Are Iran’s Leaders, Well…Crazy?
Image Credit: Office of the President of Iran

Are Iran’s Leaders, Well…Crazy?


The most vocal supporters of preventative military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons program claim that Iran is developing nukes to use them, rather than to deter the United States and its allies from invasion. This inversion of the Cold War theory of nuclear deterrence assumes that Iran doesn’t have the capacity for rational choice. After all, as the argument goes, if the Iranians are crazy, then the certainty of national suicide won’t stop them from seizing the opportunity to unleash their new nuclear weapons on Israel. A state that believes the end of the world is coming (never mind thinking it has the special responsibility to usher in Armageddon) can’t be considered likely to weigh costs and benefits in any rational, self-preserving way.

How do these assumptions about Iranian decision-making square with what we actually know about the regime?While, it’s true that the anticipation of deliverance and the return of the “Hidden Imam” features prominently in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches, we also should consider other explanations before accepting his political rhetoric at face value.

Since the contested elections of 2009, Ahmadinejad operates within a volatile domestic political space where statements are often designed more for internal power struggles than external audiences. His penchant for millenarian propaganda should rather be seen as a challenge to the authority of the clergy through the manipulation of Shia end time ideology that also conveniently rattles external adversaries. As anxious as the West and Israel may be, most domestic Iranian observers see Ahmadinejad’s cries of “the end is near” as part his challenge to the Iranian political hierarchy, and just one aspect of his seemingly failed campaign to marginalize powerful clerical rivals by undermining the velayat-e faqih (the rule of the jurist consult).

So, would Iran continue to escalate a potential crisis or would calmer heads prevail? It’s evident that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the entire security establishment define foreign policy objectives in conservative rather than revolutionary terms. A nuclear-armed Iran would project its power and continue to act as the anti-status quo power in the region, but is unlikely to seek war.

Many would argue that Iran’s last war of aggression was against Afghanistan in 1856, and by all accounts the national trauma of the Iran-Iraq War casts a pall over discussions of overt military conflict. Even the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate credited the Iranian government’s nuclear decisions as being guided by a rational “cost-benefit approach” rather than adventurism, imperial scheming or ideologically-driven suicide.

While there’s little reason to believe Iran would choose self-annihilation through offensive use of a nuclear weapon, the issue of command and control presents several troubling questions. Who would have the authority to order the use of Iranian nuclear weapons? How could the Iranian regime assure even itself that accidental or unauthorized use wouldn’t be possible?

As the commander in chief, nuclear policy would ostensibly fall under the authority of the Supreme Leader’s Office, though the practical details of managing nuclear weapons would likely fall to the top brass of the Revolutionary Guard. Yet, even though they seem to represent the backbone of regime stability, the Revolutionary Guard is hardly a homogeneous group, ranging from Ahmadinejad cronies to loyalists of the Supreme Leader. The armed forces as a whole have been subject to defection, abduction and assassinations by foreign intelligence, so who could be trusted with nuclear launch authority?

Furthermore, Iran reportedly doesn’t even have a systematic security clearance program for its military personnel. Revolutionary pedigree and contacts to the right spheres of power are no longer sufficient to remain at the top, so existing power struggles and cabals amongst the country’s maze of power centers and factions would only be exacerbated once nuclear weapons entered the mix.

This begs the practical question of how the Iranian regime could assure even itself that accidental or unauthorized use wouldn’t be possible. After all, it took the United States decades to achieve any real degree of the complex technical and organizational requirements that help ensure meaningful nuclear safety.

In addition to complex organizational procedures intended to assure proper chain of command for launch authorization, current U.S. nukes are secured through sophisticated encrypted arming systems that prevent unauthorized or accidental detonation, as well as high-tech tamper-proof casings to prevent the theft of the “physics package” inside a warhead. Yet according to one former U.S. Minuteman missile launch officer, until 1977 the U.S. Air Force so feared that launch codes would fail to reach missile silos in the event of nuclear war, it built in a default code of “OOOOOOOO”, even going as far as to list the code in the launch checklist. Far from an isolated incident, such glaring flaws in authorization systems, as well as potentially catastrophic nuclear accidents, were regular features of the Cold War.

January 30, 2013 at 11:07

This short response carries more value that the entire article: the comment of a political scientist on the views of a propagandist. 

December 30, 2011 at 02:46

the goal of Ahmadinejad and how he has managed the nuclear issue in Iran is completely different from the path that other authorities maybe even supreme leader had chosen. I don’t know whether there had been some time that they wanted nuclear weapon or not but I can remember that under the presidancy of Iran’s former president Iran accepted to suspend all of its nuclear activities even research ones. After Ahmadinejad gained the power he made this issue as a national proud and right for Iranians. he went to every province, city, even village in Iran and if you see the videos of that time you will find out all the people’s slogans are “nuclear energy is our absolute right”. so he brought the people in the scene to decide about this issue instead of some authorities at the head of the regime. in this way he achieved two goals, first made Iran so powerful by standing against all international superpowers and as a nuclear power. moreover, since the majoruty of people always support him in this issue, they have tolerate all of the pressures caused by this stance and this issue has increased his popularity among the people as a strong leader. but other important issue is that in this way he could limit the power of other authorities maybe even supreme leader because they couldn’t stand against the demand of people. I don’t believe that Ahmadinejad really wanted nuclear weapon maybe like some authorities in Iran, but he just wanted to make Iran powerful in the world and just by using the power of people.

