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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Three conclusions can be drawn from these past experiences: (1) Tehran recognizes that at times its interests are best served by restraint, although it will react when circumstances permit; (2) its responses have sometimes been ill conceived and ill timed from the viewpoint of Iranian interests but at other times have been on terms favorable for Tehran (e.g., relying on a delayed asymmetric response in a distant theater of operations, using proxies or terrorist surrogates); and (3) Tehran has not always reacted swiftly to foreign attacks to assuage nationalist passions—and it has sometimes not responded at all. When it has responded, it often did so on its own timeline, and at a time and place of its own choosing.
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The prospect of a nuclear Iran raises the question of whether there are policies that can effectively deter it from using its weapons—policies that promote a stable deterrent relationship among the relevant parties by minimizing the risks of error and miscommunication. The proposition that the Islamic Republic is deterrable rests on a series of judgments about its goals and behavior. Specifically, that Iran’s leaders are sensitive to the costs and benefits of their actions, their minimal goal is to survive in power, and they select courses of action they believe will advance this goal. To be sure, it is entirely possible that Iran’s leaders, through negligence or ignorance, pursue policies that inadvertently jeopardize regime survival, but they do not purposefully choose policies that they know will proximately threaten their earthly reign. From this perspective, Iran is more like China or Russia than Mohamed Atta and the other suicide hijackers of 9/11. This proposition underlies the views of the countries that comprise the P5+1 bloc—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States— seeking to convince Iran to accept reassuring constraints on its program. The Obama administration, for example, has emphasized engagement, negotiation, and deterrence. It has ruled out forcible regime change, and has all but dismissed the possibility of taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities for the foreseeable future.
Proponents of the first proposition suffer from historical amnesia. The first two nuclear adversaries the United States faced—Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China—were hardly democratic regimes. Indeed, they rank among history’s most totalitarian political systems. Yet neither of these totalitarian regimes risked nuclear war.
Both regimes engaged in mass murder of their own citizens. Conservative estimates of the human cost of Stalin’s rule begin at 20 million deaths. Mao killed approximately the same number of his countrymen. Despite these sanguinary tendencies, neither regime was willing to risk nuclear war with the United States.
Both also indulged in irresponsible nuclear rhetoric. Stalin publicly pooh-poohed the American atomic bomb when told about it by President Truman at Potsdam in July 1945. Behind the scenes, however, he understood that atomic weapons represented a dramatic change in the nature of warfare and secretly began a crash program. The rhetoric of cavalier dismissal concealed a deep concern about nuclear weapons that, in turn, induced caution.
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Other proponents of the martyr state view rely on the Islamic Republic’s history and culture to support their claims that Iran is casualty tolerant, citing in particular the regime’s decision to deploy thousands of teenage Basiji on suicide missions during the Iran-Iraq war and contemporary Iran’s celebration of these teenagers as martyrs.37 Khomeini created the Basij-e Mostaz’afin (“Mobilization of the Repressed”) in November 1979 as a youth militia to strengthen his grip on civil society. When the war with Iraq started, the young revolutionary regime did not trust the regular army it had inherited from the Shah to fight and die for the Islamic Republic, and thus sought to transform the Pasdaran, or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), into the country’s preeminent professional military force. The IRGC, in turn, recruited and commanded the Basiji as expendable foot soldiers, deploying them on “human wave” attacks to forestall Iraqi advances.38 The goal of this policy for Iran’s senior leaders, however, was not martyrdom—they pointedly did not join the teenage boys on their suicide missions. Instead, their goal was tactical in nature, aimed at reducing losses among Iran’s professional soldiers so that the better trained and equipped IRGC troops could more effectively engage the Iraqis in combat. For the regime elites at least, this policy was an act of self-preservation, not national suicide. Religious ideology was the pretext for a policy that was ultimately aimed at sustaining the Islamic Republic.
The second objection to Waltz’s nuclear optimism is that Iran will not behave as a rational actor because it is an Islamic theocracy that values the afterlife more than the here and now. True, revolutionary Iran fought an eight-year war with Iraq and suffered almost a million casualties. But this is hardly evidence that its leadership and population have a martyrdom complex. It was, after all, secular Iraq, rather than Iran, that started the war, and the Islamic Republic was the first to accept the United Nations’ ceasefire in 1988 once it became clear that the conflict had reached a stalemate. This behavior hardly indicates an irrational commitment to fight to the last Iranian.
