Imagine two men planning for years to escape from a high-security mental institution that is surrounded by 100 walls. On the night of their escape, they reach the 99th wall, and one asks the other, “Are you tired yet?”
“Yes,” says the second one. And so they go back to their cells.
Are Iran’s leaders that crazy?
In the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, Western policy is guided by a key assumption: Iran’s decision makers are rational actors, and their calculations about their nuclear program are driven by cost-benefit analyses. By gradually increasing the costs of Iran’s nuclear pursuit, Western decision makers believe, Tehran will eventually concede.
They are only half right. Western expectations that Iran will behave rationally and agree to a compromise under the increasing pressure of sanctions ignore Iran’s perspective on the costs already incurred, the price of completing the journey and the advantages of turning back. For Iran, it is far more rational at this point to accelerate the program and reject any agreement the West would be prepared to sign.
Historical precedents demonstrate that Iran’s decision makers are not impervious to cost-benefit analysis. One such instance was the decision, by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to agree to a cease-fire with Iraq in the summer of 1988.
Ayatollah Khomeini had previously refused to entertain such a possibility — for him, defeating Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a religious duty. Yet he was able to reverse the religious imperative to avoid greater damage. But he could have made that calculus in 1982, when, two years into the bloody conflict, Iran had managed to reconquer all Iranian territory that Iraq had initially captured following its surprise attack in September 1980.
Iran’s leaders knew their army was woefully unprepared and underequipped to conduct a war of conquest against a vastly superior Iraqi Army. But they chose to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of young lives in pointless trench warfare reminiscent of World War I because they understood that under the cover of conflict they could consolidate the still fragile government and defeat all residual opposition to Islamic rule — a rational choice at the time.
Ayatollah Khomeini ended the war when it became clear that the front was collapsing and discontent was undermining his rule. In short, letting the war go on was rational in 1982, and so was ending it in 1988; the difference was half a million dead and the fact that Iran was on its knees.
Paranoia played a part as well. The accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner over the Persian Gulf by an American warship convinced Iran’s leaders that the United States was prepared to commit any evil in order to guarantee Iran’s defeat. That tragic episode was not intentional. Yet, in Iranian leaders’ paranoid worldview, it was evidence that America was prepared to commit murder on a grand scale to defeat their country. Their paranoia was then, and remains now, integral to their cost-benefit analysis.
The Iran-Iraq war was not the only instance when Iran’s leaders made the right choice after exhausting all other alternatives. In 1997, the Iranian regime realized that murdering its exiled opponents abroad was counterproductive. But Iran reversed itself only after its direct responsibility in a chain of brazen murders across Europe could no longer be denied.
After a German court indicted Iranian hit men and Iran’s then intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, for a 1992 massacre at a Berlin restaurant, European countries withdrew ambassadors from Tehran and severed diplomatic relations. Iran, again, was on its knees. Only then did a sensible decision occur.
What lessons can one learn from these precedents?
In their long and labyrinthine path to nuclear weapons, Iran’s leaders have gone as far as the men who reached the 99th wall. No matter how hard, painful and difficult the last jump may be, it is but a stroll compared with the arduous journey undertaken by Iran in its nearly 30-year pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Why, then, should anyone expect Iran to renounce its aspirations now, when the goal appears within reach? And why would the prospect of some economic hardship alone persuade Iran to turn around, when the end of its journey is in sight?
As tough as the current sanctions against Iran are, they will work only if Iran is brought to its knees once again. The pain inflicted must be far greater for the country to see backtracking as preferable. Iran is a rational actor; and it cannot be dissuaded at this point, barring extreme measures.
If Western nations wish to avoid a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf and prevent a nuclear Iran, they must adopt crippling sanctions that will bring Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse. That means a complete United Nations-imposed oil embargo enforced by a naval blockade, as well as total diplomatic isolation. And they must warn Iran that if it tries to jump the last wall, the West is willing and capable of inflicting devastating harm.
Otherwise, Iran’s leaders will rationally conclude that it is better to make a run for their money rather than stop at the last wall and pull back.
By Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps