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 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.
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.
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 ]