Shadow Government

Is the Iranian regime rational?

In a recent remark that has stoked considerable controversy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that it is. Dempsey underscored the importance of this assertion when he said that it was based on this conclusion -- that the regime is a "rational actor" -- that he felt the current U.S. approach to Iran "is the most prudent path."

To determine whether Gen. Dempsey is right or wrong, it is important to understand what it means for a government to act rationally. It does not necessarily imply that the government sees the world the way we do, or makes the decisions we would make. Simply put, there are two essential criteria for rationality -- first, that decisions are arrived at through a process of logical reasoning; second, that the decisions made are the best ones given the choices available.

Most discussions of whether the Iranian regime is rational focus on the first criterion. Does the regime make its choices by weighing costs and benefits, or through a capricious process guided by whim and claims of divine revelation? The U.S. intelligence community believes that it is the former: for all of the regime's unhinged rhetoric, the regime is calculating in its decisionmaking. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program puts it this way: "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."

However, this conclusion raises a critical question -- what does the Iranian regime see as costly, and what does it see as beneficial?

This leads to the second criterion for rationality: a rational actor makes the best decision given the choices available. But "best" according to whose interests, and whose values? Whether an action is costly or beneficial, and thus whether a decision is best, depends vitally on the answers to these questions. Our own domestic political experience -- witness the Democrat-Republican divide over the national debt -- demonstrates that two rational actors, faced with the same sets of facts and circumstances but holding different interests, philosophies, or values, can reach very different conclusions about what to do.

So for a conclusion that the Iranian regime is rational to be useful in predicting its behavior -- not to mention making and judging our own policy -- we must assess how the regime perceives its interests. Otherwise the "costs" we impose may not be viewed as costly by the regime, and the "benefits" we offer may not be seen as beneficial.

All indications are that the regime values its own survival above all. This likely fuels its drive to obtain a nuclear weapon, which it may see as a guarantee against external foes. To the extent the regime defines its interests parochially rather than as national interests, it may also discount the economic suffering of the Iranian people except to the extent it leads to political turmoil. Thus, to be perceived as truly "costly" by the regime, any sanctions or other measures imposed or threatened by the U.S. and our allies must place at risk the regime's interests, including its prospects for survival. What's more, they must threaten those interests so much that the regime is willing to sacrifice something it apparently values greatly -- a nuclear weapon.

Likewise, any benefit offered by the U.S. and our allies, if it is to affect the regime's calculus, must be seen by the regime as advancing its interests. Many things the U.S. sees as "carrots" -- for example, free trade or normal diplomatic relations -- may in fact be seen as threatening to an authoritarian regime which is leery of the West. Conversely, what the regime would see as beneficial -- for example, assurances that the U.S. would cease its support for human rights or democracy in Iran -- we are unlikely to be willing to offer.

There are two other important points to consider about how the regime decides which option facing it is best. First, we must be aware that there are other costs and benefits at play than simply the ones we generate through sanctions or diplomatic appeals. Individuals in the regime face their own incentives -- for example personal wealth generated in the black markets that sanctions give rise to -- as well as disincentives -- for example the possibility of ending up imprisoned or worse for too vocally bucking the regime's line.

Second, we must also be aware that the regime likely lacks complete information or anything close to it. This is where the assumption that Iran acts rationally runs into the most trouble. Decisions in Iran are made by one man -- Ali Khamenei. By all accounts, he has not traveled outside Iran since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, is likely insulated by his aides from bad news or criticism, and depends on an increasingly narrow and homogenous power base which may not expose him to alternative opinions. One is unlikely to make a good decision if ill-informed or unaware of all the options. Nor can the regime make accurate judgments about U.S. intentions if we do not clearly communicate our policies or red lines.

There are indeed examples that suggest rational cost-benefit decisionmaking by the Iranian regime, including the one cited in the 2007 NIE -- the regime's apparent decision to suspend its nuclear "weaponization" research in 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But other Iranian actions seem untethered from cost-benefit considerations. For example, why would Iran try to blow up a restaurant in Washington in an effort to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, when such an action could spark a war that Iran would surely lose? Or, why would Iran not make a show of cooperation with the IAEA delegation that recently visited Iran, if for no other reason than to delay an Israeli military strike that seems increasingly likely?

More importantly, even if we were to conclude that the Iranian regime is a rational actor, we would not necessarily be able to predict its decisions or behavior. We have a poor understanding of how the regime sees its interests, what it perceives as costly and beneficial, what information is available to its leader, and therefore what it would consider the best decision in a given circumstance. And of course, even otherwise rational actors are prone to the occasional -- and sometimes very consequential -- irrational decision. And in an authoritarian state with an aging and increasingly isolated leader, this risk goes up exponentially.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Jeremy Lin and U.S.-China relations

Last week might turn out to be a very significant week in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps not for the reasons most people would think. For foreign policy mavens, the big news last week was the visit of Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent to the Party throne, Xi Jinping. For almost everyone else in the country, the big news was the supernova-like emergence of NBA star Jeremy Lin.

Ten or twenty years from now, when we look back on this past week, which event will be seen as more important for U.S.-China relations and the future of China itself? No one can yet say, and while the safe bet from the policy-maker's vantage point might be the Xi Jinping visit and its anticipation of his decade-long rule, we shouldn't make the same mistake made by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and count out the Jeremy Lin story. Before I go any further, I admit that even indulging in these speculations risks tripping headlong over the "wait just a second, people" admonition wisely offered by Dan Drezner against investing Jeremy Lin with any Deeper Meaning.  And as my former NSC colleague Victor Cha (a scholar of sports and Asia policy) points out, those who hope that Lin's stardom might help improve the complicated U.S.-China relationship are probably indulging in wishful thinking.

First, some context. Continuing in our occasional theme of reflecting on what history can bring to policymaking, one thing history offers is a sense of perspective, a reminder that the most consequential events are often not immediately apparent at the time they occur. As my University of Texas-Austin colleague Frank Gavin has observed, three separate developments from California in the space of a few months in 1976-77 were the creation of Apple computer, the release of the movie Star Wars, and the unprecedented medals awarded to a group of Stag's Leap Napa wines in a Paris tasting contest. Though seemingly unrelated and not fully appreciated at the time, together these events heralded a new era of American culture's global influence, historically far more consequential than the Carter administration's first few months in office. Or more recently, who could have predicted on Dec. 17, 2010 that the most globally important event that day would be the self-immolation of an obscure street vendor in a seemingly insignificant North African country?

Turning back to the two China-related events of last week, the Xi visit and the Lin stardom, Steve Walt makes some persuasive points about why Xi as an individual leader might not be a primary factor shaping the U.S.-China relationship. I suspect this could underplay Xi's importance, given the hard choices China will have to make over the next decade on issues such as rebalancing its economy, addressing its many restive borders, decreasing corruption, and clarifying its strategic intentions in the western Pacific. Much of that, however, depends on the Communist Party continuing to hold its monopoly on power, and here is where Jeremy Lin could bring an added complication.

Lin has already become a cultural phenomenon in China, benefitting in part from the legions of Chinese basketball fans first cultivated by Yao Ming. Yet if Yao Ming's roots and identity were unequivocally mainland Chinese, Lin's identity is not so straightforward. His Taiwan roots could at the least complicate the mainland's popular attitudes that see the island as a renegade province. Perhaps more significantly, his evangelical Christian faith appeals to the tens of millions of house-church Christians in China, who sometimes at great risk worship outside the control of government-approved religious bodies. And his faith might also inspire otherwise non-religious Chinese, further adding to Christianity's explosive growth in China. All of this in turn poses a delicate challenge for a Communist Party that has thus far co-opted every successive new communication technology to surveil and tightly manage the information available to its citizens: How to control the message and image of Jeremy Lin that an adoring public perceives? Especially if Lin continues to play well and popular demand for information about him grows?

How this develops will depend on many factors, including whether Lin continues to play great hoops (hopefully), whether he continues to speak openly about his faith (likely), whether he ever comments about political issues such as religious freedom in China or the status of Taiwan (possible but less likely), and especially how the tension between the Chinese government's need for control and the Chinese public's hunger for information plays out (anything is possible). To be clear to readers (especially those named "Dan Drezner"!), this is not a case of feverish "Linsanity" arguing that Lin will cause democratization in China. (Only rabid Duke fans such as my Shadow co-curator are prone to investing basketball with such cosmic significance). Rather, this is a speculation that China's response to Lin's emergence could possibly play a part in fueling a movement for political change based on a host of other pre-existing factors. Or not. Only time will tell, and history will judge.  

Regardless, it seems that the White House's overemphasis on the role of the Communist Party in the U.S.-China relationship may account for the Obama administration's one major mistake in its otherwise successful management of Xi's visit. This was the White House's refusal to support Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook's visit to China. Ambassador Cook's long-planned maiden trip was blocked by the Chinese government, while the White House, concerned about the Xi visit, apparently failed to press Cook's case with Beijing. This was strategically shortsighted, especially since in the long run religious citizens in China may well do more to shape China's future than an individual party leader. Furthermore, the failure to support Ambassador Cook's visa set a bad precedent for U.S. credibility on a range of issues, and conceded undue leverage to the Chinese government. After all, Beijing needed the Xi visit more than the U.S. did, and a quiet message from Washington to Beijing stressing that denying Cook her visa "would not be helpful" to the optics of Xi's trip would have likely done the trick.

How to remedy this? Next time President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary Clinton meets with one of China's leaders, they should make sure that Ambassador Cook is also at the table, and should tell the Chinese that she enjoys the president's support on this important issue. Then to keep the tone agreeable, perhaps the conversation can turn to a topic everyone would find of interest, such as Jeremy Lin's most recent game.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images