To be sure, many of our finest Iran-watchers, including the great Bernard Lewis, believe that any future Iranian government, even a democratic one, is likely to continue the nuclear program.... But even if it is true, a democratic Iran will not be inclined to commit hara-kiri by launching a nuclear first strike against Israel, nor will it likely brandish its bombs against the United States.
Okay, but why would a non-democratic Iranian ruling class want to "commit hara-kiri" either? If you and your friends and family enjoyed the good fortune of owning a fairly big country like Iran and were looking forward to passing it on to your heirs unto the seventh generation, why would you turn your property into a radioactive crater by "launching a nuclear first strike against Israel," which is a Certified Tough Customer?
Gregory Cochran brings up another relevant question. When was the last time Iran started a war?
This can't be right (can it?), but the last time I can find for a truly aggressive Iran was the first half of the 18th Century, under the reign of Nadir Shah (1688-1747), who attacked everybody nearby, including Turkey, Oman, and Afghanistan. In 1739, he invaded India, sacked Delhi, and brought home Shah Jehan's Peacock Throne (whose gold and jewels were worth about $1 billion at today's commodity prices) and the Koh-i-Noor diamond (now a 186 carat gem in the Tower of London).
Stalin, who grew up on the periphery of Persia and was a close student of its history considered Nadir Shah one of his two main historical role models, along with Ivan the Terrible. The Encyclopedia Britannica sums Nadir Shaw up:
In the end he was assassinated by his own troops while attempting to crush an uprising in Khorasan. Nadir Shah's only interests were war and conquest. Once, when informed that there was no warfare in paradise, he remarked: “How then can there be any delights there?”
So, maybe if we read of the Iranians digging up Nadir Shah's body and cloning his DNA, we'd better start actively worrying about them eventually "launching a nuclear first strike."
More recent Iran-started wars than the 1740s: Yesterday, I asked if the last wars started by Iran could possibly be the invasions of neighbors by Nadir Shah in the 1740s, when he looted the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India. Today, a reader points to the wars of Agha Muhammad Khan, who founded the Qajar dynasty in the late 18th Century despite being a eunuch. (In case you were wondering, he was succeeded by his nephew.) A few fun details from the always lurid history of Persia:
In 1795 he ravaged Georgia, a Christian kingdom to the north of Persia. In the same year he also captured Khorasan. Shah Rukh, ruler of Khorasan and grandson of Nadir Shah, was tortured to death because Agha Muhammad thought that he knew of Nadir's legendary treasures.
And there was short-lived Iranian occupation of Herat in northwest Afghanistan in 1856, although this description makes it sound like Iran might have been invited in by at least somebody in the neighborhood.
The independent rulers of Herat always turned to the Iranians for support against re-absorption into the Afghan kingdom. After complicated negotiations between Shah Nasr ed-Din and local Afghan provincial rulers, and despite British warning, Persian troops occupied Herat in October 1856. The British, whose policy it was to maintain the independence of this city, declared war against Iran. After three months the Iranians withdrew from Herat and committed themselves never again to interfere there or elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Of course, Iran hasn't been abstaining from invading other countries out of principle or pacifism, but out of weakness. For example, the British and the Soviets occupied Iran in the late summer of 1941 to keep open the supply line for American goods to Russia.