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The question policy-makers should focus on isn’t whether Iran would use a nuclear weapon, but how a bomb would embolden an already reckless regime

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Iranian navy conducting wargames in the Strait of Hormuz, January 1, 2012. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Iran rational? That’s the key question policy-makers and experts have been asking for at least the last decade as Iran has gotten closer to bringing its nuclear-weapons program on line.

Rational, of course, is not the same thing as reasonable. A regime that shoots its own people in the streets, as the Iranian government did in June 2009, is not reasonable. In the policy debate, rationality refers to a regime’s interest in preserving itself. A regime is rational, therefore, if it understands that using a nuclear weapon would elicit a response that might spell its doom. An irrational regime is one that can’t be deterred because it may use a nuclear weapon regardless of the consequences.

Thus, the Islamic Republic’s threat last week to close the Strait of Hormuz—a move that would send oil prices skyrocketing—struck many as strong evidence of the regime’s irrationality. Interrupting the world’s oil supply would compel the United States, the guarantor of Persian Gulf security, to take military actions that might mean toppling Iran’s ruling establishment. On Sunday, U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in no uncertain terms that if Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, the United States “can defeat that.”

Others look at Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz as having little bearing on the country’s rationality. Since the Iranians know the Americans would have no trouble breaking through a blockade, their argument goes, Iran doesn’t actually have any intention of trying to close down one of the world’s most strategically vital waterways. This regime understands, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday, that closing down the Strait of Hormuz is an American red line. If Iran crosses it, it jeopardizes its own existence—and so it won’t.

Those that argue the regime is irrational point to the fact that the Iranian regime regularly threatens to destroy Israel, which would retaliate by obliterating Iran. Those that claim Iran is rational write off such threats as mere rhetoric. A nuclear Iran, they say, poses little threat to a much more powerful Israel, never mind the United States. Membership in the club of countries with nuclear weapons might even make Tehran more responsible.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter whether the regime is rational or not. The issue is not whether the Iranians would use the bomb, but how Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would enhance the regime’s already reckless behavior. Moreover, it would severely limit the ability of the United States to respond to the provocations of this dangerous regime. For instance, if a nuclear-armed Iran actually closed the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. officials would be much less confident in their ability to re-open shipping lanes. American policy-makers already worried about high oil prices are not likely to risk the chances of a nuclear incident and even higher oil prices.

It’s pretty easy to make a strong case that the Iranian regime really is suicidal. This is the same ruling clique, after all, that pioneered the use of the suicide car-bombing during the course of the Lebanese civil wars from 1975 to 1990. The Iranians tapped their local allies, namely Hezbollah, for martyrdom operations against Israel, the United States, and other Western powers. The Iranians spent their own blood even more recklessly in the war with Iraq when they dispatched wave after human wave of teenage boys to march through minefields, clearing a path with their bodies. Perhaps most tellingly, the plummeting Iranian birthrate—from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today—suggests that it is not just the regime, but an entire nation, that no longer wishes to live.

No country sets out purposefully to bring about its destruction. And yet history is nothing but the record of nations that have misunderstood the limits of their own power and the resources of their adversaries. Nazi Germany may have been suicidal, but the British Empire was not, and yet at the end of World War II both were finished. No one thinks that the rulers of Athens were irrational, but by the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, their actions had effectively cashiered Athenian democracy.

Jewish leaders between 66 C.E. and 135 C.E. were not irrational, but their revolts against Rome put an end to Jewish sovereignty for two millennia. Furthermore, who is to say that renewing Jewish sovereignty in a sea of Muslim hostility is an entirely rational act? But the rationality of any given government is irrelevant. The question of rationality moves the debate from the real to the speculative—i.e., might a given nation use the bomb at some point? The fact is no one knows beforehand whether any regime is likely to use a nuclear weapon.

