In Preemptive war against Iran, I stated that a nuclear Iran might be undeterrable. There are numerous instances of Iranian civilian and military leaders actually talking about winning a nuclear war, while celebrating the cult of religious martyrdom. These statements, along with other evidence that Islamic clerics – particularly those in charge of a nation state – frequently (usually?) behave irrationally, are strong evidence that Iran is willing to initiate a nuclear exchange, which is ipso facto irrational.
Or is it? I want to pick up from my earlier discussion and assume that Iranian leaders are actually coldly rational and see if that provides a counter to my argument in favor of preemption.
Back in the 1960’s, futurist and nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn took Bertrand Russell’s metaphor of Cold War nuclear deterrence as a game of “Chicken” to illuminate a “winning” strategy in a nuclear showdown. To explain the strategy, permit me this brief digression. In the classic version of the game, two people drive their automobiles toward each other at high speed. The first person to swerve away is a “chicken” – a coward – and therefore a loser of status. As was often the case when young males did something suicidally stupid, the “winner” would be the one who “got the girl”. (A variant of the game was played in Rebel without a cause, the trophy being Natalie Wood.) The only outcome that benefits both the players is for them to swerve simultaneously; thus, neither is declared a “chicken” and both demonstrate their bravery. If, however, they both bore in – neither swerving - and collide, although they prove their bravery they both die. If only one player swerves then the other knows it is safe to continue ahead and “win”. In game theoretical terms, Chicken is a variant of Prisoner’s Dilemma. The difference is that in Prisoner’s Dilemma, the optimal strategy is to always “defect” – to always rat out your crime partner – whereas in Chicken the optimal strategy is to try to do the opposite of what your opponent is doing. Thus, if you figure your opponent is going to swerve, you should never swerve; if you figure your opponent is never going to swerve, then you should.
Given the dual Nash Equilibria in Chicken – that is, the two cells in which players make opposite choices are favored – there is a potential advantage to the player who can communicate to the other player ahead of time a strong resolve to win. (Note: there is what might be termed a ternary equilibrium in the form of a randomized or “mixed” strategy in deciding when/if to swerve. The utility of such strategies is not germane to this discussion.) One way of communicating resolve is for a player to ostentatiously remove the steering wheel of his car and throw it out the window before the game begins. He has thus eliminated the possibility that he can engage in rational self-preservation behavior. His rational opponent, seeing this, can’t win and must therefore concede defeat. Another possible strategy is for one player to give every indication that he is a suicidal maniac who really would like to crash head-on. Again, the rational opponent should concede defeat since his best outcome from choosing not to swerve is to be killed in the head-on crash with his crazy opponent.
Since Chicken is really all about making rational choices based upon your opponent’s intentions in order to win, a player who is irrational (that is, suicidal) or who feigns irrationality obtains a strategic advantage over a rational opponent.
Given the foregoing, consider then the possibility that Iranian leaders are playing the initial phase of a game of Chicken: they are giving a very good impression of wacked-out religious nuts for whom death in battle with the Infidel is actually desirable. Nuclear war is not to be feared – it is to be embraced as just another form of Jihad. When the Iranians have nukes, the appearance of irrationality would be beneficial by giving them a free hand to pursue their militant, jihadist goals. The obvious risk of appearing irrational now, before they’ve acquired nukes, is that either the U.S. or Israel may preempt conventionally and destroy their nuclear weapons infrastructure. Thus, the Iranians maintain official ambiguity as to their intentions when dealing with the external world. No one seriously believes that the Iranians aren’t developing nukes but the ambiguity is enough to satisfy the spineless appeasers who control most of Western Europe along with their counterparts in the U.S., who wield considerable political power. Israel is obviously much more problematic for the successful realization of this strategy but the Iranians could reasonably expect that the U.S. would keep Israel in check – in other words, if the U.S. doesn’t act, Israel probably won’t either. The U.S. is obviously playing its version of the game: the sale of equipment to Israel that would be needed for preemption (for example, bunker busters) is rather like throwing the steering wheel out of the car window. “We have no control over the Israelis, and they’ve demonstrated in the past they will preempt,” is the message we’re trying to send. The Iranians – rightly in my opinion – believe this is a bluff.
Once the Iranians actually have nukes, then all of the groundwork they’ve laid will bear fruit. “Rationality is the Achilles’ Heel of the decadent Americans and we can push them around at will.” The US behavior toward North Korea is instructive, where Kim Jong-Il appears to be winning a game of Chicken with the U.S. Iranian leaders can expect similar treatment.
The scenario of rational mullahs who read Schelling, Kahn, Rapaport, and other Cold War game theorists and are employing a strategy of studied irrationality does not, however, mean that the Iranian leaders are ultimately deterrable. For one thing, it should be pretty clear that the “rational” Iranians I’m positing have come up with an asymmetrical payoff matrix for their game of Chicken. In other words, they assign much lower payoffs to the U.S. for winning and higher costs for losing. Remember, the Iranian mullahs really do believe that we are decadent. Losing a small number of soldiers (by every historical military standard) in Iraq has produced a large domestic U.S. political movement calling for withdrawal. I believe that the Iranians have greatly overestimated our lack of resolve or “decadence”. This is extremely dangerous because it suggests that a nuclear Iran will continue to play Chicken. In fact, it is easy to imagine a crisis in which an Iran with a few dozen nukes and an ICBM delivery system – probably achievable early next decade – would blast one major U.S. city. The Iranians would expect that, worst case, the U.S. would only respond in tit-for-tat fashion and then negotiate on terms favorable to Iran. Thus, they would anticipate that they could fight and win a limited war. Of course, if they’ve misjudged us, they would be obliterated.
My conclusion is, there is no functional difference between suicidal religious fanatics with nuclear weapons and consummately rational Dr. Strangeloves with nuclear weapons who feign religious nuttiness in order to pursue a “deep strategy” of brinksmanship to achieve their aims. The Iranians give every indication that they believe they can win a nuclear war. That’s why they must never be permitted to develop nuclear weapons.