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Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs.

Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs, by Ray Takeyh. Oxford University Press, 2009. 310 pages. $27.95.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He draws on his extensive knowledge of the Persian language and Iranian politics to provide a historical account of Iranian foreign policy in the last 30 years, based on a thorough acquaintance with the scholarly secondary literature and firsthand accounts of Iranian political actors.

In his introduction, the author states that, although "the primary focus of this book is on Iran's foreign policy, no such study can exempt itself from an assessment of its domestic politics and rivalries" (p. 6). Indeed, one of the strengths of Takeyh's book is the attention he devotes to domestic politics within Iran, where rivalries and subtle differences of emphasis spawn Iran's seemingly contradictory--not to say quixotic--foreign-policy decisions. He argues that shifting rivalries in domestic politics account for a confusing mix of ideological, pragmatic and nationalist tendencies.

The book is divided into four parts. "The Revolutionary Years" treats the period from the revolution to the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The author's principal contention here is that the events and policies in this formative period of the Islamic Republic's genesis left a deep impression on the psyche of the ruling elite. Khomeini's ideological stridency would be felt long after his death.

In Chapter Two, "Relations with the 'Great Satan'," Yakeyh succinctly leads the reader through the early exchanges between the newly established revolutionary regime and the United States: the hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the mistaken downing of an Iranian passenger aircraft by the USS Vincennes. Nothing here will be new to the reader familiar with U.S.-Iranian relations. However, Takeyh does make some valuable refinements to the established narratives.

He emphasizes the role of domestic politics in the unfolding of the hostage crisis, which "cannot be properly understood without taking into consideration Iran's domestic political context and the clerical radicals' obsession with subverting the provisional government" (p. 40). Further, he argues for a revision of the prevailing view that Khomeini was not aware of the students' intentions from the start of the hostage crisis, citing a quotation from the recently published memoirs of Ayatollah Muhammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, who at the time of the takeover of the U.S. embassy was a member of the Revolutionary Council (pp. 39-40).

In Chapter Three, "Turmoil in the Levant," Takeyh considers whether Khomeini's periodic calls for the eradication of Israel were merely "incendiary rhetoric" and a "symbolic gesture without practical relevance" (p. 61) or a deeply held ideological conviction. The author cites Khomeini's own writings from before the revolution, as well as perceptions in Iran of Israel's being an agent of American imperialism, in support of the latter position. In emphasizing the ideological vehemence with which Khomeini and his supporters denied Israel's right to existence, Takeyh may appear to some to downplay other factors contributing to this rhetoric, such as a desire to gain favor on the Arab street (a motive the author emphatically rejects on p. 63), as well as to diminish the significance of Iran's willingness on occasion to overlook ideological dogma in favour of pragmatic necessity.

The fourth chapter deals with the Iran-Iraq War. Takeyh compellingly presents how the Iranian regime assimilated this territorial war into its rhetoric of struggle between the forces of righteousness and the forces of irreligious secularism: "In the clerical cosmology, the defense of the nation and the propagation of the revolution were seen as part of the same continuum" (p. 89). He suggests that this way of presenting the war to the Iranian people had the effect of forcing the regime to prolong the war, even after Iraq, the original aggressor, had been driven out of Iranian territory.

The West's reluctance to condemn Saddam's extensive use of chemical weapons in this conflict receives strong criticism from the author: "For the United States to...condone the use of weapons of mass destruction remains one of the more shameful episodes in its history" (p. 99). America's turning a blind eye to these infringements of the rules of war, along with the USS Vincennes tragedy, sowed a lasting mistrust that only compounded the effect of the earlier hostage crisis.

The first part of the book provides a comprehensive review of events during Khomeini's tenure. The author's purposes may have been better served, however, by placing his account of the Iran-Iraq War earlier in this section as the war provided the backdrop and often the spur to all other events during Khomeini's reign.

In Part Two, "The Rise of Pragmatism and the New Priorities," the author deals with the rivalries among the conservatives, the pragmatists and the radicals during the presidential tenure of Ali Hashemi Akbar Rafsanjani. Takeyh displays a clear grasp of the often-bewildering cast of characters in Iran's arcane ruling institutions. In Chapter Five, "Pragmatic Restraint," Takeyh gives a clear exposition of the tensions between the pragmatists, led by Rafsanjani, and the conservatives, led by the new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The period was characterized by a to-and-fro between pragmatic measures to liberalize and reactionary calls to uphold the tenets of the revolution. Through their control of the unelected branches of government, the conservatives got the better of these exchanges. In international terms, this meant that the president's desire to integrate Iran into the global economy and re-open economic relations with America were outweighed by the conservatives' fear that such moves would expose Iran to Western cultural contamination.

