A Relatively Rational Iran?

It is insufficient to consider Iran's rationality in terms of either yes or no. Rather, we must seek insight into Iranian nuclear decision making based on its own sense of rationality. This effort could help us identify essential preparations and arrangements on our part that are not yet being considered.

The question of whether Iran is a rational player has for some time been a critical focus of international discussion about how to respond to Tehran's nuclear program. In Israel and abroad, those who oppose attacking Iran's nuclear sites highlight the rationality of the Islamic Republic's leadership -- something they say suggests that deterrence can be relied upon if and when Iran finally possesses nuclear weapons. Those who support targeting Iran's nuclear sites claim, among other things, that there is a big question mark regarding the degree of rationality of the Iranian leadership. As a result, they say, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to deter Iran's leaders from eventually using nuclear weapons against Israel.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and particularly during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Iran has proven that it is more often driven by pragmatic policy considerations than by ideology-based decision making. However, the Iranians have not always judged correctly the reactions of their opponents, nor do they appear to be as risk-averse as Western countries, even when the lives of their own people are at stake.

A question mark about the soundness of Iran's judgment arose last year with the attempt on the life of the Saudi ambassador to Washington - an act that, if carried out, could have led to war with the United States. Iranian hackers with government ties have also mounted cyber attacks against American banks and American allies in the Gulf. On November 1, Iranian warplanes attacked a U.S. drone over international waters in the Persian Gulf, and Tehran claimed it shot down another one early this month.

It's possible that Iran would act against Israel, despite the risks to its own survival, for two main reasons. The first is the central role of religious-messianic considerations among the Iranian leadership. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared after becoming president in 2005 that the Islamic revolution's "main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 'Hidden Imam'" - i.e., the Mahdi, Shia Islam's messianic figure. Statements like this have led many to conclude that the regime may be guided by an apocalyptic vision that would welcome chaos as a way to hasten the reappearance of the "Hidden Imam." Can the president or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei be treated as rational actors on issues as fraught with peril, such as nuclear proliferation?

The second reason is that this regime has pledged itself to Israel's annihilation and is acquiring the means to accomplish it. In February 2012, Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut," adding that "from now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear of expressing this." Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, added in May that "the Iranian nation is standing for its cause, which is the full annihilation of Israel."

The question whether the Iranians are rational seems to split Israeli decision-making circles. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said last April that he thinks that "the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people," but even he later agreed that nuclear capability, in the "hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went further and said that he would not want to bet "the security of the world on Iran's rational behavior." A "militant Islamic regime," he said, "can put their ideology before their survival."

When using the term "rationality," one needs to recognize that it can have a relative component - for example, two rational actors could reach different conclusions when faced with the same circumstances and data. Human beings, including leaders, are often hard pressed to choose between alternatives and may be influenced by ideology, intuition, culture and political and institutional biases. Iranian leaders thus could be no less rational than their Israeli or American counterparts, but may reach different conclusions when confronting the same circumstances.

Thus, even if we assume that Iran is a rational actor, it is difficult to understand the calculations that guide its leadership, and to predict its decisions and behavior in crisis situations. In addition, there is incomplete information about the decision-making process in Iran, as well as the quality of information that the supreme leader enjoys.

For reasons besides the degree of rationality of the Iranian regime, political factors, geographical proximity and technological issues will also complicate the stability of a future mutually deterrent environment between Israel and Iran. There is also the possibility that Iranian nuclear weapons could be used without the explicit intention of the leadership. Iran has not yet institutionalized its nuclear doctrine and system of operations and has a history of a defective chain of command that could lead to unauthorized use.

The first years after achieving nuclear capability are the most dangerous and portend crises, which can be accompanied by the threat of escalation because of the temptation of others to destroy the capability as long as it is nascent, and the possibility of using it in a conventional conflict (use it or lose it ).

There is a need for further examination of scenarios in which Iran eventually becomes nuclear, even if doing so would be interpreted by some as accepting a nuclear Iran. It is insufficient to consider Iran's rationality in terms of either yes or no. Rather, we must seek insight into Iranian nuclear decision making based on its own sense of rationality. This effort could help us identify essential preparations and arrangements on our part that are not yet being considered.

Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and the former Iran coordinator at Israel's National Security Council.