Iranian leaders are rational and capable of being deterred
The Iranian regime probably can be deterred, either from using its nuclear arsenal or from taking other aggressive actions in the belief that its nuclear arsenal will itself deter countermoves by the United States or other states. Although willing to tolerate very high costs when core interests are threatened, key members of this regime -- including Khamenei and Rafsanjani --have also demonstrated that they will concede in the face of heavy damage and are often unwilling to suffer more modest damage when their core interests are not threatened.
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In the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the newly formed Islamic Republic swore off all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as contrary to humanity, even going so far as to cancel the shah’s preexisting WMD development programs. At the start of the war against Iraq in 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that he had no intention of waging total war, asking his military to ‘‘do nothing to harm the cities which have no defence.... Our hands are tied because we do not wish the ordinary people, the innocent people, to be hurt.’’31 Even after two years of intense fighting on Iranian soil, Khomeini argued that Iranian forces could have inflicted far greater damage ‘‘were it not for their Islamic commitment and their desire to protect the innocent.’’32 After Saddam Hussein’s order authorizing his military to use chemical weapons against Iranian troops on the battlefield, however, Iran’s perspective regarding WMD changed dramatically. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, as well as the stunning lack of condemnation from the international community for Saddam’s actions, altered Tehran’s calculus about the need to produce such weapons. Despite having sworn off chemical weapons based on their indiscriminate nature and their tendency to harm innocents, Iran’s leaders took the decision to develop an in-kind retaliatory capability and restarted the country’s WMD programs.33 The revolutionary leader and senior Iranian politician Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reportedly called chemical and biological weapons the ‘‘poor man’s atomic bombs,’’ saying, ‘‘We should at least consider them for our defense. Although the use of such weapons is inhuman, the war taught us that international laws are only scraps of paper.’’34 A corollary to nuclear ambivalence, therefore, could be said to exist with regard to chemical weapons as well. Iran’s chemical infrastructure was such that, once a decision was made to pursue such weapons, the technical capability could be mobilized rapidly toward that end. In this historical parallel can be found a cautionary tale about the durability of ambivalence: regardless of its prior commitments, Iran’s response to outside provocations was to form a consensus in favor of militarization. What, then, does the fragility of nuclear ambivalence mean for ongoing nonproliferation efforts directed toward Iran?
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Moreover, knowledgeable commentators such as Kenneth Pollack, after surveying the history of U.S.-Iranian relations and prospecting the options available to deal with the nuclear program, have concluded: This regime probably can be deterred, either from using its nuclear arsenal or from taking other aggressive actions in the belief that its nuclear arsenal will itself deter countermoves by the United States or other states. Although willing to tolerate very high costs when core interests are threatened, key members of this regime -- including Khamenei and Rafsanjani --have also demonstrated that they will concede in the face of heavy damage and are often unwilling to suffer more modest damage when their core interests are not threatened.
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The perception, however, of Iran as an irrational, undeterrable state with a high pain threshold is wrong. Iranian decision-makers are generally not inclined to rash action. Within the context of a relatively activist foreign and defense policy, they have generally sought to minimize risk by shunning direct confrontation and by acting through surrogates (such as the Lebanese Hezbollah) or by means of stealth (Iranian small boat and mine operations against shipping in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War) in order to preserve deniability and create ambiguity about their intentions. Such behavior is evidence of an ability to gauge accurately the balance of power and to identify and circumvent the ‘red lines’ of its adversaries – a strong indicator of an ability to engage in rational calculation. Furthermore, Iranian officials seem to use the language of deterrence as it is spoken and understood in the West. Shortly after the Shehab-3 missile test launch in July 1998, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani explained that to bolster Iran’s deterrent capability:
We have prepared ourselves to absorb the first strike so that it inflicts the least damage on us. We have, however, prepared a second strike which can decisively avenge the first one, while preventing a third strike against us.
