Is Iran a lunatic state or a rational actor? Neither: It is a rational aggressor

The Region: The United States now estimates it will take one year for Iran to construct a nuclear weapon; Israel says a few months.

Rouhani on the phone 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rouhani on the phone 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘One of the great unresolved questions of Barack Obama’s presidency,” says Time magazine, “is whether he can peacefully resolve America’s conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.”
Er, wrong.
One of the great unresolved questions of Barack Obama’s presidency is whether he can successfully resolve America’s conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
Time continues that the Obama- Rouhani handshake “would be the most important... handshake since the historic grip between [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Yasser] Arafat.”
Again, wrong.
Remember that while it has still not been admitted by the United States, that event, 20 (!) years later, has proven a costly failure. Israel now must satisfy seemingly monthly American demands by releasing terrorists who murdered Israelis.
The handshakes of prime minister Neville Chamberlain with Hitler (the Munich agreement) and of the Nazi foreign minister and Stalin (the Nazi-Soviet pact) were also historic, peaceful gestures – but ultimately unsuccessful ones.
Time continues, “It would only be a symbolic act, to be sure. But when it comes to international diplomacy, symbolism can go a long way.”
Alas, it is not a mere symbolic act, but the start of a foolish deal that Iran will break.
SO IS Iran a lunatic state or a rational actor? Well, it’s a hell of a lot more rational than US foreign policy is today. After all, the UN just elected Iran Rapporteur for the General Assembly’s main committee on disarmament and international security, without Tehran having to do anything in return. And Obama will blame Congress for diplomatic failure if it increases sanctions. In fact diplomats doubt Iran will actually do anything anyway.
That’s not “moderate,” but radical – the smart kind of radical.
Put more politely, Iran is a rational actor in terms of its own objectives. The issue is understanding what Iran wants. Policy is always best served by truth, whether or not people like it: Iran is an aggressive, rational actor.
Remember: The problem is not that Iran is eager to use nuclear weapons but that the Obama administration is not going to apply containment properly and credibly. And that encourages Iran’s non-nuclear aggression and terrorism.
The hysteria over Iran, however, had also better be gotten under control, without belittling the real, very threatening situation developing regarding the Islamic Republic.
The fact is that the history of the Iranian Islamic regime does not indicate suicidal recklessness. A key reason for this is that the leaders of Iran know they can be reckless without risking suicide. If apparently suicidal rhetoric does not result in suicide but serves a very specific purpose, that rhetoric is not in fact suicidal.
What, then, does Iran want? Its basic goal was and is to be as powerful a regional hegemon as possible – including control over Syria and Lebanon. It would like to take leadership of all Muslims in the area. Today, however, it is clear that the Sunni Arabs reject Tehran’s leadership and will fight against it.
In other words, the ultimate extent of Iran’s zone of influence could only include part of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, southwest Afghanistan, Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. That is the maximum, and Iran is far from achieving that goal. And it will probably never achieve it.
Iran’s influence is limited by the location of Shia Muslims. Not all Shia Muslims favor Iran, and pretty much all Sunni Muslims oppose it. Therefore, whatever the outcome is in Syria – in other words if the regime wins – Iran will at most keep its current levels of influence.
But if the regime wins, the Sunnis will hate Iran even more and will fight against it harder.
So Iran still wants to get as much power as it can, while minimizing the associated risks. Nuclear weapons are thus for Iran primarily a defensive shield enabling it to carry out conventional aggression with impunity.
As I’ve insisted for many years, it is increasingly clear that Iran will get nuclear weapons. We should start discussions in that framework.
The recent brilliant decision of the Iranian elite – which is not only more ruthless but strategically smarter than Western leadership – to make President Hassan Rouhani its representative to the West guarantees it. The only question is when Iran will get them.
The evidence seems to show that this is several years away. (It will be interesting if that development comes too late to affect Syria’s civil war, and such will probably happen.)
WHY WILL Iran certainly get nukes? First, the West isn’t going to take strong enough action to stop it, because the alternatives are deemed – perhaps accurately so – too risky. No surgical Israeli strike is going to stop it, and President Barack Obama will never support such a strike. Of course, there is also lots of money at stake. The sanctions may seem tough, but have more holes than Swiss cheese.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is perhaps a better moneymaking climate. His successor Rouhani will further soothe Western willingness to battle on this issue. Of course, no one really cares that much about potential genocide in Israel.
Second, with international support at a low point, the logistical difficulties, and an incredibly reluctant US president, Israel is not going to attack Iran.
What Israel should and will do is make clear it will attack Iran if there is any reason to believe Tehran might launch nuclear weapons. It will build up a multilayer defensive and offensive system.
This is not mere passive containment, but assured massive retaliation.
Note that there is more than one potential victim of Iran’s nuclear weapons. People, including the Israelis, talk a lot about Israel, yet the Sunni Arab states are increasingly involved in shooting situations with Iranian proxies. Unlike Israel, they won’t do anything and perhaps can’t, except to beg the US to take strong action. But the US won’t.
And of course everyone can just hope everything will turn out all right.
IN OTHER words, against Israel, the Tehran regime talked a big game but did relatively little. On other issues, too, Iran did not act like a country bent on suicide.
Against its Arab enemies, it did not take considerable risks. Iran could wage a proxy war against America in Iraq because the US let it.
All of the above in no way discounts an Iranian threat. Yes, of course, Iran sponsored terrorism and sought to gain influence and spread revolution. Yet it did not attack a single country in terms of open warfare. Remember, Iran was invaded by Iraq. And when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself was persuaded that the US was entering the war against him, he quickly ended it, though he said that doing so was like eating snakes and scorpions, but was necessary to preserve the regime.
Iran is the kind of aggressor once described by Winston Churchill as a thief who went down the street rattling doors to find one that was open.
Second, Iran sought to defend itself by threatening antagonists with total destruction and by obtaining the ultimate deterrence: nuclear weapons. This does not mean one should sympathize with Tehran since, after all, it sought nuclear weapons to ensure its defense while it continued aggressive policies.
Iran can also complain about American encirclement, but there wouldn’t be a US motive for such efforts without Iran’s aggressive policies. The point, however, is that the claim Iran is seeking nuclear weapons so it can destroy itself by attacking Israel is just not supported by the facts.
Thus, Iran is not a demonic, crazed, kamikaze country. It is simply a typical aggressor that wants insurance against having to pay the price for such activity. North Korea and Pakistan sought nuclear weapons for the same reason, and it is working for them.
The use of nuclear weapons causes the loss of the security the mere possession of nuclear weapons confers.
The problem is not that Iran is eager to use nuclear weapons but that the Obama administration is unlikely to apply containment properly and credibly. And then its version of containment might fail.
The author is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA). His forthcoming book is called Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press).