Is Iran Rational?

 

Seyyed_Ali_KhameneiThough it is as old as the debate about the Iranian nuclear program itself, the question now seems more apt than ever. The usual phrasing is whether Iran is truly bent on destruction or on the verge of becoming a modern-day Soviet Union, i.e., a nuclear power that can be deterred by mutually assured destruction (leave aside whether you believe the current or potential future occupants of the White House would, in fact, respond in such a fashion). On the one hand are people who point out that, though the Soviets were power-hungry totalitarians, they wanted to live and knew that using nukes was a suicide pact. On the other, you have people who argue that Iran isn’t rational in that way, and would be happy for martyrdom — or, more likely, the martyrdom of their ordinary citizens — for the cause of Islam, the Caliphate, and the return of the Twelfth Imam.

I have gone back and forth between the two sides myself, but a thought occurred to me today: Iran wouldn’t be the first instance in the modern era of an “ideological regime” driven to irrational action by nutty ideas. Thankfully, the last such regime — the Third Reich — existed in the pre-nuclear age.

I know people hold their breath when Nazis are mentioned, but please hear me out. Hitler was an ideologue, committed to racist and anti-Semitic ideas. If you look at the military history of WWII, you see that, even as the war turned against the Germans, they continued — indeed escalated — their effort to exterminate European Jewry, diverting trains, personnel, and materials away from the war to do so. The murder of slave laborers also meant an ever-diminishing ability to produce munitions and other war necessities. This was totally irrational from a military or a survival standpoint (I can’t be certain, but I imagine no high-ranking Nazi official believed that he’d get out alive if the war ended in defeat; either he would be killed in the effort, or condemned to death for his actions). Even within the war itself, Hitler was often irrational, invading the USSR out of hatred for Bolshevism and then throwing more and more soldiers into the maw after the cause had turned hopelessly against him.

Imagine if Hitler and the Allies obtained nuclear capabilities in the latter half of 1944. Does anybody think that the Nazi regime would not have used that weapon — probably against the Soviet Union — even knowing that one of their own cities would subsequently perish under mushroom clouds?

I think the same can be said today. It is not at all clear that the clerics in charge of Iran — as distinguished from the mass of ordinary Iranian citizens — are “rational” in the sense that they value survival to the point of being deterrable. Their hatred of Jews and Israel isn’t distinguishable from Nazi anti-semitism, and they are imbued with a religious — almost messianic — fervor to destroy Israel and all other “heathen” toward their millenarian goals. They believe that death in pursuit of that goal will be met with instant entry into Paradise. That sounds an awful lot like a recipe for “irrationality” and instability.

Image Credit: “Seyyed Ali Khamenei” by User:Seyedkhanhttp://fa.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D9%BE%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%87:Ali_Khamenei.jpg. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I believe they are irrational.

    • #1
  2. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Iran has a goal, to destroy Israel 1st, America 2nd, and dominate the world. They are not rational. They have a firm belief that allah is on their side.

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    If they were truly irrational, they would be launching conventional military offensives against all their neighbours with little to no regard for whether such offensive were strategically rational.

    They don’t do that. Instead, they pay other crazy people to harrass their neighbours.

    This is evidence of rationality.

    • #3
  4. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    I believe they are rational to their short and long term goals. Those goals may not be considered rational or maybe even understandable by our standards.

    • #4
  5. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Who cares? America, seen as a country, is stridently irrational. Iran, Schmiran. Well take this oppressive dog’s breakfast down a peg one way or another, with or without Iran’s help. But it tickles my kidneys to finally have a deal. Now we can sleep well at night instead of finding out who that is at the window.

    • #5
  6. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    First, welcome to Ricochet and congrats on your first-post!

    Reldim: It is not at all clear that the clerics in charge of Iran — as distinguished from the mass of ordinary Iranian citizens — are “rational” in the sense that they value survival to the point of being deterrable.

    That really is the question, isn’t it?

    Like you, I’ve gone back and forth a few times but have been getting more and more worried. I think the simple answer is that when you are actively seeking nuclear weapons while preaching genocidal eschatology, the world has a moral obligation to assume you mean what you’re saying.

    • #6
  7. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    “…when you are actively seeking nuclear weapons while preaching genocidal eschatology, the world has a moral obligation to assume you mean what you’re saying.”

    Well, that ship sailed.

