- Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs
In scholarship, as in life, timing is everything. With interested observers struggling to understand, and shape policy toward, the Islamic Republic of Iran in the aftermath of last summer's badly flawed presidential election and consequent protest movement, they are lucky to have at hand Ray Takeyh's excellent history of Iran's foreign and security policies in the three decades since the revolution. Every page of Guardians of the Revolution reflects the author's erudition, careful research, and elegant writing.
Takeyh begins where he must —with a concise overview and analysis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's ideology, intellect, and political genius. This "inscrutable philosopher-king" (p. 18) overturned centuries of Shi'a political quietism with his doctrine of the velayat-e faqih ("Guardianship [End Page 675] of the Jurist," from which the book's title presumably comes). Khomeini's new political dogma held that, with the 12th Imam having gone into occultation in 941, the responsibility for governing the faithful rests not with secular political leaders, but rather with those clerics most learned in Islamic jurisprudence —the "ayatollahs." Having devised this new legitimation of theocratic rule, he broadened his political base by deftly melding the velayat-e faqih with popular and symbolically powerful Shi'a concepts like martyrdom, as well as with the emotive language of the modern secular left, especially its emphasis on the oppression of the economically downtrodden. These elements continue to comprise the weltanschauung of the current Iranian leadership —referred to by Takeyh as the "New Right" (pp. 223-236) —as it struggles to perpetuate its dilapidated revolution in the face of opposition from an increasingly restive and discontented population.
The remainder of the book is a loosely chronological history of Iranian foreign and security affairs spanning four eras over the last three decades: the revolutionary years from 1979 until Khomeini's death in 1989; the pragmatic "Rafsanjani Era," from 1989 to 1997; President Muhammad Khatami's reformist interregnum of 1997 to 2005; and Mahmud Ahmadinejad's New Right ascendancy since 2005. In a lively account that will be profitably read by scholars, students, policymakers, and the general reader, Takeyh traverses all of the important terrain: the 1979-1981 hostage crisis; the 1980 1988 Iran-Iraq war; Tehran's role in the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon during the early 1980s; the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid 1980s; Iran's alliance with Syria; Tehran's support for terrorism against Israel and opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process; the Iranian cultivation of Europe, China, and Russia as counterpoints to the United States; Iran's responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the Iranian nuclear program.
While the book as a whole is a highly successful balancing act between breadth and depth, the author does a particularly fine job of untangling for readers the complex interplay of revolutionary Iran's various political factions and analyzing how that domestic competition has influenced Tehran's outward orientation over three decades. Scholars of international relations too often settle for describing the external opportunities and constraints that shape a given country's foreign policy, to the neglect of the internal forces and personalities that very often play an even greater role. Takeyh wisely avoids this trap.
Readers may notice that Guardians of the Revolution seems to fade a bit toward the end. As Tehran inches ever closer to a nuclear weapons capability, the time is right for analysts to begin thinking about how the world can best live with a nuclear-armed Iran; unfortunately, Tehran's nuclear program receives less coverage than warranted —a scant eight pages. In a brief concluding chapter, while the author advocates a policy of "engaging Iran and regulating its rising power within an inclusive regional-security architecture," there is little discussion of how to...