For three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has bedeviled the United States, resisting both incentives and disincentives and working all the while to foil American designs in the Middle East. If 20th-century Russia was to Winston Churchill a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, for observers of contemporary Iran, the Islamic Republic often resembles a villain inside a victim behind a veil.
Seeking to understand their mysterious foe, American analysts most commonly invoke three historical analogies to explain its character and future trajectory: Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The chosen metaphor pretty much dictates the proposed response, and most prescriptions for U.S. policy have come down to one of these variations: attempt to coax the Iranian regime into modernity; forget the diplomatic niceties and "pre-emptively" attack it to prevent or delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons; or contain it in hopes it will change or collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.
After a momentous decade of watching Iran from both Tehran and Washington, interviewing hundreds of Iranians from across the political spectrum, and closely following the writings and statements of top Iranian officials, my advice for Barack Obama's administration as it came to office last year was to dispense with the historical metaphors and instead try to probe, via engagement, a seemingly facile but fundamental question: Why does Iran behave the way it does? Is Iranian foreign policy rooted in an immutable ideological opposition to the United States, or is Iran just reacting to punitive U.S. policies? To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, is Iran a nation or a cause?
I had always thought that the Islamic Republic was sui generis -- a political system unprecedented in modern times. But in the ensuing months, Iran's cynical response to Obama, followed by the massive post-election crackdowns, show trials, and forced confessions, made me think that historical analogies might shed some light on Iran after all. But which metaphor, if any, fits?
For proponents of the China comparison -- often foreign-policy realists -- the Iranian regime is fundamentally pragmatic, not ideological, and yearns for a rapprochement with the United States. Viewed through this relatively benign prism, Tehran's support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, its alliances with radical leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Iraq's Moqtada al-Sadr, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, its Holocaust denial, and its weekly jeers of "death to America" are seen as defensive reactions to a hostile United States. The analogy implies that a bold U.S. gesture, à la President Richard Nixon's famous 1972 trip to Beijing, could bring about a "grand bargain" with Tehran.
Many have noted that the propitious geopolitical circumstances fueling Nixon's rapprochement with Chinese leader Mao Zedong -- mutual concern about the looming Soviet threat -- do not exist when it comes to today's Iran. While Mao didn't exactly go around waving the Star-Spangled Banner, the China analogy also vastly underestimates the extent to which anti-Americanism is central to the identity of the Islamic Republic's current leadership, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei's contempt for the United States, documented in three decades' worth of writings and speeches, has been remarkably consistent. Whether the topic is foreign policy, agriculture, or education, he seamlessly relates the subject to the cruelty, greed, and sinister plots of what he calls American "global arrogance." Former senior Iranian officials, including even a former president, have told me that in private discussions Khamenei has declared, "Ma doshmani ba Amrika ra lazem dareem," i.e., "We need enmity with the United States." A month before the tainted presidential election of June 2009, Khamenei declared that Iran would face a national "disaster" if a candidate who attempted to thaw relations with America came to power.
While the "grand bargain" option garnered special attention during the George W. Bush years, when Washington shunned dialogue with Tehran, Obama's unprecedented and unreciprocated overtures to Tehran -- including two personal letters from the U.S. president to Khamenei -- undercut the narrative that Iran's hard-liners, despite their own rhetoric, secretly aspire to cordial relations with the United States.
They don't. Indeed, underneath the ideological veneer, the anti-Americanism of Iran's hard-liners is driven in no small part by self-preservation. They are acutely aware of the argument made by many Iran analysts over the years that a rapprochement with the United States could spur unpredictable reforms that would significantly dilute their hold on power. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, put it plainly in a 2009 interview with Etemad newspaper: "If pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state."
But if Iran is no 1970s China, ripe for an accommodation, the opposite view -- that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a latter-day Adolf Hitler and Iran is Nazi Germany -- is no closer to the mark. For the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who bluntly told a Los Angeles audience in 2006 that "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany," the Islamic Republic is incorrigibly fundamentalist, messianic, and hence, undeterrable. Continued engagement, then, is tantamount to appeasement, and the use of military force might well be inevitable. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently added his name to the small but strident list of people who have endorsed this surprisingly persistent line of thinking.
Yet though the Iranian regime is homicidal toward its own population and espouses a hateful ideology, there is little evidence to suggest it is also expansionist and genocidal. Even the U.S. Defense Department describes Iran's military power -- underwritten by a budget less that 2 percent the size of America's -- as largely deterrent in nature. What's more, despite Ahmadinejad's repugnant rhetoric and delusions of grandeur, his control over the Iranian state is not comparable to the absolute power Hitler wielded in Germany.
So, should we dispense with the historical analogies altogether? Not quite. In fact, few contemporary analyses capture the nature of today's Islamic Republic better than a masterpiece I first read in college: diplomat George F. Kennan's incisive and unapologetic 1947 essay on the Soviet Union, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Kennan's article, published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X" because the author was a serving U.S. official, set the tenor of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union until it finally collapsed in 1991 under the weight of its economic mismanagement and moral exhaustion.
Like all such comparisons, the analogy is far from perfect. The Soviet Union was an irreligious empire with nuclear weapons and global reach, while the Islamic Republic is an aspiring nuclear power whose influence outside the Middle East is limited. But like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home. Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran's current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam.