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Is Iran a Rational Actor?

12:12 PM, Mar 13, 2012 • By LEE HARRIS
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In an interview on CNN, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that “we are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor,” from which he derived his conclusion that “we also know, or we believe we know, that Iran has not decided to make a nuclear weapon.” In making this statement Dempsey was not using the royal we, but was expressing the current policy assessment of Iran that has been embraced by the Obama administration and by the leadership of the EU.

Iran

Their assessment of Iran as a rational actor has been challenged by those who see Iran as dangerously irrational, fully intent on developing nuclear weapons in the near future. The argument between these two camps have one thing in common. They seem blind to the distinct possibly that (A) Iran is indeed a rational actor and (B) it is precisely because Iran is a rational actor that we can be sure that the Iranians are fully committed to developing nuclear weapons, despite the apparent risks involved.              

The fundamental assumption of the rationalist camp is that Iran, as a rational actor, will respond in a predictable way to the economic sanctions that are currently being imposed on the regime. If a rational actor recognizes that pursuing a specific course will entail the imposition of high economic costs, his self-interest alone can be trusted to guide him, as it would surely guide us, to cease following that course. According to this point of view, sheer economic self-interest will eventually compel Iran to seek to cooperate with Western powers by abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The question, therefore, is not whether Iran will give in, but how much longer we must wait before it finally and permanently renounces its nuclear aspiration. For the rationalist camp, the only relevant question is whether the West should apply even stiffer sanctions in order to quicken the pace.

The rationalist camp is prepared to keep military options on the table, as a very last resort, at least in theory, but it is convinced that its demands will be eventually met by further talks and negotiations with Iran. Support for their position has recently been bolstered by Iran’s offer to resume talks with the West.

There are many who vehemently dispute the rationalist camp’s characterization of Iran as a rational actor. Those in the irrationalist camp fear that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would launch an obviously suicidal attack on the state of Israel—obviously suicidal because the Israel would unquestionably retaliate with a far more devastating nuclear strike of their own. Furthermore, given the risk of a pre-emptive attack from Israel prior to the actual development of nuclear weapons, Tehran should want to convince both Israel and the rest of the world that building a nuclear arsenal was the last thing on its mind. And so from the perspective of the irrationalist camp, Iran’s recent highly publicized celebration of its nuclear progress is compelling evidence that Iran is not acting rationally, in roughly the same way that waving a red flag in front of a large bull is not acting rationally. From this observation, it is a simple step to conclude that if Iran is behaving so irrationally prior to its acquisition of nuclear weapons, how much more irrationally will it behave after it gets them?

So which camp has got it right on Iran, the rationalist or the irrationalist? Neither, in my opinion. While I agree with those who maintain that Iran is indeed a rational actor, I strongly disagree with the conclusion that they draw from this. In my view, Iran is so dangerous precisely because it is a rational actor—and a very good one at that.

When those in the rationalist camp argue that Iran is a rational actor and, therefore, it will know better than to make nuclear weapons, they are making an unwarranted assumption about how rational actors behave. Their assumption goes like this: If John is a rational actor, it will be easy for us, who are also rational actors, to predict what John will do under any specified set of circumstances. John, for example, will never surprise us, because this would require John to behave in a way that we would never behave. If we would never do X, then John can be counted upon never to do X either. In short, the behavior of all rational actors is inherently predictable as a very consequence of their shared rationality.

Under ordinary conditions, this assumption holds true. Neither a stable economy nor an orderly society could exist unless most of us could safely predict what other people will do based solely on our own knowledge of what we would do under the same circumstances. For example, who would be foolish enough to drive on a highway if no one could confidently predict how other drivers responded to stoplights or what lane they might decide at any second to drive in?

In the real world, of course, there are always surprises. Sometimes drivers zoom mindlessly through red-lights and drive in the wrong lane. Yet it is easy to imagine an idyllic community populated only by rational actors who could confidently trust their neighbors to be rational actors as well. When four cars came to a four-way stop, each driver would be certain that the other drivers knew the rules that governed such a situation, and proceed without ambiguity, delay, or confusion. The maxim of the inhabitants of such a rationally ordered and thoroughly predictable community would be, “I will always behave in such a way that other people can predict my behavior with complete confidence.”

Traffic would certainly improve in such an ideal community. Yet what about poker games? They would become real bores. Every player would feel compelled to let the other players know when he had a terrific hand, for example, by sporting a big grin, or by allowing his fellow players to spot a bluff from a mile away. Sports would suffer too. No quarterback would feign a pass in football, while a baseball player on first base would dutifully signal to his opponents his intention to steal second.

