FOR NEARLY THREE DECADES, THE ENMITY BETWEEN THE United States and Iran has been an established fact of Middle East politics. At various times, both countries have attempted to transcend their animosity and arrive at mutually acceptable compacts. However, there was never any urgency in either Washington or Tehran for a bold movement forward. In a peculiar sense, the domestic politics in both countries made continuation of their managed hostilities an acceptable alternative to the precarious task of revising relations.
Today, the altered political landscape of the Middle East and Iran's accelerating nuclear program make such caution irresponsible if not reckless. The reality is that the civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon cannot be resolved, and the stability of the Persian Gulf cannot be ensured, without Iran's constructive participation.
Yet the Islamic Republic of Iran--with its penchant for terrorism and its determination to acquire an advanced nuclear capability and play an increasingly assertive regional role--still confounds the United States. In official Washington, the essential objectives and interests of Tehran remain a mystery. Is Iran still a revolutionary state or just another medium-sized power seeking to project its influence in its immediate neighborhood? Are the growling mullahs determined to impose their theocratic template on an unwilling Middle East, or can there be an accommodation between the United States and Iran?
Contrary to the presumptions of the right-wing press and the Bush White House, the Islamic Republic is a unique political system. Iran differs dramatically from its Arab neighbors: Its institutions, elections, and political factions are relevant and wield considerable influence over the government's course of action. Debates rage within the parliament and the bureaucracy, in the seminaries and the street, among media outlets and academics. Far from being a stagnant totalitarian state, Iran is home to a competitive political culture whose personalities routinely jockey for influence and power. The Islamic Republic is a place where the president does not dominate the decision-making process, the legislature does not yield to the executive, unelected clerics impose checks on the polity, and the public is not excluded from the deliberations of the state. Deriding its elections and caricaturing its politicians may be easy, but outside of Israel and Turkey, Iran is the only place in the Middle East where politics matters.
Similarly, America's characterization of Iran as a militant state determined to subvert its neighbors and export its revolution is also exaggerated and flawed. Throughout the tenure of the Islamic Republic, there have been periods when ideology displaced moderation, when national interests have been sacrificed at the altar of Islamic radicalism. The 1980s represent the high point of revolutionary activism, when war with Iraq and conflict with the United States were the pillars of Iran's international relations. The founder of the world's first modern theocracy, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, did not see himself as simply the head of a state but as the leader of an entire community of believers. His was to be a "revolution without borders," seeking to emancipate Islam's realm from the transgressions of American imperialism and Israeli Zionism. Such ideas managed only to produce a prolonged and devastating war, international ostracism, and a self-defeating isolation. In a sense, Iran's revolutionary idealism died in the same place America's grandiose pretensions faded away: on the battlefields of Iraq.
Khomenei's more subdued successors gradually came to appreciate the failure of his mission and the costs it imposed on their beleaguered nation. In the 1990s, a fundamental shift occurred in Iran's international orientation, enshrining national-interest calculations as the defining factor in the country's approach to the world. By cultivating favorable relations with key global powers such as Russia and China, and normalizing ties with regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran sought to project its influence through a more subtle manner. …