    • #7
  8. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Ball Diamond Ball:“…when you are actively seeking nuclear weapons while preaching genocidal eschatology, the world has a moral obligation to assume you mean what you’re saying.” — Well, that ship sailed.

    Well, they don’t have a nuke yet. I’ve precisely zero confidence that the deal will stop them, but it remains to be seen whether they can get anything done before 2017.

    • #8
  9. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    To all,

    Whether by some contortion of our own logic we can find rationality in them or not, whether our opportunity to act fully morally has passed or not, we will not escape the reality.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
  10. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @OldBathos

    I worry less about the vile nuttiness of the mullahs than about the very rational perception that the USA is weak, feckless and ready to be rolled.

    It would be very rational to push the limits for the next two years, to establish de facto control over Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and most of Iraq and threaten Turkey, the Saudis and Jordan while also establishing terrorist tools to intimidate the West all the while safe in the knowledge that there will be no pushback, no consequences.

    This rational plan to achieve regional and global power runs a terrible risk of an even larger regional conflagration followed by inevitable growing US involvement (under very unfavorable circumstances compared to what Obama inherited) once the grownups are back in office.

    If the rational Iranians lose that war and/or start to lose control at home, then the risk of an irrational reaction to that outcome becomes worrisome.

    • #10
  11. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    I think the best answer is “maybe.”  Maybe they’re deterrable.  Maybe they’re not.

    Therefore, it’s risky to assume they’re deterrable.

    Incidentally, one of the reasons Hitler invaded the Russia was that his ideology stipulated that the Slavs were an inferior race, and therefore they should be supplanted by the pure Aryans, in order to give the Fatherland room to grow.  So that which we would deem irrational, was in his mind very rational.

    Caution is advised w.r.t. the Mullahs.

    • #11
  12. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    It all depends on how you define the word “rational”.

    All too often people substitute the word “rational” for “thinks-like-me”, which is an example of provincial thinking – which I regard as the greatest scourge of the modern age. Frankly we were better off with the description of our enemies as savages, because at least at that time we recognized that they didn’t believe as we did. The bitterness of the Indian wars came almost entirely from two distinct senses of honor coming into conflict.

    The first basis of diplomatic relations is respect and our, for lack of a better word, elite class do not respect foreign parties because they assume that they think like they do. There is no other explanation possible for the Iranian deal. Obama and Kerry would never launch a nuclear strike, therefore the Iranians would never launch a nuclear strike.

    However if “rational” means willing to take concrete steps in sequence to attain their goals then Iran is highly rational. The regime believes itself to be the main proponent and standard bearer of a divine mission to restore the rightful place of the Shia segment of Islam to primacy over the world. Their mission is not physical, meaning based in the obtainable goals of the material world, but spiritual and as such there is very little they will not do in fulfillment of their mission.

    Nuclear weapons are a key part of this quest, because it allows them to at best become the dominant regional power of the Middle East and immune to land invasion. Americans tend to forget wars they don’t take part in but you can depend on the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 dominating the minds of Iranian defense ministers and the threat of nuclear annihilation being the ultimate deterent to land invasion is a key motivator of their quest.

    At worst the advent of a nuclear armed Iran would provoke a limited but devastation nuclear regional exchange. I do not believe that Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping would launch nuclear strikes against their strategic enemies, each other and the U.S., because of an Iranian nuclear strike unless Pakistan attacked India in which case I hope you have a shelter. And given the purported presence of an apocalyptic cult in the upper reaches of the Iranian government that too plays into their hands and so they have behaved rationally – pursuing a viable nuclear weapon at all costs – because they know that sooner or later the very irrational forces of the International Left, who somehow believe that they will be spared the forces they are unleashing on their own countries, will tire of trying to fight them and persuade others to follow suit.

    • #12
  13. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I don’t think it is fair to ask what people would have done with nukes when the technology was first invented. No one really had a clear sense of just what this weapon could do. The MAD policy also grew as the yield and quantity of nuclear weapons proliferated.

    I think it is worth pointing out that the Nazi government did not deploy any chemical weapons in WWII despite their ability to make vast quantities of these very deadly weapon. Even when they were losing the war and had nothing to lose they never turned to these for an edge.

    I think the stigma of Nuclear weapons is very great. I can’t be certain the Iranians feel it as keenly as Westerners do. But surely they know that detonating such a weapon against any other nation is to open a can of worms. I don’t think peoples responses to nukes is very rational to begin with, and Iran nuking someone would probably send us over the edge.

