Can a nuclear-armed Iran be deterred and is he a rational actor?

Can a nuclear-armed Iran be deterred and is he a rational actor?

Can a nuclear-armed Iran be deterred and is he a rational actor? Global Review asked Daniel Pipes this question in our latest interview:

GR: Can a nuclear-armed Iran be contained, given the overwhelmingly stronger American and Israeli arsenals?

DP: No, one cannot count on the rulers in Tehran being rational actors. For example, the mahdaviat mentality could prompt them to initiate a nuclear conflagration. They must not acquire nuclear weapons.

GR: Is the danger of a nuclear Iran more primarily about its threat to Israel or its threat to nuclear proliferation?

DP: The threat to Israel and to many other countries is far more immediate than nuclear non-proliferation.

However, Daniel Pipes is with his opinion a minority position in the US security establishment as with the exception of Frederick Kagan all major think tanks in the USA, be it the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute think that the Iranian mullahs would be rational actors and could be deterred. First, let´s hear the arguments of Daniel Pipes which focus on mahdaviat. What does he mean concretely?  Therefore we repost an article from Daniel Pipes which makes clear the argument:

The Mystical Menace of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

by Daniel Pipes
New York Sun
January 10, 2006

Thanks to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a new word has entered the political vocabulary: mahdaviat.

Not surprisingly, it’s a technical religious term. Mahdaviat derives from mahdi, Arabic for „rightly-guided one,“ a major figure in Islamic eschatology. He is, explains the Encyclopaedia of Islam, „the restorer of religion and justice who will rule before the end of the world.“ The concept originated in the earliest years of Islam and, over time, became particularly identified with the Shi‘ite branch. Whereas „it never became an essential part of Sunni religious doctrine,“ continues the encyclopedia, „Belief in the coming of the Mahdi of the Family of the Prophet became a central aspect of the faith in radical Shi‘ism,“ where it is also known as the return of the Twelfth Imam.

Mahdaviat means „belief in and efforts to prepare for the Mahdi.“

In a fine piece of reporting, Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor shows the centrality of mahdaviat in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s outlook and explores its implications for his policies.

As mayor of Tehran, for example, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to have in 2004 secretly instructed the city council to build a grand avenue to prepare for the Mahdi. A year later, as president, he allocated $17 million for a blue-tiled mosque closely associated with mahdaviat in Jamkaran, south of the capital. He has instigated the building of a direct Tehran-Jamkaran railroad line. He had a list of his proposed cabinet members dropped into a well adjacent to the Jamkaran mosque, it is said, to benefit from its purported divine connection.

He often raises the topic, and not just to Muslims. When addressing the United Nations in September, Mr. Ahmadinejad flummoxed his audience of world political leaders by concluding his address with a prayer for the Mahdi’s appearance: „O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the Promised One, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.“

On returning to Iran from New York, Mr. Ahmadinejad recalled the effect of his U.N. speech:

one of our group told me that when I started to say „In the name of God the almighty and merciful,“ he saw a light around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink. … And they were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic republic.

What Mr. Peterson calls the „presidential obsession“ with mahdaviat leads Mr. Ahmadinejad to „a certitude that leaves little room for compromise. From redressing the gulf between rich and poor in Iran, to challenging America and Israel and enhancing Iran’s power with nuclear programs, every issue is designed to lay the foundation for the Mahdi’s return.“

„Mahdaviat is a code for [Iran’s Islamic] revolution, and is the spirit of the revolution,“ says the head of an institute dedicated to studying and speeding the Mahdi’s appearance. „This kind of mentality makes you very strong,“ the political editor of Resalat newspaper, Amir Mohebian, observed. „If I think the Mahdi will come in two, three, or four years, why should I be soft? Now is the time to stand strong, to be hard.“ Some Iranians, reports PBS, „worry that their new president has no fear of international turmoil, may think it’s just a sign from God.“

Mahdaviat has direct and ominous implications for the U.S.-Iran confrontation, says an Ahmadinejad supporter, Hamidreza Taraghi of Iran’s hard-line Islamic Coalition Society. It implies seeing Washington as the rival to Tehran and even as a false Mahdi. For Mr. Ahmadinejad, the top priority is to challenge America, and specifically to create a powerful model state based on „Islamic democracy“ by which to oppose it. Mr. Taraghi predicts trouble ahead unless Americans fundamentally change their ways.