Chapter Six, "Reconciliation and Its Limits," is perhaps the most valuable for those reading this book in order to better understand Iran's current situation. The author considers the country's relations from the end of the reign of the shah to the end of Rafsanjani's presidency with, in turn, the Gulf states, the countries of the European bloc, Russia and China. This is a useful survey and a timely corrective to the relentless, though by no means unjustified, focus on U.S.-Iranian relations. The structuring thesis of these discussions appears sound: "The imperatives of economic reconstruction" following the Iran-Iraq War required normalization of economic relations with other countries, but, given "the contentious nature of relations with the United States, [Rafsanjani] hoped that reconciliation with the European community and the Gulf states and the forging of constructive ties with Russia and China would be sufficient to meet Iran's requirements" (p. 129). Takeyh goes on to indicate how these efforts, despite some tentative successes, were ultimately undermined--at least in the case of the Gulf states and Europe--by Iran's continued militancy and support of terrorism.

In the last chapter of the second part, "The Satans," Iran's relations with America and Israel during this period are treated. The theme of ideology eventually trumping pragmatic overtures is again borne out. The author is sensitive to perceptions of the U.S.-Iranian relationship on both sides. The Iranians felt unrewarded for their cooperation in the first Gulf war, while, from the Americans' point of view, no rapprochement could be contemplated as long as Iran appeared to be disrupting the Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement.

In Chapter Eight, "The Odyssey of the Reform Movement," Takeyh indicates how President Muhammad Khatami's attempts at reform were consistently undermined by the conservatives. He claims, however, that Khatami's tenure was not an unmitigated failure. Despite obstructions to reform at home, "his achievements were nothing less than momentous" abroad (p. 196). There were three facets to Khatami's foreign-policy aims: reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, normalization with Europe and overtures to the United States. Having gone some way toward achieving the first two, for which he had the conservatives' support, Khatami's boldest move came in an interview with CNN in January 1998, in which he dropped all rhetoric of the "Great Satan," acknowledged America's achievements and expressed regret for the hostage crisis. The United States waited for good deeds to back up these good words. The author conveys effectively the sense of an opportunity missed for a degree of reconciliation between the two countries: "Khatami had hoped for measurable concessions from the United States to disarm his domestic critics, while the Clinton team hoped for important adjustments from Iran before embracing Khatami" (p. 203).

In Chapter Nine, "September 11 and the Politics of Fear, Hope, and Necessity," Takeyh indicates how another brief opening in U.S.-Iranian relations appeared after 9/11, as both countries cooperated on removing their mutual enemy, the Taliban, in Afghanistan. Any hopes that this could lead to renewed relations, however, were quickly dashed by the hardening rhetoric of the Bush administration, which reached its peak in Bush's January 2002 speech in which the president named Iran part of an "axis of evil." Despite some subsequent cooperation over the removal of Saddam, this indictment set the tone for U.S.-Iranian relations for the foreseeable future.

In the final part, "Hegemony at Last?" the author charts "The Rise of the New Right" (Chapter 10), a group of young conservatives, many of whom had fought in the Iran-Iraq War and saw calls for reform as yet another Western plot to undermine the revolutionary ideals of the regime. The author provides an instructive account of Ahmadinejad's improbable rise to power in 2005. The concluding chapter, "The Ahmadinejad Era," brings the reader up to the present. With the president and supreme leader of one mind, the stage was set for a "mixture of Islamist ideology and ultranationalism" to shape foreign policy (p. 237). The author surveys the three key issues of the last four years: the nuclear issue, civil strife in post-war Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Takeyh convincingly identifies the roots of Iran's continued desire to acquire nuclear weapons in the technological imbalance of the Iran-Iraq War (although the program was begun under the shah). He dismisses arguments that Iran's preoccupation with acquiring nuclear weapons is due to concerns over a nuclear-armed Pakistan and Israel. The author compellingly relates how the Iranian regime's more recent "strategy of marrying Iran's national identity to the cause of nuclear aggrandizement" makes any negotiations much more fraught with difficulty (p. 250).

In a short conclusion, Takeyh looks to the future and shows his policy advice stripes. His brief critique of current U.S. policy towards Iran does not join seamlessly to the principal arguments of the book. He argues for engagement with Iran and for its inclusion in a U.S.-backed regional security arrangement.

This book covers much of the same ground as the author's Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (Times Books, 2006). There, too, the author explained Iran's domestic political rivalries as a means to understanding its foreign-policy decisions. In his earlier book, however, Takeyh was principally concerned with presenting an argument in support of a new foreign-policy approach towards Iran. His more recent book, by contrast, is a straightforward historical primer, with policy suggestions confined to the conclusion or left to be inferred by the reader.

Recent international attention on Iran has prompted a slew of books. Some deal more generally with Iranian history since the revolution. Of these, Arjomand's After Khomeini (Oxford, 2009) has useful chapters on foreign policy, setting Iran's positions in context through the comparative study of revolutions. Others attempt to provide a how-to guide for dealing with the current situation, such as Limbert's Negotiating with Iran (United States Institute of Peace, 2009), or focus on U.S.-Iranian relations, such as Slavin's Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin's Press, 2007).

Takeyh has produced a concise, yet nuanced, historical primer, presenting the academic, the policy maker or the non-specialist with good resources for thinking about how to approach Iran--with only occasional goading from the author.

Scott Liddle, Harvard University
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Author:Liddle, Scott
Publication:Middle East Policy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
Words:1970
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