The spines of Western leaders shivered following the election of Tehran's mayor, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran's next president. And for good reason. Ahmadinejad's resume and rhetoric are not pretty. He was a member of the ideological Revolutionary Guards and of the paramilitary Basij. He is a leader of the Abadgaran (Developers) movement, comprised of younger hardliners who feel that their elders have lost their revolutionary fervor. In keeping with someone who looks back to the early 1980s as the golden age of the Islamic revolution, the new president celebrates the revolutionary ideals of the Khomeini era and ardently criticizes the United States.
The election stunned and alarmed the West, which had counted on the more pragmatic "wheeler-dealer" Hashemi Rafsanjani to win and invigorate negotiations with the West over Iran's nuclear program. In response, U.S. policy has already stiffened. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has commented disparagingly on Ahmadinejad's track record, while the Europeans are gloomy about the future of negotiations on the nuclear issue, as no compromise is in sight. We are approaching an abyss.
So it is the time to step back, take stock of today's Iran and make well-informed decisions. Americans know too little about how Iranians think or about political and economic realities in that country. Many academics and policymakers alike are ill acquainted with the central beliefs among the Iranian elite on the nuclear issue and with the key realities on the ground as the Iranian policymaking community sees them.
Now is not the time to rely on ideologues--be they neoconservatives or liberal-democracy devotees--or for them to substitute their beliefs about Iran in place of the facts on the ground. Given our experience in Iraq, now is certainly not the time to rely on "our Iranians" for "inside information" as to what is happening there.