The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, thinks that Iran is a “rational actor.” He is indisputably correct.
Iran has, quite rationally, concluded that if it spins thousands of centrifuges to enrich enough uranium, it will soon have the bomb. Just as rationally, it believes it can string the West along. Then there is its airtight chain of cause and effect in the alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States: If it hired a Mexican drug gang, and that gang blew up a Washington, D.C., restaurant, and the Saudi ambassador was dining there at the time, the ambassador would die. Q.E.D.
General Dempsey said too little and too much about the Iranian regime. Tehran couldn’t have made itself into the world’s foremost exporter of terror and extended its tentacles throughout the Middle East without resorting to rational calculation. That’s obvious. What Dempsey is implying, though, is that a regime capable of such calculation can necessarily be deterred if it gets a nuclear weapon. That’s an unsupportable leap.
If there’s one thing we should have established beyond doubt during the past decade, it is that involvement in terror attacks on American soil is extremely costly to the perpetrators. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. government, the Iranians hatched a plot against the Saudi ambassador where the risk bore no relation whatsoever to the possible reward — from our perspective.
More fundamentally from our perspective, there is no point in establishing a theocracy, killing innocents abroad, pursuing sectarian war, crushing protesters, denying the Holocaust, and threatening Israel with annihilation, either. From the point of view of the Western liberal tradition, the Islamic Republic itself makes no sense. Yet there it is, withstanding punishing economic sanctions to pursue the weapon that the regime wouldn’t want in the first place if it accepted international norms.
If the Soviets, the famous “evil empire” bristling with thousands of nuclear weapons, could be deterred, why not Iran? The Soviet leadership became more pragmatic over time. After Nikita Khrushchev renounced Josef Stalin, it didn’t believe that war with its enemies was imminent and inevitable. Iran’s religio-ideological fire, in contrast, is still burning hot.
A highly ideological leadership with a sense of desperate urgency is the enemy of deterrence. In 1941, Dean Acheson rightly said: “No rational Japanese could believe an attack on us could result anything but disaster.” Except the Japanese — driven by a sense of honor alien to us — believed that they only had two choices: getting squeezed out of China by the U.S., or launching a risky war.
Even in the Cold War, deterrence almost failed. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the airstrike and invasion pushed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff might well have unwittingly prompted a nuclear exchange. The defense secretary at the time, the late Bob McNamara, maintained that “we lucked out.” Ah, yes, that crucial backstop to deterrence — luck.
The Israelis can be forgiven for not feeling very lucky. Do we think Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will establish a “red telephone” to smooth out misunderstandings after Iran goes nuclear? The Iranian regime is factionalized, and it is sure to be the most fanatical elements that control the nukes. It is also prone to bouts of popular unrest threatening its existence. If the regime ever believes it is going down, national martyrdom might look gloriously alluring.
In March 1945, Adolf Hitler gave his infamous Nero Decree, essentially calling for the destruction of Germany. After the first U.S. atomic attack on Hiroshima, the Japanese war minister mused about how wonderful it would be if his nation were destroyed “like a beautiful flower.” It is in this tradition that former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — a relative pragmatist — said that “even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”
On his own perverse terms, Rafsanjani’s reasoning is unassailable. He’s just another “rational actor.”