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The Iranian regime is not easy to understand. There is a gap between its rhetoric and its actions; between its sense of grievance and its inflammatory behavior; and between its ideological and national interests. Nor are its actions consistent. However, it remains hostile to the United States and its allies and unreconciled to the current international order. It has not renounced its revolutionary aims and it continues to support international terrorism. Its ideology remains a potent motive force, and it seeks to exploit weakness where it canClocally in the Persian Gulf, regionally in the wider Middle East, as well as farther afield.1


Iran occupies a critical strategic location, with access to the Strait of Hormuz through which the majority of the world's oil supplies transit; its position acts a bridge between East and West; and it possesses significant resources, both human and natural. Iran's pursuit of its national interests, especially its historical role as a claimant to regional hegemony, ensure that Iran and the United States will occasionally find themselves in conflict. The current Iranian regime, however, has characteristics that exacerbate and underscore differences with the West and that make deterrence far more difficult than with an Iran, even an Islamic state of Iran, that did not pursue the current revolutionary objectives.


Risk tolerance is probably the single most important factor to consider for assessing the ease or difficulty of deterring a particular state. While a state's leadership may have hostile objectives, as well as NBC capability and the centralized decision structure necessary to use NBC weapons, it is less likely to strike first and risk defeat if it is risk averse. The same characteristics within a state with high risk tolerance would more likely result in that state using NBC.

What then, is the chief determinant of high risk tolerance? The answer seems to lie in what Eric Hoffer calls inclination for "unified action and self-sacrifice" in the creation of a mass movement:  

Such diverse phenomena as a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible, and many others which crowd the minds of the intensely frustrated are, as we shall see, unifying agents and prompters of recklessness.2

This intense frustration and deprecation of the present are associated with "true believers" whose primary attributes are zealousness and willingness to die for a cause. The willingness to die for a cause is directly proportionate to the risk tolerance of a state. Thus deterrence strategies are likely to be less effective-particularly those that emphasize retaliation-against risk tolerant states.

Iran is a religious state whose political leadership is guided by religious leaders who emphasize the most violent aspects of its religious tradition. As discussed in chapter 5, The Iranian Shi'ite interpretations of Islam appear to enable a declaration of religious war, or jihad. The religious fervor of the leadership and the majority of the population raises the specter of "true believers" who would die for the cause and gain paradise. The political, religious, and military leadership has fostered a cult of martyrdom and death that could be used to strengthen its ability to conduct war and to accept casualties. While it appears that there is a growing gap between the population and the leadership, and while their emphasis on martyrdom may not succeed, Iran's leadership may be prepared to take risks and to accept casualties at levels other modern states would deem unacceptable.

The leadership's commitment to its religious and revolutionary ideology and its risk tolerance indicate that Iran is a state that more closely resembles the early Bolshevik state than the tired Soviet Union the United States deterred and ultimately defeated in the Cold War. Like the early Bolshevik state, Iran has defined its objectives as inimical to the United States, defining the United States as "the Great Satan" and the primary impediment to attainment of global Islamic revolution, which will, of course, be led by Iran.

Like the Bolsheviks, Iran has a self-appointed revolutionary vanguard, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC sees the Islamic revolution as critical and its own role as critical to the success of the revolution. It seeks not only to take Iran into a leadership or hegemonic role in a region deemed to be critical to U.S. interests, but also to diminish the U.S. role regionally and perhaps globally as an end in and of itself. The Revolutionary Guard has the lead within Iran for the production and employment of weapons of mass destruction and sees itself as on the leading edge of the battle between Iran and the Great Satan.

Iran is a state that seems to many Westerners to be irrational or, at best, unpredictable, but Iran also exemplifies the national security challenges facing the United States as it moves from the better understood Cold War world.


Five political entities control post-revolutionary Iran: the Supreme Islamic Jurisprudent or velayat-e-faqih; the Council of Guardians, a group of high level clerics which select the faqih; the President; the legislature or Majles; and the Supreme Defense Council. The most powerful is the Supreme Islamic Jurisprudent. "The position of faqih, as originally conceived, was to be held by a cleric who was a religious source of emulation (marja taqlid) eminently qualified as an Islamic jurist, and efficient administrator, and who enjoyed the confidence of the majority of the people."3

The first faqih was, of course, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution, published in spring 1980, granted the faqih

sweeping powers to appoint other high ranking officials; approve Presidential candidates and dismiss incompetent incumbents; serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (regular and Guard); appoint and dismiss regular and Guard commanders; and organize the Supreme Defense Council, Iran's highest military decision making body. It was intended that this melding of supreme religious and political authority would ensure Islamization of the government and society.4

The Faqih also declares war and peace.5 Because he does not carry the same weight in either religious circles or the population, the role is weaker under ayatollah 'Ali Hoseyni Khamene'i, the present faqih, but remains substantial.

