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Is Iran a Rational Actor?

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