I’d reverse that formulation. The most dangerous leaders in modern history are those (such as Hitler) equipped with a totalitarian ideology and a mystical belief in their own mission. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fulfills both these criteria, as revealed by his U.N. comments. That combined with his expected nuclear arsenal make him an adversary who must be stopped, and urgently.

Well, this was in 2006 and Ahmadinejad is not in office anymore.But maybe other persons or factions within the Iranian establishment exist which would risk a nuclear jihad against Israel or other countries.

On the one hand, the belief in a return of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, does not necessarily have to mean that he has to return by means of nuclear war . Second, the question is how important these supposed Armaggedon forces are within the hardliners because many Iranian hardliners also shy away from nuclear death. They have no moral scruples to send hundred thousand young people and humans in bloddy convential wars or kids as suicide bombers, would also use nuclear weapons for blackmail and detterence as Western pealpolitican do but it is unlikely that they want an Armageddon which erases their own Godstate.In the same way, one could identify examples of an Armageddon faction within the most important force of the Israel lobby in the USA, the religious right, especially its 80 million evangelicals, and claim them to be essential to US politics and as fantastic religious who fought the final biblical battle between the forces of the light against the forces of the dark Shadow Kingdom, Satan and Antichrist by means of an Armageddon and see the role of the USA and Israel as new crusaders in the fight for the Holy Land against the diabolical Islam. Also one should not forget every fanatically religious, ultra-orthodox rabbis who march with Islamists on Islamist, Iranian-controlled Al Qud days, deny Israel as a secular human-wanted and not God-wanted state of any legitimacy and speak of the return of the Messiah. But such forces are not currently dominant in either the US or Israel. Even if Netanyahu and Libermann are seen as right-wing nationalists and chauvinists, they are not governed by religious end times utopias either. While many members of the Christian right and many evangelicals would prefer the USA to develop into a Christian or clerical-fascist Godstate as is portrayed in Margareth Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Vice President Mike Pence also declares that he “Christian first, then Conservative and then Republican – and in that exact order ”, a Supreme Court judge from the arch-Catholic secret association“ People of Praise ”in the vicinity of Notre Dame University has now risen to the highest ordinations, the USA is not yet a theocracy like Iran and a nuclear war would not take place because of Armageddon phantasies, but rather because the impulsiveness of a US president or within the rational calculations of US strategists.

In a webinar „Evangelicals and Israel: On the Brink or Back Together?“ With speaker Luke Moon from Daniel Pipes Middle East Forum from October 2020 (see You Tube page of the MEF) about the attitude towards Israel of the Evangelicals it becomes clear that quite a few are already empathic with the oppressed Palestinians and first are given the 4 main characteristics of the definition of an evangelical and the more anti-Israeli and Israel-critical evangelical organizations that have 4 main pillars: World Vision, Creek Church, Weeden College and Telos, the However, they would have lost their importance, especially since Telos might not survive the corona crisis. The evangelical Millenials, on the other hand, have a tendency not to commit themselves or to take sides on pro-Israel or pro-Palestine issues, which does not, however, result in an anti-Israeli stance as they would probably also support Israel in case of a war, but not because of the return of the Messiah through a Christian nuclear war.

Let´s have a closer look at how the other US think tanks address the question of deterrence and rational actor.

At the time of the Obama administration, the USA faced the question if they could prevent a nuclear Iran by war or regime change which they perceived as disastrous and impossible. Therefore the voices to accept a nuclear Iran, believe in rational actors and deterrence became mainstream. The JCPOA was born in this desperate situation and wanted to prevent a nuclear Iran while not including a stop of the missile programs, the expansion in the Shiite crescent and region and the support for terrorism. While Rouhani and Khameini agreed to the Iran deal Iran could use the lifting of the sanctions for further expansion in the Greater Middle East, for proxy wars, conventional arms programs and missile tests and was only obliged to a 10 years´ stop of its nuclear program. For Trump, the Republicans, Israel, Saudi Arabia this was just a joke as it allowed Iran to expand militarily and as a regional power and left the option that it could restart its nuclear program after the time limit oft he JCPOA again and become an expanded regional power which could become nuclear afterward. After Trump canceled the JCPOA, Iran restarted its nuclear program.

But the questions remain: Would a nuclear Iran  be a rational actor and could be deterred? This question has been discussed before the Iran deal and will be discussed again after its cancelation.

