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.
[ Page 47 ]
What about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talking of wiping Israel off the map or the former President Rafsanjani declaring that while Israel could not survive a nuclear war, the Islamic world could survive a nuclear exchange? Fears related to such rhetoric need to be viewed in a historical context. Similar arguments were made about the Soviets and Chinese as they developed their nuclear arsenals. The fear of many Cold War hawks was that the Kremlin was run by ideologues. Wasn't it a fact that they did not shirk while watching 25 million of their own killed in World War II; nor did they flinch while millions more were murdered in internal purges? This demonstrated, many argued, that the Soviet leadership would be impervious to the logic of mutually assured destruction. Indeed, at times Mao Tse-Tung offered strikingly similar rhetoric to that coming out of Tehran today. He also boasted about how China could afford to lose millions in a nuclear exchange and still emerge victorious.6 Such worries turned out to be baseless with regard to the Soviets and the Chinese, and such rhetoric proved to be just that, rhetoric. While the bizarre views and hostile statements coming from Iran's current President are cause for concern, one must also be cognizant of the fact that the President of Iran is not the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, in reality, has little influence over the nuclear program. The Supreme Leader does, however, and Ayatollah Ali Khameni has distanced himself from the most bellicose of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric.
[ Page 97 ]
When it comes to understanding the character of the regime, it is also important to keep in mind that, despite the rants of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran is not, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated, a crazy, suicidal state. Rather, the Iranians have proven themselves to be a rational people. For example, even though Saddam Hussein waged war against them for nearly eight years, used WMD, i.e. chemical weapons, and fired missiles against Iranian cities, the regime ended the Iran-Iraq war by settling for the pre-war status quo antebellum. Moreover, during the first Gulf War, they refused to aid Saddam against the US-led coalition, and even refused to return the Iraqi aircraft Saddam flew to Iran to protect them from the bombing by coalition forces. In addition, the Iranians did not retaliate against us when the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in the waning days of the Reagan administration. Finally, they initially supported our efforts to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan because they perceived them to be a threat to their regime. By their actions, the Iranians have repeatedly demonstrated that they are more rational than the North Koreans who, among other things, have shot down an American aircraft and captured an American ship in international waters.
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.
[ Page 48 ]
But does Tehran's antipathy toward the United States and Israel outweigh its long-term national interests? No; indeed, during the Iran-Iraq War Tehran was willing to engage in arms shipments with the United States and Israel in an effort to further its war against Iraq. Given the difficulties the Iranians had with the Taliban, Tehran has also been fairly supportive of the American intervention in Afghanistan, to include offering the United States the use of its airfields and ports.9 While Tehran was less supportive of America's subsequent intervention in Iraq, the leadership was astute enough to recognize the benefits associated with the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime. The point of these examples is not to discount any policy differences that Washington has with Tehran, but to stress that Iran is not run by ideologues, rather by a group of pragmatists devoted to protecting Iranian interests. Leaders who are rational enough to understand that the use of nuclear weapons against America would not be in their national interests.
[ Page 96 ]
All of this puts the United States and Iran on a potential collision course.But how serious is the Iranian threat?Ahmadinejad's rantings are indeed frightening, as were Hitler's in Mein Kampf, but Ahmadinejad is hardly Der Fuehrer of Iran. By 1939, Hitler was the Nazi state, having eliminated all potential political rivals and military dissenters. In contrast, the Iranian presidency is relatively weak. Iran is a theocracy in which power is wielded in the first instance by those possessing religious authority, which Ahmadinejad does not. The supreme authority in Iran is not the president, but the chief of state, the Supreme LeaderAli Hoseini-Khamenei. The supreme leader,who is appointed for life by an Assembly of Experts consisting of 86 religious scholars elected by popular vote for an eight-year term, has the final say over Iran's domestic and foreign policies and can reverse or overrule presidential initiatives. Any decision for war, including the disposition and possible use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, would certainly not be Ahmadinejad's to make. Thus while Ahmadinejad may harbor Hitlerian dreams of exterminating Jews, he is not "the decider" in Iran.
Through its proxies, Iran is fighting a regional cold war. And like the United States, U.S.S.R., and China when they were fighting their global cold war, it is doing so in a distinctly non-suicidal way. Iran is seeking to extend its power without doing something so aggressive that it provokes retaliation that imperils the regime’s survival. Iran isn’t doing truly reckless things like invading a Saudi ally in the Persian Gulf or launching chemical or biological weapons at Israel, either directly or through its terrorist proxies. And it never has. This is a regime, after all, that accepted a UN-sponsored ceasefire rather than fight to the death against Saddam’s Iraq and that cooperated with the United States to depose the Taliban. Iran isn’t doing truly reckless things like invading a Saudi ally or launching chemical weapons at Israel.
That’s why the Bush administration’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran is “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” It’s why Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2012 that “we are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.” It’s why Benny Gantz, then head of the Israel Defense Forces, declared the same year that “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” It’s why Meir Dagan, the longtime head of Israel’s intelligence agency, called the Iranian regime “rational” in an interview with 60 Minutes. And it’s why Ron Burgess, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.” Could all these men, who analyze intelligence about Iran for a living, be wrong? Sure. But Brooks provides no evidence that they are.
