Fareed Zakaria argues that (1) “at the heart of the concerns surrounding the deal with Iran is [the] simple question [of] whether Iran is rational” and (2) Iran’s foreign policy has, for decades, been rational. Zakaria also takes critics of President Obama’s “deal” to task for claiming both that Iran is not rational and prescribing a policy — racheting up pressure — that presupposes Iran’s rationality.
Zakaria’s analysis is shallow in all respects. First, substantial concerns surround Obama’s “deal” even if Iran is rational. The question of Iran’s rationality goes to whether Iran will use nuclear weapons, not whether it will develop them. It is perfectly rational for Iran to develop nukes, since doing so will make it even more powerful. Indeed, developing nukes has been part of the foreign policy that Zakaria celebrates as rational.
A nuclear Iran is certainly of concern. Such an Iran will initially have an enormous ability to project its power in the region, to the detriment of U.S. interests and those of our traditional allies.
To counter that influence, major Arab states will very likely develop nuclear weapons. A Middle East in which the major players, including countries whose governments are not inherently stable, have nuclear arms is not in America’s interests.
The perils of a nuclear Iran are so obvious that even President Obama made it his stated objective to prevent Iran from obtaining that status. Sooner or later, a rational Iran will obtain it under the deal that Obama is willing to accept.
Second, we should not assume that Iran is sufficiently rational not to use nukes under any circumstances. Looking at Hitler’s Germany in the summer of 1939, one would have concluded that it was rational. All of Hitler’s major policies — e.g., rearmament, the Anschluss, the Munich agreement and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pact with the Soviet Union — had come good.
Like Hitler’s Germany, the Iranian regime has behaved rationally, and extremely shrewdly, in consolidating domestic power and in becoming a dominant regional force. Like Hitler, the mullahs have known when to negotiate and just how to play the negotiation game.
But this doesn’t mean that once Iran becomes the overwhelmingly dominant force in the region, it won’t disastrously overreach or miscalculate. Hitler did, and he’s but one example of a tyrant who behaved rationally on the ascent only to lead his people and his region into ruin once on top.
Do I believe that the mullahs will use nukes against Israel, Arab states, Europe, or America? No. But I agree with Benjamin Netanyahu whom Zakaria quotes as warning that “you can’t bet on their rationality.” Not when you’re betting your life.
Finally, there is no inconsistency between concern that a nuclear Iran will behave rationally and the view that it’s possible to influence Iran’s behavior by racheting up pressure. Even if the regime were bent on dropping nukes on Tel Aviv, it’s first priority would still be staying in power. Possessing the survival instinct doesn’t entail rationality in other respects.
Thus, Iran is susceptible to pressure. This explains why it came to the negotiating table in the first place.
I’m not suggesting that the U.S. can apply enough pressure to dissuade the mullahs from going nuclear. At this point, with the sanctions regime loosened and difficult fully to resurrect, Iran’s most rational move is to proceed with its nuclear weapons program whether or not we try to sanction it. Indeed, proceeding to develop nukes probably would have been the most rational approach in the face of the previous, robust sanctions regime, had not Obama offered relief.
Even so, I believe that our most rational approach is to inflict maximum pressure and pain on the regime via sanctions and other methods, so as to enhance the prospect of regime change and/or test the mullahs resolve to go nuclear, while keeping military options in the forefront.
Zakharia’s apparent prescription — stop worrying about a nuclear Iran because the mullahs are rational — seems misguided, if not irrational.