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Is Iran a Rational Actor? We're About to Find Out

Bobby Ghosh

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Caveat emptor: Anybody who claims to know how Iran will respond to the killing of Qassem Soleimani is either a liar or a fool. The history of the Islamic Republic provides few meaningful pointers, because it has never been here before. None of its foreign enemies has taken out a figure of comparable importance to the Tehran regime.

No Iranian military commander of Soleimani’s standing was killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. The nuclear scientists assassinated — presumably by Israel — in the 2010s were important to the regime, but hardly as influential as the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force.

The 1988 downing of Iran Air 655 by an American warship provoked similar outrage, but the military and political impact of Soleimani’s death exceeds even the collective weight of the 290 people killed on that aircraft. So it’s not safe to conclude that, because Iran never acted on solemn oaths of revenge then — “The criminal United States should know that the unlawfully shed blood in the disaster ... will be avenged in the same blood-spattered sky over the Persian Gulf” — that it will not do so now.

Its response to Soleimani’s death-by-drone will answer a question that has attended every discussion about Iran since 1979: is the Islamic Republic a rational actor?

Plenty of smart people — including military men such as General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — say it is. Other foreign-policy thinkers take the more nuanced view that Iran is rational without being reasonable: It has different priorities from those of its enemies, but its behavior is entirely logical in the context of those priorities.

My own view is that the regime has just one priority: its own perpetuation. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has demonstrated repeatedly in his three decades in charge that his sole objective is to preserve the peculiar form government that vests him with vast power over his people with little accountability. But his pursuit of that priority is as likely to be informed by ideology as it is by logic, as much by paranoia as it is by pragmatism.

Consider the regime’s visceral hostility toward Israel, with which Iran has no borders and no history of conflict — and, indeed, a record of mutually beneficial cooperation until the Islamic Republic chose to make it a bogeyman. A pragmatic Khamenei would, at the very least, ignore Israel; only ideology, and an imagined enmity, prevents this.

Iran’s hostility toward its Arab neighbors has a stronger foundation. Many of them supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 war. After that humiliation, the regime reckoned that positioning proxy militias within Arab states would prevent a reprise; this was dubbed Tehran’s “forward defence” policy. But Iraq’s decimation by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 removed the greatest menace to the Islamic Republic and gave Tehran the opportunity of a reset. That would certainly have been a rational call. Instead, Iran expanded its mischief both close to home (in Iraq and Syria) and far away (in Yemen).  

More generally, ideology makes Khamenei implacable toward the West, especially the Americans, even when a little pragmatic flexibility might benefit his regime. A rational Supreme Leader would see the long game in which Iran drops its nuclear, ballistic-missile and proxy-militia programs, re-enters the world economy, makes hundreds of billions from oil exports, and uses that to purchase the best military defense in the region — without loosening his own grip on power. Ideology blinds Khamenei to this.

Back to the here and now, a rational Khamenei would recognize that his promise of “severe retaliation” for Soleimani’s death can bring only more pain on Iran. War with the U.S. would impose a high cost on both sides, but the bill for Tehran would be many times bigger.

Attacks by proxy, Iran’s preferred form of warfare, are no longer as safe as they were. President Donald Trump demonstrated with the killing of Soleimani that the fig-leaf of plausible deniability has fallen. Khamenei must now take on face value Trump’s threat of “disproportionate” retaliation for attacks on American targets.

Any strike on Israel would invite destruction not only on Iranian soil, but in Lebanon too, home of Iran’s strongest proxy. Netanyahu, his own political fortunes at a low ebb, is unlikely to avoid a confrontation with Iran. And he can be certain of full support from Trump.

Striking at targets among the Arab states such as Saudi Arabia would end the cautious efforts by those countries to arrive at a détente with Iran. And any attempt to choke off the Straits of Hormuz would hurt Iran’s allies — Iraq and Qatar — as well as cut off the Islamic Republic’s limited oil exports.

The rational way forward for Khamenei is to stay the hand of his proxies and allow time to defuse the hysteria whipped up by Soleimani’s death. In the meantime, he would be able to continue improving relations with the Arab states — which, having peered over the edge, should be even more eager for parley. After an appropriate interregnum, he might use one or more of his Arab interlocutors to discreetly open a channel to the White House.

Of course, this would require the current occupant of that address to behave rationally, too. Trump’s threat to strike Iranian cultural sites makes it harder for Khamenei to do the smart thing. But it’s not certain he was ever going to.

To contact the author of this story: Bobby Ghosh at aghosh73@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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