Why the Iranians aren’t deterred

I’ve been engaged in a back and forth discussion in this post at ZenPundit. The subject of the post is the rationality of the Iranian regime and the back and forth has been about the effectiveness of deterrence with respect to that regime. My own view is that the Iranian regime is rational i.e. they’re drawing rational conclusions from the evidence they see, they’re just interpreting the evidence differently than we might.

As I see it there are a number of reasons why deterrence is not effective with respect to the Iranian regime:

  • We’ve undermined the principle of deterrence by not buttressing the psychological aspect. During the Cold War, particularly the early phases, we repeatedly re-stated our policy. That is a required part of an effective policy of deterrence since the deterree must believe that you will, in fact, respond to an attack and that conviction erodes with time. We haven’t re-stated our nuclear deterrence policy in some time. Jacques Chirac recently re-asserted France’s policy. It’s high time we re-asserted ours. It’s possible that at this point it’s too late to be credible.
  • For more than ten years (between 1991 and 2003) Iraq was in violation of the cease-fire that ended Gulf War I nearly every single day.  During the period we engaged in a handful of pro forma spasms of activity.  That tended to undermine the credibility of our threats:  the correct time to respond to the provocations was after the first provocation not after a decade.  Iran no doubt expects little more.
  • They read our newspapers and watch our television news programs. I think that it’s perfectly rational after viewing the dissent and the sometimes acrimonious debate on the war in Iraq and its conduct to conclude that Americans simply have no stomach for more war. I believe that’s deeply mistaken but that it’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion.
  • The Iranians believe they have us over a barrel: an oil barrel. The KSA is probably producing as much oil as it reasonably can as is Kuwait and other Gulf producers. Both Nigeria’s and Venezuela’s production can reasonably be seen as unstable. We’ve been unable to get Iraq’s production up or to keep it up due to (possibly Iranian-assisted) sabotage. The likelihood of stabilizing Iraq’s production in the near future is probably nil. Russia probably does have more capacity. Is that enough to stabilize the world’s oil supply if Iran goes offline? I think it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that the disruption to the world economy caused by Iran’s oil production becoming suddenly unavailable will be disastrous. No doubt the Iranians think so, too, and have concluded that we can’t afford to bomb them or invade them.
  • And then there’s this:

    “The Iranian people are not afraid of the threat posed by the United Nations Security Council,” Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, substitute Friday prayers leader, was quoted as saying in a speech to worshipers.

    “Patience and resistance are the two major factors that definitely thwart all plots of enemies,” Khatami said. Khatami also cited a frustrated hostage rescue operation of the United States in 1980, hinting any activity against Iran were doomed to fail.

    “During those days, the sands of the Tabas desert acted like forces of God Almighty and killed them (U.S. troops),” Khatami said.

    In November 1979, five months after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, a group of Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 people hostages for 444 days.

    In April 1980, an aerocade of U.S. aircraft, which was sent secretly by the White House to Iran to rescue the hostages, landed in the Dasht-e Kavir desert near the eastern Iranian city Tabas for refueling.

    But a strong sandstorm caused crash of two helicopters and a C-130 transport plane, which killed several American soldiers and finally led to the abortion of the mission.

    That’s seeing the facts a little differently than we probably do but it is drawing a rational conclusion from the available facts.

So that’s why I believe that, while the Iranian regime is rational, it’s unlikely to be deterred from doing pretty much whatever it cares to do.

7 comments… add one
  • Bemis Link

    Wonderful point about repetition. As commercials teach us, repetition is a key component of forming a new belief, the others being facts and desire.

    They certainly desire to believe we are evil doers chomping at the bit to do them harm. That’s a third of the job done right there.

    As for facts, I dunno about you, but I don’t have the stomach for another war with our current leadership.

  • kreiz Link

    Ultimately, it seems as though your description of Iranian rationality mirrors that of Saddam’s pre-War misperceptions, which were ultimately irrational. Is Iran any different? Namely, is there any set of facts that would dissuade it from not pursuing its nuclear ambitions? I’d suggest not. For example, a rational actor might consider and weigh the fact that in the last 3 years, the US has mobilized force against two ME countries. Hardly an insignificant fact; presumably, one that should be a counterweight to the positive facts you’ve described above. But I don’t believe Iran will assess this risk because of its overriding belief in divine providence. That isn’t rational. Playing chicken with President Bush, backed by thousands of nuclear weapons, would give most countries pause (Libya, e.g.) I don’t believe it will dissuade or deter Iran.

  • I think this post is spot on. “Rationality” is in any case a largely Western concept of dubious value when dealing with the Islamic civilization, especially the Shi’ite sub-set. When hundreds of millions of Muslims believe that “the Jews” were responsible for 9.11 since “Muslims don’t do those sorts of things” it’s rather hard to place trust in a common definition of “interest.”

  • Kestrel Link

    The Iranians aren’t deterred because they’ve covered their bets.
    They signed a billion dollar oil deal with China. It seems to me that
    if we take on Iran, we also take on China. China’s insatiable demand
    for oil will put it on the side of Iran if we close the gulf or wage war
    with Iran.

    A billion dollar oil deal with China is good insurance.

  • Hamsel Link

    Iran may be the factor of bringing a superpower on to its knees. Many Superpowers collapsed over the centuries and the initiation of that started with minor powers. Well I asked a US Strategist and Historian in 2004, “what is your vision about the collapse of US as superpower”? Smiling he replied me, it will be sooner or later, but I dont wish it to happen in my time. During my study as historian we have seen many super powers collapsed unexpectedly and with a cuase that was never forseen by the powers. Who knows how its coming for US…??

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