The only question American policy-makers should concern themselves with is whether or not a given regime seeking nuclear weapons is already hostile to U.S. interests. If it is, U.S. policy-makers should do everything in their power to prevent that regime from acquiring a bomb. The apparent injustice that Israel has the bomb while the world rues the prospect of a nuclear Iran is a quandary for academics and ethicists—and an entirely inappropriate concern for U.S. officials, whose concerns are much more specific: protecting U.S. citizens, allies, and interests. There is little debate in Washington over Israel’s nuclear-weapons program because Jerusalem has never posed a threat to American strategic interests. Iran, however, has threatened U.S. interests for 30 years.

If or when Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it might drop the bomb on Tel Aviv—or Riyadh, for that matter. But that’s not the main problem. The issue is that Tehran will act in precisely the same fashion as it has since 1979—hostile to the United States and its allies—only now on a much more ambitious scale. And the range of responses available to the United States and its allies will be seriously limited.

Imagine Iran with a nuclear weapon: Tehran will continue to support terror, except that Iranian assets like Hezbollah and Hamas would now be operating under a nuclear umbrella, which will shape Israeli responses. In planning its military strategy, Israel already has to take into consideration world opinion and the strain warfare puts on Israeli society and the economy. Now Jerusalem will have to wonder if crossing the border into Lebanon or Gaza will elicit nuclear threats from Iran.

The Iranians will further extend their reach into Africa and Latin America, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the midst of a regional tour. Allies like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will be emboldened to take otherwise unimaginable risks in Washington’s direct sphere of influence in the Americas. The recently unveiled Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington would be only a taste of things to come.

In other words: If Tehran gets a nuclear weapon, will U.S. policy-makers be prepared to ensure that the Islamic Republic doesn’t make good on a threat to close the Strait of Hormuz?

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More to the point, how irrational is the Israeli government under the leadership of the right wing? I have greater confidence in the reasonableness of the Iranian people than the paranoid Zionist that now lead Israel.

Spengler ? says:

Someone has been reading spengler columns :)

Because great strides in rural healthcare, access to birth control and a reduction in birthrate that largely mirrors the same reductions over the same time period in the US and Europe (and not to mention CHINA) couldnt explain those statistics. it’s most likely explained by a society-wide death wish that youve taken upon yourself to diagnose.

Frank Messmann says:

Once upon a time Quaddafi gave up his fledgling nuclear program — in return for the US promise not to attack Libya. Then the US participated in his murder.

It’s easy to see what conclusion Iran might draw from this.

Spinoza says:

Great article. Lee Smith is the best writer Tablet has (aside from Adam Kirsch).

Spinoza says:

“the paranoid Zionist that now lead Israel”

Come on dude, learn to write already.

“the reasonableness of the Iranian people”

The Iranian people are not calling the shots in Iran these days, or haven’t you been reading the news?

David B. says:

” the reasonableness of the Iranian people ” ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
I love it when American’s out themselves as utterly ignorant.
When my cousin went on language exchange to the US, they asked her if women in her country also have periods. That is the level you are at David.

Binyamin in O says:

On Mr. Smith’s logic, the U.S. should have no problem with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by any state friendly to the U.S. (The real test for the AIPACers is that such states must be friendly to Israel, of course, but they don’t have the guts to say that out loud.)

Thus, it makes perfect sense that Israel decided, in the 1970s, to proliferate nuclear weapons technology to one of the most detestable regimes on the planet at that time, the apartheid regime of South Africa.

Source: “The unspoken alliance: Israel’s secret relationship with apartheid South Africa,” By Sasha Polakow-Suransky.

Memo to the Zionist Lobby in the U.S.: Israel is a nuclear-armed apartheid regime committed to do all it can to wipe Palestine off the map permanently. It can never be in the interests of a nation that has bound such a diverse people as live here in the U.S. together by the promise of democracy to support such a regime by risking another calamitous war in the Middle East.

