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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.


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.

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