Last month, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that he does not believe the Iranian regime has decided to pursue a nuclear weapons program, and that it would not be "prudent" for Israel to consider a military strike against Iran. General Dempsey went on to state, "We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor." For his part, in a subsequent video to viewers, Zakaria indicated that he "very much" agreed:
A rational actor is not a reasonable actor, is not somebody who has the same goals or values as we have. What one means by rational actor in international affairs or economics or any time the word is used, is somebody who is concerned about their survival, their prosperity or strength, and is making calculations on the basis of that -- that is, calculating costs and benefits. And we all assume Iran is a rational actor. Even the most hawkish people in this debate, because they assume that the pressure will make a difference. How could it make a difference? Well, because Iran is watching the costs, calculating them, and presumably will recognize that the costs outweigh the benefits.
Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel's Mossad, concurs. In an interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, Dagan characterized Iran as having "a very rational regime" and said he considers Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be "rational," though perhaps "not exactly our rational." Dagan also opposes an Israeli strike, and he echoes Zakaria in his rationale:
No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.
Despite the public testimony of these respected military, academic, and intelligence figures, I simply am not convinced that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. General Dempsey bases his opinion on the notion that Iran has not yet decided whether it will develop nuclear weapons. Such an assessment is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, willful blindness.
Meanwhile, Zakaria believes Iran is engaged in a cost-benefit analysis and "presumably will recognize that the costs outweigh the benefits," which would lead it to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But that is an awfully big presumption. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a scenario under which the present Iranian regime would voluntarily abandon this program unless, of course, it made such a pledge, only to break it by enriching uranium under the nose of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even assuming Iranian leaders were to do an about-face, would it be wise to trust their word any more than that of the North Koreans, who have been lying to us for nearly two decades about the state of their nuclear program? Does Zakaria believe North Korea is a rational actor? Under his definition, as long as the North Korean regime is concerned with its survival, prosperity, and strength; as long as it is making calculations on that basis, then it is rational actor. But if Iran and North Korea are rational, then who is irrational?
Zakaria recounted what an Iranian official told him about five years ago. This unnamed official said it would be perfectly rational for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons, because its neighbors have nukes, because the U.S. had 100,000 troops in Iraq and 100,000 in Afghanistan, and because President George W. Bush was calling for the regime's downfall:
"Now if you were in our position, wouldn't that make you nervous, and wouldn't you want to buy some kind of insurance?"
So that doesn't sound like the talk of mad, Messianic regime, but rather one that's looking at costs, benefits and calculating.
Five years later, President Bush has long since left office. President Obama has expressed no desire for regime change in Tehran. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December, and one-third of all American troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Yet despite these changes on the ground, Iran's leaders still openly speak of wiping Israel off the face of the earth. This leaves pure, unadulterated hatred as the only possible motivation for Iran's disposition toward Israel. Just as Adolf Hitler viewed Jews as a cancer to be expunged, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called Israel "a cancerous tumor." As Lee C. Shapiro, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Cleveland, notes:
Some say that this danger is wildly exaggerated, since Iran would never begin a nuclear war that would lead to its own devastation by Israeli retaliation. Yet it is worth recalling that Nazi Germany transferred sorely needed men and resources from the front lines in order to speed up the killing of Jews, suggesting that ideologically driven regimes may act even against their own national interests in pursuit of their diabolical ideals.
Now Zakaria might argue there is a difference between a rational and a reasonable actor. But considering that it is not far-fetched to believe Iran is prepared to deploy a nuclear weapon against the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, that logical hair is too thin to split. Trying, you could even say, would be downright irrational.