Iran’s regime: Rational Actors or Apocalyptic Zealots?

Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis once wrote of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that “For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement.” This has been a parroted refrain from the neoconservative braintrust on Iran in recent years–that the Iranian regime cannot be deterred because it is run by apocalyptic zealots who will happily embrace death in sacrifice to Islam.

Neocon figurehead Norman Podhoretz tried pushing this talking point in a 2007 PBS debate with Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria, where he stated:

The reason deterrence can’t work with Iran is that there’s a different element involved here than was involved with either Mao or even Kim Jong Il or Stalin, and that is the element of religious fanaticism.

The fact of the matter is that, with a religious fanatic like Ahmadinejad and the “mullahcracy” ruling Iran generally, there’s no assurance that self-preservation or the protection, preservation of the nation, will deter them.

And let me tell you why. Here is what the Ayatollah Khomeini, of whom Ahmadinejad is a devoted disciple, once said. He said: We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah, for patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land of Iran burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.

Well, you can’t deter a nation that is led by people with that kind of attitude.

But, as Podhoretz’ unsuccesfull debate with Zakaria demonstrates, the facts on Iran speak otherwise, especially recent revelations about the role the regime plays in funding and training the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. I would even argue that Iran’s support for another Sunni insurgent group, Ansar al-Islam, is further proof of the regime’s rational decision-making in its foreign policy.

Now some may argue that this alliance simply demonstrates Islamist fanatics supporting one another. But this is not the case at all. Rather, this Iranian support demonstrates that the regime follows a realist policy of national interest first over ideological considerations.

Let me explain. If Iran were purely ideologically motivated, it would be at odds with these organizations. The Taliban is a Sunni, Deobandi extremist movement with Wahabist influences, all ideologies that are anathema to the Shi’ism of Iran and the Iranian regime. Further, Ansar al-Islam is a Sunni, Wahabist movement that directly threatens Shiites and Shiasm. As of now, the regime is using these groups as proxies to both exert influence in these two neighboring countries as well as shake up the stability of the regions and challenge the influence of Iran’s perceived enemies–the U.S., Britain, etc.–in these states.

When the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan, Iran had a shakey, antagonistic relationsihp with the regime. Iran was upset over the Taliban’s treatment of the minority Hazzara peoples (who are Shia) and funded/supported the Taliban’s enemies, the Northern Alliance. The Iranians almost went to war with the Afghan regime in 1998 (but were later dissuaded by U.S. President Bill Clinton) after the the execution of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. The Iranian regime even assisted the United States and its allies in the removal of the Taliban following the September 11th attacks of 2001. This warming U.S.-Iran relationship ended following U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, however.

And as goes Ansar al-Islam, while Iran has allegedly always had some form of ties to the organization, the regime has also been historically helpful to the secular Kurdish parties of Iraq, especially the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), often using the group as a proxy against Iran’s enemy: Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

So it makes sense now that Iran has done a 360 on these policies. Circumstances for the Iranian regime have changed now. It now views the U.S. as its most formidable enemy, with presence in both Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its East, and has adapted its foreign policy respectively–funding and supporting endeavors that would weaken this foe.

The lesson here is that the Iranian regime can be deterred. It is a “rational actor” on the world stage in the classical realist sense. It is not a regime of death cultists ready to bring the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. And therefore, we should not treat them as anything more than another ambitious power in the region, one not to be overreacted to with military occupation or action. To do so would be both disastrous and ignorant.


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