POLITICS
07/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Iran Rational?

Is Iran an "irrational" state, or can its nuclear program be deterred? When the country shoots off nine test missiles (as it did Wednesday) while engaging in uranium enrichment, or makes appalling noises about wiping Israel "off the map," that question is sometimes raised as a prelude to considering an American preemptive strike -- lest a country with an apocalyptic Shiite death wish gain the military prowess to endanger the West.

It's the kind of question that can rock advocates for diplomacy onto their heels, as it casts doubt on the usefulness of anything except military force. Indeed, when issuing a comment on today's controversy, Barack Obama went out of his way to toughen up his diplomatic rhetoric by using the martial verb "eliminate" to describe how he would deal with the threat posed by the Islamic Republic.

But while Iran's global posturing is undeniably bellicose, there is plenty of evidence to suggest a baseline rationality to its regional power ambitions and its domestic politics, particularly among senior figures who predated the current, firebrand president, and who will likely outlast him as well.

For example, take a look at former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. He's hardly anyone's idea of a democrat. An original member of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary circle, he was implicated in the Iran Contra debacle, accused of facilitating a 1994 Hezbollah bombing in Buenos Aires, and is suspected by many Iranians of taking part in various other corruption scandals during his two terms as president. Indeed, it was Rafsanjani's successor, Mohammed Khatami, who brought the much touted (and subsequently under-performing) program of "reform" to the Iranian populace.

So when Rafsanjani makes the effort to accuse Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of "spreading public impoverishment" -- as he did in May -- it's not simply part of the regular tug of war between liberal and conservative camps in Tehran. Though the two men were electoral rivals in the 2005 presidential race, Rafsanjani is generally thought of as a "pragmatic conservative" voice, and as such, his objections to the style of Ahmadinejad's governance are a useful data point in the ongoing debate about whether the country will prove an "irrational" actor as a regional power.

Few observers expect the 74-year-old Rafsanjani to make another presidential run in 2009, but that hasn't stopped him from taking shots at a president he clearly sees as dangerous for the revolution he helped create. After the United States moved a second battle carrier to the Persian Gulf last year, Rafsanjani warned the Iranian public of the serious threat Ahmadinejad had invited -- with the clear implication that doing so was foolish. Even if the former president goes on Al Jazeera, as he did last week, to brag that "U.S. interests might be exposed to many strikes" by Iran in the event of a conflict, the way he speaks to Iranians tells a different story.

Such caution -- and yes, rationality in the service of political ends -- puts Rafsanjani in the camp with other conservatives in Iran who nevertheless take issue with Adhmadinejad's global saber-rattling. Former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, thought to be favored by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (who really holds the reins of power) also publicly sparred with Ahmadinejad over the president's tactics on the global stage. When the president forced Larijani out of his position in order to consolidate power last year, a key adviser to Khamenei openly blasted the move -- something that many observers felt would not have been done without Khamenei's approval.

Vali Nasr, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Shia Revival, observes that all these senior figures are "old guys, and you don't get to be old by being suicidal." He rejects the idea that Iran's Shiite theology, which is predicated on the return of a "hidden imam" who will kick-start end times, determines the Islamic Republic's foreign policy any more than the eschatology of "rapture" Christianity does in America. (When Ahmadinejad recently started invoking the coming of the "hidden imam" to bolster flagging national sentiment due to a poor economy, religious authorities directed him to stop doing so and instead focus on the country's problems.)

"These guys may be conservative, too religious, too right wing. There are many things I don't like about them," the Iran-born Nasr said. "But to dismiss them as deranged irrational fanatics driven by some kind of feeling about Armageddon just doesn't stand up to the test. Their objectives may not be in U.S. interests, but that does not mean they are irrational. They want great power status in the Mideast. They want a nuclear capability. They want to be the big boss of the Persian Gulf. They want influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. These may not be good things, but they are not irrational."

Beyond that, Nasr points out that, early in President George W. Bush's first term, Iran made cooperative overtures in Afghanistan -- and even sent an anonymous letter through the Swiss that offered negotiations on most outstanding issues. According to a New York Times op-ed by former National Security Council official Flynt Leverett, the Bush administration ignored that approach:

In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.

Nasr believes the failure of Iran's moderate conservatives and liberal reformists to get traction with the Bush administration created the opportunity for Ahmadinejad to rise to the presidency in the first place. "In the context of Iranian foreign policy, Ahmadinjead's election was the consequence of the failure of more moderate or pragmatic factions in Iran to build their cooperation with the U.S. over Afghanistan into anything beyond being rebuffed over talks," Nasr told the Huffington Post, adding that "Ahmadinejad ridiculed Rafsanjani" during the presidential race for having taken part in the attempt to secure talks with the United States.

Finally, the question of whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear capability in order to bring about global chaos tends to overlook the fact that Iran probably already has the means to set off an international military catastrophe should it want to. Former CIA case officer Robert Baer told the Huffington Post that "Iran could already have started World War III if they wanted to, right in Lebanon," by giving chemical weapons to Hezbollah for the purpose of using against Israel. "One chemical weapon on [the Israeli city of] Haifa, and it's over. ... No, the Iranians are not suicidal. I see them as more calculating," Baer said. "The whole debate about Adhmadinejad is like the Russians looking at McCarthy and saying, 'look because you guys are all crazy, we'll have to go to war with you.' Ahmadinejad is just a spokesman, that's all he'll ever be."