Bookkeepers, Mad Mullahs, and the Sources of Iranian Conduct

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by Paul R. Pillar

The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran so far shows no sign of inducing any desirable change in Iranian policy. Several reasons underlie this failure.  The administration has given the Iranian regime no realistic proposition to which it could say “yes” even if it were so inclined, instead issuing a list of broad and unrealistic demands that would amount to Iran rolling over and playing dead. The sanctions the administration has imposed—unlike those that preceded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral nuclear agreement on which the administration has unilaterally reneged—lack international support, and they hurt the Iranian people more than they hurt regime hardliners. The reneging on the JCPOA has greatly discredited the Trump administration in Iranian eyes as a potential negotiating partner.

With each passing week of maximum pressure having minimum results, the folly of abandoning the JCPOA becomes harder to deny. If the administration’s efforts to bludgeon European business into ostracizing Iran were to succeed to the point of Tehran deciding that its own continued adherence to the JCPOA was no longer worthwhile, then Iranian production of fissile material would once again be unrestrained. This would mean a new nuclear crisis courtesy of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the administration’s obsession over stoking conflict with Iran is the single biggest cause of severe damage to relations between the United States and its allies. It is one of the two biggest causes (along with the administration’s subjugation to the Israeli government on other issues) of the United States becoming more globally isolated than it had been in decades.

Despite the failure to induce policy change by Iran, committed opponents of the JCPOA have always had another line of argument, which is based not on inducing the targeted regime to change policy but rather on impeding it from executing what is presumed to be its policy. The latter approach can be a legitimate objective of certain types of sanctions. A country whose unconventional weapons programs are of concern, for example, may become subject to trade restrictions designed to keep out of its hands materials and technologies that it otherwise could use to develop the feared weapons. Applied to Iran today, the specific argument is that the JCPOA is bad because it gave Iran resources that it uses to finance the “malign, nefarious, destabilizing behavior” that critics of Iran keep talking about. At a conference last week sponsored by the American Conservative, former Trump NSC official Michael Anton and Weekly Standard editor Kelly Jane Torrance voiced exactly that argument.

The argument always has had major problems, going back to when it was used as ammunition to try to shoot down the JCPOA even before the agreement was completed.  Contrary to the usual phrasing of the argument, Iran wasn’t “given” anything through the JCPOA. The partial sanctions relief the agreement provided involved unfreezing some assets that belonged to Iran all along and the partial removal of impediments to normal commerce with Iran. Moreover, the economic benefit to Iran of even this partial relief has routinely been overstated.

Probably the biggest set of problems involves how the whole notion of malign, nefarious, destabilizing behavior gets flung around as a catchphrase divorced from any specific facts or analysis. Sorely lacking is examination of why Iran does what it does, how what it does is or is not different from what other states in the region do, and what difference any of this does or does not make for U.S. interests. These deficiencies have applied to rhetoric about Iran’s policies toward the rest of the region and to the subject of terrorism. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi—demonstrating that today Saudi Arabia, not Iran, engages in the nefarious practice of extraterritorial assassination of nonviolent dissidents—stimulated some modest attention to these sorts of questions, but evidently not from the Trump administration.

Implied Iranian Decision-Making

Set all that aside for a moment, however, and consider what the argument at hand—that the JCPOA led Iran to do more bad things in the region because Iran had more resources to pay for them—implies about how Iranian policymakers supposedly think. Those policymakers have long been portrayed with alarm as mad mullahs. That is why Iran was deemed unworthy of being trusted with nuclear weapons in a way that India, Israel, and Pakistan seem to be trusted. It is a portrayal that was propounded most loudly by many of the same people who became the loudest opponents of the JCPOA. But the notion of more bad regional behavior resulting from more financial resources implies that Iran is a nation of bookkeepers, who carefully check how many rials they have in their bank account before deciding how much mayhem to indulge in.

More precisely, the implied picture of Iranian decision-making is a weird and implausible combination of mad mullahs and bookkeepers. The picture is one of decision-makers who are both careful about checking the balance in that bank account and intent on draining the account for nefarious behavior abroad to the exclusion of other needs and priorities. The picture suggests periodic phone calls in Tehran in which the head of the Revolutionary Guard asks the finance minister, “How much money do we have for nefarious behavior this month?”

