Tehran Rising: Iran's Challenge to the United States

If you must read this book, do it for one reason and one reason only. Professor Ilan Berman is a vice president at the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), a right-leaning Washington think tank that provides Cold War perspectives on, in particular, contemporary Russia, China and the Middle East. Berman's highly charged propagandist assault on Iran gives a potential foretaste of the arguments that may be deployed by the US Administration over the next year or two to justify US air strikes against suspected nuclear sites, or at the least as part of an increasing hostility that includes pro-active backing for political change from within the Islamic Republic. What you will not get from this book, however, is a careful utilization of a broad range of sources and perspectives. What you will get, though, is a poorly researched tirade that purports to be an intelligent wake-up call to the US government, but actually provides an object lesson in the malign role of agit-prop from the conservative corners of the Beltway.


Berman's slender volume advocates a development of US policy on Iran that would seemingly give little encouragement to international efforts to secure a united diplomatic front against an Iranian nuclear weapons potential. Instead, he would concentrate resources on turning up the US's hostile political rhetoric, and to trying to stem what he assesses to be a welter of strong diplomatic relations enjoyed by Iran with its neighbours from Eurasia to the Arabian Sea and even to points beyond (including the entirely specious inclusion of Egypt).


The reader only has to reflect on Berman's half-baked assertions about Turkey having ceded influence in Central Asia to Iran, and Russia and Iran already finding common interests against the US, rather than conflicting agendas, in Russia's former backyard, to realize that this is not rigorous analysis, but pure polemic. Berman goes on to argue that the rise of Iran and its developing military capability has already led the smaller Gulf Arab countries to seek an accommodation with Tehran after what he considers to have been the collapse of the Clinton Administration's dual containment policy by the mid-1990s. The latter, in his view, ‘effectively removed the American strategic umbrella from these countries.’ The reader might like to consider the validity of this argument in the context of Iraq, and the role that the territory of Kuwait and Qatar played in the US-led invasion. In fact, Iraq is tantamount to being the elephant in the room throughout this book. It is mentioned, and the reader gets a distinct feeling that Berman is building an argument off the back of the US's proven preparedness to act there. However, there is no reflection by the author on what the lessons of intervention in Iraq might be for his proposed robust US posture toward Iran.


Rather, Iraq is simply reduced to the role of additional ammunition in the rhetorical armoury Berman deploys against the thoroughly demonized Iran. To the author, Iraq is simply the playground in which the emerging regional bully, Iran, is strutting its malign stuff. Iran is purely and simply an external prop to the insurgency in Iraq; no more, no less. Iran does provide financial and political support for different Shia militias who in some instances have fought Coalition troops. However, what Berman fails to mention (or even bury in his copious use of Western as well as Israeli newspaper sources) is that Iran is the principal regional backer of the Iraqi government, and has been ever since the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The dominant actors in the new Iraqi government that are expected to be formed over coming weeks will continue to be Shia Islamists with good connections to Tehran as well as Washington. The only time Iran's relationship with the leading Shia groups in the Iraqi government is mentioned is to say, as a statement of fact, that Iranian agents were responsible for the killing in 2003 of an Iraqi Shia leader, and then on the same page to partly contradict the impression this creates by acknowledging the fact that Iran bankrolls the same organization's militia.


Of course, if you can suggest that Iran is determining the fate of Iraq right down to who is up and, literally, down within Shia Islamist parties in government, then the ‘logic’ of acting to ensure that Tehran is not allowed to develop a nuclear weapons potential, and that its undoubtedly unpopular regime is overthrown, is strengthened. Professor Berman is right to say that the consequences for the balance of power in the Gulf against US interests, and those of its long-standing Gulf Arab allies, will be highly negative. However, he exaggerates the influence that Iran already has in order to suggest that Iranian hegemony in the region is rapidly becoming inevitable. Professor Berman also raises a number of hoary old chestnuts to pile on the scare factor, including Iran's apparent willingness to turn off the oil taps in order to apply political pressure internationally. Such a development would plainly only be a potential short-term attraction to an oil-revenue-reliant country. Berman also has precious little sense of history when he talks of Iranian proposals for US-free regional security co-operation structures. These Iranian ambitions were not invented by the Islamic Revolution, nor, of course, were Iran's nuclear ambitions. Seeing the consequence of an Iran that is nuclear weapons capable in zero-sum terms makes military action, or at least a ratcheting up of tension, inevitable. Yet curiously, despite enormous scepticism about the wisdom of European diplomatic initiatives for being supposedly premised on the reformability of the Iranian regime, Berman does not explicitly advocate military action to hit sites or wider regime interests, and once again betrays the Cold War preoccupations of himself and the AFPC by suggesting that US-Russian co-operation on reining in Iranian nuclear ambitions is key. He falls further back on traditional Cold War perceptions in believing that, like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Iran is in its death throes and that a combination of financial and political measures by principally the US will eventually bring the regime crashing down. On the Iranian political alternatives, however, Professor Berman is notably more reticent to pass judgement. He concedes that support for the Shah's son, in a country that mostly does not remember his father, is ‘unproven’, and suggests that the US government should weigh up the consequences of backing the main armed opposition group, the Mojaheddin El-Khalq (MEK). This does not prevent Professor Berman recommending that Washington remove the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations, however.


Read this book for a sense of the hostility that Iran is beginning to garner in Washington, both in and out of conservative circles, and for what this suggests about the consequences of likely US impatience with any return to diplomatic initiatives by the Europeans or others. However, those in search of what the consequences of either Iranian policy or US responses are for Washington's interests in the Gulf and wider Middle East should look elsewhere.

Neil Partrick
Senior Analyst, Economist Intelligence Unit, and Associate Fellow, RUSI

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