    With two buildings taken down by two planes we upended all the Middle East. If a nuke goes off in Israel, or even worse in America. We might very world upend the whole world. This they must know. Now is this something they want?

    I think they can get quite a lot from just having the threat of a nuke and the aura that the capability confers. They will use this to do many bad things.

    • #13
  14. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    To all,

    Here we have an example of a truly hallucinogenic Jew.

    FEINSTEIN: ‘CANDIDLY,’ SUNNI ARABS ‘CLEARLY’ NOT HELPING ENOUGH TO TAKE OUT ISIS

    Drunk on her own success she is incapable of seeing the most obvious truth. Iran has not changed its ideology one iota and the supreme leader has said so repeatedly. The political process in Iran is as democratic as China or any other totalitarian regime. Iran will not be helping to defeat Jihadists like ISIS rather they will act to enhance them. They will now have many more conventional arms and a huge war chest. Down the road they will announce that they have the bomb and throw out all inspectors.

    Only a self deceiving, self serving, fool could possibly not recognize this. That a creature like Feinstein could actually support the Iran deal is beyond all tolerance. She is a waste of a Senate seat and in fact is a waste of a human being. Unfortunately, Judaism does not practice excommunication anymore. She can go to her grave with this on her conscience. If she has one.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #14
  15. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Ball Diamond Ball:“…when you are actively seeking nuclear weapons while preaching genocidal eschatology, the world has a moral obligation to assume you mean what you’re saying.” — Well, that ship sailed.

    Well, they don’t have a nuke yet. I’ve precisely zero confidence that the deal will stop them, but it remains to be seen whether they can get anything done before 2017.

    They could easily have several or even a dozen. The dilemma for them is that they could probably hit Israel with a few but risk US retaliation.

    The whole purpose of this deal is to get Iran over the hump (of being vulnerable to attack by not having a credible deterrent to US retalliation) and put Iran in a massive breakout position in as little as 4 or 5 years.

    That 4 or 5 years buys them development of a potent MRBM and ICBM capability. It also allows them to build a modest nuclear arsenal of say 40+ warheads just from the hidden portions of their program. Thereafter, they toss the deal and turn the visible portions of their program into full production mode. By year 7 or 8, they surpass the arsenals of all but China, Russia, and the US. Given the difficulty in reversing the downward trend in our arsenal, by year 10 they have the world’s 3rd largest nuclear arsenal after China and Russia.

    If a 2022 Iran with 30 ICBMs and 30 MRBMs nukes Israel, would the US retaliate?

    • #15
  16. Howellis Inactive
    Howellis
    @ManWiththeAxe

    Austin Murrey: However if “rational” means willing to take concrete steps in sequence to attain their goals then Iran is highly rational.

    This is exactly right.  The Iranian regime is rational to the extent that it can identify its goals and try to achieve them in an efficient manner. But is it reasonable? That is, does it have reasonable goals?

    I agree with those who say that we should take Iran at its word about its goals, namely, to destroy the US and Israel and to bring about Shia Muslim dominance in the world. Those are not the goals I would choose if I were they, but then, they didn’t ask me.

    As much as I abhor the nuclear deal and believe Obama and Kerry to be dangerous morons, my fear of Iran having nuclear weapons is tempered by the fact that other countries that have them, especially the US and Israel, have not been immune from attack by enemies by virtue of having such weapons. Evidently, the possession of an immense nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it on a moment’s notice does not deter most enemies.

    What does deter them, it seems to me, is a conventional army with the best weapon systems, the best planes, the best ships, and most importantly the will to use them.

    • #16
  17. Ontheleftcoast Inactive
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Some of the leaders of Iran believe that the true reward is in the next world and understand jihad of the sword as a true path to that reward. If these are irrational premises, so be it. But that doesn’t keep these men from employing rational means to their goals.

    Other Iranian leaders are corrupt oligarchs willing to mouth such pieties to get theirs in this world… or maybe to cover both sides of their version of Pascal’s wager. Either way, their secret police will soon get a big infusion of money, so the agreement’s first fruit will be further consolidation of the mullocracy and more time to indoctrinate the next generation using carrots and sticks appropriately.

    The international community is now bound to protect Iran as it does so and to ensure that when the hudna is over that Iran will have the most modern nuclear technology.

