Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

The Meaning of "Rational"

Needless to say, I don’t agree with the main thrust of David Rothkopf’s recent piece casting doubt on the notion that a nuclear Iran would be susceptible to the standard logic of nuclear deterrence. To Rothkopf’s credit, he (sort of) avoids the trap of casting Iran’s leadership as “messianic” and unconcerned with their own destruction. I also more or less agree with the logic he lays out in the following graph:

The first flaw [of the "rational actor" view of Iran] is that the core problem associated with Iran getting the bomb is not Iran. It’s that their getting the bomb moves us toward a world in which irrational, deterrent-immune actors become so much more likely to get it. This could either be due to one or more weapons falling into the hands of extreme elements in the network of extremists supported by Iran or, more likely, due to the triggering of an arms race in the region that will, necessarily, geometrically increase the likelihood that the weapon falls into the hands of a terrorist or non-state actor who literally has nothing to lose in the event of a counter-strike.

This seems correct, and is one of the reasons that I view nuclear proliferation as being so dangerous in general. Each new nuclear actor creates multiple new avenues, in the form of its bilateral and multilateral relationships with other nuclear powers, that could lead to a nuclear crisis. The more opportunities there are for such a crisis to emerge, the greater the chance that some leader, some time, for some reason, will make a decision that sparks a nuclear exchange. In addition, as Rothkopf implicitly points out, each new nuclear actor must develop its own security protocols, oversight policy etc., increasing the chance that some time, for some reason, some non-state actor will get its hands on nuclear weapons. This is unlikely to happen at any given time, but enough spins of a revolver will eventually chamber a round. None of this, though, points to Iran as specifically dangerous. It is only dangerous insofar as it adds yet another player to the game of nuclear chess.

Rothkopf goes off the rails, though, in his attempt to portray Iran as especially likely to spark a nuclear conflict because it could somehow be in its “rational” interest to do so:

The second flaw is that even a “rational” actor in Tehran might well conclude the use of nuclear weapons against Israel, for example, was worth the risks entailed. They might, for example, note that a first-strike with even very few weapons might effectively destroy Israel, whereas any counter-strike in Iran would likely be very targeted and have comparatively limited consequences. There is no “mutual assured destruction” here because it is so unlikely anyone would respond with the intent of destroying Iran. Especially if the first strike took place at a moment in which Israel was engaged in an unpopular action — for example, against Palestinians that other Iranian agents like Hamas or Hezbollah could easily foment. That is because in such circumstances, the world might not widely agree to lean hard into Iran, might fear the consequences on the global economy of an all-out war in the region and almost certainly would bend over backwards to reduce or eliminate civilian casualties. Indeed, the likely response would be a move to depose the current regime in Iran but given the cost and time involved in recent regional wars, you can just imagine how eager the West would be to pull its punches, even post-atrocity. (Doubt it? The Taliban effectively sponsored the preparations for the 9/11 attacks, as, in all likelihood, did elements associated with Pakistan’s intelligence service. And we’re already back in bed with one of these groups and adjusting to the reintroduction into Afghan political life of the other.) In any event, the calculation is not the same trade of oblivion for oblivion that U.S. and Soviet strategists faced.

First off, were Israel a victim of a nuclear strike from Iran, it would not likely need to rely on other powers to retaliate. Israel possesses, by most estimates, at least 200 nuclear weapons, as well as the standard triad of aircraft, missile and submarine delivery systems that ensure second strike capability. Indeed, the aircraft arm looks to be strengthened by Israel’s upcoming purchase of F-35s. I see no reason why Mutually Assured Destruction wouldn’t apply to the Iran-Israel relationship as well as it has for the America-USSR or India-Pakistan one. Second, barring Israel becoming more estranged from the West than is practically conceivable, the notion that the United States and its allies would not respond with terrifying force to a strategic nuclear strike against Israel seems far-fetched.

In a larger sense, though, under what scenario does Rothkopf imagine an Iranian strike against Israel would be “rational” (in the sense of being responsive to incentives and disincentives)? For what purpose would such a strike be “rationally” launched? Rothkopf seems to suggest that Iran would just decide to create a pretext for conflict that it could then use as an excuse to nuke Israel, but it is unclear what Iran would hope to gain by doing so unless its own regime security were seriously threatened by the Israelis. Iran’s clients in the Levant, needless to say, would probably not appreciate being irradiated by a nuclear strike in their backyards. Iran’s global diplomatic relationships would be shattered. There would almost certainly be severe economic consequences. Finally (to repeat), all this assumes that both an Israeli and Western military response would be muted, which is simply inconceivable to me.

In other words, in order to accept that Iran could “rationally” bomb Israel, even in a scenario in which the Israelis were somehow unable to respond, and in which Western countries were somehow unwilling to respond, one must accept that the Iranian leadership would want to in the first place, just for yuks. One must, in other words, return to the “mad mullah” logic that Rothkopf claims to eschew. It’s not a view that I buy, but it is at least consistent with the rest of his argument.

Just to be clear, I really don’t want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. I think it would damage U.S. interests, be terrible for the region, and extremely harmful to efforts to revive the moribund nonproliferation regime. Still, when trying to formulate an appropriate policy response, one should be clear on how concepts like “rational” apply to the situation.

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