I disagree with Lee Smith’s conclusion. A nuclear-armed Iran is in fact unlikely to be more aggressive on the international stage than it is today–indeed, it would have a tough time topping Iran’s current level of audacity. Nor would nuclear weapons significantly alter either America’s or Israel’s range of responses: neither was never going to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively in the first place, and their own nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent to Iran’s, should the latter consider a first strike of its own. The confrontation with Iran therefore is, and will remain, essentially conventional in character, much as the Cold War was, despite several celebrated nuclear quasi-escalations (such as Cuba) that in retrospect were basically sideshows.

Few people even seem to think about the Cold War these days, let alone learn its valuable lessons. That’s a shame, because there is no more apt historical model for the Iranian regime than the Soviet Union. Governing a large and resource-rich but poor and backward country, the ruling party in Iran is driven by a totalitarian ideology which predicts its own total world domination as inevitable, and exists only to expand its own power, at the cost of its own oppressed and exploited citizens. However, its aggressive vision and ideologically justified ruthless brutality are matched by extreme tactical caution: it shies away from direct military confrontations, acting almost exclusively through proxies and covert agents.

And how did the US win the Cold War? By challenging the Soviet Union on the political front, exposing its ideology as monstrous; on the geopolitical front, by copying the Soviet Union’s aggressive, proxy-based offense and forcing it to play defense; and on the economic front, by raising the price of global conflict beyond what the Soviets could squeeze out of their enslaved citizens. Against a far weaker Iranian adversary, this same approach is bound to succeed–if only America is willing to try.

Bill Pearlman says:

Why don’t you guys give the zionist/neocon thing a rest. Say what you really want. Which is JEW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

מתי says:

Well put, Lee.

Sandy Clay says:

How can the fury of a nuclear bomb dropped on tiny Israel contain itself precisely within Israel’s narrow, jagged borders? What an amazing bomb Iran threatens to build! They will design it to obliterate only Jews inside Israel’s invisible borderlines. No harm from the blast or from the fallout will come to Israel’s neighbors in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, to say nothing of Gaza and the West Bank. A Jew-seeking bomb? Really?

Lynne T says:

Is David at 11 a.m. on Jan. 11 an new screen ID for our friend Jules, or just a friend of Jules, who prefers to litter the comment boxes with URLs to Mondoweis and other similar “authorities”.

As for Frank Messman’s point, do you think that Qaddafi’s downfall was due his the shallow pretense that his regime had reformed and would no longer engage in or promote terror or do you suppose it was the direct result of still being up to his old tricks, just more discreet about it along with brutally oppressing his own people?

Mike Harris says:

Sandy, since when did the Iranians care about Arab lives either? They were busy trying to kill as many Iraqis as they could a few decades ago, and now they happily send jihadist Lebanese and Gazans off on suicide missions.
Besides that, if they’re going to restore the caliphate under Shiite/Persian rule, they’ll have to go over the bodies of millions of Sunni Arabs to do so. And they haven’t given any indication that this is a problem for them.

And isn’t it time to give a rest to the idiotic “Israel is doing all it can to wipe Palestine off the map” routine? After all, if Israel wanted to do that then Gaza City in 2009 would have looked like Chechneya after the Russians were done with it. How bumbling the Israelis are with their attempts at “genocide” when the population of the West Bank and Gaza continues to grow, when the life expectancy of a Gazan child is greater than a Russian or Turkish child, when obesity rates in Gaza are as high as in Canada….

Binyamin in O says:

To Mike Harris: I said “wipe PALESTINE off the map,” not, “the Palestinians.” The goal is political subjugation of the Arab population, as ethnic cleansing and genocide are frowned upon these days.

Zionism’s goal has always been maximum land, minimum Arabs. A war with Iran would be an excellent pretext to carry out a “final solution” to Israel’s “Arab problem”, however.

Binyamin in O says:

Charlie Rose: If you were Iran wouldn’t you want a nuclear weapon?

