Behind this simple phrase looms an important and influential foreign policy thesis; namely, that a nuclear-armed Iran could be reliably deterred from employing nuclear weapons. After all, we are often reminded, despite the dire warnings of scores of experts, scholars, and peace activists (myself included), quite a few nations have acquired nuclear arms over the last several decades, and none have employed them. What explains this nuclear restraint, we are told, is that nations who possess such deadly arms fear that if they strike, they will be wiped off the face of the earth by the retaliatory strikes sure to be launched by rival nuclear states.
This thesis that nuclear deterrence can be reliably achieved through the threat of mutual destruction, so called ‘rational deterrence theory.’ attained a prominent place in American security policy at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, it worked well; the superpowers did not come to nuclear blows—though on several occasions they did come dangerously close to the brink.
Over the years, this rational deterrence theory gained popularity in Political Science and International Affairs departments as well as in the military. Some scholars have even advocated the proliferation of nuclear weapons in developing nations as a way of bolstering security. For example, in the early 90s, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer pushed for encouraging a newly independent Ukraine to maintain an arsenal of former Soviet nuclear weapons. And, in 2000, he pushed for encouraging a nuclear-armed India. In both cases, Mearsheimer argued that nuclear proliferation would enhance security, because “Simply put, no state is likely to attack the homeland or vital interests of a nuclear-armed state for fear that such a move might trigger a horrific nuclear response.”
The same rational deterrence theory suggests that even rogue states, such as a Kim Jong Il’s North Korea or Mahmoud Ahmadinijad’s Iran can be counted on to act rationally regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Former CENTCOM commander John Abizaid believes that “Nuclear deterrence would work with Iran” since "Iran is not a suicidal nation.” “We can live with a Nuclear Iran,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assures us, because it knows that “to threaten, much less carry out, a nuclear attack on a nuclear power is to become a nuclear target.”
I am one of those who holds that the opposite is true; that many states—Iran, among others—have leaders who are very capable of acting in ways that are profoundly irrational, hence posing a serious threat both to other countries as well as to their own. We now have a new report that says volumes on the limits of rationality of heads of state.
George Piro, the FBI agent who interrogated Saddam Hussein over several months, has just revealed what he learned about the Iraqi dictator’s mindset leading up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. It turns out that Saddam did not expect that the U.S. would respond to his WMD posturing with a full-scale ground invasion. Saddam “told me” Piro says, that “he initially miscalculated ... President Bush's intentions. He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 ... a four-day aerial attack…He survived that one and he was willing to accept that type of attack." This was not merely some minor tactical “misunderstanding” or “miscalculation” on Saddam’s part; it turned Iraq into an occupied land, caused hundreds of thousands of casualties, a regime change, and, ultimately, his execution.
(One reason Saddam opened up to this rather low-ranking agent was that he believed that the agent was a direct emissary from President Bush. This suggests how gullible even heads of state can be—not exactly what we’d consider rational.)
The conclusion is not that the next American president should refuse to talk or negotiate with the likes of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinijad. After all, we talk even to mental patients. However, to dismiss concerns about verbal threats made by such leaders, especially when they are backed up with nuclear arms, is nothing but irrational.