Is Iran “rational”?

In a message on Wednesday, January 11, 2006 1:25pm, Christopher Julian writes:
Realists believe that rational decision makers will respond in similar ways to comparable circumstances. The key word there is rational.. In the introduction, Kenneth Waltz’s theory is used with the example of a billiard table where actors will react in the same way, regardless of domestic influences such as whether or not the state is a democracy or a dictatorship. I disagree with Waltz. Kim Jong Il is not a rational actor. Neither is the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, therefore, they will not make the same decisions as rational actors. Whether or not you agree with the American policy in Iraq, most will agree that Saddam was not a rational actor and had not been a rational actor for some time. So, in that case, why would the world expect a rational response from an irrational dictator? Same with Iran, rational actors do not say that an entire race or religion of people or Israel should be killed. So, why are we surprised when he wants to resume nuclear programs for “Energy” Yah right! (Little Humor). All I am saying is that for there to be Rational Decision making doesn’t there need to be rational players making the decisions? -Chris

For the sake of argument (I don’t really believe anything I’m about to write), let’s say that Kim Jong Il, Saddam and Iran’s president are all rational…rational meaning one can predict their actions, not that we agree or believe the actions to make sense. The analogy in psychology or sociology might be an alcoholic; if one knows one is an alcoholic, it’s not rational TO drink, yet -knowing alcoholism is a disease- isn’t it “rational” that without a strong support system an alcoholic WILL drink? There was a fascinating discussion between several of you guys about the Iranian president… one of you postulated that he is saying what he’s saying for specific internal reasons… or maybe even external reasons… the West’s uncomfortableness with Iran and N.K makes the West more likely to deal with them because of the West’s fear… its a modern form of brinkmanship: these rogue nations are “taking the West to the brink.” In Saddam’s case, he went too far. Iran, N.K., and for that matter Syria, want to take us far enough to the brink to get a deal (NK wants rice and non-military nuclear technology) without getting invaded or overthrown. In the case of Saddam, I read a fascinating piece on how rational he was…he knew he couldn’t have WMD without getting into trouble with the US/UN, yet at the same time he knew that without the threat of WMD that he had a lot less leverage to keep the Kurds, Shiite Iraqis, and Iranians at bay. The piece went on to say that he then, around 1996 or so, made the rational decision to A) get rid of his WMD but also B) pretend like he still had them. Perhaps the issue isn’t whether the actors are rational, but whether we can figure out their “rationality”? (like I said, I don’t really believe it, so how did I do at convincing you all?)

The Psychology of Diplomacy

In message 720 on Wednesday, January 11, 2006 8:27pm, Shelton Williams writes:
Rhetoric, not policy and it is an incomplete guide to what a Government is “thinking.” Sometimes you have to deduce what a state was really up to after the fact. Sometimes leaders miscalculate how their actions or rhetoric will affect others’ behavior. That does not mean that rational calculation is absent their actions. Apply Realism’s clever aphorism to Iran’s behavior: “The Strong do what they can; the weak do what they must.” Deter the US; balance Israel; stir up nationalism in a society that suffers economically, or gains the most out of tense negotiations before essentially giving in. Are any of these possible? Or like this week’s question suggests, are other social and psychological factors at play? Well, Alexander George’s piece covers a lot of the psychology.

For example, Iran (and for that matter the other two members of the ‘Axis of Evil’), put a lot of value on “Calculated Procrastination. As George puts it: “leaders go so far as to conclude that the best strategy of leadership is to do as little as possible” (Kaufman, 684). Playing the UN, Russia, and France off of the US in Iraq and Iran or playing the UN and China off of the US in Korea is textbook ‘calculate procrastination.’ George also covers bolstering which might be exemplified by NK’s launching of missiles over Japan and the near-simultaneous attempt to negotiate for peaceful nuclear technology. In bolstering, the North Koreans “increase the attractiveness of a preferred option and do… the opposite for options which one is inclined to reject. Thus, the expected costs/risks are minimized. Similarly, the expected gains from rejected alternatives are downgraded; their expected costs/risks are magnified” (Kaufman, 685). If NK just asked for non-military technology, no one would give it to them; however, if they shoot a missile over Japan and then ask for non-military technology, then SK, Japan, and the US scramble to negotiate. Thus, the spoiled child is taught to scream.

