In 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in front of the United Nations General Assembly that Iran could not be trusted with nuclear weapons. ‘For the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement’, he stated. ‘Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons’. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech was based on the premise that Iran does not behave like a rational actor. Israel is not the only country to hold this view: Many countries in the international stage agree with the Prime Minister’s assessment of Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is widely regarded as a fanatical regime where policy is directed by ‘mad mullahs’ instead of rational policy makers. This reputation has certainly been fuelled by Iran’s inflammatory rhetoric. Iran’s statements likening Israel to a ‘cancerous tumour that should be cut and will be cut’ and the United States to a ‘Great Satan’, do little to mitigate the international community’s fears of an irrational Islamic state. However, recent events seem to indicate that Iran’s alarmist rhetoric may not necessarily reflect the country’s foreign policy.

According to private statements, Iranian officials have admitted to cooperating with the United States in the recent fight against ISIS. Iranian militias have made advances thanks to US airstrikes in Iraq, and hundreds of officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are embedded in the militias. Although both the United States and Iran are publicly refusing to cooperate with each other, this quiet collaboration indicates that the Iranian regime is prepared to cooperate with the ‘Great Satan’ when it suits its national interests.

According to American political scientist Kenneth Waltz Iranian policy is not made by ‘mad mullahs’ but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leader. Although rhetoric against Israel has been and remains bellicose, Iran has also refrained from any direct military actions against a nation that has massive nuclear capability. According to Dr. Mahdi Mohammad Nia Iran’s aggressive rhetoric is defined by the country’s history of intervention, manipulation and exploitation by foreign powers. A savage and satanic enemy is an inevitable and indispensable part of the political identity of the Islamic Republic, therefore aggressive rhetoric directed towards Israel and the United States legitimises and justifies the Islamic regime.

Iran’s abrasive discourse is also a consequence of the challenges the Iranian leaders face from their own domestic constituencies. More than half of the Iranian population is under 25, with no memory of the Islamic revolution. This generation has little or no commitment to the values and ideals of the ruling elite and is more interested in economic and social prosperity than vague ideological promises. Jack Caravelli, author of the book Beyond Sand and Oil: The Nuclear Middle East, argues that Iran’s aggressive rhetoric is used to distract Iranian citizens from their discontent with the regime, such as the outrage over the government’s bloody response to the June 2009 presidential elections and the crippled state of the economy. The government’s fear of popular resistance forces it to maintain an external threat to sustain domestic control. As a result, Iranian officials tend to demonise the United States and Israel.

This tactic of shifting anger from domestic problems to a constructed enemy is an old theme in the literature of international politics. Stalin’s Russia skilfully maintained domestic control in the midst of widespread poverty and political repression by keeping the country on a high state of alert. Stalin’s rhetoric was often aggressive towards the country’s supposed enemies, but this discourse never materialized in an irrational use of force, and despite threats to the contrary nuclear weapons were never used.

The United States and Israel have often claimed that cooperation with Iran is not possible, as Iran’s policy is not guided by rational values. Challenging this notion may bring about a new spirit of collaboration between the West and Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran may be a more rational actor than it seems. The United States and Israel should give this country a chance to demonstrate this.