Would rational Iranian leaders prevent nuclear destruction?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times argues that we can live with a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, the author asserts that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be less risky than attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent the acquisition of such weapons. One reason given is that a deterrent strategy would work with Iran as well as it did with the Soviet Union:

However, there are serious, thoughtful people who are willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran, kept in check by the time-tested assurance of retaliatory destruction. If the U.S. arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos, if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate, why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?

But there is a reason why we may not want to rely on the “assurance of retaliatory destruction” strategy for Iran.

A fundamental assumption of deterrence is that the state’s leaders, the people with their fingers on the nuclear button, are rational — that they rationally know their self-interests and will rationally choose actions that promote those self-interests. Since the use of nuclear weapons would not normally be in their rational self-interest, the theory goes, we can rely on their rational decisionmaking to prevent the use of such weapons. For the Soviet Union, this was a reasonable assumption.

It is harder to make the case that Iran’s leadership is rational, however. A recent illustration in this regard comes from the Telegraph concerning Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accused the West of deliberately destroying rain clouds headed for Iran in a concerted effort to plunge the country into a damaging drought.

“Today our country is moving towards drought, which is partly unintentional due to industry and partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country and this is a war that Iran is going to overcome,” Mr Ahmadinejad said in a speech in the Caspian Sea city of Gonbad-e Kavus….

Another recent quote from President Ahmadinejad comes from the Arab Times:

“The Zionist regime and the Zionists are a cancerous tumor. Even if one cell of them is left in one inch of (Palestinian) land, in the future this story (of Israel’s existence) will repeat,” he said in a speech in Tehran marking Iran’s Quds Day that was broadcast on state television.

“The nations of the region will soon finish off the usurper Zionists in the Palestinian land…. A new Middle East will definitely be formed. With the grace of God and help of the nations, in the new Middle East there will be no trace of the Americans and Zionists,” he said.

Given statements such as these, would it be wise to rely on the rational decisionmaking skills of leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to ensure that Iran is deterred from using nuclear weapons?

One could argue that Iranian leaders are in fact rational, and that they are just pandering for support from an irrational political base. Arguably this could be true. Nonetheless, it does not fully address the “rational decisionmaking” issue. It just poses the issue in a different way: How important to Iran’s leadership is the support from an irrational political base, and how far would Iranian leaders go to maintain that support?

In the case of Iran, the assumption of a “rational decisionmaking leadership” is a slim reed on which to base a strategy.

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8 Comments

  • Gaz says:

    Ahmadinejad has no authority over Iran’s nuclear program or foreign policy. This is under the complete control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei and the Assembly of Experts (a group that bears a number of similarities to the old Soviet Politburo).

  • Stephanie says:

    I actually burst out laughing when I read the part about the rain clouds.
    Gaz, that’s interesting about the Ayatollah Khameini actually being the one responsible. This video

    seems to suggest he’s for it. He definitely has some extreme views about the US and Israel, but comes across as slightly more sedate (eh em … sane) than Ahmadinejad.

  • tunde says:

    “Mursi and the MB are riding a tiger in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. They were elected to create a Salafist (larger sense) sharia law state. There are still many people who are against this kind of thing in Egypt. The US did everything it could to deter such people from revolt but they are still there. Mursi needs to keep burnishing his salafist credentials with his base. This means defiance of the West, particularly America, and the norms of Western behavior such as our belief in freedom of speech and the international law involved in the Vienna Convention of 1961 0n diplomatic missions. A confrontation with the US just fits the bill for Mursi. He has been to Riyadh and Teheran recently. Who knows how much money he has been promised in support of such a crisis with the US? Don’t forget. The Saudis play it both ways, always. Mursi and company also understand very well how delicate BHO’s position is when operating this close to an election. Last and by no means least, Mursi is not a “rational choice” kind of guy, in the sense that “rational choice” is understood in Western international relations studies. Does that means that Mursi does not make rational choices? No. It does not mean that. He makes rational choices. He is a believer and he chooses Allah first, last and always. That is the same choice he made when he chose to leave his teaching job in California.. ”
    Col (rtd) Pat W Lang
    The good Col has been frighteningly accurate re the evolution of the arab populist insurrections.

  • Tunde says:

    Sorry Bill,
    I posted referencing Mursi. I think the Iranian regime, after pouring in unknown billions into their illicit nuclear program will not risk radical jihadi elements of the type they are now battling in conjunction with the Assad regime to get their grubby mitts on their prized possession. The Iranians are very aware of their place in ME history and I believe would be mindful of the enormous consequences for Persian history if they were to act in an irrational manner.

  • Luca says:

    Seriously, guys, anybody still has doubts as to who is in control in Iran? To the extent that the President can have effective authority in a country whose institutions (political, military economic) are topped by a SUPREME LEADER WITH SUPREME AUTHORITY, Ahmadinejad is a spent force. He was trounced at the latest Majles elections by Khamenei’s allies. The nuke program is controlled by the IRGC who in turn owe their loyalty to Khamenei. So the question of who is control or who would give the order to weaponise, should be a no-brainer at this point. And the jury is still out as to whether rationality or millenarian messianism is the driving force informing the decisions of the radical clergy…good luck to us all!

  • Roy says:

    Egypt is taking the EXACT path Iran took after the fall of the Shah, or after he was left to hang by Carter….
    To understand the forces almost requires to have family involved, this it entirely and completely the opposite of western ideals/logic, primitive if not stone age logic.
    Hope the Ottoman Empire returns, that would be the least costly means to control radical Islam, after all they did it for centuries…either way it’s the tip of an Islamic iceberg and we have a President that at best has divided loyalties between his faith and supposed country.

  • Port Blair says:

    Not being Jewish myself but knowing the history
    of the ancient land it makes me wonder what was Angela Merkel thinking when she made such
    asinine statements -such as she did today. Clearly
    she is in a state of buffoonery.
    The politically spineless leadership
    in Europe fail to see that its Israels turn today tomorrow it is theirs. Knowing Germans well
    the people on the ground in Germany
    are very tired of this political correctness.
    There is no coexistence of German society and Islam!

  • Assholio420 says:

    I’m not really sure if iran’s leaders would remain rational, and the idea of M.A.D. Doesn’t work on Islam, they are happy being martyrs, they would gladly destroy themselves and their country to kill some shaytan. I’m all for them having nuclear power , and medical procedures, but we all know that Iran will be supplying every Islamic nation with fission material.

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