Diplomacy and War: Vietnam, and Iraq

At what point does a nation have the right to go to war without the blessing of the international community? Russia did not ask anyone if it could go to war with Chechnya or Afghanistan. Yet, Russia was adamantly against the use of force in Iraq. Jordan, Syria, and Egypt never asked permission to invade Israel. Did the United Kingdom ask permission to retake the Falkland Islands, when Argentina declared they wanted them back? Do you think that China will go before the U.N. to annex Taiwan?

Interesting points, but I would question comparisons to other wars.

1) Chechnya is an internal/civil war

2) The invasion of Afghanistan was an unjust, aggressive war perpetuated by a declining power in order to artificially mask internal problems and project a greater sphere of influence forcibly. The current government of Russia, while it has not made a complete break from its past is a significantly different country…would you say it was inconsistent for France to resist Nazi aggression since France itself sought to aggressively conquer Europe under Napoleon? I wouldn’t.

3) When Egypt, Jordan, and Syria invaded Israel, there was no “Israel” sort-of-speak…Israel was a paper creation of non-Middle Eastern powers by imposing UN Resolution 181. Nearly every new country was created by a conflict with its neighbors and/or previous owners of the land (perhaps with the exception of the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution). Of course, they wouldn’t ask the UN, since it was the UN which had imposed Israel on the Middle East.

4) Again, the Falkland Island War, the UK was responding to an aggressive war by the Argentinians. A better point might have been to ask if Argentina asked to invade the islands, however, its worthy to note that many believe Argentina was baited into taking the Falkland Islands (

5) As for any possible mainland Chinese invasion of Taiwan, no China would not ask the UN because (as in the case of Chechnya) the tension between mainland China and Taiwan is technically an internal matter. In fact, there is no country in the world that recognizes both “countries,” even the UN itself recognizes only one.

Most importantly though, the invasions of Chechnya and the Falkland Island were a response to attacks by the Chechnyans and Argentinians respectfully. Therefore it is nearly impossible to compare these conflicts to the Iraq War in which there was no prior attack by Iraq.

Also, we did not fight Vietnam alone. How about Australia, New Zealand and The Republic of Korea? Likewise, we are not going it alone in Iraq. How about Australia, England, Spain, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Japan? Saying the United States is fighting alone is misleading. The United States is not going it alone; it is going it without the United Nations and there is a difference. Just throwing some food for thought out there. Nothing personal.

Technically you are correct and so I obviously agree with you. On the other hand, it is my understanding that when the comment “going it alone” is made, it is meant figuratively rather than literally. Waltz (p.302) points out that at any given point, there are only eight powers. Only one of the world powers backed the US invasion, while the others opposed it. One of the best differences between the two coalitions in 1990/91 versus 2003 is that in 1990 the US received active military support from regional (and Muslim) powers. No regional powers or countries gave any military support to the war in 2003. Turkey, a member of NATO, even refused the US access to Iraq through Turkey.

I also don’t believe the US use of force in Iraq is not deterrence because Art goes on to say that “If a threat has to be carried out, deterrence by definition has failed” (Kaufman, p.81). I believe Art would call the Iraq War compellence, not deterrence.

Finally, I agree with the basic problem you’ve identified…”At what point does a nation have the right to go to war without the blessing of the international community?” It seems to me that there three types of war: formation, aggression, and defense/response. The US has fought eleven major wars and I would divide them as follows: Formation (AmRev, 1812, Civil War), Aggression (MexAm, SpanAm, Vietnam, Iraq), and Defense/Response (WWI, WWII, Korea, Persian Gulf). Few people question wars fought (if it’s successful) or in defense/response. Nor do I believe a country needs international blessings. But to initiate an aggressive war without an international blessing is what seems questionable.

Fair or not, the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq start early in that they were both begun with lies…The Tonkin Gulf Resolution and Colin Powell’s Presentation to the UN.