Iran’s presidential election is again inviting speculation about which candidate can nudge the Islamic Republic toward moderation and pragmatism. Such conjectural games miss the point that the theocratic state is defined by an ideology that demonizes the West and relies on conspiracies to explain global affairs. The guardians of the Islamist state are emphatic in their belief that America harbors an enduring animosity not just toward their state but to the Muslim world. Its next president, drawn from the ranks of regime loyalists, is unlikely to temper this noxious political culture.
In pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the conundrum of Iran, Washington and its allies persistently ignore the fact that they are dealing with a deeply deformed political state. Its clerical oligarchs routinely spin conspiracy tales about how the real perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have yet to be unmasked. This has to be considered a “sensitive” response compared to the Iranian elites’ denials of the Holocaust and depictions of the Jewish community.
It is the conceit of foreign policy realism that rhetoric is meaningless, and pragmatism is the essence of the game of nations. After all, the leading proponents of this school suggest, Soviet leaders and China’s Mao Tse-tung indulged in rash rhetoric and yet proved judicious custodians of their nations’ nuclear arsenals. Whatever Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s crimes may be, he is neither as reckless as Nikita Khrushchev nor a mass murderer like Mao. If the United States can contain one and celebrate making peace with the other, it is said, then it should cast aside Iran’s troublesome statements and proceed with diplomacy.
There is something to this narrative. During the Cold War, rhetorical broadsides did not always prove a reliable forecast of great powers’ behavior. America’s focus on its adversaries’ external conduct as opposed to their ideological complexion seemed to pay off. Still, a closer look reveals that neither China nor the Soviet Union are suitable guideposts for Iran.
The United States and the Soviet Union were indeed locked in an ideological conflict and often employed irresponsible rhetoric. However, after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, both nations clearly understood that arms control was in their mutual interest. Two superpowers of equal strength, sobered by a momentous nuclear crisis, appreciated that restraint and caution were the best means of pursuing their rivalry. At a time when Washington and Moscow accepted the need for circumspection, rhetoric could be suitably discounted.
In Khamenei’s telling, the Middle East today is immersed in a struggle pitting the forces of Islamism against America and its satraps. This is a conflict that is playing itself out in slums of Lebanon, in the forgotten frontiers of Iraq and, most dramatically, in Syria. For the clerical rulers this is an existential struggle, as Iran’s divine mandate can only be redeemed in a region unhooked from the American empire. Thus, when Khamenei speaks of the glory of resistance and America’s dark plots, he is not seeking to mobilize some abstract constituency but expressing his genuine worldview.
Unlike the tired Soviet revolutionaries of the late 20th century who cloaked themselves in rhetoric they increasingly did not believe, Khamenei is sincere when he speaks of emancipating the Middle East from the clutches of the “Great Satan.” Iran’s nuclear ambitions can only be understood in this context, as the clerical state perceives that it can best enhance its prestige, protect its allies and displace its adversaries armed with the ultimate weapon.
The China analog is even more improbable, as Mao required America’s support to fend off a menacing Soviet Union. The basis of Sino-American rapprochement was mutual suspicion of Moscow and a desire to beset Russia on its own Asian periphery. No such common interest binds Washington and Tehran. Thus, while Richard Nixon could comfort himself that Mao’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric would not endanger his compact with the West, Khamenei is tethered to no such understanding.
For the international community to persist with its diplomacy, it must set aside Tehran’s rhetorical fulminations, explain away its various transgressions and convince itself that there is an untapped reservoir of pragmatism somewhere in the recesses of the Islamic Republic that can be harnessed through a clever mixture of sanctions and dialogue. A Washington in search of an Iranian interlocutor must cast Khamenei as yet another despotic ruler whose words belie his essential realism. But after nearly a decade of delusory diplomacy, it may be time to ask: What if Iran’s supreme leader actually means what he says?
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.