Although a great deal has been written about the United States' policy toward Iran, hardly anything comprehensive has been produced about Iran's policy toward the United States. Given Washington's concerns that the United States faces "no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," as the 2006 National Security Strategy put it, this lack of serious attention is astonishing. What does exist is sensationalistic coverage about Iran's nuclear ambitions and about mad mullahs driven by apocalyptic delusions and a martyr complex. That picture suggests that Iran's policy consists of a series of random hit-and-run assaults on U.S. interests and that its leaders, being irrational and undeterrable, must be eliminated by force.
In fact, Tehran's foreign policy has its own strategic logic. Formulated not by mad mullahs but by calculating ayatollahs, it is based on Iran's ambitions and Tehran's perception of what threatens them. Tehran's top priority is the survival of the Islamic Republic as it exists now. Tehran views the United States as an existential threat and to counter it has devised a strategy that rests on both deterrence and competition in the Middle East.
To deter any possible military actions by the United States and its allies, Iran is improving its retaliatory capabilities by developing the means to pursue asymmetric, low-intensity warfare, both inside and outside the country; modernizing its weapons; building indigenous missile and antimissile systems; and developing a nuclear program while cultivating doubts about its exact capability. And to neutralize the United States' attempts to contain it, the Iranian government is both undermining U.S. interests and increasing its own power in the vast region that stretches from the Levant and the Persian Gulf to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Although it is being careful to avoid a military confrontation with the United States, Tehran is maneuvering to prevent Washington from leading a united front against it and strategically using Iran's oil and gas resources to reward its friends.