The usual venues are raising alarm about a newly released Department of Defense report on Iranian military power that states that Iran could probably develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. by 2015 “with sufficient foreign assistance.” While this is certainly worth paying attention to, there’s a significant aspect of the report that pro-war elements seem intent on ignoring.
The report states on the first page that, “Since the revolution, Iran’s first priority has consistently remained the survival of the regime“:
Iran also seeks to become the strongest and most influential country in the Middle East and to influence world affairs. The theocratic leadership’s ideological goal is to be able to export its theocratic form of government, its version of Shia Islam, and stand up for the “oppressed” according to their religious interpretations of the law. In recent years, Iran’s ideological goals have taken a back seat to pragmatic considerations.
To ensure regime survival, Iran’s security strategy is based first on deterring an attack. [...]
Iran’s military strategy is designed to defend against external or “hard” threats from the United States and Israel. Iran’s principles of military strategy include deterrence, asymmetrical retaliation, and attrition warfare. Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.
This is in keeping with the conclusion of 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf) that “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” How does all of this accord with claims by various conservative “experts” that Iran is controlled by irrational, suicidal mullahs who intend to use a nuclear weapon to destroy Israel/trigger the apocalypse/provoke the return of the Mahdi? Short answer: It doesn’t, and people who continue to make such claims should be vigorously mocked.
Remember that, after he was captured in 2003, Saddam Hussein told a U.S. interrogator that he had “allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction” in order to project strength and deter what he perceived as the most immediate threat against Iraq: Iran. Behavior that was intended primarily to preserve and defend his regime was interpreted by the U.S. and its allies — reasonably or not — as evidence of Saddam’s aggressive intent, and a pretext for hugely destructive and counterproductive preventive war.
This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be concerned with Iran’s actions, its ties to terrorist groups, or its nuclear program. Iran has proved to be far more skilled and effective than Saddam was at cultivating influence and creating strategic depth in the region. But hysterical nonsense about “messianic mullahs” only serves to obscure the real challenges posed to U.S. interests by Iran, and increases the likelihood of repeating past strategic blunders.