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Can we really live with a nuclear Iran?

We like to think that rational actors always act the part. But what happens when supposedly rational actors pursue irrational objectives in a rational manner?

Marc Goldberg has written an interesting and thoughtful post on why he believes Israel can live with a nuclear Iran. I don’t know if Marc is right. I hope — against hope — that he is. But I have my doubts.

Much of this, of course, concerns whether Iran is or is not a rational actor. Yet the debate over whether Iran is a rational actor misses a fundamental point: that Iran is rationally pursuing its objectives of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony for a fundamentally irrational goal: to make the region safe for militant Sh’ia Islam and obeisant to rule by the Mullahs and the Supreme Leader himself.

We like to think that rational actors always act the part; it’s comforting to think so. What we ignore is when supposedly “rational” actors pursue irrational objectives in a rational manner.

One such instance, ironically coinciding with the nearness of the 67th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, is provided by the behavior of Japanese leaders in the waning days of World War II.

The debate over whether the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan were necessary or not also misses a fundamental truth unacknowledged by either side of the debate: that even the dropping of both bombs did not in fact convince Japan’s war leaders of the necessity of surrender; by sheer luck of circumstances, it was only the Emperor’s intervention in response to the dropping of the bombs, that ended the war.

As historian Gerhard Weinberg has found, American intelligence was monitoring Japanese diplomatic correspondence between Tokyo and their diplomats in Moscow and other capitals in the months prior to dropping the bomb, and Tokyo was adamant in its replies to its diplomats abroad that “the Japanese government would not accept the concept of unconditional surrender even if the institution of the imperial house were preserved.” These intercepted communications, along with watching the Japanese literally fight to the last man at battles like Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and plaster countless American ships with thousands of kamikazes, communicated to American policy-makers the fanatical intractability of the Japanese determination to fight to the bitter end, no matter the hopelessness of their situation.

Yet the Japanese can be found at this time rationally pursuing a hopelessly irrational goal — victory. The evidence, indeed, is clear that even the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 and the Soviet declaration of war on August 8 had absolutely no influence on the Japanese to even consider surrender. The Japanese minister of war, General Korechika Anami, on the day the Soviets declared war, even went out his way to deny that an A-Bomb had in fact been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. Then the government, tiring of denying the obvious, announced that the dropping of the bomb was “contrary to international law” — having brutally and brazenly violated every conceivable tenet of international law for the preceding decade and a half, the Japanese now demanded its protection.

When the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, the Imperial Council convened to meet that night and even then, incredibly, still resisted the option of surrender. While acknowledging that the Americans had as many 100 A-bombs left (they actually had none), Anami nonetheless urged that Japan fight on, and that the if the Japanese people “went into the decisive battle in the homeland determined to display the full measure of patriotism…Japan would be able to avert the crisis facing her.” He was seconded on this by the chief of the army general staff, Yoshijiro Umezu, who was fully confident of the military’s “ability to deal a smashing blow to the enemy,” and that “it would be inexcusable to surrender unconditionally.” Admiral Soemu Toyoda, chief of the navy’s general staff, also spoke confidently of unleashing the reserves of air power (read: kamikazes) that they had accumulated on the home islands, and asserted confidently that “we do not believe that we will be possibly defeated.”

Keep in mind: These were the sentiments expressed by Japan’s leaders after the Soviet declaration of war and the dropping of both A-bombs.

Further, even at this stage, they were planning a series of offensive actions despite their plight. They had been training an outfit called the Yamoaka Parachute Brigade of some 300 kamikaze soldiers who would be landed by submarine on the coast of California to shoot their way to aircraft factories in Los Angeles. They planned a similar attack on the Marianas islands involving some 2000 suicide soldiers. The former operation never got rolling because of the end of the war, and the latter was only thwarted when Admiral Halsey received intel on the attack and targeted the 400 planes being readied on August 14, 1945. The Japanese were indeed beaten, but they still had plenty of fight — and bite — left among them. And they did not think they were beaten.

It was at this point that the emperor intervened and made clear Japan’s acceptance of the Allied terms with the condition that the position of emperor be retained. Yet even this encountered fierce resistance from the fanatics in the military clique, and they resolved on the reversal of the emperor’s decision by way of a coup d’état. It might have succeeded had Anami lent his support to the coup, but he would not defy the emperor and the plot failed. Unwilling either to surrender or defy the emperor, he resolved his dilemma by suicide. But for Anami’s action, Japan would undoubtedly have fought to a far bloodier end for all concerned.

Some indication of both the fanatical resistance to surrender and the extent to which the Soviet declaration, the two A-bombs, and even the emperor’s decision to surrender had not dented the Japanese will to fight can be gauged from an August 15 message to Tokyo from General Yasuji Okamura, the commander of the army in China:

I am firmly convinced that it is time to exert all our efforts to fight to the end, determined that the whole army should die an honorable death without being distracted by the enemy’s peace offensive…Such a disgrace as the surrender of several million troops without fighting is not paralleled in the world’s military history, and it is absolutely impossible to submit to the unconditional surrender of a million picked troops in perfectly healthy shape…

Field Marshal Terauchi, commander of the Southern Army, had this to say on the Allies’ agreement to grant surrender terms in reply to Hirohito:

Under no circumstances can the Southern Army accept the enemy’s reply.

The emperor considered the bomb the decisive factor in his decision to intervene and lead the initiative to surrender. Said Hirohito: “We must put an end to the war as speedily as possible so that this tragedy will not be repeated.” Premier Suzuki said that Japan’s “war aim had been lost by the enemy’s use of the new-type bomb.” Hirohito, in his August 14 speech to the nation said:

The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but it would also lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects…This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.