In the US it was not clear whether a nuclear Iran can still be prevented. It is questionable whether the economic sanctions will work. Whether a regime change caused by an Iranian spring can solve the problem too. Equally controversial is the military option that the US and / or Israel would wage a limited military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. US strategists or the former Mossad boss Meir Dagan pointed out that this could only delay the Iranian nuclear program for 2-3 years – otherwise one would have to bomb again. This does not even include the discussion of the extent to which such a military strike would have the potential to escalate, be it a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, which could culminate in an armed conflict, even a war between the USA and Iran, the question of the skyrocketing oil prices, which can catapult the world economy into a recession, be it the question of the Iranian reaction and possible solidarity effects in the Muslim world. At least in the US there already has been a broad discussion on whether the US can contain a nuclear Iran and could deter it and it is likely that it will be restarted again.

Frederick Kagan from the American Enterprise Institute gave the impetus with a Carnegie-sponsored contribution „Deterence Misapplied — Challenges in Containing a Nuclear Iran“, which was also the basis for discussion by the Council on Foreign Relations. Frederick Kagan concluded that due to the intransparent and unpredictable power structures in Iran, it is impossible to develop a strategy of containment and deterrence:

Challenges in Containing a Nuclear Iran

Author: Frederick W. Kagan, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Given the nature and structure of its government, is it possible to contain an Iran with nuclear weapons? In this discussion paper, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Frederick W. Kagan explores the applicability of deterrence—from a historic and theoretical perspective—to the Iranian regime. Kagan concludes that for numerous structural and strategic reasons, it is impossible to assess with any confidence that the Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons could be contained or deterred.“

The American Enterprise Institute took up this question and once asked:

„Can a Nuclear Iran be contained or deterrence?



The Bush administration has treated deterrence and containment as rhetorical pillars, but, beyond the Gulf Security Dialogue, few in Washington appear willing to take the measures necessary to deter or contain a nuclear Iran. Even in the unlikely event they would achieve Iraqi acquiescence, neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden support permanent bases in Iraq,[45] even though such facilities would be the cornerstones of a containment policy. Simply put, without permanent bases in Iraq, a nuclear capable Islamic Republic cannot be contained.

While Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) laid down the necessary marker to support a deterrence strategy when she declared that the United States could “obliterate” Iran should the Islamic Republic use nuclear weapons, Obama’s criticism of her statement[46] undercut the commitment to retaliation upon which any deterrence policy must rest.

It may be comforting to Abizaid, Mullen, and the electorate to believe that the United States can deter or contain Tehran’s worst ambitions, but absent any preparation to do so, Washington is instead signaling that the Islamic Republic has a green light to claim regional dominance and, at worst, carry out its threats to annihilate Israel. At the same time, absent any effort to lay the groundwork either for containment or deterrence, Washington is signaling to its allies in the region that they are on their own and that the U.S. commitment to protect them is empty. Arab states and Iran’s other neighbors may calculate that they have no choice but to make greater accommodation to Tehran’s interests. Should Israeli officials believe that the West will stand aside as Iran achieves nuclear capability and that a nuclear Islamic Republic poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, they may conclude that they have no choice but to launch a preemptive military strike–an event that could quickly lead to a regional conflagration from which the United States would have difficulty remaining aloof.

Michael Rubin ( is a resident scholar at AEI.

While there was still some skepticism in this article, the American Enterprise Institute expressed itself more optimistically in another article „Containing and deterring a nuclear Iran“:

“For containment and deterrence to succeed, the United States will need to demonstrate that it can deter both Iran’s use of nuclear weapons and aggression by Tehran’s network of partners and terrorist proxies. The United States also has a concomitant requirement to assure its allies in the region and around the world of its commitment to stability in the region. Underlying all of this is the classic requirement that the United States be capable of demonstrating its ability to execute a declaratory policy to respond to a possible Iranian nuclear attack. The United States has neither the forces available nor the capability under current projections to do so.

In conclusion, we find that though containment and deterrence are possible policies and strategies for the United States and others to adopt when faced with a nuclear Iran, we cannot share the widespread enthusiasm entertained in many quarters. Indeed, the broad embrace of containment and deterrence appears to be based primarily on an unwillingness to analyze the risks and costs described. It may be the case that containing and deterring is the least-bad choice. However, that does not make it a low-risk or low-cost choice. In fact, it is about to be not a choice but a fact of life.“

In short: In the most important think tanks in the USA, including those of the neocons, people are already mentally preparing for the fact of a nuclear Iran and developing corresponding containment and deterrence strategies.

