Why Iran isn't a global threat
Last week's vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency branding Iran in breach of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments has given impetus to the United States to call for the deferral of Iran to the UN Security Council. Tehran is adamant that it wants nuclear power for generating electricity. Yet, Washington policymakers and their European counterparts subtly argue that Iran's previous treaty violations indicate a more sinister motive to subvert its neighbors and export its Islamic revolution.
Such alarmism overlooks Iran's realities. In the past decade, a fundamental shift in Iran's international orientation has enshrined national interest calculations as the defining factor in its approach to the world. Irrespective of the balance of power between conservatives and reformers, Iran's foreign policy is driven by fixed principles that are shared by all of its political elites.
The intense factional struggles that have plagued the clerical state during the past decade obscure the emergence of a consensus foreign policy. Under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a loose coalition emerged around the notion that Iran cannot remain isolated in the global order.
By cultivating favorable relations with key international actors such as China, Russia, and the European Union, Tehran has sought to craft its own "coalition of willing" and prevent the US from multilateralizing its coercive approach to Iran. Although the Islamic Republic continues its inflammatory support for terrorist organizations battling Israel and is pressing ahead with its nuclear program, its foreign policy is no longer that of a revolutionary state.
This perspective will survive Iran's latest leadership transition. The demographic complexion of the regime's rulers is changing. As Iran's revolution matures and those politicians who were present at the creation of the Islamic Republic gradually recede from the scene, a more austere and dogmatic generation is beginning to take over the reins of power. In response to Iran's manifold problems, newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet frequently criticize their elders' passivity in imposing Islamic strictures and for the rampant corruption that has engulfed the state. They are determined to reverse the social and cultural freedoms of the reformist period and to institute egalitarian economic policies.
On foreign policy issues, however, the new president has stayed well within the parameters of Iran's prevailing international policy. In his August address to the parliament, Mr. Ahmadinejad echoed the existing consensus, noting the importance of constructive relations with "the Islamic world, the Persian Gulf region, the Caspian Sea region, Central Asia, the Pacific area, and Europe." Moreover, the most important voice on foreign policy matters, recently appointed head of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, has reiterated these same themes.
Although the assertive nationalists who have taken command of Iran's executive branch have dispensed with their predecessor's "dialogue of civilizations" rhetoric, and display a marked indifference to reestablishment of relations with America, they are loath to jeopardize the successful multilateral détente that was the singular achievement of the reformist era.
All this is not to suggest that the current negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 (France, Britain, and Germany) designed to resolve the nuclear stalemate will resume. More than two years of talks have failed to bridge the essential differences.
Iran continues to assert its right under the NPT to enrich uranium and has accepted an intrusive inspection regime, while the Europeans insist that Iran must atone for its previous treaty violations by permanently suspending such activities. Ultimately, it appears impossible to reconcile these positions.
It is important to note, however, that the divergence between the European and Iranian perspective predated the rise of Ahmadinejad. This highlights a worrisome convergence in Iranian political thought over the past two years: Somehow - as a result of misguided nationalism or a genuine sense of necessity - mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle has become a sine qua non of modern Iranian politics.
Its nuclear ambitions will continue to irritate the international community, but the days when Iran wantonly sought to undermine established authority in the name of Islamic salvation are over. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's disciples have long abandoned the mission of exporting the revolution, supplanting it with conventional measures of the national interest.
Despite the chorus of concern, Iran's new president has demonstrated no interest in substantially altering the contours of Iran's international policy - nor has the country's ultimate authority, the Supreme Leader. To be sure, the new president's well-honed reactionary instincts will be felt by his hapless constituents as he proceeds to restrict their political and social prerogatives.
But the notion that Iran's foreign policy is entering a new radical state is yet another misreading of the Islamic Republic and its many paradoxes.
• Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is currently completing a book on Iran's foreign policy.