I do not propose in this article to address the intricacies of private rivalries among various members of the ruling Iranian regime (I do however, strongly differentiate between the long suffering people of Iran and the repressive regime that rules over them). Rather, my expertise is in international relations, strategic studies and international law. My focus will be on international behaviour and threats. Among the works that relate to this area is one of my books entitled The Middle East in Global Strategy.
It has been my experience that in analyzing international risks and behaviour the questions that we ask are often as significant as the answers that we provide. Consequently I would like to shape me views around a series of questions followed by a series of recommendations.
Is the Iranian regime rational?
Perhaps it is best to start with a definition of rationality that may apply here. One of the most useful ones was provided by Sidney Verba in 1969. Rationality, he noted, is a purposeful goal-oriented behaviour which is exhibited when “the individual responding to an international event uses the best information available and chooses from the universe of possible responses that alternative most likely to maximize his goals.” We also know however that in some ways this represents an ideal and that there are limits to rational choice in many circumstances. Research by scholars, including Ole Holsti, has shown that in conditions of crisis, for instance, the limits to rationality are magnified.
So how does the Iranian regime fit into this paradigm of rationality as enunciated by Verba? By normal standards of international relations it is hard to categorize the Iranian regime as rational by Verba-like standards. We may start with some of the most flagrant manifestations of extremism by the Iranian regime, such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, which he characterised as “the pretext for the creation of the Zionist regime… it is a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim.” He has further stated that “Israel must be wiped off the map” and that “very soon this stain of disgrace [i.e. Israel] will be purged from the center of the Islamic world - and this is attainable.” Similarly the Supreme Leader of Iran the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called Israel a “cancer” that obviously must be eliminated. This characterization of Israel as “a cancer”, one that requires eradication, is constantlyrepeated by Iran’s proxies, the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas.
It would be a grave mistake, though, to reduce the Iranian issue to an Iran-Israel problem. We need to recognize and remember that the genocidal regime in Tehran has long held itself above international law and has repeatedly demonstrated a wanton and reckless disregard of international norms. In both 1979 and 2011, for instance, in what is emblematic of the regime’s utter contempt for the international community,it chose to violate one of the most basic norms of international behaviour. It condoned and in many ways encouraged the destructive invasion of the American and British embassies respectively. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is not only very specific in providing diplomatic immunity for diplomats but also stipulates that the premises of the diplomatic mission and the private residence of a diplomat are inviolate, as are the archives, documents and other property belonging to the diplomatic mission and diplomats. Consequently the attacks in 1979 and 2011 constituted one of the gravest violations of international law and were a fundamental affront directed at the entire international community. It showed stark contempt for one of the most basic precepts of international law, one that both by custom and convention guards international communication and is a prerequisite for peaceful resolution of disputes.
Can we then conclude that the Iranian regime is irrational? Not necessarily. It has been able to engage in such gross international behaviour and to disregard international laws and norms with relative impunity. Moreover, it has felt that such contempt for the international community has increased its legitimacy both domestically and in the region. Consequently, even if the behaviour of the regime may seem irrational to us it is not a manifestation of an inability to differentiate between right and wrong, a condition of non compos mentis, but rather it is the case that the regime abided by a different paradigm of rationality, driven by its inner (extreme) theological logic. In other words, the Iranian regime does think differently than democratic governments – and most other governments - and is prepared to behave in a fundamentally different fashion than that stipulated by international law and norms since it believes that it is responding to a higher authority.
Can deterrence work?
Deterrence is foremost a psychological relationship that involves a kind of mutual mind reading where one party tries to induce the other to perform the same kind of cost benefit calculation that itself would do, and as a consequence the target party would logically come to the conclusion that the costswould outweigh the benefits if it engages in some inimical action against the first party. By this standard I would suggest that deterrence cannot work with the current Iranian regime. As noted, the regime does not operate (or make decisions) the same way as much of the international community - certainly not the democracies. Its death-worshipping theology where salvation and a rich afterlife can be attained by destroying the designated enemies of God - “the Great Satan” and or “the Little Satan” - stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the world where life is cherished. It’s a very different calculation of costs and benefits. The Iranian regime, in sum, operates on the basis of a different logic where the threat of death or of mutually assured destruction does not play the same role as elsewhere since the ultimate goals sought by this regime are not temporal.
Can deterrence during the Cold War provide a useful analogy?
This is a tempting analogy but ultimately dangerously wrongheaded. It is true that East and West faced each other with many thousands of nuclear weapons and yet nuclear war was avoided, allegedly because of mutual deterrence. It is also true that Iran does not or will not have the vast nuclear capacity of the Soviet Union. This is however where the comparisons end and misunderstanding begins.
First we should know that the Cold War was a tremendously risky period where there was a grave danger of global nuclear devastation a number of times, particularly in 1961 and 1973. J. David Singer perceptively observed that “the world may have escaped nuclear devastation by sheer luck – less a consequence of intelligent policy than a fortunate concatenation of conditions.”
Second, and crucially, we must remember that the Soviet leadership was driven by an ideological imperative that pivoted on the victory of the proletariat on earth and not in heaven. The Soviet Union consequently could not achieve its ideological goals if there was a nuclear holocaust. In comparison to Iran we are looking at starkly different goals and strategies. On the one hand we had very clear ideological constraints whereas on the other we are looking at theological licence. Comparing the Iranian regime and the Soviet Union and looking at Cold War analogies is not only wrong but encourages a movement from what had been a major risk during the Cold War to an utterly reckless and unconscionable gamble with Iran.
