Iran's Foreign Policy 'Driven By Domestic Politics'

Americans want Iran to give up nuclear enrichment. At the moment, Iran is consumed with the confrontations between the country's rulers and street protesters. Iran analyst Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations tells Steve Inskeep that Iran's foreign policy is being driven by domestic politics.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We'll try to talk very softly today for those who may need that.

If it's true that all politics is local, the United States has to consider the local politics of Iran. Americans want to persuade or pressure Iran to give up nuclear enrichment. And they're doing that in a moment when Iran has been consumed by confrontations between Iran's rulers and street protesters. Iran analyst Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations has been considering the opportunities and the risks for the United States.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Senior Fellow, The Council on Foreign Relations): Well, the risk is that you're dealing with a country at this particular point whose entire national leadership is focused on internal security challenges, and they're less involved and less concerned about what is happening abroad. You can make a case that Iran's foreign policy is being entirely driven by its domestic political considerations. So it's a distracted leadership. It is a suspicious leadership that, in some ways, believe this internal conflicts are results of external manipulation. So, it comes to any sort of international negotiations with that particular suspicion.

The opportunities: They may be more pragmatic on the nuclear issue in order to mitigate international pressures in order to deal with their domestic political situation. That's potentially an opportunity, although a difficult one.

INSKEEP: So those are the risks and opportunities for the Obama administration, and in the midst of these increasingly violent protests and responses, the president made a statement this week. Let's listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: For months, the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights. Each time they have done so, they have been met with the iron fist of brutality even on solemn occasions and holy days. And each time that has happened, the world has watched with deep admiration for the courage and the conviction of the Iranian people.

INSKEEP: What effect, if any, does that statement appear to have had inside Iran?

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, it is a statement that I think for the first time the president even used the word tyranny to describe the Islamic Republic. It demonstrates the fact that the United States still has its human rights commitments, and to some extent, it allies the United States with the forces that seek democratic change.

INSKEEP: Although, let's think about this. You have these opposition forces who say they are patriotic Iranians who want to reclaim their country or even reclaim the Islamic Revolution, and they're being denounced by the government, who will call them periodically agents of imperialists, agents of the Americans. Does it actually damage the demonstrators in some way to have the president's vocal support?

Mr. TAKEYH: I don't think so. I think we're past the time and place where the theocratic regime can defame its opponents as members of the fifth column, as members of those who are being manipulated by the outside. That kind of a rhetoric may have an impact on those who already support the regime, whatever percentage of the population that is. But for vast majority of Iranian people, that sort of rhetoric is rather ineffective.

INSKEEP: Can the United States do more than issue statements in a situation like this?

Mr. TAKEYH: I think issuing statements and declaring publicly the unacceptable nature of the Iranian regime's conduct is sufficient in of itself, if it's done systematically. I don't know if you can do the things that were done, for instance, with the Polish solidarity group, where the United States, through Catholic Church and the labor unions, did much to embolden and empower and -the activities of solidarity�

INSKEEP: Oh, solidarity in Poland when they were�

Mr. TAKEYH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: �battling Soviet domination. They had Lech Walesa. They had a charismatic leader.

Mr. TAKEYH: Yes, that's right. That sort of a thing is not obvious in Iran at this particular point, but mere rhetorical support, if it's done persistently, I think is a - in of itself - an important gesture.

INSKEEP: Ray Takeyh is at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the book, �Hidden Iran.� Thanks very much.

Mr. TAKEYH: Thank you.

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