One problem with this picture is that other needs and priorities do matter, and matter a lot—not only to an elected president such as Hassan Rouhani but also to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Iran has real politics, and, just as in the United States, domestic economic vulnerabilities imply political vulnerabilities that politicians try to avoid.

Another problem is that some of what Iran does in the region that gets big play from American hardliners is too inexpensive for resources to be much of a consideration at all. The outstanding example is Iranian aid to the Houthis in Yemen, which is minor and almost trivial compared to the far larger Saudi-led war effort. Yemen is not one of the more important places for Iran, but giving a little help to the Houthis is a cheap way for the Iranians to enjoy the satisfaction of watching Mohammed bin Salman stew in the quagmire he has made for himself.

Security Matters More Than Money

The main problem with the implied picture of Iranian decision-making is that even with more expensive Iranian endeavors, political and especially security issues that are important in Iranian eyes are what govern Tehran’s decisions, not the number of rials in the national bank account. Iran demonstrated this during the extremely costly Iran-Iraq War, when it decided to continue the war even after Saddam Hussein was ready to sue for peace. Today, as Iraqi analyst Abbas Kadhim observed in a different panel at the American Conservative conference, Iraq is extremely important to Iran, which shares not only the bloody history of the war but a 900-mile border. Iran will pursue, no matter what the cost, its objective of having significant influence in Iraq and a regime in Baghdad that has cordial relations with Tehran. Something similar could be said about Iran’s major investment in Syria, which is the one longstanding ally that Iran has had in the Arab world.

If the anti-JCPOA argument about resources and nefarious behavior were valid, then the history of the Islamic Republic would show a strong correlation between the resources and the behavior, with Iran being better behaved (in Western eyes) during times in which sanctions have cut into the available resources. The International Crisis Group recently published a study examining exactly this question. The finding: no such correlation.

That reality will not keep anti-JCPOA hardliners, including the Trump administration, from trotting out the same old arguments. The more time that passes without a positive outcome from the resulting policy, the more indefensible those arguments will be.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. The Ayatollahs’ 39 year sanctions have crippled Iran and made it a pariah state. They are the source of the problem.

  2. Ayatollahs are no democracy bargain, certainly. But remember Savak? Remember how many dissidents were disposed of at Ervin.
    Was the Shah ever elected? But since what he did was for us and the Ayatollahs are against us, we condone one and condemn the other.

  3. Paul Pillar writes: ‘Iran was deemed unworthy of being trusted with nuclear weapons’. First time I have seen that assertion. In my understanding, the action to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, leading to JCPOA, was for two purposes: to forestall nuclear proliferation by multiple countries in the region (with the potential resulting demise of the NPT regime); and to support Israel’s policy that there shall be only one possessor of nuclear weapons in the region.
    Paul Pillar counters the anti-Iran claim that ‘JCPOA is bad because it gave Iran resources’ — fine and dandy. But the attacks on JCPOA are a smokescreen to cover the serious effort underway to destabilize Iran, using every means available.

  4. Thanks Dr Pillar.
    @JL, you’re correct and I agree with your second reason. No one in the ME should or could be armed with the nuke Arsenal to even thinking of standing up to Israel. Of course the trio (Trump, Pompeo and Bolton) loves to build nuclear power plants in SA which would be the beginning of arming SA with nuke arsenal! Paul Pillar has either misjudged or misguided about Iranian intentions.
    Actually the US and other European countries like Germany were responsible for Iran to proceed with building of its nuclear power plants and perhaps nuclear arsenal because of their support to Saddam Hossein and supplying him with the chemical Arsenal which desperate Saddam eventually used them against Iran and his own people. Additionally the US false intelligence about Saddam’s intention of going ahead with building WMD further encouraged Iran to defend itself against Saddam.
    In regards to the current US policy of extreme pressure or threats towards Iranians to either die of hunger or change your regime and then its support for a few criminal regimes to act against Iran the US has chosen to be on the wrong side of history again! Not sure about having criminals as friends serve the interests of this country in the ME. Time will tell!

  5. MA, Thank you,
    You didn’t mention that Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program, discovered after the first Gulf war, was a likely stimulus for Iran to start its secret nuclear weapons program. After it was clear that Iraq was out of the nuclear weapons business, Iran ‘s leadership decided in 2003 to stop its program, hoping for a deal with the E3 (France, Germany and UK). Resistance from Washington unfortunately stopped that initiative.

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