The Iranian government has provided good reason for Americans to loathe it, from its harsh suppression of the Green Movement to the anti-Semitic rants and other outrageous statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Unfortunately the belligerent rhetoric in Iran feeds belligerent rhetoric in the United States and vice versa, in a process that yields beliefs on each side that go beyond the reality on the other side. The demonization of Iran in American discourse has gone on for so long that even unsupported common wisdom is taken for granted. The excesses of the Republican primary campaign have contributed to the pattern. Michele Bachmann, for example, may be out of the race, but when she stated that the Iranian president “has said that if he has a nuclear weapon he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” it was the sort of untruth that has tended to stick in the current climate (never mind that Iran claims it doesn’t even want nuclear weapons).
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Finally, as hawkish American pundits repeat the bizarre and seemingly apocalyptic statements of Iranians to advance the case for war, they would be well-served to consider how hawkish Iranians could make much the same arguments about certain worldviews that are prevalent in America and enjoy influence in Washington. For one example, the evangelical preacher John Hagee has published a top-selling book titled Jerusalem Countdown, in which he uses biblical prophecy to advocate an apocalyptic showdown wherein Israel and the United States join in a preventive war against Iran, which will be, in Hagee's telling, the fulfillment of God's will. Ultimately, according to Hagee, the war will provoke Russia to lead a group of Arab nations into war against Israel and the United States, and this will hasten the second coming of Christ, wherein Hagee and his followers will be granted eternal life. Hagee has now formed a lobbying organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which is designed to advance his apocalyptic visions. At CUFI's kickoff banquet, the 3,000 attendees heard speeches from Republican senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum, as well as Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Subsequently, CUFI has enjoyed remarkable access to the Bush administration, including a series of off-the-record briefings on Middle East policy at the White House with officials that the Bush administration refuses to name. None of this is presented in order to pass theological judgment on Hagee's views. It does, however, illustrate how certain beliefs that appear bizarre and incomprehensible could be used by outsiders to portray an opponent as dangerous, or wedded to theological tenets that would suggest irrationality. For example, Iranian hardliners could easily cite Hagee's views and access to the White House to argue that the American administration is convinced that it must hasten the second coming of Christ by attacking their country. While that view would be rightly ridiculed as absurd in this country, it is not difficult to see how it could be used in a culture that does not understand some of the oddity and nuances of American society. A similar dynamic may be at work when Western commentators expound on the finer points of Iran's Twelver Shi'ism and the geopolitical implications of the hidden imam in the course of arguing for bombing raids on Iran.
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Such pragmatism is consistent with a basic principle of decision-making established by Khamanei shortly before his death. In a series of letters to then President Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians in December 1987 and January 1988, he affirmed the Islamic government’s authority to destroy a mosque or suspend the observance of the five pillars of faith (the fundamentals of Muslim observance) if Iranian state interests so required. In so doing, he sanctioned the supremacy of state interest over both religion and the doctrine of the Revolution.14 Ever since then, national interest has been the guiding principle of Iranian decision-making, whether with regard to social issues (such as birth control), the economy (foreign investment in the oil sector), or foreign and defense policy (restraint in pursuing efforts to export the revolution since the early 1990s).
This line of reasoning has implications for Tehran’s claim that Islam prevents it from acquiring or using nuclear weapons. Aside from the fact that strong circumstantial evidence would seem to contradict this assertion (including Tehran’s procurement efforts, its failure to meet its reporting requirements under the NPT, and its participation in clandestine enrichment and reprocessing activities), experience also shows that Iranian decision-making on critical policy issues is generally based on reasons of state, not religious doctrine or ideology.
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Myth 1: Iran is an irrational actor.
