What does rationality mean for Iran?
Dr. Reuven Berko
The Iranians are now engaged in stalling games while their centrifuges continue to spin. They wait for a meeting with Western representatives, then demand that it take place in Istanbul. They threaten Israel, bluster over the Strait of Hormuz as if they were a world power, and send warships to the Syrian port of Tartus in a gesture of support for President Bashar al-Assad. Between talks and rejectionism, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaps from rope to rope like a circus performer, mocking us all. The sanctions meant to topple him are softened as he falls into a diplomatic and economic safety net.
This net is most likely being held by China, Russia and Iranian satellite countries that are openly flouting Western powers. They oppose America’s leadership role in the region and appear to be aiding Iran with food, fuel and liquidity. For the time being, Ahamdinejad is able to sidestep the siege around him and proceed with his nuclear project, while the Iranian people rage and shudder with fear.
Is there any rationality behind Ahmadinejad’s acrobatics? Circus performers tend to be rational actors who have assessed the risks and benefits of their stunts. A normal person would not jump out over the abyss. Game theory suggests that people with similar circumstances, constraints and opportunities, which you would think would lead to a single rational decision, can in fact arrive at very different decisions, which may, in our view, harm their own interests. It’s hard to decide who is “rational” and how they will act, particularly when the circumstances surrounding their decision are different from ours. Ahmadinejad’s decision will be influenced by his cultural, religious, social and national background along with thousands of other components.
Our human tendency is to look at others as a reflection of ourselves and expect them to behave as we do. This is our error in assessing Ahmadinejad’s next possible steps, as he is likely also be influenced by religious and Islamist impulses. Indeed, in our region, which most resembles a violent bar in a bad neighborhood, a thug who shouts, “Hold me back!” doesn’t really mean to fight. Ahmadinejad sees the threats from Western leaders and Israel, and mocks us. “If they meant it, they would already have beaten me up.” That is how Ahmadinejad analyzes us, the enemy.
Reams have been written on the question of whether Iran’s radical leadership is, in terms familiar to the West, a rational actor. Mountains of paper are devoted to question of how much Shiite religious belief from the “downtrodden of the earth” school of thought may lead Iran’s leadership to acts of insanity and state suicide, as in the unthinkable use of weapons of mass destruction against others, namely Israel.
History depicts many Islamic leaders as rational men who carefully measured their steps in the face of a potential loss of reputation or loss of Muslim life. Still, it is difficult to define the components of Iranian rationality. Does it contain cost-benefit considerations accepted in the West – for instance, preserving the state and its assets, keeping the regime in power, or protecting the welfare of its citizens? Given what we know, we cannot define the basis for deciding whether Ahmadinejad is irrational and prepared to go to the brink, or whether he can be deterred. Another difficulty is trying to imagine U.S. President Barack Obama in the role of Clint Eastwood, actually pulling out a Colt 45 and shooting. Ahmadinejad knows that those who talk don’t shoot. Therein lies the real problem.