By Michael Singh

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill February 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on the Defense Department's budget request for FY2013. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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 decision-making. 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? Read more…

Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on February 23, 2012.


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