[ Page 195 ]
It must be emphasized from the outset that for all the factions involved in this debate, the core issue is how to safeguard Iran's national interests. The Islamic Republic is not an irrational rogue state seeking such weaponry as an instrument of an aggressive, revolutionary foreign policy. This is not an "Islamic bomb" to be handed over to terrorist organizations or exploded in the streets of New York or Washington. The fact is that Iran has long possessed chemical weapons, and has yet to transfer such arms to its terrorist allies. Iran's cautious leaders are most interested in remaining in power, and fully appreciate that transferring nuclear weapons to terrorists could lead to the type of retaliation from the United States or Israel that would eliminate their regime altogether. For Iran this is a weapon of deterrence and power projection.
[ Page 96-97 ]
There is no evidence that Iran's regime is suicidal. On the contrary, compared to Saddam Hussein's recklessness in invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, Iran has displayed caution and patience. To be sure, its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its provision of weapons and other material aid to Shia militant groups in Iraq risk preventive retaliatory US military action, but the regime in Tehran apparently believes that the stakes involvedacquiring a credible nuclear deterrent and gaining a decisive influence on political outcomes in Iraqare risks worth chancing. They are calculated risks falling well within the boundaries of rational statecraft. Such goals certainly do not suggest a willingness to risk Iran's survival for the sake of striking the United States or Israel with weapons of mass destruction. Historian Trita Parsi believes that Iran's rationality is the probable:
[The] reason why thus far it has not shared chemical or biological weapons with any of its Arab proxies such as Hezbollah, and why a nuclear Iran likely would not share weaponswith terrorist groups. Israel has signaled Iran that it would retaliate against any nuclear attack in Israel by hitting Iranregardless of who attacked Israel. Tehran has fully grasped the meaning of the signal if any of Iran's proxies attacked Israel with a nuclear warhead, Israel would destroy Iran. But even without this stern warning, Iran would be unlikely to share the doomsday weapon with its proxies precisely because those groups would cease to be proxies if they acquired such a powerful weapon. Iran's ambition, after all, is to become the region's undisputed power; given its tendency to view all other actors as potential competitors, it's hardly likely that Tehran would undermine its goal by sharing the sensitive technology. Judging from Tehran's past behavior, the Iranian leadership is too Machiavellian to commit such an irrevocable and devastating mistake.22
International security specialist Robert Litwak concurs:
"[E]ven when a state sponsorship exists, as between Iran and Hezbollah, major constraints exert a powerful effect. State sponsors employ terrorist groups as instruments of policy, and that implies a high degree of control. AWMD transfer would be an extraordinary actboth in its escalatory character and its consequent threat to regime survival. Crossing that Rubicon would mean relinquishing control of the most valuable military asset in a state's arsenal. The target state would be taking the risk that the unconventionalweapon employed by the terrorist group might be traced back to it and thereby trigger a devastating US retaliatory strike."
[ Page 37-38 ]
The prospect that Iran might transfer a crude nuclear device to its terrorist protégés is another danger, but it, too, is unlikely. Such a move would place Tehran squarely in the cross hairs of the United States and Israel. Despite its messianic pretensions, Iran has observed clear limits when supporting militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Iran’s rulers understand that such provocative actions could imperil their rule by inviting retaliation. On the other hand, by coupling strident rhetoric with only limited support in practice, the clerical establishment is able to at once garner popular acclaim for defying the West and oppose the United States and Israel without exposing itself to severe retribution. A nuclear Iran would likely act no diaerently, at least given the possibility of robust U.S. retaliation. Nor is it likely that Iran would become the new Pakistan, selling nuclear fuel and materials to other states. The prospects of additional sanctions and a military confrontation with the United States are likely to deter Iran from acting impetuously.
[ Page 193 ]
The question of Israel needs to be assessed carefully, for in this case, rhetorical fulminations conceal more than they reveal. To be sure, Iran views Israel as an illegitimate state, and its continued power as a product of a pernicious conspiracy. In its opposition to Israel, the Islamic Republic has violated all prevailing international norms; it frequently denies that the Holocaust occurred, calls for the elimination of a member state of the United Nations, and actively supports terrorist organizations plotting against Jerusalem. However, during the three decades since launching its nuclear program, Iran has pre ferred to express its disdain for Israel through proxies and has striven hard to wage its indirect war within distinct limits or "red lines." Indeed, one of the characteristics of this most peculiar of conflicts is that both parties have sought to avoid direct military confrontation. Such a posture meets Iran's ideological and strategic interests, as it can claim the leadership of militant Islamist opposition to the "Zionist entity," while at the same time avoiding engagement with one of the most powerful military forces in the world. In this context, it is hard to suggest that Iran wants the bomb either because it fears Israel or, alternatively, as a weapon for the eradication of the Jewish state.
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.
[ More ]
The author challenges a recent article that views Iran as ideologically driven and irrational, finding the historical evidence pointing to their rational behavior.
[ More ]
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."
[ More ]