by Stephen Rutman
It is convenient to dismiss that which we fear by labeling it irrational. When we encounter something we do not understand, we tend to assume its decision-making process does not reflect our own.
For this reason, many scholars and critics presuppose that Iran does not weigh costs and benefits in the same fashion as most other nations around the globe. Consequently, Iran’s inflammatory rhetoric is frequently written off as ideological gibberish. However, just as identifying a criminal’s true motive can prove more terrifying than determining his insanity, so too can evaluating Iran’s rational actions reveal the darker aims of Iranian foreign policy.
It is crucial not to confuse rational with reasonable, which Iran is manifestly not. With each passing reference to the U.S. as a “Great Satan” and each menacing comparison of the State of Israel to a “cancerous tumor that must be cut,” Iran reaffirms the waywardness of its values. Nevertheless, in international affairs or behavioral economics, a rational actor refers to any entity that is concerned about its survival, prosperity or power, and considers all its options accordingly. While Tehran’s priorities may appear backwards and perverse to outsiders, it is imprudent to deny that some calculus has taken place.
There is an unfortunate, and ultimately contradictory, conflation in the rhetoric used by Iran’s most vociferous critics. In advocating harsher sanctions on Iran, many errantly insist that Iran is irrational, and thus must be restrained by economic sanctions. In reality, however, the potential impact of sanctions depends upon Iran’s rationality.
The logic that Iran and the United States are rational actors who strive for identical ends is sadly a fallacy. This thinking is tempting because the vast majority of rational actors on the global stage act defensively. Iran, however, defies this standard notion of rationality. Iran represents the unusual position of a rational aggressor.
While most states aim to improve their own status in one way or another, by and large they avoid conflict and seek solutions that are mutually beneficial to all parties. Iran operates a bit differently. To understand why, one must analyze what precisely Iran considers costly and beneficial. Above all, Iran seeks regional hegemony. It wants the Muslim world to follow its lead, and to project this regional dominance globally. It is to this end that Iran (probably rightly) believes it must acquire nuclear weapons, despite the inevitable backlash. Meanwhile Iran also desires economic strength, which goes hand-in-hand with its first goal. Many overlook that, notwithstanding its egregiously antiquated domestic policies, Iran is a significant modern economic presence.
It can be a challenge to reconcile the two faces of Iranian society. Apple recently approved sale of the iPhone in Iran and is supposedly scouting locations for its first store in Tehran, the same city that recently hanged a 26-year-old woman who killed the man who raped her. But this multifaceted Iran is what the rest of the world should be contending with, not some all-encompassing evil whose goals and motivations cannot be parsed.
Despite its geopolitical objectives, the current Iranian regime, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is not willing to sacrifice the well-being and support of its populace—especially given widespread speculation that the regime’s authority is shakier than they care to admit. The Iranian government continually struggles to balance the everyday concerns of its nation with spreading its radical dogma. Thus far the regime has proven to be quite adept at making smart, pragmatic choices. Although the West perceives any efforts by Iran to attain nuclear weapons as a reckless suicide mission, from the Iranian perspective, it is simply a calculated risk. Iran is a major global threat not because it is unpredictable or impulsive. Rather, Iran is an international affairs nightmare precisely because it so skillfully weighs potential upsides relative to possible negative repercussions.
Nothing is achieved by admiring the problem. But the rest of the world can use Iran’s rationality to its advantage. If the appropriate pressures are applied, Iran can be compelled to behave in a manner acceptable to the rest of the world. The primary tools available for influencing Iranian behavior are negotiations, sanctions and military options. No matter how repugnant one may find some of these possibilities, it is crucial that none of them be removed from the table. Ruling out any one of these alternatives undermines them all by making Iran’s cost-benefit analysis that much easier.
Whether one lauds Iran as a reliable ally or condemns it as a pernicious foe, it bears acknowledging that Iran’s actions are not random. To assert—as many do—that complex behavior is simply irrational is not only counterproductive, but in fact quite dangerous.