Which Iran is Obama dealing with?

Events in recent days reveal two views of Iranian leaders: as either pragmatic to the pressure of sanctions or irrationally bent on terror and Israel's demise. So far, Obama is playing to Iranian rationality, reflected by the Iranian people.

REUTERS/IRIB Iranian TV
A poster of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is seen next to bank of centrifuges in what was described by Iranian state television Feb. 15 as a facility in Natanz.

Anyone willing to take sides on whether Israel should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months usually has an opinion on a deeper question:

How rational is Iran’s leadership, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

To many Israelis, Iran is bent on destroying Israel with a nuclear device no matter the consequences to its regime or its people. Under this Islamist-madmen scenario, Israel cannot afford to let Iran shield its nuclear enrichment in impenetrable tunnels, as soon may be the case.

The counterview is that Iran’s leaders are really more interested in their survival than in making a nuclear bomb. Iran’s ruling Muslim clerics respond to diplomatic carrots and sticks in a cost-benefit way of thinking. Economic sanctions will eventually work.

With both views in mind, it is instructive to look at Iran’s actions in recent days in hopes of discerning its degree of rationality.

As sanctions have really begun to bite, Iran’s foreign minister has asked to reopen talks with the five permanent members of the Security Council and the Germans about its nuclear program. And reports indicate that Iran has canceled or postponed naval exercises scheduled to take place by Feb. 19. Such a move may be in response to President Obama’s postponement of joint US-Israel military exercises last month.

And yet evidence is emerging that Iran was behind the failed terrorist bombings aimed at Israeli diplomats in Thailand, and possibly in India and the Republic of Georgia. These attacks could just be in response to what are considered overt Israeli killings of top Iranian nuclear scientists. But if so, they also show a bizarre and amateurish method of retaliation, hinting at a leadership not quite clear of its strategy.

Iran also just acted rather childishly by cutting off oil exports to Europe before Europe was to begin a ban on Iranian oil scheduled to go into effect July 1.

The leaders in Tehran, divided as they may be, could be flailing for a way out of their increasing isolation. They may soon lose their one Arab ally, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Mr. Obama has just approved sanctions on any financial institution that buys Iranian oil – the most serious sanction so far and one that would further cripple the Iranian economy.

The Obama administration, unlike many top Israeli officials, remains in the camp of those who treat Iranian leaders as cold-minded and pragmatic.

“We judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, at a recent Senate hearing. “Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.”

And CIA Director David Petraeus added that Iran’s overriding goal is “regime survival.”

The fact that thousands of Iranians took to the streets in quiet protest on Tuesday – the first in a year, despite a severe police presence and disruption of Internet communication – indicates just how unpopular the leadership is at home.

The rational nature of the Iranian people, especially in their demands for democracy, may have a strong influence on an Islamic regime that could be deluded in thinking that its brand of Islam calls it to invite national martyrdom by destroying Israel.

Tougher sanctions are based on a calculated risk that Iran’s leaders are rational calculators: “What we have to see now is how [the sanctions] play out, what is the level of popular discontent inside Iran – does that influence the strategic decisionmaking of the supreme leader and the regime?” Mr. Patraeus said.

Obama had hopes in 2009 of opening a dialogue with Mr. Khamenei. He was rebuffed. Depending on Iran’s degree of rational thinking, those hopes might still have a chance.

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