While being easily predictable allows rational actors to secure obvious social benefits such as a smooth-running, surprise-free socio-economic order, it is the worst possible policy to pursue in situations involving competition and combat. It is absurd to argue that a poker player is being a rational actor by allowing his hand to be easily predicted from his facial expression or body language. It is even more absurd to argue that a player with a super poker-face is not behaving rationally under the given circumstances.

In all combative face-offs, the rational actor’s best bet is to behave as unpredictably as possible, so that he prevent his opponent from anticipating his next move. This is why from time immemorial, the element of surprise has always been regarded as a critical factor in waging war successfully. The military leader whose movements can be predicted by his opponent is in for serious trouble. Cunning, deception, secrecy, feints, ploys, artifice, and outright lies—these are the weapons that any rational actor must be willing to use if he hopes to beat his opponents. Under such conditions, even displays of seemingly irrational behavior may prove a successful means of blindsiding and confusing one’s adversaries. The wily Odysseus pretended to be stark-raving mad in order to deceive those Greeks who wanted his help to win the Trojan War. It didn’t work for Odysseus, but it is working mighty well for Iran.

Those who point to examples of irrational behavior on the part of Iran are not short of ammunition. But are these really proof that Iran is not a rational actor, or is it a sign that Iran knows precisely what it is doing? When a nation always behaves the way we expect it to, it is easy to develop a coherent and consistent policy toward it. But it is far harder, if not impossible, to devise such a policy when dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability.

For example, when the Western powers (to use the language of Tehran) threatened to boycott Iran’s oil, Iran should have reacted by saying “Uncle.” Instead, it ostentatiously halted oil supplies to Britain and France. This may appear like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, but its flamboyant perversity was also a signal to the West that our idea of a collective policy toward Iran was hopelessly off the mark. From Iran’s point of view, it would be irrational to permit the Western powers to think for a moment that they could win through economic pressure alone. The rational course was quite simple. Give the West two choices. Either further negotiations, playing for valuable time, or else direct military confrontation, with potentially devastating consequences to world stability and economic order. Because no one in the West really wants the latter option, especially given the climate of general geopolitical turmoil, it is natural that for the West to pick the path of least possible mayhem—more negotiations.

But why should Iran take even the smallest risk of a military attack from the West? Isn’t that irrational? Not at all. Rational actors often take calculated risks. They buy stock. They open businesses. They go to war. If the downside is deemed acceptable, while the rewards of success are enormous, then it would be inexcusably irrational not to take the gamble. And that is how Iran sees it. They have little to lose, and much to win.

This is why economic sanctions will not work: Iran is willing to trade a short-term economic loss in order to achieve a far more important long-range strategic goal. Its target is to dominate the Middle East and, in consequence of this fact alone, to become a major player on the world scene. The nukes are not an end in themselves, but a means to this end. Iran, in short, is involved in a major status quo challenge.

Major status quo challenges are nothing new to history. Rather, they are the stuff of which history is made. The Germanic barbarians presented a major status quo challenge to the faltering Roman Empire. The Arab conquest was a major status quo challenge to the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. Before WWI, the German Reich was engaged in a status quo challenge to the supremacy of Great Britain, in which Germany sought imperial colonies and to construct a navy on par with the British fleet. A generation later Imperial Japan would mount its own status quo challenge, in an attempt to dominate Asia and the Pacific. Some major status quo challenges succeed, while others fail, but all have a powerfully transformative effect on the direction of history, for better or for worse.

A review of the major status quo challenges shows that those who undertake such a challenge are involving themselves in a high risk gamble, many of which have ended disastrously for the challengers, as in the case of Imperial Germany in WWI and Imperial Japan in WWII. But in both of these cases, the costs borne by those nations that succeeded in defeating the challengers were also staggeringly high. What is even worse, the victors in both cases were helpless to restore the status quo that had existed before the challenge. The aftermath of both WWI and WWII were periods of geopolitical tension, uncertainty, and unpredictability.

Fully aware that tensions are already dangerously high in the Middle East, the rational camp has concluded, no doubt correctly, that a Western attack on Iran would only make a bad situation very much worse. But the West’s public acknowledgement of this well-grounded fear simply emboldens Iran. Worse, the American position that Iran “has not decided to make a nuclear weapon,” along with the decision to continue sanctions and negotiations, has the unintended effect of permitting Iran to decide under what circumstances the West might possibly attack—namely, whenever Iran is stupid enough to abandon the West’s pet policy of peace through negotiation. So long as Iran is prepared to go through all the motions of seeking a negotiated settlement of the issues, as it is currently doing, then the risk of an attack from the West remains close to zero. What savvy poker player, seeing him before him the enormous stack of chips he is on the verge of winning, would not opt to continue his bluff under these circumstances—in this case, the bluff of pretending to negotiate in good faith?

