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 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.
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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.
There's one catch, though: According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Ahmadinejad isn't the guy who would be making any decisions about whether to build nuclear weapons. They say that authority belongs to the Islamic republic's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee last week that any Iranian decision to build nuclear weapons "would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis." Meanwhile, since winning a second term in Iran's hotly disputed 2009 presidential election, analysts say Ahmadinejad has been on the losing end of a power struggle with Khamenei's allies. And Iran's economy is being squeezed by international sanctions over its refusal to halt its nuclear fuel production and demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program. Tehran insists that it is enriching nuclear fuel only for civilian reactors. But in November, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it believed Iran had carried out some weapons-related research, and the agency says it's up to Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program remains peaceful.
[ Page 24 ]
Iran is a risk-acceptant revisionist state, but not to a suicidal extreme. Iran has a long history of sponsoring brazen terrorist attacks abroad, leading some observers to conclude that the regime is willing to run excessive risks and thus might contemplate using nuclear weapons against its enemies.96 However, the nature of Iranian-sponsored attacks actually reveals some caution. Tehran has historically employed covert action and terrorism abroad – instead of overt strikes and conventional aggression – precisely to maintain a degree of plausible deniability that shields the regime from direct confrontation with the United States and Israel.97
For these reasons, American and Israeli intelligence officials judge that the current Iranian regime is rational, focused on regime preservation and keen to avoid a direct military clash with more powerful countries.98 The priority the regime gives to survival is unsurprising, as it is a prerequisite for achieving every one of its material and ideological objectives, including the success of the revolution at home and the spread of Iran’s Islamist model abroad. None of this precludes a nuclear- armed Tehran from making veiled nuclear threats in an attempt to enhance coercive diplomacy and bargaining leverage during crises. Nor does it rule out the risk that, because of Iran’s conventional military weakness, the regime might contemplate the use of nuclear weapons under extraordinary circumstances to stave off imminent and total defeat. But history strongly suggests the regime would only use nuclear weapons if the regime’s survival were at stake.
[ Page 8 ]
There are several telling lessons from these two separate episodes in Iranian foreign policy. First, and perhaps most importantly, these two examples should serve as an important reminder that Iranian foreign policy is not static and that Iranian leaders are capable of making important reversals on issues of considerable internal political sensitivity. Given the depth of Khomeini's antipathy toward Riyadh and the prevailing conspiratorial sentiments toward Britain, that full diplomatic relations were reestablished in both cases is a testament to the flexibility that exists beneath Iran's ideologically rigid surface, as well as to the utility of engagement itself.
[ Page 453 ]
Recognizing the growing popular discontent and the loss of credibility to the regime’s ability to maintain power and protect what was left of the revolution, the clerical leaders chose to preserve the state of Iran over the continuation of an ideologically motivated conflict. Before the war, revolutionary leaders believed they could violently export the revolution throughout the Middle East and throw off all diplomatic restraint as a model for imitation by other Muslims;27 however, as the realities of the war became apparent, the bloody battle demonstrated the inadequacy of using religion as the basis for executing military strategy28 and isolating Iran diplomatically.29 Since that time, the theocratic regime in Iran has chosen to conduct its policies primarily from a realist perspective, putting Iran’s state interests over the pursuit of its revolutionary ideology. As David Menashri, Senior Research Fellowat The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at TelAviv University, has noted, “with few exceptions, whenever ideological convictions have clashed with the interests of the state—as prescribed by the clerical ruling elite—state interests ultimately have superseded revolutionary dogma in both foreign relations and domestic politics.”30
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Even if the current regime is unlikely to intentionally initiate a suicidal nuclear war, might a nuclear-armed Iran eventually come to be dominated by less rational, and thus less deterrable, forces? Since 2005, the power of ultraconserva- tive principlists, including the IRGC, in Iranian politics has grown, and it is conceivable that the IRGC could take power someday.102 This could make a nuclear-armed Iran more risk acceptant, recalcitrant and difficult to deter.103 Nevertheless, the chief goal of the IRGC is preserving the revolution, the state and its own parochial political and economic prerogatives – all of which could be put at risk by the threat of massive retaliation.104 More apocalyptic voices also exist in Iran, includ- ing some associated with outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But adherents to the so-called “cult of the Mahdi” are a distinct and increasingly marginalized minority and are not likely to dominate the Islamic Republic. They largely include ultraconservative lay people who claim direct access to God and are reviled by the tradi- tional clerical establishment, including Supreme Leader Khamenei.105 Apocalyptic thinking does not appear to represent the predominant view within the IRGC, and individuals accused of holding such “deviant” views have been systematically harassed and arrested.106
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President Ahmadinejad is often misquoted as calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” In order to clarify this misquotation, two points need to be highlighted. First, some analysts point out that the President did not say Israel should be “wiped off the map” because “no such idiom exists in Persian.” The actual quote comes from an old speech of Ayatollah Khomeini and does not necessarily imply military action or killing anyone at all. Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan says, “The phrase Ahmadinejad used is: The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must vanish from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shaved).” In other words, the phrase can mean that Israel would vanish like the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Iran and the United States: Reconcilable Differences?
." Iranian Studies
. Vol. 41, No. 2 (April 2008): 139-154. [ More (2 quotes) ]
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 ]