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Despite this pragmatism, some analysts have argued that Iran’s animosity toward Israel is one of the rare examples of its continued reliance on revolutionary dogma to determine its policy objectives toward this important strategic problem.122 Thus, throughout the years it has continually sought to deter, disrupt, and destroy Israel through its revolutionary rhetoric and support of terrorism as a means to express its hostility toward Israel.123 However, ironically enough, Iran has consistently maintained a “degree of convenience” in its opposition to Israel,124 which is evident in the relative restraint it has demonstrated with regard to its existing stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Since the Iran-Iraq War, when Ayatollah Khomeini decided to reinstate Iran’s WMD program, Iran has maintained sufficient stocks of chemical and biological weapons that could be used to conduct a devastating strike against the population of Israel. Mounting these weapons upon its ballistic missiles, Iran could effectively “wipe Israel off of the map,” as Ahmadinejad’s revolutionary and seemingly undeterrable ideology has called for.
However, though it has extensively supported terrorist activities against the state of Israel and consistently sought to undermine the Arab-Israeli peace process, it has never employed WMD capabilities against Israel, either on its own or through one of its terrorist proxies.125 While some would argue that Iran is waiting until it has a completed its stock of nuclear weapons to conduct such a strike, even at that time Iran would still ardently desire the survival of Shi’ism, would seek to maintain the perceptions of its future hegemonic role in the region and the world, and ultimately would fear a U.S. military retaliation. Thus, as discussed above, it is very likely Iran could be deterred from offensive nuclear employment if those assets were held at risk.126
There is no doubt that the rhetoric of some Iranian leaders, particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s florid threats that Israel will be “wiped off the map” and his ludicrous denials of the Holocaust, has been inflammatory and irresponsible. Yet we need to keep in mind that Iran is a much more complex political system than most Western media accounts suggest, and its president is not the most significant political actor in that country.
More importantly, when one looks systematically at recent Iranian history, as Trita Parsi has done in his essential Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S., two things become clear. Iranian behavior toward the United States and Israel has been remarkably consistent, both before and after the Islamic Revolution. That continuity is largely explained by a realpolitik not so different from the logic that informed the policies of the Cold War superpowers.
The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one. They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife. Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves. In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival. The government assassinated exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, because it saw them as a counterrevolutionary threat. The assassinations ended when they started inflicting too much damage on Iran’s relations with European governments. Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests. The principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.
So although a renewed Shiite messianism does create some cause for concern about the potential uses of an Iranian bomb — in particular because it suggests that Ahmadinejad may be more a utopian than a realist — it is almost certainly a mistake to anticipate that Iran would use its nuclear power in a way that would provoke large-scale retaliation and assured self-destruction. Iranian leaders have been more than ready to sacrifice their own citizens in large numbers. During the Iran-Iraq war, major efforts went into recruiting young boys to the Basij militias, which were then sent to the front lines on what were essentially suicide missions. Religion played the central part in motivating the teenage soldiers, and it is reasonable to believe that religion helped salve the consciences of those who ordered these children into battle. Yet even this discounting of the value of human life — in a war started by Saddam Hussein, not by Iran — fell short of voluntarily putting an entire nation at risk. Ahmadinejad surely understands the consequences of using a nuclear bomb, and Shiite Islam, even in its messianic incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide.
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Interpretation of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric as a blueprint for policy would appear mistaken on the basis of the statements alone. Ahmadinejad also predicts that the "satanic power" of the United States will soon be eliminated along with Israel, although it is difficult to translate this statement into a coherent plan or a policy that is likely to achieve such a result. Nor is it clear that hinting at future Iranian military strikes against Israel is the best way to prepare for such a confrontation if Tehran truly views war as a realistic option. Conversely, extreme statements may be politically useful to help the Iranian President deflect attention and criticism from his bumbling and chaotic economic policies. These policies are leading to a growth in Iranian poverty despite the staggering increase in oil prices prior to the global economic crisis of 2008. Even before the collapse of oil prices in late 2008, Ahmadinejad's efforts to manage the Iranian economy like a patronage machine contributed to an annual 30 percent inflation rate and unemployment levels of at least 10 percent as well as substantial underemployment. His future popularity will be placed under a severe challenge by constraints in these patronage resources should the price of oil remain at dramatically lower levels.
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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