Ehud Barak: Probably, probably. I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They have their history of 4,000 years. They look around and they see the Indians are nuclear. The Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear as well as [North] Korea, not to mention the Russians. (at 1:52)

Binyamin in O says:

Meir Dagan on Israeli TV (Hebrew):

Interviewer: {Ehud] Barak says we have to act within the next nine months or Iran will have the bomb. You say we have till 2015. What if you are wrong? What if we wait as you suggest and they get the bomb and the Jewish people face a Holocaust? We will then have a situation we never experienced, in which we will face a nation of madmen with a nuclear weapon.

Dagan: Iran acts as a rational state. It takes into account the implications of its actions [and those of others]. Therefore, it’s not in a mad dash to get a nuclear weapon.

Interviewer: Are you telling me that Ahmadinejad is a rational man [in Hebrew, she calls him a “rational goy”]?

Dagan : I think he is a sophisticated individual, but his audience is not an Israeli or western one. The Iranians are sophisticated, quite wise, and we should not make the mistake of dismissing them.

Sandy Clay says:

Mike Harris — I stand corrected. You saw something I didn’t. Thanks for your insight, although it couldn’t be more frightening.

“Furthermore, who is to say that renewing Jewish sovereignty in a sea of Muslim hostility is an entirely rational act?”

Was it rational for Jews to settle in Europe when all the people’s of the continent hated them?

We are all goyim says:

Cut the jewish/zionist crap.

The question policy-makers should focus on isn’t whether Iran would use a nuclear weapon, but how the jewish lobby must be stopped from making America derailed.

“The owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler, has suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu consider ordering a Mossad hit team to assassinate U.S. President Barack Obama so that his successor will defend Israel against Iran.” –

The editor is jewish, why isn’t there any article about Adler in the jewish tablet jewish magazine ?

America is slowly waking up and realizing how dangerous the jewish lobby zealots are. Kinda fed up with America acting against her own interests, but only into the sole Israel interests – which are clearly opposed, indeed.

Binyamin in O says:

Memo to “all goyim” commenter above: you are an anti-semitic knucklehead. Don’t you realize that the most forceful critics here in the U.S. of Israel are Jewish Americans? Google: Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein, or go to

Plenty of Jews oppose Israel’s policy of seeking regime change in both Tehran and Washington D.C.

We are all goyim says:

@Binyamin in O : That’s it ? Apart calling me “antisemitic” as you would cast a spell, do you have anything to say about the jewish lobby piloting America’s foreign relations and now on the verge of starting World War 3 with a strike on Iran in the name of Israel ?


Binyamin in O says:

Dear Goyim: It’s not a “Jewish” lobby. It’s a pro-Israel (or Zionist, if you prefer) lobby. Many Jewish Americans (and some Jewish Israelis) oppose Israel’s policy of war against the Iranian nation.

Keep in mind that the AIPACers are junior partners in the imperial American coalition. A few moments of attention to the Republican primary candidates (Ron Paul excepted, of course), shows you that it is the right-wing goyim who are the leaders in the sabre-rattling.

Just as George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (Jews? Don’t think so!) got 4000 brave Americans killed in Iraq for no good reason (and triggered a civil war that has killed a half million Iraqis), so too are these same dangerous imperialists promoting a war with Iran.

JustMe says:

Thanks Binyamin and We are all goyim for showing us two sides of the same coin: Anti-semitic based anti-zionism, but in different flavors. You guys should have a reality show somewhere on a deserted island.

We are all goyim says:

@JustMe : Stop barking like a paranoid Jew.

judaism/zionist & nazism are the two sides of the same coin.

There could be an article published on the topic by our host, by the way, entitled : “The jewish roots of nazism” or more precisely “The ashkenazi roots of nazism”.


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The question policy-makers should focus on isn’t whether Iran would use a nuclear weapon, but how a bomb would embolden an already reckless regime

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