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Going Mad over MAD

The doctrine of mutually assured destruction assumes that rational actors will be guided by self-interest. But the historical record shows Iran is willing to accomplish relatively minor gains at huge cost to its civilian populace

The question has been floating around for some time now: “Is the Iranian regime a rational actor?” This question is more than relevant for military strategists who subscribe to the Cold War nuclear deterrence model known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD contemplates the dynamic between two adversaries armed with enough nuclear weapons to survive and respond in kind to a first strike. The threat of catastrophic retaliation creates an equilibrium whereby both sides lose the incentive to be the first to attack. MAD theory postulates that even if Iran does acquire nuclear arms, it would not use them against Israel, as such use would be akin to national suicide, given the expected Israeli nuclear response. Instead, Iran would be locked into a cold war with Israel – a nuclear paralysis comparable to that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the latter half of the 20th century.

Proponents of MAD rely on the assumption that a “rational” state actor will not commit acts that will almost certainly result in the annihilation of a major portion of its own population and infrastructure, e.g. acts such as a nuclear first strike against an enemy state that possesses second strike capability (in this case, Israel). Most foreign policy analysts agree that since the revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic has sufficiently demonstrated it is a rationally behaving entity. Even Israeli ex-Mossad Director Meir Dagan has been clear on this point. Assuming Iran is a rational actor; can we safely assume a nuclear equipped Iran would be deterred from attacking Israel under the principles of MAD?

MAD about the bomb

MAD doctrine’s presumption that rational actors will be guided by a self-interest averse to wholesale devastation to its populace and infrastructure is dangerously flawed. The historical record shows Iran is willing to accomplish relatively minor gains at huge cost to the Iranian civilian populace. The military tactics of Iran during its decade-long war with Iraq in the 1980s evidence a shocking disregard not only for Iraqi civilian life, but for Iranian lives as well.

Perhaps most abhorrent was the decision by the Iranian military to clear mine fields by sending tens of thousands of untrained boys to their certain death. Enticing children to commit suicide involved the invocation of the Islamic notion of martyrdom through jihad. Plastic necklaces with “keys to paradise” were purportedly given to the children prior to their ghastly mission.

In a similar vein, thousands of children and other untrained Iranians were recruited for suicide missions in which human waves would run toward enemy artillery installations to make the path easier for Iranian troops and tanks. Massive enemy civilian casualties were the intended result of the “War of the Cities,” a  relatively dark period of the Iran-Iraq War during which both sides barraged each other’s population centers — ostensibly to crush enemy morale.

 If a moderate like Rafsanjani can envision a nuclear exchange with Israel as a positive for Iran, what are we to expect from his more extreme cohorts?  (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)
If a moderate like Rafsanjani can envision a nuclear exchange with Israel as a positive for Iran, what are we to expect from his more extreme cohorts? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

Iran has already proven its willingness to target innocent Jewish populations for mass execution. Iran was formally charged by Argentinean prosecutors for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires — a civilian facility — that claimed 85 innocent lives. Unbeknownst to many, Iran’s current minister of defense, Ahmad Vahidi, is one of five men wanted by Interpol for his involvement in the 1994 slaughter.

Iran continues to target civilian populations in Israel through its allies Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which fire Iranian rockets into Israeli towns, such as Sderot and Kiryat Shmona, where no military bases exist. During the recent Gaza flare-up, the IDF for the first time destroyed launching pits for long-range Iranian Fajr-5 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

At least one former president of Iran, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has rationally calculated that a nuclear exchange with Israel would be in Iran’s interest. In 2001, he was quoted as saying:

If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.

In the recent parliamentary elections of early March, candidates much farther to the right than Ayatollah Rafsanjani — those more closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei — won the day.  Election results helped to consolidate the power of Khamanei, the real power in Iran and the real force behind Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its intransigence to a negotiated outcome. If a moderate like Rafsanjani can envision a nuclear exchange with Israel as a positive for Iran, what are we to expect from his more extreme cohorts?

The Iranian regime has shown rationality in the sense that it balances costs against benefits before determining a particular course of action. However, as demonstrated above, the value it assigns to human life is drastically lower than here in the West. Predicting Iran’s behavior once it acquires nuclear arms, if that’s even possible, requires taking this distinction into account. Given the low cost they ascribe to Israeli and Iranian casualties, the benefits of a first strike become more pronounced.

For Iran, apocalypse now

Iran is weak, and its economy is in a shambles. A war with Israel may play into the hands of the Iranian regime under these circumstances – to deflect blame, to silence dissent, to galvanize domestic support and to regain the sympathies of the international community. If war breaks out, there is no telling where it will end. If Iran is backed into a corner and the regime threatened, eliminating once and for all the “cancer” of the Middle East, Israel, through nuclear attack could be an option rationally drawn and increasingly attractive. This is not to say it is a likely outcome, or reason to take a knee-jerk alarmist position at the present time, but the plausibility of this outcome shouldn’t be so easily discarded because Iran is a rational state actor.

We are told Iran hasn’t invaded a country in 300 years. We are told government-led chants of “death to Israel” are not actual threats but rather benign rallying cries for the suffering Palestinians. We are told to ignore the fervor with which the current regime embraces the apocalyptic brand of Shi’a messianism – which requires global upheaval and war as a precondition to the return of the hidden mahdi (messiah).  And though Iran’s regime is steeped in devout fatalist religiosity, we are told to ignore this fact and the repetitive references to Israel as the incarnation of Satan on earth and the “enemy of Islam.” As for Israel, we are told it suffers from an “Auschwitz mentality,” always exaggerating the risks to its security.

Even heeding these spurious warnings and disregarding entirely the possibility of an irrational element to the Iranian regime’s thought-process, the historical record is clear: A nuclear Iran may not be deterred from a first strike based upon the principles of MAD.

About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania