A nuclear Iran is too much to risk / The Islamist regime usually behaves rationally. But occasionally, it doesn´t (LA TIMES OP-ED) By Alan J. Kuperman 04/02/12)
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As calls mount, especially in Israel, for military action against
Iran´s nuclear program, the main counterargument has been seductively
simple: Iran is rational. Indeed, our country´s top military
official, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, recently rejected the need for
airstrikes because, as he put it, "We are of the opinion that the
Iranian regime is a rational actor."
By this logic, we should not risk war to prevent Iran from going
nuclear because even if Iran acquired nukes, it would never use them
offensively, never share them with terrorists and never utilize them
as a shield for regional adventurism. To do so would risk nuclear
retaliation, which would be irrational.
Although I disagree with the general´s conclusion that we shouldn´t
take action, I do believe his underlying assumptions are mainly
right. The Iranian regime is mostly rational most of the time. Its
rhetoric is blustery, but its actions typically are moderated to
avoid provoking retaliation.
For example, Iran has so far avoided kicking out international
inspectors and launching a crash program to build nuclear weapons,
the steps most likely to provoke airstrikes. Instead, Iran permits
inspectors to verify that it is enriching uranium to a significant
degree, in direct contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions,
in amounts for which it has no civilian need but that would
facilitate a bomb program.
Although this strategy has provoked economic sanctions, it has also
permitted Iran to both proceed steadily toward a nuclear weapons
capability and avoid military retaliation. According to the latest
inspection, Iran is producing enough 20%-enriched uranium each year
to fuel its one nuclear research reactor for 15 years, which would
make no sense. But that production rate is also sufficient for one
bomb per year, if further enriched for just a few weeks, which
suggests a perfectly rational strategy.
The problem is that Iran does not always act quite so rationally.
Rarely, but repeatedly over the years, it has launched attacks that
seemed to invite massive retaliation, for apparently little gain.
Iran´s targets have included the U.S. Embassyand Marine barracks in
Lebanon in 1983, the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in
Argentina in the early 1990s, and the U.S. military´s Khobar Towers
in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Just last year, the Iranians were behind a
botched scheme to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United
Some might argue that even these attacks were rational because Iran
avoided massive military retaliation. But that was partially luck,
and in any case Iran did suffer significant economic and diplomatic
punishment. By any objective measure, the Iranian regime ran risks
that greatly exceeded expected material benefits, the very definition
We don´t know exactly why Iran acts so irrationally from time to
time. One possibility is that the regime itself is rational but lacks
full control, so that extremist factions act autonomously on
occasion. Another is that domestic politics drive the regime to
appease extremist factions from time to time. Or it´s possible that
the regime´s own radical Islamist ideology sometimes overwhelms its
Whatever the reason, the reality is that Iran seems to act rationally
most — but not all — of the time. This has two major strategic
First, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it probably would not use
them, share them or ramp up regional aggression with them. Yet there
is a nontrivial chance — let´s call it 5% — that Iran would utilize
its nuclear weapons in such an aggressive fashion.
Second, if Israel or the United States launched surgical strikes on
Iran´s key nuclear facilities, Iran probably would act rationally by
not retaliating broadly against U.S. interests, which would risk
provoking a major U.S. military escalation that could end the Iranian
regime. Yet there is a nontrivial chance — again, perhaps 5% — that
Iran would retaliate in such a broad manner, drawing the United
States into a larger military conflict.
This clarifies the strategic choice for the United States: a small
chance of Iran using nuclear weapons offensively in the future if we
don´t launch airstrikes fairly soon, or a small chance of escalated
conventional war with Iran in the near term if we do.
Is it a 2% chance? A 10% chance? We can´t know; but we do know, based
on Iran´s past irrational actions, that it´s not zero.
So, which of the two should President Obama choose? The small chance
of an escalated conventional war against Iran, in which we would
enjoy overwhelming military superiority? Or a similarly small, but
significant, chance that Iran would use nuclear weapons aggressively,
inflicting massive casualties?
Is there really any question?
Alan J. Kuperman teaches military strategy at the LBJ School of
Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, where he also
coordinates the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project
(www.nppp.org). (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles Times 04/02/12)
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