Iran’s Clerics Remain The Problem By Ray Takeyh

Washington’s Iran debate: oscillations between the hysteria of war and the euphoria of reconciliation.

One of the enduring aspects of Washington’s Iran debate is its wild oscillations between the hysteria of war and the euphoria of reconciliation.

The Islamic Republic has a new president: He smiles and pledges soothing moderation. The jaded envoys who have been struggling with the Iran issue for the past decade – a period that included Hassan Rouhani’s stewardship of the nuclear file – are suddenly optimistic.

It is important to remember, however, that the American diplomats dealing with Iran suffer from a fundamental confusion about the nature of the Islamist state. The United States is accustomed to dealing with opportunistic Arab rulers but not with clerics who take their ideologies seriously. At times, reasonable men have reached high office in the Persian theocratic state only to have their pragmatism numbed by its founding ideology. It remains to be seen whether Rouhani can transcend the obstacles that bedeviled his predecessors.

The Arab world has seen many despotic rulers whose lust for power was expressed in language of ideologies they did not fully understand. Gamal Abdel Nasser spoke of Arab socialism, while the essence of his plan was the glorification of Egypt and himself as the region’s strongman. Saddam Hussein and both Assads unfurled the banner of Baathism to justify their blood-soaked regimes, even though there is scant evidence they had read the Baathists’ turgid tomes.

Given these dictators’ shallow ideological commitments, their strategic alignments often proved fluid. All these rulers were willing to deal with the United States if it served their aims.

But the Iranian revolution of 1979 introduced a regime unique in the modern Middle East. The Islamic Republic has a mission of redeeming the region for the forces of righteousness. Despite the costs and burdens, Persian Iran has struggled against a range of what it perceives to be iniquitous forces, particularly the United States and its allies. It sees itself as a vanguard state led by a dedicated cadre that will lead the subjugated masses toward justice and salvation. Anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism are the touchstones of its orthodoxy.

And yet no country can live on ideology alone. Iran has had to operate its economy, deal with regional demands, and even transact unsavory bargains with adversaries. When granted the opportunity, Iran’s youth and middle class vote for politicians who promise relief. A segment of the theocracy has sought to smooth the hard edges of their creed and respond to the populace’s yearning for a normal life. Presidents ranging from the corrupt Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the reformist Mohammad Khatami hoped to chart a new course and balance the revolution’s mandates with their constituents’ tangible concerns. All of them failed to square this circle.

Enter Rouhani, the latest politician to undertake this most difficult of balancing acts. Unfortunately, his guile and initiatives are bound to be circumscribed by the regime’s ideology.

One of the tragedies of the Islamic Republic is that its pragmatism often emanates from offices subordinate to the unelected power centers. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his Praetorian Guard continue to proclaim the virtues of resistance and are mindful of those who don’t share their zeal. Iran’s shattered economy and simmering discontent may have caused Khamenei to concede to Rouhani’s election. He may even offer him some leeway in mitigating the nuclear crisis. But the supreme leader will remain an important obstacle to the president’s designs.

America is used to dealing with cynical Arab rulers who casually betray whatever principle they proclaim for their own benefit. As the saying goes, these are men one can do business with. Rather, it is the ideologues who have often puzzled Washington, for they seldom engage in judicious cost-benefit assessments. The Islamic Republic may not be the radical actor it was in the 1980s, but neither is it a state ruled by modest men who happen to drape themselves in clerical garb.

In the coming months, Rouhani and his diplomats will inevitably profess their readiness to deal in earnest. The possibility of a limited deal addressing some of the more urgent aspects of Iran’s nuclear program should not be ruled out. If such a deal is done, then it must be welcomed. But standing behind these deliberations will be the untrusting Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies who will always need an American nemesis to justify their ideology to themselves.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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