December 29, 2011 at 23:25

To Michael – you don’t have to be crazy to be a madman. Hitler was very rational when he rose to power, won German elections and ran Germany. He just happened to believe an ideology that the Arian race is supreme to all other human races, that it should rule the world and that every Jew on the planet should be killed. The Nazis were very systematic , methodic and logical when they built camps, gas chambers, trains and rails all over Europe to achieve this goal.

To Erik Red – you Contradict yourself – on the one hand you say Israelis don’t really think Iran would use it’s atomic weapons against Israel, but on the other hand you say 50% of Israelis would leave Israel if Iran got the nukes – why then would they leave if they don’t think those weapons will be used?

I’ll tell you both why – because Israelis learnt the lesson of the holocaust – when another county talks day and night about destroying your own county, and in addition pursues the technological means to do so, it would be crazy NOT to take this seriously.

Leonard R.
December 29, 2011 at 22:19

North Korea is crazy. Iran? Not so much.

Ahmadinejad is portrayed as a madman. But in fact, he’s out-ranked by Khameini & the mullahs. Ahmadinejad would not be playing these games if Khameini did not approve.

December 29, 2011 at 17:22

That is the most pathetic and uninformed comment by a supposedly more astute and knowlegeable person.

December 29, 2011 at 14:53

“How do you know I’m mad?”, said Alice. “You must be”, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here”.

What is particularly interesting, in all this Mad Hatter affair, is how the media is openly reporting to Ahmadinejad that Israel (likely) has assassins and sabateurs at work in Iran. There is, I suspect, a growing anger in the middle east to the way in which we are openly using Pakistani air space (with and without permission) and Israel is (according to some media) sabotaging construction in Iran. All that is missing is a leader to stir up pan-Arab sentiment and the remnants of the Arab Spring will vanish like a flower in the desert.

As such, the more interesting question is what kind of warfare is Iran engaged in. I don’t think, given what they see as provocation, there can be any doubt that they believe they are at war. Given the fact they believe they are at war, I believe they are hoping for an act of blatant aggression. What is surprising, is how cautious they appear to be, and caution is rarely a characteristic of the truly made.

December 29, 2011 at 11:27

I believe those who believe iran’s leader are crazy are at best naive. this is a dumb argument put forward by isreal and its agents in US to create friction or if they can an outright war. It would be better for US to understand iranian will to progress in nuclear technology. reality is that threat and insult has no effect. iranian may not like their leaders but all are agree of not letting any foriegn power decide for them what they are allowed to do. bottom line is iran is strong enough and determind enough to go forward. so a smart diplomacy that involves recognition of her right would be the best approach.

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
December 29, 2011 at 04:42

Iran nuclear ambition should be stop because if they will have there nuclear capability then they will proceed to nuclear arsenal in couple of years and that will be dangerous to humanity, Iran president were openly wanted to erased Israel in t he face of the earth and that will lead to catastrophic situation initiated by the crazy evil wishful thinking of Iran president.
Iran should be stop by any means in order to have a World Peace for future generation of peace loving human being. .

Michael M
December 29, 2011 at 04:39

You can tell the difference between a “madman” and an actual madman through shrewd examination and broad analysis of the entire Iranian political spectrum, the very system which governs the decision making process, and a system which creates parameters for the polity in both competition and alliances. You do not rise to power in Iran by insanity. Hardly, achieving any position of note in Iran reflects significant cunning, intellect, and Machiavellian qualities that (for better or for worse) define a rational and pragmatic mindset. Whether you are a leader in a conservative faction, reformist, or reside in a traditional wing of power, therein lies the minimum among of “rational” necessary to synthesize the ramifications of possible escalation within any conflict – including nuclear.

For another take check out:

erik red
December 29, 2011 at 03:44

Israel is not worried about Iran having unsecured nukes as much as losing its nuclear hegemony over the Middle East and the unspoken regional power such hegemony provides Israel.

Israel Defense Minister Barak recently stated that Iranian leaders would not act irrationally regarding nuclear weapons and he ‘understood’ why Iran wanted to have a nuclear capability.

In addition Israeli right wing leaders have also caused a big internal problem if Iran develops nuclear weapons. Because of Israeli right wing Iran fear mongering, recent polling shows that 50% of Israelis would emigrate from Israel if Iran develops nuclear weapons.

These are the reasons Israeli leaders fear a nuclear Iran and not because they really consider Iran an existential threat.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief