Another War in the Middle East?

Why Israel and the U.S. must not launch a preventive strike against Iran

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Oliver Munday and Jason Arias for TIME

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Iran's weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, says the President. But would a country that has labored for decades to pursue a nuclear program and suffered huge sanctions and costs to do so then turn around and give the fruits of its efforts to a gang of militants? This kind of reasoning is part of the view that the Iranians are mad, messianic people bent on committing mass suicide. When General Martin Dempsey explained on my CNN program last month that he viewed Iran as a "rational actor," he drew howls of protest.

Dempsey was making a good point. A rational actor is not necessarily a reasonable actor or one who has the same goals or values that you or I do. A rational actor is someone who is concerned about his survival. Compared with radical revolutionary regimes like Mao's China--which spoke of sacrificing half of China's population in a nuclear war to promote global communism--the Iranian regime has been rational and calculating in its actions. In an essay in the Washington Monthly, former senior U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar writes, "More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic's rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power--in this life, not some future one."

In fact, the entire punitive strategy against Iran is premised on the notion that Iran is calculating the costs of these pressures and will change its policies as a result. The question right now is not whether Iran can be rational but whether the U.S. and Israel can carefully evaluate the consequences of a preventive war--inside Iran and beyond--and weigh them against its limited and temporary benefits.


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