The evidence is thus compelling that the Japanese leadership was adamant that there would be no surrender even if the emperor had been retained, and that not even the Soviet declaration of war combined with the dropping of both A-bombs was sufficient to persuade Japan’s military leaders of the necessity of surrender. Just the opposite: they were even more determined than ever to fight on however hopeless the situation.

And while the importance of the Soviet declaration of war toward reinforcing the hopelessness of Japan’s situation should not be overlooked, it is clear that the emperor’s intervention was decisive in accepting the surrender terms, and that the bomb was decisive in forcing his intervention. Had he not intervened, there would have likely been a full scale invasion of the home islands, causing hundreds of thousands of fatalities.


Rational actors thus do not always act the part expected of them, and the calculus in determining rational from irrational behavior often founders in confusing our own interests with those of the party whose actions we are attempting to discern, and how we perceive them to be, or what they should be. By any standard of rational behavior, Japan was hopelessly beaten by the summer of 1945, yet their leaders did not perceive themselves as beaten, and not even the dropping of both A-bombs and the Soviet declaration of war were sufficient to dent their confidence in final victory. Thus they continued to coolly and rationally pursue an utterly irrational course of action despite the A-bombs and the Soviet declaration, and would have continued it for God-knows how long but for the emperor’s intervention.

What all of this portends with regard to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and how they will behave once they have it, is uncertain. But, at the very least, there is reason to be wary.

The current Iranian regime, not unlike the former Japanese leadership in some ways, is a militant, inwardly decaying totalitarian theocracy whose main export, other than petroleum and a few other delectables, is terror and support for terror. As in all totalitarian regimes past, Iran’s leaders tolerate no opinion but their own, rule by force and fraud, feed on hatred, and must keep seeking new targets, new victims, new scapegoats, and new objects of hatred to divert from the misery and failure of their tyranny. The regime is thus a tangle of both dangerous strengths and vulnerable weaknesses, and the supreme leader views America and the West with a combination of fear, contempt, and hatred.

Even if we grant that they are currently pursuing a cost-benefit approach to spreading terror against their enemies and obtaining a nuclear weapon, that is no guarantee of future rational behavior if they obtain one.

The mullahs are exponents of a brand of hysterically intolerant, militant Islam the likes of which the world has never witnessed, and which has now spawned a host of imitators in the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. The most extreme of French and Russian revolutionary political traditions combines here with a millenarian, violently proselytizing Islam where jihad is waged against the infidel, and where the modern apparatus of scientific terror substitutes for the spreading by the sword.

The priorities of this regime, in fact, are a checklist of irrational pursuits, though rationally pursued. Terror, fomenting sectarian conflicts, perpetuating violent anti-Semitism and denying the Holocaust — to what rational end? To grow their economy? To improve the lot of those they govern? What do such actions achieve except the enhancement and perpetuation of Iran’s pariah status among the world of nations? The answer: They satisfy the duty of jihad. All for jihad. Jihad, Jihad, Jihad. That is the guiding principle of this regime to which all interests are subordinated, and to which the lives, aspirations, and fortunes of the Iranian people are but fodder.

The mullahs, it must also be said, devote an inordinate amount of effort and expense into the activities of their terror proxies and toward vilifying and deligitimizing the Jewish state and Jews in general, and their propaganda is crowded to suffocation with much of the exterminationist and eliminationist rhetoric so beloved of Hitler and Himmler. The past words and deeds of this regime, in short, do not point to a benign, stabilizing stewardship of regional influence should they be armed with a nuclear weapon; quite the contrary.

For example, was the recent attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in America a rational act? Was the risk — possible war with America — equal to the reward? What was the reward? What did they gain, compared to what they might have lost?

The Soviets, it must be said, never went that far toward directly provoking America. Only on one occasion did the Soviets overstep and miscalculate — the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. That was it. During the rest of the Cold War, the Soviets, no matter what, could always be trusted to look to their interests pragmatically. In the post-war period, the Soviets indeed followed to the letter Lenin’s dictum that when your spear hits flesh, press on; and when it hits steel, withdraw.

Against the Americans they gave the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese arms, funds, and advisers — that was it. Their interventions against East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979 were all shrewdly calculated to exclude the possibility of American intervention, and their proxy wars in East Africa and Central America in the late 1970s took place in the wake of America’s post-Vietnam paralysis and withdrawal from responsibility, where they calculated correctly against any interference from Jimmy Carter, who, until his eyes were opened with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, was busy appeasing the Brezhnev regime and excoriating his fellow Americans for their “inordinate fear of Communism.”

Whatever the level of tension at any time since 1945, America and the Soviet Union were never out of direct contact; there was always a whole host of lower-level contacts from the ambassadorial level right up to a direct phone link between the American president and the Soviet general secretary. There are no such contacts between America — or anyone else — with the supreme leader of Iran that can prevent either side from the kind of misunderstandings that can lead to conflicts. And every such conflict would carry the danger of a potential nuclear confrontation.

The path toward removing or stunting Iran’s ability to develop a weapon by force is fraught with peril and uncertainty. There are so many unknowns, and so much can go wrong. Nobody in their right mind wants to even contemplate this dangerous course of action, and Americans understandably are not looking for another Middle East conflict. But what the Israelis need from us in America more than anything else now is candor and specifics about how the eventuality of a nuclear-armed Iran is going to be prevented and/or blunted, instead of the hazy doubletalk and petty partisan backbiting they have been getting from us so far. And let us, please, hear no more of “crippling” sanctions and the like; let us all, American and Israeli alike, know what must be done, what can be done, and what will be done if it is not done. Our leaders, both in Israel and America, owe us all that much, at least.

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.