The Faqih is selected by the "Council of Guardians," who have "risen to prominence within the domain of the clergy."6 By virtue of their control over the selection of the Faqih, the clergy exercise control over the leadership of Iran.

Iran no longer has a Prime Minister; a President acts as the chief executive. On May 23, 1997, the Islamic Republic of Iran elected its fifth President since the Islamic revolution, Mohamed Khatami, a cleric considered to be more moderate, at least on social issues, than his chief opponents for the post. Whether his objectives include changing Iranian policy from the support of terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and open hostility toward the Middle East peace process and the United States remain to be seen. His ability to effect such changes, furthermore, is also an open question. The previous Iranian President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, held the post since 1989, the entire post-Revolutionary period. Rafsanjani was also considered by most analysts to be a "moderate" by Iranian standards, but it was during Rafsanjani's "moderate" tenure that the Iranian policies so objectionable to the United States were developed and implemented. Rafsanjani is expected to continue to play a significant role in Iranian politics and government.

The Iranian Parliament, or Majles, is involved principally in the budgetary process, as well as in reviewing appointments and military and economic policies.7 Most assessments of the 1996 Majles elections indicated that Rafsanjani supporters, who are more pragmatic and technocratic, were in the majority, but others have a different assessment: "It is now clear that conservative ideologues . . . are the dominant force in the Iranian Majles."8

The role of religion in decisionmaking in Iran is significant. While geographic and national issues certainly carry weight in decisions, the impact of Shi'ism (to be discussed later) is significant and has consequences for deterrence. One analyst highlighted the role of religion in determination of foreign policy: 

The Islamic religion is a vital element in traditional Iranian culture, but in addition, Islam is the embodiment of the alternative to Western culture in every sphere of life. By focusing on Islam as the center of the conflict with Westernism, Iranians can see the conflict not as a matter of narrow national pride but as a clash of civilizations, each of which claims to be universal. Furthermore, emphasizing Islam allows Iranians to represent themselves as the center of human civilization through the claim that they uphold true IslamCa claim that marries Shiite prejudices, Iranian pride, and revolutionary conviction.9

The highest Iranian military decisionmaking body is the Supreme Defense Council, which presides over both the regular military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. More than strictly a military body, in many ways, the Guard sees itself as the vanguard and ultimate defender of the Islamic revolution, not just in Iran, but in the wider Iranian perceived battle between Islam and the West.


The "Iranian personality" has roots in historical events surrounding the origins of modern Iran and, more significantly, the Persian state and Shi'ism. There are many interesting facets to this personality, but analysis here focuses on those that may make Iran more difficult to deter and more likely to use NBC weapons.

Scholars familiar with Iran, including Iranians, note (although seldom in writing) that the fixation on historical and religious conspiracy is pervasive in Iranian culture. This appears to have led to a premium placed on deception and dissimulation that continues in the present: "Exaggeration is a common trait in all politicians, but the leaders of some countries engage in it more than others. The Islamic leaders in Iran certainly fall into this category."10

From a deterrence perspective, the consequence of this valuation of deception or "exaggeration" is twofold. First, little credence may be placed on Iranian statements that are not independently confirmable, so it will be important to assess skeptically any self-serving Iranian statements. Second, because the Iranian leadership routinely engages in exaggeration and outright dishonesty, they can reasonably be expected to dismiss Western statements as lies as well. Clear communication, a critical element of effective deterrence, promises to be difficult at best.


Shi'ites hold that the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law Ali should have inherited the status of Caliph and Imam, or religious leader. The Shi'ites further believe that no one can rightfully take the title of Imam unless they are the descendants of Ali and Fatima (Mohammed's daughter) and that inheritance of Islamic authority is narrowly proscribed.11 That Shi'ites have always been in the minority of the Muslim population yields a personality characteristic that is distinctly Shi'ite: 

Shi'ism was born as a minoritarian and esoteric movement with . . . an attitude of mind which refuses to admit that majority opinion is necessarily right. The history of Shi'ism is replete with episodes in which a minuscule minority opposed a large majority. Thus, despite the consensus among the majority of the Prophet's companions to select Abu Bakr the caliph, a handful favored the succession of Ali. And, Hossain defied all odds and confronted Yazid's intimidating army in Karbala with only seventy-two confidants [all or most of whom were killed]. In these cases, the Shi'ites insist, Imams Ali and Hossein were right because their message was divine.12

From the massacre at Karbala to this day, Iranian Shi'ites have a sense of martyrdom and persecution and believe this divides them from Sunni Moslems and from the West: 

The doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are of minor importance, far less than those that divide the rival churches of Christendom. But the Shiite sense of martyrdom and persecution, reinforced by their long experience through the centuries as a minority group under rulers whom they regarded as usurpers, raised a psychological barrier between them and the Sunni state and majority, a difference of experience and outlook, and therefore also of religious and political attitudes and behavior.13

The association in Iranian Shi'ism between the underdog and the divine complicates deterrence. Indeed, Shi'ite tradition attributes strength and primacy to "the righteous minority." For example, opposition by the West, by the United Nations or any other majority collection of international states opposed to Iranian actions would be more likely to lead Iranian leaders to conclude that they were in the right than that they should reconsider a course of action.

These Shi'ite tendencies are elevated exponentially in the political, religious, and military leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran, although it may be modified among those segments of the population that are not as zealous. For the current leadership, however, these traditions have served their own purposes. Since Iran defines itself as the rightful leader of the Islamic world, opposition or resistance to its "leadership" may reinforce its hostile inclinations and its active efforts to export revolution or simply to engage in expansionism. Unfortunately, this also reinforces the value assigned to national martyrdom by the leadership.


Particularly disruptive to the traditional deterrence perspective is the emphasis in Iranian Shi'ism, particularly under the current regime, placed on the sacred consequences of martyrdom. One study compared older school children's textbooks under the Shah to the newer ones under the Islamic Republic, and found death and martyrdom to be a predominant theme of the Republic's political culture: 

The clergy, aware of the numbing effects of death, and the fear and fascination evinced by martyrdom, uses this psychological game quite effectively. In this context, death becomes the rule, while life, as stated frequently by the clergy, is just a transitory stage, meant for purification of the soul. A new phenomenon which may be called the "politics of the corpse" is another aspect of the obsession of the draconian Islamic state with death. Not only does the clergy adore cemeteries and treat them as national parks, it also overtly utilizes corpses for its political purposes.14

The same study notes that violence and martyrdom are identified by the state as the "path taken by the chosen people of Allah to bring down the unjust world."15 Death alone, however, does not by itself connote martyrdom. Martyrdom requires that death be in service to defending "the cause" or "the faith" against the unbeliever. The cause, of course, includes the Iranian revolution and its goals as defined by the mullahs or Revolutionary Guard. In this context, if persuaded that death brings martyrdom, then death is axiomatically preferable to life. Ayatollah Motahari, cited as a leading theoretician of the Islamic movement, defines the philosophy of martyrdom as follows: 

There is a concept in Islam enjoying a special sacredness. If someone is familiar with Islamic concepts . . . he can sense that a halo of light has engulfed this word, . . that of . . . [martyr] . . . From Islam's point of view, whoever achieves the status of [martyr] . . . achieves one of the highest statuses and ranks that a human might reach in his ascending trajectory.16

The Islamic culture promotes an ascetic philosophy of life centered on the high worth of sacrifices and sufferings; stoicism, fasting, self-flagellation, and the cult of martyrdom are manifestations of this viewpoint that has penetrated many aspects of everyday life.

An example of this approach may be found in the "Tazyieh" practiced in Iran during the "Ashura:" 

Tazyieh is the enactment of the martyrdom of the third Imam of the Shias, Imam Hussein and that of his 72 followers and the life of his haram during the days following the Ashura, the tenth day of the Muslim month of Moharram . . . this was the day Imam Hussein and his closest followers, the men who remained faithful to him knowing they would die, were martyred by the army of the usurper Yazid for their refusal to acknowledge an unworthy man as the caliph of the Muslim community. Every lunar year, from the first to the thirteenth of Mohram and on the 10th of Safar, the 40th day after Hussein's death, Shias worldwide, mourn his and his followers' martyrdom. Tazyieh is a part of the mourning. The "actors" who are common people (bakers, grocers, laborers and so on) replay the heartbreaking events. 17

More than a historical reminder, however, this event is staged to enhance the cult of martyrdom: 

Tazyieh is not just a play, however, and is not intended to amuse either . . . it also attempts to awaken in the people, the shia notion of martyrdom and prepare them to die, if necessary, for God and justice.18

The import of this cult of martyrdom and death for deterrence are clear: threats of personal or societal death may not carry the same impact for the Islamic leadership that the threat conveys in Western cultures.19 This is not to say that the entire Iranian population embraces martyrdom; rather, it is to highlight that the leadership and those that control the use of Iran's NBC forces might risk large-scale casualties in pursuit of a goal they believe is worthy.

Equally disturbing is that even the execution of punitive retaliatory threats, attacks that kill civilians and military alike, could be perceived as strategically beneficial to the Islamic state, rather than as a defeat-the exact opposite of what would be expected from the Western perspective. This is because such an attack would lead to martyrdom of the dead; possible elimination of internal factions and opposition; and, justification for actions the employers of NBC want to take anyway. It would not necessarily end the revolution or kill those who made the decision to employ NBC or those who would use NBC in follow-on attacks. The political situation for the Iranian survivors, especially those who make NBC employment decisions and who know when to seek secure cover, could well be enhanced.

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