Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East. By Ali M. Ansari. New York: Basic Books, June 2006. Cloth: ISBN 0-465-00350-8, $28.00. 280 pages.
Review by Babak Rahimi, University of California, San Diego
The timely publication of Confronting Iran by Ali Ansari fills the longstanding need for a fair and balanced study of Iran’s complex relations with the US. With the aim of challenging both common perceptions on Iranian foreign policy and offering important solutions to the brewing crisis that is unfolding before our eyes, Ansari has arguably written the best political analysis yet on the subject. In this engaging and erudite work, Ansari lays out the whole story of Iran-US relations in the context of an ambiguous history of friendship and antagonism, a history entangled with the legacy of European imperialists who competed for control over the country in the last hundred years.Ansari’s argument develops over seven chapters and starts with a lucid and lively introduction. Chapter one begins by placing America’s original encounter with Iran in the context of a complicated historical setting of the nineteenth century, with British and Russian imperialists as major forces that competed for control over Iran’s domestic politics under the Qajars. Chapter two is another lively and lucid depiction of Iranian attitudes toward the West, mainly in terms of the US-led coup that toppled Mossadeq’s democratically-elected government in 1953. Chapter three focuses on Iran-US relations in the 1960s and 1970s, during which the Pahlavi authoritarian modernization and American support for Shah’s military ambitions played a major role in the eruption of the Iranian revolution in 1979.Chapter four carries the arguments made in the previous chapters by describing the development of American-Iranian relations from the seizure of the US embassy in 1979 to the ratification of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) by the Congress under Clinton’s administration in the latter half of the 1990s. Chapter five presents perhaps the best analysis in the book, as Ansari offers a detailed and well-written account of the post-Rafsanjai era that saw the rise of the Reformist movement led by Mohammad Khatami after the presidential election of 1997 and its impact on the evolution of Iran-US relations. Chapter six, “Iran-US relations in the Shadow of 9/11,” underlines the consequences of the policy of disengagement in the late Khatami era, as the Bush administration continued to show similar signs of animosity and suspicion toward Iran after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.In the following chapter, “Nuclear Politics,” Ansari provides another articulate account of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the consequences of the 2004 parliamentary and the 2005 presidential elections that introduced a new era of hardliner politics to post-revolutionary Iran. The conclusion, likewise, offers valuable insights in overcoming a shared culture of mistrust built around the ethos of confrontation that has so far defined Iran-US relations. One significant suggestion that Ansari offers for this problem is the restructuring of the foreign policy establishment and its bureaucratic apparatus, which tend to allocate important positions to generalists and those who have no specialized training in a particular region.There is really only one major objection to be made to this otherwise outstanding work. Ansari’s depiction of the relationship between religion and secularism in contemporary Iranian society is superficial and even contradictory. At times, he seems to accept the (unsubstantiated) argument that Iranian society is now in the gradual process of secularization. The evidence provided for secularization is tenuous; Ansari fails to show how Iranian society has indeed attained a more secular sphere of life, despite the assertion that many Iranians express less an “interest in organized religion” (228). In reality, the absence of “interest” in established religion does not necessarily signal secularization, a major point that is missed by Ansari. Yet at the same time, in another section (235), Ansari seems to also accept the notion that Iranian society maintains a fundamental “religious purpose” in a way that Americans can also appreciate, since they also share this cultural trait. With this claim, it seems as though Ansari is trying to appease two different Western audiences at once: secular Europeans and religious Americans. However, without a sound conceptual and empirical analysis of secularization in post-revolutionary Iran, Ansari is unable to provide a truly cohesive description of religion in its diverse public and private forms, and its significance in transforming state, society, and Iran-Western relations.What this book most convincingly demonstrates is the need for a political cultural milieu of understanding and rational communication rather than ideological antagonism based on emotions and mythical understanding of self and other. Support for confrontation through either sanction or military force, however, remains strong. In academia alone, a number of scholars, especially hawkish leftist scholars such as Azar Nafisi and Abbas Millani, continue to defend the policy of disengagement, suggesting that to question this approach would qualify one as a supporter of the Islamic Republic. In stark contrast, Ansari’s book offers a powerful reply to such confrontational ideology and its insular solution to the current standoff. Such ideology unfortunately appears to impact the American public sphere much in the way Iraqi exile groups did in the years prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ansari’s basic message is simple but profound: in order to avoid conflict one must disengage from a narrow-minded mentality of disengagement.What Ansari achieves in this book is a sober, critical narrative that transcends the discursive limitations of ideological thinking and the blind fixture of partisan politics, and he is to be congratulated for such an exemplary effort. The more we genuinely seek to reach a less antagonist approach, the more works like Confronting Iran can help us find ways to tackle the challenge of diplomacy over confrontation.