My AmSpec colleague Aaron Goldstein recently penned a note chastising General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for his assertion that the Iranian regime is basically rational.
My take is between Goldstein's and Dempsey's.
I don't quibble with Aaron's suggestion that it is irrational to let many of your nation's citizens die rather than take aid from a country you consider an enemy.
But whether or not to take aid is not the big question on the table. That question for Iran is, obviously, whether to proceed to the final stages of development of a nuclear weapon.
Before proceeding to discuss whether Iran is behaving rationally, we need to agree on a definition of rationality. Some may argue that rationality must mean taking a path which, among other things, minimizes one's chances of death. I, however, take the position (similar to Dempsey's) that we must view their rationality within the framework of their beliefs and values.
To be clear, this is in no way intended to equate rationality with intelligence or wisdom. Rather than given what they believe and what they want, a certain path -- which would not be rational for countries with different fundamental premises -- is reasonably considered "rational." In short, Iran can be rational while risking death and destruction, and while pursuing truly evil ends.
Again, if one disagrees with this definition of rational, then one will disagree with my conclusion that Iran is mostly rational.
So, what does Iran (meaning the ruling ayatollahs) believe and what does Iran want?
As an American, not privy to their conversations, I can only guess, but guess I shall:
They probably believe that Israel should be destroyed, and they want to be the ones to do so regardless of cost. They certainly believe that having a nuclear weapon would give them a new level of power and prestige in the Middle East, allow the them push around their Arab neighbors (separate from the Israel issue), and perhaps make them the regional hegemon. These two beliefs are obviously not mutually exclusive; instead they are mutually reinforcing.
Whether they believe one or the other or both -- and the odds of them believing neither is vanishingly small -- Iran has a strong, perhaps paramount, interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon (or more precisely several nuclear weapons.)
That's one side of the coin. The other side is the risk they perceive from going down that path.
They likely see themselves facing three potential adversaries: The United States, Europe (or perhaps a combination, such as through NATO), and Israel.
So far, Barack Obama has offered nothing but apologies to the Muslim world for American power and American behavior over the last two or three decades. His Middle East rhetorical group hugs demonstrate a weakness that no president since Jimmy Carter, and perhaps not even Carter, has shown. Obama's fecklessness and weakness are emboldening Iran. Thus, it is totally rational for them to assume that, at least until Obama leaves office, the US is not a credible threat no matter what path the Iranian nuclear program takes.
The analysis is basically the same for Europe which, although avoiding group hugs, returns like Charlie Brown to Iran's football-holding Lucy for multi-party talks which serve only to give Iran more time to enrich uranium and move their nuclear facilities to hardened bunkers deep underground, near population centers. The ayatollahs must be wondering how stupid a group of diplomats can be, never learning from history, and from their own recent history at that. Of course, they see they western world falling for exactly the same maneuvers by North Korea, so they aren't surprised by the west's never-ending gullibility. Again, it is totally rational for Iran to ignore Europe as a threat regardless of their nuclear program's progress.
And that leaves Israel. Indeed it truly leaves Israel alone, as they have never had a president less interested in supporting our only true ally in that part of the world than is Barack Hussein Obama.
Iran's leaders must calculate the odds that (1) Israel will strike, (2) that Israel has the capacity to destroy or nearly destroy deeply buried facilities, and (3) that they will have, or not have, actually completed a deliverable nuclear weapon before Israel attacks -- the odds of such completion increasing with Barack Obama's reportedly leaning on Israel to take no action before the US's November election. Furthermore, Iran must calculate the chances that their unleashing Hezbollah (from Lebanon) and perhaps Hamas (from the Gaza Strip) to attack Israel, primarily with rockets, will cause Israel to focus on defending its home territory rather than further attacking Iran.
This is where Iran is likely to miscalculate, but it also raises the question of "Do the ayatollahs actually care?"
I have no doubt that the leaders of Iran, whether Khameni or Ahmadinejad or any of the many other radical Islamists whose names Americans don't know, would gladly die if their names would go down in history as the people who destroyed Israel, or at least killed large numbers of Jews.
Putting it all together in something like a mathematical equation:
The Islamofascists ruling Iran have both strategic and other reasons for wanting a nuclear weapon. The only threat they are concerned with is Israel, which is being publicly restrained by the US. And they don't care if they are "martyred" in the cause of destroying "the Zionist entity."
Given that paradigm, it is entirely rational that Iran will not be deterred from marching straight ahead toward a nuclear weapon, while leading the US and Europe along in faux diplomacy designed to buy time so that they may have, or nearly have, a completed weapon by the time Israel feels it must act even if without help from its one-time ally, the United States.
Given the Iranian leadership's likely view of the world, everything they're doing is rational -- while also being nearly suicidal and motivated by pure evil.
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