Is the Islamic Republic a rational actor and could it be deterred if it gets nuclear weapons, as the Soviet Union was during the cold war? And is the presidential election in Iran this Friday a significant event that could alter the trajectory of events and negotiations with the West?

According to analysts, the presidential election is quite insignificant when looking at the bigger picture and the nuclear issue. This is because Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, dominates the country’s political scene, and since the Green Movement uprising after the last election in 2009, he has tightened his grip even further, making a return to the same kind of protests unlikely.

The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University held an event on Tuesday exploring the limits of a rational Iran. The guest speaker, Prof. Steven David, is an international relations expert from Johns Hopkins University.

David started by outlining the implications of a nuclear-armed Tehran: “There is no doubt that an Iran with nuclear weapons could destroy Israel, just taking out Tel Aviv and Haifa would be enough to destroy the Jewish state,” he said.

Even a small number of weapons would cause massive damage, he stated. And Israel’s missile defense systems may be less effective than has been portrayed, he warned.

In addition to a direct missile strike, Iran could use methods such as smuggling in a weapon or using a proxy such as Hamas or Hezbollah, he said.

David laid out the two main perspectives on the Iranian issue.

The realists make the argument that Tehran can be deterred – the regime may be evil, but it calculates the costs and benefits of its actions, not wanting to lose its hold on power or commit suicide, said David.

Just like other past and present leaders with nuclear capability, Iran will act rationally, he said. Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong of China, Pakistan, and North Korea have all been deterred despite having nuclear weapons, so why not Iran? Iran knows that if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, Israel would destroy it, David said.

On the other hand, there are those that argue that Iran cannot be deterred because its leaders are Islamic fanatics, believing in the reappearance of the hidden imam after an apocalyptical event, which will bring paradise and so on.

“I am not persuaded by these arguments, but they cannot be dismissed entirely,” said David.

He mentioned other reasons that some argue that Iran cannot be deterred. Nuclear weapons could be transferred to proxies and evade retaliation from Israel by creating a layer of deniability. However, David said he is not persuaded by this argument either, as he does not believe Iran would trust or put its future into the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah. Furthermore, Israel would quickly find out that the weapons came from Iran, and would respond.

Another possibility is that an accident could occur, leading to a domino effect of actions that could result in a nuclear war. He said that US nuclear weapons are built with many safeguards, but he is not sure Iran would follow similar standards.

The third reason given for not trusting Iranian rationality is the chance for miscalculation. It is not possible to predict the actions of other leaders.

Lastly, he explained that because Iran worries about a decapitating strike on its leadership, it could give the nuclear firing codes to a wide range of people to deter an attack on the leadership. This would increase the likelihood that a fanatic would get his hands on the trigger.

David concluded that the most likely scenario in which Tehran would use nuclear weapons would be if it felt its rule was coming to an imminent end. At this point, it could lash out in order to go down in history as the one who destroyed Israel.

“Leaders behave erratically when they are facing the end of their rule,” he said, drawing on examples of other leaders who began to act irrationally when facing their fall. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons falls into this category, as does Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields and the dumping of oil into the Persian Gulf during the First Gulf War.

And these actions came after explicit warnings by the US, he said. President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “red line,” and Saddam ignored a letter from the US not to destroy the oil fields.

“Imagine if Assad had nuclear weapons,” David said.

The key issue, he emphasized, is having the capability to use nuclear weapons. Hussein didn’t have it, and Assad doesn’t either.

Asked if the mood in Washington meant an attack on Iran was likely, David responded that after the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans did not have the stomach for another invasion.

“I do not think the US is going to act,” he said. The same thing occurred with North Korea, “what was unacceptable then became acceptable,” he said.

Ronen A. Cohen, an expert on Iran and a researcher at the Middle East Research Center at Ariel University, told The Jerusalem Post that a small group of Shi’ites in Iran hold a messianic belief related to an apocalypse, and that the majority and those in the Iranian leadership were rational actors who were seeking power.

Asked about the significance of the coming election, Cohen said it was practically meaningless and the Western media were giving it too much attention. The next president, he said, will continue the same policies as before because it is the supreme leader who holds the real power.

The West talks about possible “reformist” or “moderate” presidential candidates, but the West is failing to understand the Middle Eastern reality – these leaders have been part and parcel of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he said.

“The president is a clerk, a pawn of the supreme leader,” said Cohen.

Furthermore, he said, turnout was projected to be down on Friday compared to in 2009, which was a sign that the protests from the last election would not repeat themselves.

Asked about the nuclear issue, Cohen responded that Iranians were very patriotic and they did not like interference in their domestic affairs, despite the fact they were living in a theocratic dictatorship.

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