iran's presidential election continue to make the Middle East a center of attention in world affairs. Iran especially continues to perplex and provide an endless source of events to opine on. However the ever-changing nature of the country means that books on it are usually out of date as soon as they are published. Guardians of the Revolution is no exception. It ends in 2006 with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the triumph of Hamas and the 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war. The author's final prescription for future US-Iran relations is more "dialogue, compromise and commerce." It seems Obama has already fulfilled two out of three.
But Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, saves himself by presenting a new take on the post-1979 history of Iran and attempting to provide readers with an understanding of both Iran's internal struggle and the logic behind its policies. Surely Takeyh is not the only one to try to make Iran "understandable," but this is not an apologist's account.
He notes that the outcry over Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism "was the first time that [Iran] had been held accountable for its odious claims." Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is condemned for having "a distinct strand of anti-Semitism." And Iran is no democracy, as many apologists claim: "Iran's religious policy can never be mistaken for a democratic government." The author sees Iran as essentially guided by two principles: its "hubris of prominence" and its "insecurity and isolation."
Its personality seems to mirror that of Germany before World War II where a fear of isolation led to its march toward World War I and its hubris helped lead to a second. Iran's "presumption of greatness" and "undiminished sense of superiority" also seems to dovetail with China's own vision of itself. It may be no surprise, as Takeyh shows, that Iran's closest relationships since the revolution have been with China, Germany and Russia (another country that views itself as constantly surrounded).
Guardians of the Revolution is an excellent straightforward primer for anyone who has not explored Iran's history before and wants a fair and unsparing portrayal of its ambitions and a keen understanding of its internal politics. The author shows how Khomeini appropriated leftist slogans and allied himself with Iran's Western-educated dissidents to garner support outside the clerical and rural circles that were his natural wellsprings of support.
For Takeyh, Iran's history since 1979 should be divided into four phases: the period from the revolution to the death of Khomeini, the era of president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the rise of the reformist Muhammad Khatami in 1998 and the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. The first era was characterized by the destruction of Iran's nascent democracy that had tentatively raised its head following the departure of the shah. Iran voted itself a theocracy in December 1979, approving a new constitution that "granted essential power to the unelected branches of government." Dissidents were slaughtered or fled abroad and thereafter a vicious war with Iraq consumed the country throughout the 1980s.
The period after the death of Khomeini might have ushered in new policies, but a continuation of conservative rule was ensured through the appointment of Ali Khamanei as Khomeini's successor and the election of the centrist Rafsanjani as president. Suppression of a student uprising in 1999 did not completely blunt the reformist leanings of Khatami, who attempted rapprochement with the West and with the Arab states, but this "flawed leader was unsuccessful on capitalizing on his fleeting moment." Ahmadinejad's acerbic triumph followed and the rest is well known.
Takeyh's major contribution is his examination of the various attempts by Iran to seek a redress of its relations with Washington. He praises Iran-Contra as a "daring and creative approach" by the Reagan administration. In the end his assessment is for the US to foster an Iran that "wants to be contained - in other words, sees benefit in limiting its ambitions and abiding by prevailing norms." His recipe is regional integration and "a framework where all of the powers see it in their own interest to preserve the status quo."
What this means is for the US to recognize the rise of Iran, help it come to peaceful terms with the Arab states and thus defang Hamas, Hizbullah and the Shi'ites in Iraq. There should be no more proxy wars. Neither the Arab states nor Israel will likely accept such a goal, and inviting the Iranian wolf into the henhouse doesn't seem to mean its nuclear ambitions will be dented. But Takeyh's policy initiatives seem to dovetail perfectly with Obama's. The only thing to do is wait and see what the next moves of Iran's "new Right" will be.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.