Iranian rationality: a lesson from Robert McNamara

Beyond the Prism: Even if one assumes that the Iranian regime is a rational actor, there is no guarantee that it would not make bad decisions, or commit costly mistakes.

Robert McNamara 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Robert McNamara 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Due to their apocalyptic ideology, the rationality of Iranian leaders is disputed.
Nevertheless, even if one assumes that the regime is a rational actor, there is no guarantee that it would not make bad decisions, or commit costly mistakes.
In the past several months there has been a dynamic discussion about whether the Iranian leadership would behave rationally in the possession of nuclear weapons. This discussion about rationality comes down to policy implications regarding the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran.
Believers in Iranian irrationality point to the religious factor and apocalyptic worldview in Iranian decision making, and argue that deterrence cannot work because of the ideology of the regime. The return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, has been a central element in many of Ahmadinejad’s statements. He believes that the return is imminent, and is supposed to occur after global chaos. Ahmadinejad even prayed for this to come true in one of his addresses at the United Nations General Assembly: “O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.”
Even worse, there are indications that Ahmadinejad believes that he is obliged to adopt policies that can hasten the return of the Mahdi.
He declared after winning the elections in 2005 that the Islamic “revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi.”
Those who claim Iran would act rationally in the possession of nuclear weapons assume that Western deterrence will be sufficient to handle the threat. Since Iranian leaders are rational, they well understand that retaliation would be devastating.
Fareed Zakariah, for example, pointed to historical parallels in his recent article in The Washington Post: “After World War II, as the Soviet Union approached a nuclear capability, the United States was seized by a panic that lasted for years.
Everything that Israel says about Iran now, we said about the Soviet Union. We saw it as a radical, revolutionary regime, opposed to every value we held dear, determined to overthrow the governments of the Western world in order to establish global communism. We saw Moscow as irrational, aggressive and utterly unconcerned with human life. After all, Joseph Stalin had just sacrificed a mind-boggling 26 million Soviet lives in his country’s struggle against Nazi Germany.”
Zakariah claims the Soviets, the North Koreans and the Pakistanis were all successfully deterred by mutual fears of destruction. He doesn’t see the Iranian regime as less rational, and believes that it won’t be the first to introduce nuclear weapons, suggesting that just like the US learned to live with Soviet nuclear weapons, so could Israel.
The concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) with the Soviet Union was first fully described in a speech by former US defense secretary Robert McNamara 50 years ago. The doctrine of MAD assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side, and that either side has a second-strike capability that would allow retaliation with equal or greater force. The idea of assured destruction means that it would be irrational initiating a nuclear attack since it would inevitably lead to one’s own destruction.
The MAD theory was already put to the challenge in the same year, in October 1962, when the Soviet Union deployed missiles with nuclear warheads to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Many observed that the world never came as close to a nuclearmissile war as then.
In 2003, an American documentary film titled The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, was produced. The plot revolves around an interview with the former defense secretary. McNamara’s second lesson – “Rationality will not save us” – was based on his experience during the Cuban missile crisis.
I want to say – and this is very important – at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.
According to McNamara the major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis was that the “indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.”
In the documentary McNamara also referred to a meeting in January 1992 with Fidel Castro that took place in Havana, Cuba, when McNamara finally found out about the exact quantity of weapons – 162 nuclear warheads – that were placed on the island by the Soviets. McNamara followed this up by directing three questions to Castro: “No. 1: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? No. 2: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of a US attack that he use them? No. 3: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?” According to McNamara’s account, Castro responded: “No. 1: I knew they were there. No. 2: I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. No.
3: What would have happened to Cuba? It would have been totally destroyed.”
UK Foreign Minister William Hague warned recently of a new cold war, and added that in the Middle East such a scenario would be a catastrophe since the region does not necessarily have all the “safety mechanisms.” But even during the Cold War, McNamara confirms, it was only luck that saved the world from a nuclear confrontation.
In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was adopted by Congress, which served as the legal justification for president Lyndon Johnson for deploying US forces against North Vietnam, based on a report that torpedo attacks took place on August 2 and 4 against US boats.
In 2005, declassified documents concluded that at the first incident the Americans initially ordered fire, and not the Vietnamese. Regarding August 4, no attack happened that night, but probably false radar images were involved.
Even if one assumes that the Iranian regime is a rational actor, there is no guarantee that it would not make bad decisions, or commit costly mistakes. Sometimes decisions can be perfectly rational but based on perceptions, false assumptions by misreading the other side, or on bad intelligence. Hence the expression describing the huge uncertainty during military conflicts: the fog of war.
Rationality will not save us.
The writer is project coordinator at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.