An important and central question here is whether one can proceed from the assumption that Iran is a rational actor. Frederick Kagan, for example, in his contribution suggests that it is possible that in Iran exists an apocalyptic faction that deliberately takes into account its own demise of the country and itself – which is why one could not deal with rational actors – ergo: deterrence and containment could not work. While Kagan still assumed that the Supreme Spiritual Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khameini would avoid a nuclear conflict, he sees in such people as Ahamdinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi an apocalyptic faction who would be willing to sacrifice their own lives even in a nuclear war, yes the entire nation, but that made Kagan an outsider and he deleted the internet link to his article in the meantime.

As evidence of Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic impulses, the quotation is often used, according to which he is said to have said in October 2005 that one should “erase Israel from the map”. However,  an intensive discussion started about the right and correct translation of his Persian sentence and some experts said that he was misunderstood.
According to them, Ahmadinejad spoke of „Israel disappearing from the pages of history“ and disintegrating, much like the Soviet Union or apartheid in South Africa. This quote might have expressed more of the strategy of Ahmadinejad and Iran than most People want to perceive. Iran does not want to wipe out Israel by nuclear weapons – it knows too well that it would itself be wiped out in the event of a second strike. Michael Wolfsohn talked about the real danger of the Iranian nuclear weapon for Israel in Günther Jauch’s talk show on April 15, 2012 on ARD  and claimed:

Once Iran has 1-3 atomic bombs, Israel can no longer attack them. The deterrent is then mutual. Not only would Iran not attack Israel with nuclear weapons, but Israel could no longer attack Iran with nuclear weapons. That would mean, however, that conventional wars below the nuclear threshold were conceivable again, especially if Egypt, Syria, Jordan come under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and Hezbollah which could be armed with larger weapons than their current New Year’s Eve blasters, the Qassam rockets. Israel could then be forced into a conventional arms race that this country could not cope with economically. Especially with attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah including a possible conventional threat of war by the neighboring states then ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel could slowly bleed to death and many Israelis would emigrate, which would then let the State of Israel slowly dissolve. This according to Wolfsohn seemed more the strategy that Iran intends than to sink Israel and itself in a nuclear inferno.

 The other contributions assumed that even Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi were rational actors who fear the extinction of their own life and apparatus of power, and indeed of the nation, and would therefore be suitable objects for nuclear deterrent strategies. In short: The common doctrine in the USA is that even Ahmadinejad would be a wimp if there was a danger of nuclear extinction. Reference is also made to the experience with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, although the nuclear potential there still needs to be deterred would have had a much larger dimension. And one should not forget that even Hitler didn´t use biological and chemical weapons during WW 2. However, Daniel Pipes as a Jew and Israel as a nation born out of the Holocaust and at the forefront of any conflict and war with a nuclear Iran won´t have the same attitude towards this topic as it’s a question of survival and bare existence who cannot afford any miscalculation but has to calculate with the worst case. Therefore Americans and Europeans might have a more relaxed attitude as distant couch potatoes. However, after Trump canceled the JCPOA, the Iran deal, the rise of a nuclear Iran might become an actual topic again. At the moment the USA and Israel put maximum pressure on Iran by sanctions and cyberwar and sabotage of its nuclear and military facilities as well as by the assassination of the chief of the Revolutionary Guards Hussein Solemeini. However, it is not yet clear how the USA can stop Iran from going nuclear.

Laidback Europeans and Americans could forget that not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but they also might become potential targets of a nuclear Iran if the medium- and long-range missile program progresses. Maybe under Biden, the JCPOA will be restarted, Iran would limit its nuclear program again and the Europeans, Russians and Chinese would be satisfied with it. But the core question remains if the USA and Europe will accept Iran´s expansion in the Shiite Crescent, its proxy wars, its sponsoring of terrorism and its missile program or include these issues in a new Iran deal. However the question then also will be if Iran would agree to these new conditions or reject it and wants to get official acceptance as a regional power. However, if Trump is reelected, there won´t be a new JCPOA, but even after Iran relaunched its nuclear program it will take some time until Iran could have nuclear weapons. Trump only has the option to intensify his maximum pressure strategy, to expand the sanctions, the cyberwar and the sabotage operations, to expand his anti-Iran US-Israel-Sunni Muslim axis beyond the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Kosovo and hope that Iran at a certain point will compromise to a new deal, or if this is not the case hope for a colored revolution in Iran or the military option will be on the table again. And as neither Trump nor Biden would engage in an Iraq war- like new intervention with boots on the ground, as both want to focus more on the Asian pivot and China and as already Obama started to disengage in the Greater Middle East, Israel has to rely more on its own IDF.

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