Irrational Rationality: Iran’s Leadership
“We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor” – General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In the debate about the best course of action to end the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, the major assumption of those advocating diplomacy armed with the pressure of economic sanctions is that Iran’s conduct reflects a reasonable mindset.
This line of thought holds that the Iranian theocracy is like any other conventional nation state that makes reasoned calculations based on its national interests. Accordingly, with the right mix of incentives and disincentives the Iranian regime’s leaders will respond in a positive fashion and therefore, not only can an unpleasant if not costly military conflict be avoided but also for all practical purposes it should be deemed unnecessary.
This is a questionable assumption underlying a question of potential life and death.
One of the major questions posed by historian Robert Andrews in his book The Storm of War: A New History of World War II was what led Hitler to make major errors that ultimately led to his defeat. His miscalculations in judgment included gratuitously declaring war on the United States after Pearl Harbor thereby bringing in the heretofore isolationist American behemoth that would otherwise have been focused exclusively on Japan; the decision to invade Russia before finishing off Britain thereby fighting an unnecessary two front war eventuating in the disastrous winter campaigns on the eastern front; and the decision to divert important transportation and human resources to the unrelenting program of exterminating the Jews when such resources were much needed in the war effort – not to mention the loss of fleeing talented Jewish scientists that could have assured Germany getting the atom bomb long before her adversaries.
Andrews’ answer can be summed up in just four words: Hitler was a Nazi. “Many of his worst strategic blunders were the result of his ideological convictions rather than military necessity.” That is to say that Hitler was a fanatic who fervently believed in Nazism and its racist ideology and the superiority of the so-called Aryan Übermensch. Accordingly, Hitler held his enemies in contempt while convincing himself that they could not withstand Germany’s superior forces thus leading him to grossly underestimate his foes.
That did not mean, however, that Hitler was irrational in the sense that he could not deploy logical reasoning and think both tactically and strategically in approaching various problems, both politically and militarily. He was clearly able to engage in duplicitous diplomacy, taking advantage of many of those in the West during the nineteen thirties who felt they could do business with Herr Hitler by dismissing Nazi ideology as so much propaganda for the masses.
Today we are facing an Iran that is a radical Shi’ite theocracy led by clerical leaders who are messianic driven fanatics dedicated to bringing about the return of the hidden 12th Iman-Mahdi through an apocalyptic war against the infidels, most notably the Jews living in Israel. In this ideological context, the attainment of nuclear weapons by this regime is problematic to say the least.
This does not mean that the Iranian mullahs will not occasionally make moderate sounding statements or shrewd tactical adjustments when necessary. They are not suicidal per se. They are ‘rational’ when it comes to taking whatever steps are necessary to preserve their power in pursuit of their ultimate religiously driven objectives.
Sometimes, for example, this has taken the form of engaging in talks with the West about their nuclear program in order to fend off pressure while buying time to reach their goal.
But it is a mistake to downplay or ignore the religious ideology of Iran’s political leadership. While economic sanctions may lead them to make tactical adjustments, it would be a temporary action in the spirit of ‘two steps forward one step back.’
There are those who believe ( and hope) that sanctions inflict major economic hardships and will lead to regime change via an uprising among the Iranian people. The last time a popular uprising occurred, after the fraudulent 2009 elections, the regime did not flinch from brutally suppressing dissent. And regrettably the United States turned its back on the Iranian people. Everyone would like to believe that regime change could be brought about by a popular revolution that will spare the West from having to disarm the Mullahs through force. But don’t count on it.
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