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Iranian Crisis & the Rationality of Irrationality

The Iranian Crisis and the Rationality of Irrationality

by Reuben Steff

Iran has just revealed the existence of a second covert uranium enrichment facility. Unclassified US talking points state that the facility would be capable of producing about a weapons worth of material a year and that the facility was “very heavily protected, very heavily disguised” and situated on a military base. This is a clear IAEA safeguards violation and elicited a strong warning from US President Barack Obama, who promised to impose ‘crippling sanctions’ if Iran did not provide ‘unfettered access’ to its nuclear installations.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Saturday that the Iranian nuclear facility proves "without a doubt" the Islamic republic is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in front of the UN General Assembly, condemned the Iranian regime for its “dangerous” polices and also accused the rest of the United Nations of failing to take a stand against Tehran.

Israel is dismissive of the West’s diplomatic efforts to engage Iran. The Netanyahu government believes a nuclearised Iran would pose an ‘existential’ threat to the state of Israel. This fear stems from the belief that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has genocidal designs and is serious when he speaks of wiping Israel off the map. As such it is setting the stage for military confrontation should diplomacy fail.

Israeli Preparations

At a meeting in February Israeli military leaders officially declared Iran to be their number one strategic enemy and that it’s alleged nuclear arms program constituted an “existential threat”. The elimination of the nuclear program is now a top priority.

Towards these ends they have purchased and acquired the most sophisticated American fighter jets, 100 advanced LJDAM (Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition) smart bombs, small tactical nuclear weapons, has tested the Arrow interceptor missile defensive shield, simulated attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and has sent its fighter jets to participate in American war games. It has also been the recipient of unusually large shipments of weapons and has carried out ‘doomsday’ drills that simulate nationwide suicide bombings and missile attacks.

Israel also recently attained Egyptian and American consent to send nuclear-capable submarines through the Gulf of Aden. Moving its naval assets to that position put Israel within striking distance of Iran’s nuclear installations. This is undoubtedly part of the psychological warfare the Israelis have been waging but it also involved real risks to a significant part of its fleet, something it would be loathe to do unless it felt a real need for operational practise. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has just offered Israel use of its airspace should it decide to carry out an airstrike.

Some contend that Israel’s plight is compounded by the fact that there is an emerging policy difference between America and Israel over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This would apparently prevent America giving Israel a green light to hit Iran. This misses the essence of their relationship which is proceeding along a ‘duel track.’ This means that policy differences over political issues are inoculated from the strategic relationship. We saw this recently when US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates travelled to Israel and when America gave Israel the green light to navigate the Gulf of Aden.

But are Israel’s fears warranted? Would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be willing to risk societal suicide for a chance to wipe out Israel, or is he bluffing?

Iran and the Rationality of Irrationality

During the Cold War it was widely understood that the use of nuclear weapons was inherently irrational, since its use threatened to cancel the future. This made threatening to use nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence extremely difficult since such a threat could never be made credible. It was a profound paradox that although deterrence theory assumed rationality it was dependent upon irrational threats to make it work.

The art of trying to appear as though one had ‘lost their marbles’ and could launch an irrational attack became known as the ‘rationality of irrationality’. This allowed the nuclear powers to issue threats that ‘left something to chance’. This did not mean that the threat would be used, or was even particularly credible, but that an adversary could not be entirely sure.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and US President Richard Nixon are remembered as historic figures who promoted irrational images of themselves. Nixon even developed what he dubbed the ‘Madman Theory’, telling his White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman that:

“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ – and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Furthermore, he ordered the US military to full global war alert (unbeknownst to the majority of the American population) in October 1969 as bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons then flew patterns near the Soviet border for three consecutive days. He did this merely to unsettle the Soviets in the hope of achieving leverage in ongoing negotiations.

The utility of the ‘rationality of irrationality’ was most recently endorsed by a US Department of Defence document entitled “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence” in 1995.

Therefore the idea that Iran is governed by people who are insane enough that they would be willing to suffer the annihilation of their country in exchange for a nuclear attack against Israel should be considered highly questionable. Historically the Iranians have not engaged in what could be considered irrational foreign behavior. In fact, most of their behavior is carefully calculated and could be considered risk-averse.

This must be distinguished from their rhetoric, which is inflammatory, threatening, and sometimes outright nuts. We can think of a poker game where appearing to be irrational and unpredictable can cause other players to misread your moves. If every move we played was completely honest and predictable the other players would quickly learn when to bet against us. If anything, this tactic is particularly useful in the post-9/11 world since fears of nuclear technology sales to non-state terrorist organisations, like al Qaeda, only increases Iran’s leverage.

The ‘obvious’ reason to attain nuclear weapons – for military use – is not the reason why Iran is seeking the capability to build a weapon. History tells us that nuclear weapons are not particularly useful in a military sense. The Americans and Soviets, despite their nuclear arsenals, were unable to win in Vietnam or Afghanistan, Israel was unable to deter a conventional military attack by Syria and Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the development of so-called ‘limited nuclear war’ strategies were always so preposterous that they were never considered.

Even Maoist China, the archetypal ‘Rogue State’, never used its nuclear arsenal.

The fact of the matter is that the use of nuclear weapons is not expected to set the stage for satisfactory political outcomes. For example, even if Israel had nuked Cairo and Damascus in 1973 it may not have changed the equation on the battlefield. In fact, it may have inspired Egyptian and Syrian forces to fight harder. The same goes for why they were not used in Vietnam, or Afghanistan, or Iraq.

Military action is not desirable against an irrational actor, since by definition we do not know how they will respond. Consequently Iranian leaders may perceive that nuclear weapons, or the capability to build them, in conjunction with a convincing image of irrationality provide an effective deterrent to outside coercion.

The truth is that Iran is a pygmy when compared to the might of America or Israel’s armed forces. But when it can convince its enemies that it is unstable and that it might do something irrational it attains a mighty deterrent. So if military action is taken out of the equation and sanctions are impossible because a power (like Russia) decides that it has economic or political reasons to circumvent them, all that is left is the ‘carrot’ which Iran will eagerly accept.

Portraying an image of irrationality can be a potent tool but it is also fraught with danger since one’s adversary (in this case Israel) may be expecting rational behaviour. If it takes the image of irrationality to be fact then it may seek to pre-emptively attack before the ‘irrational actor’ attains the means to carry out its mad impulses.

A Coming Storm?

Even if Iran is not the ‘irrational’ state some fear it to be it does not matter because in this ‘game’ perceptions and nerve are everything. Israel may believe that Iran is irrational; it probably isn’t. Iran may believe that appearing irrational can be used for a very rational end: to deter an attack and attain concessions; it may not.

No power knows exactly what is going on and none are in control.

What we do know is that neither the West, nor Israel wants Iran to have a nuclear program. But none have wanted it enough to conduct a preemptive strike and suffer the irrational response they believe would come. But this might change as the crisis enters its penultimate phase.

If Israel strikes the potential repercussions would be dramatic. It is likely that the wider Middle East would be set ablaze, terrorist cells could initiate attacks against western targets worldwide and the global economy dealt a massive blow as oil prices skyrocket. But in Israel’s calculus the alternative - a nuclear capable Iran - would be far worse.


Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at] His blog is

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