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Is Iran a Rational Actor?

12:12 PM, Mar 13, 2012 • By LEE HARRIS
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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.

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