There remains one serious risk to Iran’s bold status quo challenge. Israel does not share the West’s optimistic view that there still plenty of time to deal with Iran. Hence the alarm in the West over the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, evidenced by the Obama administration’s near desperate efforts to convince Israel to hold back, giving more time for sanctions and negotiations to settle matters.

Whether Israel will strike Iran on its own, despite powerful American pressure, is still an open question. But even here a scenario is being played out that should be reassuring to Iran, though once again this is a consequence that no one in the West intended.

Paradoxically, it is the extraordinary attention that the world has focused on Iran’s nuclear program that offers Tehran the best defense against a preemptive attack by Israel. Israeli jets were able to take out Syrian nuclear sites with dispatch and without fanfare, and, most importantly, without months of international hand-wringing before the event. The fact that the U.S. has gone on record urging Israel to refrain from taking action against Iran makes it all but certain that a surprise Israeli attack would create tension and conflict between Israel and its closest and most powerful ally, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the Jewish state. Under such circumstances, Israel cannot possibly deceive itself about the dangers of taking unilateral actions, which appreciably diminishes, though it does not eliminate, the chance that Iran will suffer an effective attack against its nuclear facilities.

If an effective strike against Iran poses serious risks to Israel, an ineffective strike would be far worse—that is, a strike that did little or nothing to set back Iran’s nuclear program. Not only would it leave Iran’s nuclear program relatively unscarred, but it would almost certainly be followed by Iranian retaliation against Israel. Furthermore, there are many in the West who would inevitably view such an attack by Israel not as a serious effort to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, but as a cynical attempt to drag the U.S. into a war with Iran, as well might happen if the Iranians keep to their vow to attack American targets in the wake of any Israeli strike.

Americans have little stomach for another costly war in the Middle East, especially a war with far more ominous consequences than our previous conflicts in that region. If Israel is seen as having acted simply as an agent provocateur in unleashing a war between the USA and Iran, then even the staunchest American friends of Israel would be hard put to defend its actions. If the Israelis cannot be absolutely sure of devastating Iran’s nuclear facilities, their best course is to do nothing. And there is simply no way they could possibly be sure in advance of such an attack—far too much can go wrong.

This is the biggest risk Iran is taking—that Israel might try to take out their nuclear facilities, but at a cost that would almost certainly be far more crippling to Israel than to Iran. This is a pretty safe best, and one that any prudent rational actor would be willing to take, considering the stakes in question—a successful status quo challenge that would leave Iran a major factor in future world affairs.

If Iran achieves its objective, much will change about the world. Perhaps the most important change will come from the very failure of the Western powers to have thwarted Iran’s status quo challenge while it was still possible to do so—a failure of foresight and judgment that will be widely interpreted as the inauguration of a new geopolitical order, but one in which the Western powers no longer play a decisive role, dominating world affairs, but are consigned to being helpless observers of events spiraling beyond their control. There is more than blustering rhetoric to the Iranian claim that the days of Western power dominance are nearing an end.

From this perspective, the argument put forth by the Rationalist Camp that Iran is a rational actor should not reassure us. On the contrary, if Iran is a rational actor, it should now be making an all-out effort to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. After all, during the last decade the Iranians have watched the Western powers invade Iraq and Afghanistan, while giving military assistance to the Libyan rebels. No doubt they noticed that none of these nations possessed nuclear arms and that, for reasons of self-preservation, members of the nuclear club do not make war on one another. Once Iran has successfully joined this club, it will have gained a degree of national security and freedom from foreign intervention than nothing except the possession of nuclear weapons can provide. (Just ask North Korea.) Safe from the threat of regime change, Iran can use its increasing armory of conventional weapons and its oil wealth to throw its weight around in the region. Indeed, Iran is already doing so, most conspicuously of late, by sending its warships to Syria in a show of support for the Assad regime, while simultaneously aligning itself (by no coincidence) with Russia and China, and against the Western powers.

Today, despite the raging debate about what policy the West should take toward Iran, the only realistic policy debate about Iran would involve the question of what policy we should have taken toward it in the past, perhaps as far back at the dawn of the Iranian Revolution, during the hostage crisis under Carter. At the point we have now reached, it is naturally still possible to pretend to have a policy, namely, a policy of kidding ourselves that we have a policy, which is what the leadership of the West, including the U.S., is currently doing. The only reasonable course left to us is to respond with ad hoc measures to actions and initiatives taken by Iran, while fully aware that a wrong step on our part could have devastating consequences for the West and the world. Policy is a luxury of those who call the shots—and today it is Iran and not the West who is calling them. Furthermore, Iran is calling them quite well.            Far from pursuing an irrational and suicidal policy, Iran is currently following a strategy of cunning and far-sighted self-aggrandizement. They would be crazy to stop now. 

Lee Harris is the author, most recently, of The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.

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