Is Iran Really a 'Rational' State Actor?

The West's fundamental mistake in its interpretation of Iranian "self-interest."

Recently, there has been an ongoing debate among political analysts in the United States that is centered on the question of whether the Islamic Republic of Iran is a rational actor and whether it has rational-legal authority in the institutions within which it functions.

The argument goes, if credible and powerful incentives were presented to the Iranian regime the Iranians would agree to halt uranium enrichment. Additionally, if the Iranian regime believes that it will be regarded with respect and viewed as a strong geopolitical, economic and strategic actor by regional and international governments it will open talks with the United States, Israel, and other European countries.  In particular, it will have strong diplomatic relations with the United States which will ultimately lead to the inauguration of mutual embassies in Tehran and Washington, DC, as well as the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran. It is also argued that if Iran is a rational actor, even if it achieves nuclear capability and consequently nuclear weapons, it will still not threaten other countries, according to the rational theory of “deterrence.”

First, “rationality” must be defined. One might define it as the efforts of a government to pursue its own strategic, economic, national, and security interests. However, even according to this definition, it does not mean that the Iranian regime would fix its relationships with many countries including the United States or Israel if more appealing offers were presented to the clerics. The key principle upon which the Islamic Republic of Iran rules is its opposition to Western nations, particularly the United States and Israel and even some powers in the East. The principle slogan of the Iranian Revolution as coined by Ayatollah Khomeini (the founding father of the regime) is “Not the east, not the west.” He adds, “this is the established principle of Islamic nations and countries who, with the help of Allah, will accept Islam as the only ideology leading to salvation – and they will not go back from this principle in the least.”

On the other hand, in this era of globalization, if being a rational government means protecting one’s own economic interest, any state should subscribe to a modern nation-state political system. Khomeini said, “in our domestic and foreign policy, … we have set as our goal the world-wide spread of the influence of Islam … We wish to cause the corrupt roots of Zionism, capitalism and Communism to wither throughout the world. We wish, as does God almighty, to destroy the systems which are based on these three foundations, and to promote the Islamic order of the Prophet.”

The fact is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is centered on the principles that Ayatollah Khomeini established. It derives its power and legitimacy from practicing those principles which require ending any relationship with the United States (also known as “the great Satan” in Iran) and Israel at any cost. If the Iranian regime changed these fundamental organizing principles, it would not be able to define itself as the “Islamic Republic of Iran” which was founded on the principles and values of Ayatollah Khomeini. Additionally, resuming relations with the United States and Israel would mean that the Iranian regime would not be able to maneuver politics the way it has been for the last three decades – by maintaining power by crushing and labeling any internal opposition to the regime as American or Israeli plots. Being against the US and Israel has also helped clerics detract attention away from the economic crisis in the country.

On the other hand, in Iran, the nuclear program has long been a point of consensus across Iran’s political spectrum, both among hardliners and moderates. Being a nuclear power is a matter of survival for the ruling clerics. They didn’t endure four rounds of sanctions and decades of isolation only to surrender their nuclear program. In their perspective, having nuclear capabilities will not only support their regional hegemonic ambitions but will also ensure their hold on power.

The problem is that the Iranian regime is viewed as a modern nation-state that plays by the international rules and standards that have been developed by the West in the last century. It might be time to take a closer look at the clerics’ fundamental principles and the political structure of the regime.

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