    Perhaps some of the Iranian money will go for lobbying in the US to slow down the hardening of the electrical infrastructure against EMP attack

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Valiuth: I think it is worth pointing out that the Nazi government did not deploy any chemical weapons in WWII despite their ability to make vast quantities of these very deadly weapon. Even when they were losing the war and had nothing to lose they never turned to these for an edge.

    Didn’t the WWI experience illustrate that they aren’t strategically effective, unless your sole goal is to inflict terror?

    • #18
  19. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    A key difference between Nazi Germany and Iran is that Hitler was building a thousand-year reich here on Earth, whereas the religious Iranian leadership is mostly concerned with the afterlife. See comment #17, above. In that context, using nukes can be rational. Unfortunately that kind of rationality won’t keep us safe.

    • #19
  20. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Misthiocracy:

    Valiuth: I think it is worth pointing out that the Nazi government did not deploy any chemical weapons in WWII despite their ability to make vast quantities of these very deadly weapon.

    Didn’t the WWI experience illustrate that they aren’t strategically effective, unless your sole goal is to inflict terror?

    And what was the goal of bombing large civilian centers if not to inflict terror and lower moral.

    The Gas weapons of WWI were in fact quite effective. They did not turn the tide of battle for any one side because the troops were not ready to take advantage of the gaps the weapons created. At least that was the case during their first use. In fact prior to WWII there was a growing belief among strategists that with the advent of long range bombers and fast stores of chemical weapons that whole cities could be annihilated. This created a kind of thinking and movement very similar to that around nuclear weapons. There was talk of first strikes, retaliation, and mutually assured destruction.  Much of this was appropriated for nukes in the early days of the Cold War.

    In fact I think the experience of WWII and chemical weapons serves as a reminder that just because everyone has WMDs does not mean they won’t choose to engage in a large conventional war, which should cause us to worry more about Russia and Europe.

    • #20
  21. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Valiuth:

    Misthiocracy:

    Valiuth: I think it is worth pointing out that the Nazi government did not deploy any chemical weapons in WWII despite their ability to make vast quantities of these very deadly weapon.

    Didn’t the WWI experience illustrate that they aren’t strategically effective, unless your sole goal is to inflict terror?

    And what was the goal of bombing large civilian centers if not to inflict terror and lower moral.

    The Gas weapons of WWI were in fact quite effective. They did not turn the tide of battle for any one side because the troops were not ready to take advantage of the gaps the weapons created. At least that was the case during their first use. In fact prior to WWII there was a growing belief among strategists that with the advent of long range bombers and fast stores of chemical weapons that whole cities could be annihilated. This created a kind of thinking and movement very similar to that around nuclear weapons. There was talk of first strikes, retaliation, and mutually assured destruction. Much of this was appropriated for nukes in the early days of the Cold War.

    In fact I think the experience of WWII and chemical weapons serves as a reminder that just because everyone has WMDs does not mean they won’t choose to engage in a large conventional war, which should cause us to worry more about Russia and Europe.

    Nuclear weapons has deterred much.

    Our possession of them deterred Soviet conventional attack on Europe.

    Our possession of them deterred Soviet nuclear attack.

    Israel’s assumed possession of them has probably deterred conventional attack.

    One thing distinguishing chemical weapons in WW2 vs nuclear weapons now is that chemical weapons would not have decided the war in 20 minutes from the decision to use them. They may influence one battle before the other side responds.

    Another is the anonymity offered by nuclear weapons. Especially with various sea-launched nukes (see EMP discussion) or with a smuggled nuke, who do you retaliate against?

    Both these highlight the differences in use between use once a majof conventional engagement has occurred and use before.

    • #21
  22. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I simply wished to point out that people can and did eschew using potent and available weapons for fear of the consequences even while engaged in a total war using conventional weapons. Since both sides had chemical weapons it seems like there was an implicit agreement that anything was on the table with regards to war except those. These rules were followed. I think a similar case can occur with nuclear weapons.

    The view that nuclear weapons would be decisive is I think part of their mystique. While they do in fact posses great destructive capability they would need to be used wholesale and to really flat out win a war with them. But, to use one is to need to use all. If you don’t have enough nuclear weapons to obliterate your enemy, there is no point in using only one if your enemy also has them. Therefore you may attack them conventionally and know that they are in the same boat with respect to a nuclear response. This means their best option is to use conventional means of retaliation. Since there can be no limited nuclear attack.

