Rational outcomes from irrational individuals

A new book analyzes America’s reaction to the Iranian revolution and uncovers the roots of US policy toward Islamism

Is today's impasse with the Islamic Republic the result of a decades-long misreading of Iranian strategy? (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad image via Shutterstock)
Is today's impasse with the Islamic Republic the result of a decades-long misreading of Iranian strategy? (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad image via Shutterstock)

Israeli-born Ofira Seliktar, former professor of political science and current head of a conservative-leaning think tank dealing with matters Middle Eastern and African, is no stranger to controversy. Among her recent books are a study of American Jewish attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli peace process and others detailing American intelligence failures regarding the Soviet Union and Iran. Neither of these preached the conventional wisdom; rather they were organized around the central theme of what might be called willful blindness.

Now, in her latest book, “Navigating Iran: From Carter to Obama,” Seliktar meticulously details American foreign policy and decision-making from Iran of 1979 all the way to the environment we find oursleves in under the Obama administration.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 is not only one of the main turning points in America’s war on terror; in contemporary Middle East politics, it reflects the beginning of American foreign policy toward Islamism and Islamist thought at large. One of the major phenomena that the author skillfully dissects is how disciples of the late Palestinian advocate Edward Said and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) at large misunderstood and consequently misguided American policy-makers under the false belief of an “Islamic reformation” or democratization. In contrast, others, like Bernard Lewis, had serious reservations about Khomeini especially after finding a printing of the “Welayat el Faqih,” the theory of the Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist notion, which included Khomeini’s lectures from the 1970s and now forms the basis for the Iranian constitution.

Lewis alerted the Washington Post of Khomeini’s theocratic aspirations, setting out to change the conventional wisdom that was coming out of Washington at the time. Anyone who held views that ran counter to MESA’s, including Richard Perle — then an aide to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson who supplied samples of Khomeini’s writings to the CIA — and others, was categorized as “orientalist” (another way of saying conservative or anti-Said).

Moreover, this misreading of Iran was “ratified” by Columbia University professor Gary Sick, whose “October Surprise” conspiracy theory alleged that Ronald Reagan made a deal with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages to prevent Carter from winning the 1980 presidential elections. Sick wrote an op-ed — later he expanded into a book entitled, “October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan” — in which he characterized the 1980 election as a “covert political coup.” This simplistic reading did not consider the internal politics of Iran.

Fast forward to 2007, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” piggy-backed on this “understanding” and argued that there is no genuine motive for American support for Israel, which they referred to as a “strategic burden.” They argued further that US foreign policy had been hijacked by the pro-Israel camp to the detriment of American interests.

The fact that some of the intelligence about Iran came from Israel didn’t help, and instead contributed to the marginalization of its validity — specifically with Carter and his followers, who believed that Israel played a role in Carter’s defeat. As Seliktar writes, “the notion that Israel was partially to blame for his [Carter’s] electoral loss may be why Carter has continually expressed enmity toward Israel.”

These events became the baseline for US decision-making regarding the Islamic Republic today. Moreover, as the author observes correctly, “a study of Iran’s negotiating style concluded that the regime perfected the technique of negotiating in bad faith; it typically engaged in extensive pre-negotiations, discussed marginal issues to assess their opponents, and often deny even ‘the most incontrovertible truths,’ tactics most frustrating to Western diplomats.”

The internalization of this message is still debated, as the powers in Washington seek rational outcomes from irrational individuals such as Iran’s current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as if they were any different from Khomeini. While US sanctions have had effects on the Iranian economy, there is still a serious nuclear threat that Iran is holding over the world’s head, and we should not make light of the pronouncements coming out of the regime. That said, as Seliktar concludes, even after charting the regime for three decades, it is still hard to predict its actions. But we have a good skeleton of decision-making, and understanding is key to any future dealings with the regime.

All and all, this is an important read for any policy maker and observer who wants a clear picture of how Iran views Washington and how Washington views Iran.


Asaf Romirowsky, PhD, a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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