What are the risks of a nuclear Iran?
No one can say with certainty that an Iran, armed with nuclear weapons, will launch a nuclear war against anyone. At the same time no one can provide any assurance whatsoever that such a regime which has clearly declared genocidal goals would not employ nuclear weapons once it develops a capacity to try to fulfill those goals. Add the theological licence and the regime’s belief that the ultimate reward is in heaven and is in significant measure derived from destroying those whom they identify as the enemies of God, and we exponentially multiply risks that were already large during the Cold War. We also need to appreciate that the Iranian threat applies to far more than Israel. The fanatical and genocidal theology of the Iranian regime also puts Christian, secular and opposing Muslim states at risk. It is instructive that Arab states in the Gulf tremendously fear a nuclear Iran. In Eastern Europe several states including Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland are in the process of deploying American anti-ballistic missile(ABM) systems that are designed to protect them from an attack by a nuclearized Iran. These countries have made it very clear that these ABM systems are not directed at, nor could they be in the least effective against the massive Russian missile capacity but it is the regime in Tehran that may at some point have its collective finger on a nuclear trigger, that alarms them. It should also be noted that democratic opposition leaders in Russia as well view a nuclear Iran as a deadly and unacceptable threat. Boris Nemtsov, one of the key opposition leaders in Russia, stated during his February 2012 visit to Canada that he and the opposition view a nuclear Iran as a direct threat to Russia and that the nuclear weaponization by Iran must be stopped. The development by Iran of delivery systems including sophisticated missiles that can now reach just about any part of Europe moreover shows that their goal is not merely directed against “the Little Satan.”
Further the notion that there may be some comfort if Iran develops a capacity to make and deploy nuclear weapons but does not actually do so is a dangerous distinction without a difference. It gives Iran a rapid surge capacity on which no neighbour or country can rely as protection. Worse, it offers the Iranian regime a new subterfuge to get to the nuclear destination while minimizing the risk of international action to prevent them from doing so.
Should the military option be taken off the table?
War should be always viewed as a last resort and any military action against Iran by any state or combination of states involves great risks and thus preferably avoided. That said, as Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann noted “war itself is not irrational…”. International law provides for self-defence andhistorically, Canada has repeatedly engaged in military action to fight for principles and for the rights of others in the international community. International law moreover, is increasingly moving towards accepting the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” [R2P] in the face of genocide. In more recent times Canada has participated in military action in Kosovo as well as Libya. Taking the military option off the table therefore would mean that the international community would be voluntarily forgoing both its rights and responsibilities under international law and would grant the genocidal regime in Tehran additional licence.
The problem that Canada and other countries face in the case of the Iranian regime is not only that the latter is rushing headlong to develop and deploy nuclear weapons but it is a government that has repeatedly enunciated its goals to commit genocide and has continuously negotiated in bad faith. Consequently the international community needs to take whatever steps necessary to have this regime removed. The following are some possibilities:
1. As both Canada and Iran are parties to the Genocide Convention [ratified respectively in 1952 and 1956] and since the convention states that persons who engage in direct and public incitement to commit genocide shall be punishable whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals, President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, having publically incited to commit genocide against the Jewish people should be put on trial. Since it would be highly unlikely that Iran would keep its promise to Canada [through the Genocide Convention] to punish those who incite genocide, Ottawa as a contracting party, could ask for a referral from the United Nations Security Council to the International Criminal Court. As this may be blocked in the Security Council, Canada, under the Genocide Convention, could and should submit the failure of Iran to prosecute Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, for incitement to genocide, to the International Court of Justice.
2. Opposition groups inside and outside of Iran should be encouraged to bring about regime change. The People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran [PMOI/MEK] which many view as a secular organizationand which has sought to overthrow the Iranian regime (and is encamped but under threat in Iraq) should be carefully re-examined. This group has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union, Canada and Australia but as a result of litigation that designation has been lifted in Europe. Canada of course needs to make its own independent determination. If following that should weconclude that the PMOI is not currently a terrorist organization, the designation then should be lifted, they should be encouraged in their actions against the Iranian regime and some of those under threat in Iraqi camps should possibly be offered refugee resettlement in Canada.
3. We should take steps in Canada to allow Iran to be sued civilly for torture, crimes against humanity, genocide and incitement to genocide. The State Immunity Act before parliament as part of the omnibus Bill C-10 is very useful in terms of the victims of acts of terrorism and should be amended to broaden its scope to encompass the other offences listed above.
4. Sanctions should be sharply increased and promptly implemented by Canada and its allies in NATO. The focus has to be on banking, flows of money, sales of oil and natural gas, as well as air travel. These sanctions need to be designed to drastically undermine the ability of the genocidal Iranian regime to bribe its key supporters and to indicate to the population at large that this regime has lost all international legitimacy.
5. The military option, as a very last resort, should most definitely and visibly be kept on the table.Canada and her allies must make it clear that under no circumstances will Iran be allowed to develop a capacity to build or to deploy nuclear weapons.