    As to the fear of an anonymous attack, I think that it is over blown. Only so many nations have the technology only a few are enemies, and of those only one would use such a tactic.  Even if the Iranians weren’t behind it we would still bomb them for it.

    • #22
  23. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    To all,

    Here is the Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. This is his response to the vote today.

    Nothing could be more clear. The self hypnosis that animates this grotesque deal is the end of all American credibility and leadership. Obama has transformed American foreign policy by destroying it.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #23
  24. PsychLynne Inactive
    PsychLynne
    @PsychLynne

    First and foremost – congrats on your first post and promotion to the main page! Kudos to you!!!

    Second, I think that Iran is rational, I just (as pointed out earlier) think their thinking is crazy.  They are rational in the sense that they have a clear, specific set of goals, a strong internal and external motivation for those goals, they have assessed their progress at various points along the way and assessed the response to barriers or crossing lines.  Why wouldn’t they go for the win of “getting the bomb” in a decade while they are able to convince others who don’t want them to get the bomb they won’t work on it…I’m sure they looked sincere when they said it.

    I know that they are using the language of religion as justification, and that does scare me more than the Russians in the 80s, but the leaders also hold a great deal of power and the perks that come with it.  Power can be quite intoxicating, so maybe that will hold them back?  or not.

    • #24
  25. gts109 Inactive
    gts109
    @gts109

    The WWII examples don’t really work, as the world was already embroiled in total war at that point. Risking a city to win the war might have beeen a rational trade-off for Nazi Germany in your example.

    The scenario presented here is whether Iran would launch an offensive nuclear attack against Israel, knowing that Israel (and the U.S.) would retaliate and destroy Iran for all time. I don’t think the Iranians would invite this. They have a long tradition of existence that I believe they enjoy. They have done all sorts of rational things. One recent example, they hood winked Obama and got $100 billion in assets unfrozen in exchange for limited promises with no demonstrated performance.

    But, of course, it’s entirely undesirable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. So, what one thinks about this question should not drive policy conclusions.

    • #25
  26. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Austin Murrey
    It all depends on how you define the word “rational”.

    Pretty sure were using rational in the unitary nation-state actor realpolitik sense, where a state is presumed to act to further its own power and security.

    • #26
  27. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    One way to separate out actual intent from bombast is to assess the Islamic Republic regime’s past actions.

    Rational? Irrational?

    Aimed at survival in this world or martyrdom?

    I believe a clear pattern emerges.

    • #27
  28. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    I think that Iran is rationally pursuing irrational goals.  For that reason, I don’t think in the short term there is a serious threat of Iran using nuclear weapons.  Why should they?  They got what they wanted from this deal.

    They now have adequate funding to use for both internal purposes and supporting their proxies abroad.  Even with sanctions and limited funding their proxies control Lebanon, large parts of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.  They can now double that funding and still have enough left to finance massive internal improvements.

    They’ve placed the Saudis and Gulf States on the defensive and with Western recognition under this agreement have shown their enemies in the Middle East that they are the big dog in the neighborhood.

    Through this process they’ve driven a bigger wedge between the Europeans/Americans and Israel.

    Plus, under the terms of the agreement they keep their nuclear capabilities intact and should they unilaterally decide at some point they need to develop nuclear weapons they can do so.

    They have the initiative now to pursue their interests as they see best.

    • #28
  29. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Why this deal now? We were told that the sanctions were effective. If so, why not carry them out to their logical end point and unseat the current government. It worked against South Africa. A win for the world would be the elimination of a state sponsor of international terrorism. With the bonus of possibly some freedom for the citizens of Iran. Instead we have back slapping, victory laps and Nobel Prizes all around. It defies reason.

    • #29
  30. Ontheleftcoast Inactive
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Zafar:One way to separate out actual intent from bombast is to assess the Islamic Republic regime’s past actions.

    Rational? Irrational?

    Aimed at survival in this world or martyrdom?

    I believe a clear pattern emerges.

    The regime is not monolithic. There are those in it (including some high up in the IRGC) who want to set up the conditions which will immanentize the eschachaton. The fact that they are willing to do so by any means including war does not mean that they think conditions are ripe now. 

    Speaking of which, what pattern do you mean? One pattern I see is long term planning and patience. There are no peaceful reasons for Iran to have ballistic missiles. There are no peaceful reasons for Iran to have, via Hezbollah, 100,000+ rockets in Lebanon and aimed south. Or for the bombing of the JCC in Argentina. Or…

    • #30
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