last updated: August 18, 2015
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- Council on Foreign Relations: Senior Fellow
- Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs: Iran Task Force, member
- Iran Strategy Task Force: Cofounder
- Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Fellow
- Georgetown University: Adjunct professor
- State Department: FormerSenior Adviser
- Oxford University: Phd
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a former official in the Obama State Department who some observers regard as Washington’s “go-to” Iran analyst. In his writings and frequent testimonies before Congress, Takeyh provides extravagant characterizations of Iran’s nuclear program and advocates for increased pressure on the country. Although often described as “centrist,” Takeyh actively works with neoconservatives to promote a hawkish agenda on Iran.
Takeyh was strongly critical of the nuclear negotiations which lead to the historic July 2015 agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations. In January 2015, Takeyh co-wrote an op-ed in Politico with “pro-Israel” hawk Dennis Ross and former Bush Pentagon official Eric Edelman that argued for a “revamped coercive strategy” against Iran to reign in its nuclear program. Among their recommendations were to “raise the costs to Iran of supporting the Assad Dynasty” and for “Washington and Riyadh to collaborate on securing the waterways [of the Persian Gulf] and isolating Iran in its immediate neighborhood.” Takeyh and his co-authors further called for “political warfare” against Iran in the form of “broadcast services” that “draw attention to the unsavory nature of the theocratic regime” and “inspire political dissent.”
In September 2014, Takeyh also coauthored an op-ed with Ross and Edelman that argued against any cooperation with Iran in the war against the so-called “Islamic State” group in Iraq and Syria. “The coincidence of mutual opposition to a radical Sunni terrorist group should not blind us to the enduring threat that the mullahs represent,” Takeyh and his co-authors said.
Takeyh is a member of the Iran Task Force of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs’ (JINSA), a neoconservative advocacy organization that has been critical of the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and pushed for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Takeyh is also a founding member of the Iran Strategy Task Force, an organization created with the collaboration with Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute. Another founder of the Task Force, which has been described as aiming to shift “American policy” on Iran “toward a more aggressive focus on democracy,” is Josh Block, a former spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and current President and CEO of The Israel Project.
In addition to his role at CFR, Takeyh is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He was previously also a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a spinoff of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and taught at the National War College, Yale University, and University of California, Berkeley.
Takeyh’s spouse is Suzanne Maloney, a widely respected analyst based at the Brookings Institution. In apparent contrast to Takeyh, Maloney has generally supported moderate approaches in relation to Iran. Nevertheless, the two have a track record of jointly authoring op-eds and articles.
Views on Iran
Takeyh has for years taken a stridently alarmist stance with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. In 2011, Takeyh wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that “in the next few years Iran will be in the position to detonate a nuclear device,” a view that is at odds with U.S. intelligence estimates, which have reported that Iran ceased nuclear weapons work.
In the same Washington Post article, Takeyh argued that “an aggressive theocracy armed with the bomb will cast a dangerous shadow over the region’s political transition, but the consequences will not be limited to the Middle East.”
A contributor to the American Conservative has described Takeyh’s efforts to portray Iran as an aggressive state that is seeking nuclear weapons as “sheer conjecture” that seems “belied by the generally pragmatic behavior of the Iranian government, which is more interested in regime preservation than in any attempt to bring the rest of the Middle East in line with its views.” The article added: “The parallels to the lead-up to Iraq are eerie—weapons of mass destruction, terrorist groups, and mushroom clouds on the horizon. If the Ray Takeyhs of the world get their war it will be a catastrophe for the United States.”
Takeyh has also called for covert operations against Iran. In a 2011 paper published in the Washington Quarterly, Takeyh and Iraq war proponent Kenneth Pollack argued for using “the full gamut of political, economic, diplomatic, and intelligence components” to threaten the “regime’s hold on power.” They contended that “there might be a role for very limited military operations,” though they conceded, “any military function would have to be undertaken with the utmost care to avoid an unwanted escalation to war.”
The authors called for making “connections with the Green Movement”—a move also championed by a number of hardline neoconservatives like Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Reuel Marc Gerecht—and establishing ties, “overt or covert, with important trade unions and student organizations.” They also proposed Washington should explore supporting the “Kurdish, Baluch, Arab, and other opposition groups fighting the regime.”
In response, noted international relations expert Steven Walt wrote in his Foreign Policy blog that Takeyh and Pollack’s suggestions “are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.” (For more on the Green Movement, see “Iran’s Bizarro ‘Green Movement,’” Right Web, March 1, 2011.)
Takeyh has also argued that the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddeq, widely attributed by historians and even former CIA operatives as having been a joint operation by American and British intelligence agencies, was largely the work of Iranian clergy.
“The clergy itself played a major role in toppling Mosaddeq,” Takeyh said in a Foreign Affairs article from 2014. “It would help greatly if the United States no longer felt the need to keep implicitly apologizing for its role in Mosaddeq’s ouster.”
Wrote journalist Ali Gharib of Takeyh’s revisionism on Mosaddeq: “It seems out of place, amid the heated rhetoric of bombing runs on Iran, to blame the ‘mullahs’ for sins that the last two Democratic administrations have admitted to.”
With the breakthrough in nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in late 2013 and the signing of an interim nuclear deal, Takeyh came out firmly on the side of those trying to hamper progress towards a diplomatic settlement. He maintained his opposition after a deal was reached in July 2015, arguing it should be rescinded by Congress.
Takeyh has framed a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 as the “most advantageous path to nuclear arms” for Iran. “To continue to build up his atomic infrastructure without the protective umbrella of an agreement exposes Iran to economic sanctions and the possibility of military retribution,” he wrote in March 2015.
