With all due respect to my friends and colleagues, the “rational actor” discussion somewhat misses the point. Obviously, the Iranian government is barbaric and it stands to reason that some of its objectives will be too. But that does not mean Iran’s political leaders are not motivated by self-preservation.
Iran has yet to follow through even on its threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, showing a reluctance to start a war Tehran would surely lose and that would almost certainly signal the end of the regime. Those are better indicators of the Iranian government’s intentions than outsiders’ academic interpretations of their theology. Iran isn’t acting like it is eager to usher in the end times, especially if that means the end of the Islamic republic.
The Iranian government is increasingly despised by its own people. In some nationalistic quarters, its intransigence on the nuclear question is one of its few redeeming qualities. There is little reason to believe that bombing Iran will make these people more favorably disposed toward Israel or the United States, and many reasons to think such an action could rally popular support behind a government that has manifestly failed and could be on its last legs.
We are unlikely to invade and occupy Iran like we did Iraq and Afghanistan, so some form of containment is going to have to be practiced even if we attempt to take out presume Iranian nuclear sites. Even some proponents of military action are unsure we will get all the sites. So will we merely slow down Iran’s progress toward a bomb? Perhaps even accelerate it? Will we inflame the sentiments among the Iranian people that prevailed in 1979?
A policy of enforcing nonproliferation via war and regime change creates perverse incentives and unintended consequences. No matter how backward and brutal, the aging communist rulers of North Korea are safe from regime change because of their nukes. Iraq was ripe for regime change precisely because it didn’t have nukes (or even the specific weapons programs that were a major part of the justification for that war). Libya gives up its weapons of mass destruction, only to have the U.S. support the overthrow of its government. When non-nuclear Afghanistan becomes a hiding place for al Qaeda, regime change. Nuclear-armed Pakistan gets U.S. aid. In this climate, a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” is going to pursue nuclear weapons.
We are talking about going to war with a country based on assumptions about its objectives that may not be true, to disarm of it weapons it may not have, without much thought for the consequences or results. This was the road we traveled to Baghdad. Are we eager for a sequel?