The most interesting point in the new National Intelligence Estimate, which reports that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, is not about what Iran did or did not do in developing nuclear weapons. It is about how Iran makes decisions about such things.
The U.S. intelligence community does not believe Iran is a madman.
"Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates 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," says the NIE. "This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige and goals for regional influence in other ways, might -- if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible -- prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program."
Whether American politicians accept or reject the assumption that Iran acts rationally will have tremendous consequences for the fate of the Middle East and for our security.
The case for believing that Iran is an irrational actor largely rests on the shoulders of its current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is because Ahmadinejad routinely says irrational things, especially when it comes to Israel.
In 2005, Ahmadinejad convened a conference called "The World Without Zionism." Here, he laid out an Apocalyptic vision in which Israel -- or the "Zionist regime," as he invariably calls it -- becomes the final battleground in a long struggle between Islam and the West.
"The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world," he said. "The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of the war of destiny. The outcomes of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land."
"Israel must be wiped off the map," Ahmadinejad said.
A Congressional Research Service report published in August referenced reports that contend "Ahmadinejad believes his mission is to prepare for the return of the 12th 'Hidden' Imam, whose return from occultation would, according to Twelver Shiite doctrine, be accompanied by the establishment of Islam as the global religion."
"I have a connection to God," Ahmadinejad said at a Tehran mosque last October. He added that President Bush "also receives inspiration -- but from Satan."