This myth is especially popular among those pushing for immediate military action to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Their argument is that Iranian leaders are crazed, hot-headed, and messianic actors who do not respond to logic or reason; therefore, they cannot be negotiated with or trusted with weapons of mass destruction These claims are based on cultural ignorance and prejudices that would be routinely dismissed as out of bounds in virtually any context outside US policy debates on Iran. Fortunately, several senior US and Israeli officials have publicly dismissed this myth as false. America’s senior military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey, asserted in a television interview with Fareed Zakaria that “we are of the opinion that the [Iranian] regime is a rational actor.”8 Israel’s retired Mossad director Meir Dagan similarly opined that “the regime in Iran is a very rational one.”9 Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, in a meeting with senior Obama administration officials elaborated on this basic point, stating “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood. . . . They are radical but not totally crazy. . . . They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality.”10 Moreover, the US Director of National Intelligence recently confirmed the rational nature of the regime in Tehran judging that “Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach.”11
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It could be that Ahmadinejad is an immature political actor unaccustomed to international scrutiny and has blundered into the crisis. Khamenei's decision in July to create advisory councils reporting directly to him on foreign affairs and wto preparedness could be seen as a rebuke to Ahmadinejad's recklessness, as could the Militant Clerics Association's complaints to Khamenei about Ahmadinejad. This seems the least plausible of the explanations, simply because the Iranian president has little authority in national security issues: It is extremely unlikely he could initiate resumption of enrichment activity without involvement of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, until UN sanctions were voted, other leading figures in the Iranian government did nothing to try to tone down Ahmadinejad or chief negotiator Ali Lirijani's positions.
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Tehran’s conduct during the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War likewise demonstrated that Iran is not insensitive to costs. It is possible to argue that in the heady, optimistic, early days of the revolution – from the early-to-mid 1980s – Iran had a higher threshold for pain than did most other states. During the early years of the war, Tehran was willing to endure hardships, make great sacrifices, and incur heavy losses in support of the war effort – eschewing the opportunity for a cease-fire in 1982 to pursue the overthrow of the Ba‘ath regime in Baghdad and the export of the Revolution. But in its final years, popular support for the war with Iraq had waned: the population was demoralized and wearied by years of inconclusive fighting, making it increasingly difficult to attract volunteers for the front, and many clerics had come to the conclusion that the war was unwinnable.13 This was not, as Ayatollah Khamanei was fond of saying, ‘a nation of martyrs.’
His latest column, about the perils of striking a nuclear deal with the Iranian government, offers an example. Brooks starts by declaring that, “Over the past centuries, Western diplomats have continually projected pragmatism onto their ideological opponents.” That’s true. What’s also true—but Brooks doesn’t acknowledge—is that Western diplomats have erred in the opposite way: by overestimating ideology and underplaying national interest. Western diplomats who viewed Hitler and Stalin as ideologically antithetical were baffled when they joined forces in 1939 to carve up much of Eastern Europe. Western diplomats who assumed that a shared commitment to communism made Russia, China, and Vietnam permanent allies were astonished when Russia and China became bitter enemies and when Vietnam and China went to war.
The past several centuries are replete with diplomatic mistakes, but what makes learning from those mistakes so hard is that they don’t all teach the same lesson. Just as investors sometimes go bankrupt because they assume too much risk and sometimes go bankrupt because they assume too little risk, governments sometimes incur danger by underestimating the zealotry of their foes and sometimes incur danger by overestimating it. Contrary to Brooks’s implication, hundreds of years of “Western” foreign policy cannot be boiled down to: Always assume that your foes are ideological fanatics willing to risk everything to dominate the world.
The author notes the similarities to recent calls to pre-emptively strike Iran to similar arguments during the 1960s' to attack China before it could develop a nuclear weapon, which have since been proven to have over-inflated the threat from China based on their rhetoric.
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The author challenges a recent article that views Iran as ideologically driven and irrational, finding the historical evidence pointing to their rational behavior.
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The authors defend a recent statement by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Iran is essentially a rational actor arguing that "[a]ll of Iran’s foreign policy decisions have fit within the rational framework of improving their national defense and increasing regional influence."
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