Jay, you raise a great point about the rationality of those who think Iran is a rational actor. People who think Iran armed with nukes will be rational, and can therefore be deterred, invariably contradict themselves when asked whether Iran can be deterred from getting nukes in the first place, through the threat of military strikes. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey thinks that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by attacking American targets in the Middle East. But that would not be the response of a rational actor — on the contrary, it would be highly irrational for Iran to launch an overt war against the U.S. over something some third country did to it. If Dempsey really is afraid that Iran would react in such an irrational way, then how can he possibly think Iran is a rational actor?
If you believe Iran will respond rationally to deterrence once they have nukes, then to be consistent you must also believe that Iran will respond rationally to deterrence now. If, on the other hand, you believe that Iran would react irrationally to military strikes, then you must also believe that they may behave irrationally once they get nukes. By contrast, it seems fairly irrational to predict that Iran will be rational in one situation but not in another.
I know there are those who argue that having nuclear weapons makes a state sober up and behave more rationally. Those folks offer China and the Soviet Union as examples. But the Soviets were rational actors long before they got the bomb, and we now know — from Kissinger’s otherwise fawning book On China, that Mao thought the risks of nuclear war quite acceptable from the Chinese point of view, and was fond of telling other leaders that China might lose tens of millions, but the Chinese would just get busy making more babies. Khrushchev was horrified when he heard that, and the Soviets quickly distanced themselves from their seemingly irrational allies. And one can cite other examples — North Korea and Pakistan come to mind — where nuclear weapons do not appear to have increased anyone’s level of rationality.
I happen to agree that the Iranians are rational actors, for purposes of strategic analysis, even taking into account their messianic worldview. That’s why I believe they will be much easier to deter now than once they acquire nuclear weapons and can cause all sorts of problems for us with impunity. If you think Iran is rational, you should want to present Iran with a clear threat of military strikes now. And if you think Iran is irrational, then all the more reason.