Iran – Rationality in the Eye of the Beholder?

With the Bush administration continuing to threaten Iran, what do to has become a hot topic for the presidential candidates. As the American presidential race moves forward, the topic of Iran will likely remain a fixture in an election dominated by issues of national security and foreign policy.

Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain have all referred to Iran and its leadership as “irrational.” Some Democratic candidates seem to be staking out equally hard-nosed positions concerning Iran, referring to the state as “radical,” and its leadership as “thugs.”

While some of this stems from political posturing, any future policy discussion that begins by framing Iran as irrational ignores much of the historical record to date. Behavior that frustrates American goals is not by definition irrational — to label it as such only serves to complicate an already difficult situation.

Much of the current discussion concerning Iran’s “irrationality” ties back to a long-standing narrative that has gone largely unchallenged in the United States. This narrative posits that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran cannot be reasoned with or constrain its own behavior.

As such, today the Bush administration continues to argue that given such irrationality, Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon could lead to a “nuclear holocaust in the Middle East.” Such fear mongering obscures the fact that past Iranian behavior has demonstrated that it is willing to subjugate its ideology in favor of its security.

Take for example the Iran-Contra Affair, or more recently Iran’s support for both Hamas and a resurgent Taliban. In each case, Iran has erred on the side of pragmatism in order to bolster its strategic position, despite the obvious ideological contradictions that abound. During the Iran-Contra Affair, Iran accepted arms from Israel, its sworn enemy, and today their support of Sunni groups like Hamas and the Taliban demonstrates a similar commitment to common sense.

Asked recently about Iran’s support for Taliban operatives, a former head of a conservative Islamic faction in Iran’s parliament and current editor of an Iranian newspaper — Mohammad Kazem Anbarlouee — said that such support is part of a necessary “balancing act” that allows Iran to simultaneously deal with threats of varying magnitudes — i.e., the threat from Sunni fundamentalists and the threat from the U.S. This statement exemplifies Iran’s commitment to security, not ideology. From Iran’s perspective, the Taliban remains its enemy, but is comparatively less threatening than possible U.S. allied regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran fears Western encirclement, which it interprets as a logical precursor to direct military confrontation. Recent developments like the Pentagon’s efforts to establish a U.S. military base along the Iraq-Iran border only serve to heighten such fears.

American policymakers must understand that Iranian behavior is not irrational just because it supports radical Islamist elements — indeed, in Afghanistan rational U.S. leaders pursued similar policies during the 1980s when it was strategically expedient to do so. The U.S. must not confuse unwelcomed behavior with acts of irrationality. While Iran’s actions pose a strategic challenge to the United States, they remain decidedly rational. From Iran’s perspective, efforts to frustrate U.S. aims in Iraq and Afghanistan, or divide Western opinion by exploiting the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, only serves to shift the strategic landscape in its favor. By characterizing the regime in Tehran as irrational and Ahmadinejad as a crazed zealot in order to marshal opposition to Iran, the United States is only making it that much more difficult to formulate its own rational diplomatic approach for dealing with Iran short of armed conflict.

This does not mean that the United States should ignore Iran or its destabilizing actions. However, the U.S. must take a more measured approach in dealing with Iran. By interpreting every Iranian action as aggressive (when in all likelihood most of these acts are defensive), the U.S. is only tying its own hands. By perpetuating this notion of Iranian irrationality, the U.S. is forced to disregard all other time-tested methods for dealing with strategic competitors — including deterrence, diplomacy, and cooption — in favor of armed conflict.

Iran presents a strategic challenge that the United States must learn to deal with. However, by confusing fiction with fact, rhetoric with reality, the United States is proceeding down a dangerous path. As one scholar recently pointed out, the irony of the situation is that by continuing to portray Iran as irrational, the U.S. is actually “strengthening the hands of those in Iran who point at the ‘irrational’ Westerners who can be held at bay only through deterrent bombs.” Paradoxically, by cementing this image of Iranian irrationality, the U.S. might actually force Iran to forgo traditional balancing prospects in favor of truly irrational acts — acts that only the “rational” West will understand.

While the United States cannot dismiss any scenario as wholly implausible, a more measured assessment of past Iranian behavior reveals that past Iranian actions have largely been both rational and practical. This gives hope that the current policy differences between the two can be settled. In order to facilitate change, the United States must first appreciate Iran’s strategic landscape, as seen through its eyes. Only then can the U.S. hope to achieve accommodation through understanding.

Ryan Carr is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, focusing on the promotion of democracy, transnational threats, and the dynamics of insurgencies. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.