One of the most difficult questions that the West needs to answer in the year ahead is whether Iranian behavior will be influenced mostly by rational considerations or by ideological beliefs. No question is more important for analysts to address, especially should Iran cross the nuclear threshold in 2012, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has projected.
In Haaretz on Dec. 20, Reuven Pedatzur clearly sides with those who say that an Iran with nuclear weapons would act as a rational state. Pedatzur takes this view one step further, and suggests that the possession of nuclear weapons might encourage moderation in the Iranian regime.
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Pedatzur is in good company. The leading commentator on international affairs in the U.S., Fareed Zakaria, also believes that a nuclear Iran would act rationally and could be deterred. He notes that the Revolutionary Guard has become the center of power in Iranian decision-making taking, displacing the religious leadership. He points out that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken note of this development and has warned that Iran is heading toward a "military dictatorship." Yet he is almost relieved by this development, noting that since military regimes can be expected to act on the basis of an "instinct for self-preservation," they will respond rationally to nuclear deterrence.
Paul Pillar, who was one of the chief analysts of the CIA on the Middle East, added to this debate, insisting that the Iranians act out of "pragmatism and even caution." Writing on The National Interest website last September, he adds that to answer this question about Iranian behavior it is necessary to look at the record of Iranian activities on the ground. Pillar is right to look at the Iranian record, but it does not necessarily lead an objective observer to conclude that the Iranians behave rationally, as he proposes.
Take the Iran-Iraq War as an example. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 and occupied large swaths of Iranian territory. It made sense for Iran to counterattack and retake its territories, and Iran succeed in doing so by 1982, after two years of warfare. But it decided not to end the war at that time; instead, it waged war against Iraq for six more years, until mid-1988, and lost hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers as a result. The Iranians sent children with plastic "keys to heaven" against Iraqi positions and to clear minefields. They hired actors dressed as the returning Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, to lead the Revolutionary Guard officers in the battlefield.
Ray Takyeh, a leading American expert on Iran who worked in the State Department, has observed that it was the Revolutionary Guard that wanted to continue the Iran-Iraq War even after Ayatollah Khomeini decided to accept a cease-fire with Saddam Hussein. In 1988, while the Iraqis were launching al-Hussein missiles at Tehran, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezai, recommended to the political echelon to keep fighting. Rather than act rationally, given the circumstances that Iran was in, the Revolutionary Guard was the most militant factor in Iranian decison-making, seemingly driven by other calculations. Its decision might just indicate that it didn't care about protecting the lives of thousands of Iranians with a cease-fire.
But the stand of the Revolutionary Guard in 1988 might have also been based on ideological considerations. Since 2005, with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there has been a great deal of speculation about the religious factor in Iranian decision-making. Ahmadinejad, who came to power with the full backing of the Revolutionary Guard, has spoken regularly about the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, which he has explained can be accelerated by conditions of global chaos. Should these views be taken seriously? What are the views of the senior officers of the Revolutionary Guard who control Iran's missile forces and nuclear research programs?
Mehdi Khalaji, who now works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, studied for 14 years in the Shiite seminaries in Qom and has tried to answer this very question. He confirms that there are factions in the Revolutionary Guard that have apocalyptic tendencies and consider themselves "soldiers of the Mahdi." Clerics who support this Shiite messianism, like Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, are known to be used by the Revolutionary Guard for indoctrination of their officers. But no one has mapped this phenomenon with any certainty about the degree of penetration of these ideologies into the elites of the Iranian military.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been critical of Ahmadinejad's talk about the Mahdi, but he himself was trained in the Mashhad seminary that supported this sort of end-of-days speculation. Thus, after studying this question, Khalaji cannot say with certainty how Iran will behave with nuclear weapons: "It is very difficult to answer the question of whether Iranian leaders are driven by religious beliefs, or whether they just use religious creeds to justify nonreligious attitudes."
The rationality of Iranian leaders is still an open question. It would be an error to just assume that they will adopt the deterrence doctrines of the West should they cross the nuclear threshold.
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