Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law and is a professor at Purdue University.
From the beginning of the nuclear age, deterrence has rested squarely upon assumptions of rationality. But what, exactly, is meant by "rationality," and does present-day Iran really meet this expectation?
Recently interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes, Meir Dagan, former chief of Israel's Mossad, stated: "The regime in Iran is a very rational one." Moments later, however, Dagan hedged a bit, indicating that it was "not exactly our rational," and that Ahmadinejad was "not exactly rational based on Western thinking." In essence, Dagan was saying only that Iran's leadership displays "logical thinking." There was nothing in his remarks to suggest that this regime would consistently value national survival as its very highest goal.
Ideally, therefore, Iran would still be prevented from becoming a nuclear weapons state. After all, even if we can accept Dagan's particular assessment of Iranian rationality, that country's prospective nuclear force commanders might still sometime choose to value certain preferences more highly than national self-preservation. Such a scenario of failed nuclear threat dynamics is improbable, but it is surely not inconceivable.
For several tactical reasons, the remaining prospect of any operationally viable pre-emption options for Israel and/or the United States is dimming quickly. This requires, especially for Israel, heightened preparations for active antimissile defenses. It will also require, contrary to a prevailing notion that "irrational" adversaries cannot be deterred, the implementation of certain new forms of deterrence.
What does this mean? Irrationality is not the same as madness. Unlike a "crazy" or "mad" adversary, which would have no discernible order of preferences, an irrational Iranian leadership might still maintain a distinct and consistent hierarchy of what it wishes. The top of this hierarchy would be represented by certain clear and widely held religious values and sites.
Although such a leadership might not be deterred by more traditional threats of military destruction—because a canonical Shiite eschatology could actually welcome "end times" confrontations with "unbelievers"—it might still refrain from attacks that could elicit harms to its religious values. Obviously, Iranian concern for safeguarding the holy city of Qom should come immediately to mind.
It is also plausible that an Iranian leadership could simultaneously value certain of its core military institutions, and would also be deterred by credible threats to these institutions. A prime consideration would be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the power behind the Iranian dictatorship, the principal foe of the Iranian people, and the current leadership's main instrument of repression. Here, it would be purposeful for Washington or Jerusalem to hold at risk the Guard's physical facilities, its terrorist training camps, its navy of small attack boats, its missile program, the homes of its leaders, and its space program. To be excluded from Israeli and American-generated vulnerabilities, however, would be most civilian targets, and also those military targets which are not identifiably Guard-related.
A nuclear Iran would be dangerous to Israel and the United States even if its leadership were, in fact, entirely rational. After all, miscalculation, or errors in information, could still lead a perfectly rational adversary to strike first. In these circumstances, even the very best antimissile defenses would be inadequate.
This is because such defenses would require a near-100 percent reliability of intercept to be useful for any "soft-point" protection of cities; this extraordinary degree of reliability could never be reasonably expected. In such systems, there would always be too much "leakage."
If Iran was presumed to be rational, in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences, Washington and/or Jerusalem could begin to consider certain benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan, warned: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother." In this crude but effective metaphor, Dayan had already understood that, sometimes, it can be rational to feign irrationality.
There may have been a core element of precisely such reasoning by President Kennedy, during his handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Many years ago, when I was cochairing a panel at the Naval Academy with Admiral Arleigh Burke, the former chief of Naval Operations repeated to me what had earlier been published by Ted Sorensen, JFK's biographer: Kennedy believed that his actions (the quarantine of Cuba) entailed potentially even odds of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
But what if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most about its national survival? Here, there would be no deterrence benefit to assuming any posture of pretended irrationality. The more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel and/or the United States in this case would likely be no more compelling in Tehran than if Iran's enemy were considered rational.
"Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?" inquires Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV. While this query does have residual relevance to our current security concerns with Iran, the mounting strategic challenges from that country will be more apt to come from decision-makers who are not "mad," and who are still more-or-less "rational." Soon, with this idea in mind, an idea plainly accepted by Meir Dagan, Israel, and the United States, preferably in close cooperation with each other, will need to fashion a focused strategic doctrine from which essential policies and operations can be suitably extrapolated.
This framework for decision would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; pre-emption; active defense; strategic targeting; and perhaps nuclear war fighting) with critical survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these discrete strategic options. Calculating these interactions or "synergies" will present a computational task on the very highest order of intellectual difficulty.
Nuclear strategy is a "game" that sane and rational decision-makers must play, but to compete effectively, a would-be victor must always first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality oneself. These are undoubtedly complex and glaringly imprecise forms of assessment, ones that will require corollary refinements in intelligence and counterintelligence, but they are also indispensable.
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