In a May 2013 Washington Post op-ed co-published with fellow hawks Eric Edelman and Dennis Ross, Takeyh called for the White House to “take into account Congress’s perspective and heed its warnings” in the apparent hopes of getting congressional approval for the use of force. “Given Congress’s deep distrust of Iran’s leaders,” they wrote, “any deal is likely to be far more credible on the Hill if the administration has a clear plan to deal with cheating. Such a plan could go beyond the imposition of harsh sanctions and include congressional authorization for the use of force to respond to violations of the agreement.”
Responded former CIA analyst Paul Pillar: “Those who want permanent pariahdom for Iran and thus oppose any agreement with the government in Tehran keep looking for ways to use the U.S. Congress to sabotage the deal that has been under negotiation in Vienna and would restrict Iran's nuclear program.”
Indeed, in July 2013 Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced a letter signed at the time by 342 House members that echoed Takeyh’s op-ed by calling for the Obama administration to consult more closely with Congress during the negotiations. The letter also suggested that Iran would have to resolve issues of “human rights, terrorism, ballistic missile development” before Congress will approve sanctions relief. The Inter Press Service reported that the statement would strengthen “hardliners in Tehran who argue that Washington simply cannot be trusted.”
Takeyh and other fellow JINSA Iran task force members (including Stephen Rademaker), also called for increasing “pressure” on Iran during the negotiations. In a July 2014 JINSA report on the nuclear talks, Takeyh and his co-authors called for an increase in aggressive U.S. actions against Iran such as “more public threats of a military response” and more public tests of US ‘bunker buster’ weaponry like the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP).”
Commented Derek Davison on Lobelog: “When Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations talks about the importance of increasing pressure on Iran while ‘giving them a way out,’ it’s not quite clear how that differs from what has already happened up until this point.” Davison continued, “Either the Iran hawks aren’t getting the hang of this ‘negotiating’ thing or they consider ‘pressuring’ Iran the end, not the means.”
Takeyh has also stated that any nuclear agreement with Iran that does not have congressional approval would not last for long. “The White House should appreciate that any agreement that does not have the support the Congress is unlikely to survive the Obama presidency,” he testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 2015.
After a framework nuclear agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1 in April 2015, Takeyh penned vociferous and extravagant critiques. In a July 2015 piece for the Wall Street Journal, he argued that a final agreement “would upend 50 years of U.S. policy,” adding: “This would have been like Washington aiding the Soviets in constructing the bomb in the 1940s or helping China in the 1960s.”
In a May 2015 article for Politico, Takeyh also stated that the “emerging deal” with Iran “will be applauded by America’s rivals and adversaries, such as Russia and China, yet disclaimed by its closest allies such as Israel and the Gulf Arab states.”
With the successful conclusion of the talks in July 2015, Takeyh pushed Congress to rescind the deal. “No agreement is perfect, but at times the scale of imperfection is so great that the judicious course is to reject the deal and renegotiate a more stringent one. The way for this to happen is for Congress to disapprove the JCPOA,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with Eric Edelman shortly after the deal was reached.
In August 2015, Takeyh wrote in another Washington Post op-ed: “The legacy of the nuclear agreement will not be a transformed Iran but a revolutionary regime possessing an elaborate nuclear infrastructure and seeking to dominate the Middle East. In the end, the shadow of this deal is likely to haunt the United States’ interests in the region for years to come.”
Takeyh also claimed in the piece that the nuclear deal will not prompt Iran to become a “reliable member of the international community” because “coexistence with the West can lead only to a loss of religious identity” for Iran’s leaders. This argument, however, appears to contradict Takeyh’s own positions in his 2009 book, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollah, in which he argued that Iran is “simultaneously capable of both revolutionary agitation and pragmatic adjustment” and that the United States should incorporate Iran into an “inclusive regional-security architecture.”
Takeyh has at times been inconsistent in his analyses of Iran. One analyst attributes the frequent turnarounds in Takeyh’s views to an apparent desire to “align himself with ‘centrist’ foreign policy hawks in the Democratic Party’s national security establishment.”
For example, Takeyh and his wife Suzanne Maloney argued in a chapter they wrote for a 2008 book that any diplomatic efforts towards Iran should be directed at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not President Ahmadinejad, as the Iranian government was a “unitary actor” with Khamenei being the “ultimate power center.”
However, in a 2011 New York Times op-ed titled “Ahmadinejad’s Fall, America’s Loss”, Maloney and Takeyh seemingly changed their minds about Iran’s government being politically monolithic with a powerless president. The couple alleged that then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was being “sidelined by religious fundamentalists,” a development they argued would diminish “the prospect of a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington.”
“For a politician with delusions of his own grandeur, the idea of high-profile negotiations with Washington offered an opportunity to strut on the world stage as the champion of a new, anti-American world order,” the two wrote of Ahmadinejad.
The pretext for their evolving view of the Iranian state, as the two writers made clear by the end of their article, was to push the United States to abandon diplomacy and increase pressure on Iran as a result of the—now apparently diplomatic—Ahmadinejad being supposedly sidelined.
“To prevail in this conflict, Washington must abandon any expectation that Tehran can be seduced or coerced to the negotiating table. … American policy should seek to maximize financial and technological constraints on the Iranian nuclear program, strengthen Iran’s opposition, exacerbate the many fissures within its political class and insulate Iran’s neighbors from its nefarious activities.”
Takeyh served briefly in the State Department as senior adviser on Iran to Dennis Ross, who was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. Ross, who has strong neoconservative ties, brought on Takeyh as an adviser in April 2009. However, Takeyh’s tenure at the State Department proved to be extremely short-lived. When Ross was promoted to the National Security Council in August 2009, Takeyh did not join him but instead returned to the Council on Foreign Relations.