Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Iran Nuclear Deal and the Death of Rationality

We will find out later today whether the Trump Administration wants to continue to abide by the multilateral agreement limiting Iran's development of nuclear technology. All public indications are that Trump will renege on the deal, although predictability has never been this Administration's hallmark. As Trump himself would say, "we'll see what happens".

Assuming that Trump follows through on his threat and withdraws the US from the arrangement, this will signal a major blow to those who believe that US foreign policy can be understood as an exercise in rational choice. There is no way to square this decision with anything resembling rationality as it is commonly understood.

Rational choice involves a few simple steps. It's easy to understand, though incredibly difficult to practice:

1) Set goals, in priority order

2) Evaluate a range of options (preferably, all available options) in terms of:
a) Their probability of achieving the goals
b) Their likely costs

3) Select the option that maximizes gains and minimizes costs

Let's assume in this case that the US goal is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is the stated goal not only of the Trump Administration, but every administration before it. If there is one common element to US policy, this would be it.

The multilateral nuclear agreement is one way of achieving this goal. It has relatively low cost (2), and by all objective accounts it has a reasonably high prospect of success for the time being (1). We can argue about the probability of the latter, but it's somewhere above zero and somewhere below 1.0.

What are the alternatives? This Administration has offered few other options. Two possibilities come to mind:

• Renewed sanctions: The cost to the US of such sanctions is relatively low (2), but the probability of success is also low (1), certainly lower than the existing arrangement. Abandoning the deal means abandoning the constraints in it and the inspections that come with the package, which arms control experts have described as the most intrusive inspections regime ever devised. Israel recently revealed that Iran did in fact develop a program for nuclearization some 15 years ago - during a period of sanctions. Renewed sanctions will do nothing to prevent Iran from developing nukes, and will likely given them every incentive to do so if they think sanctions are a prelude to the next option...

• War: The cost to the US (and participating allies) of a war with Iran is catastrophically high (2). Such a war would almost immediately close the Strait of Hormuz, skyrocketing global oil prices and potentially sending the US economy back into recession. The immediate monetary and human cost to the US military would also be high. Iran is not Iraq - it is large, mountainous, and populated by a fiercely nationalistic people numbering in the tens of millions. The nuclear facilities we would most want to destroy are buried deep under mountains. Airstrikes or missile strikes won't work, and invasion is suicide. The human toll of such a campaign would be catastrophic. Moreover, the odds of such a campaign successfully denuclearizing Iran are extremely low (1), because of the aforementioned mountain bunkers and because in the long run, Iranians will have every reason to want to develop a deterrent to prevent another attack.

Few if any have argued that the current negotiated deal is perfect, and it doesn't address other kinds of behavior (missile development, support for Syria and Hizbollah) that the US would rather Iran didn't engage in. But there are no perfect solutions - there aren't even many good ones. If these are the options on the table, then abandoning the existing arrangement in favor of either sanctions or war is, quite simply, irrational.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that preventing nuclear proliferation isn't really the goal - the goal is regime change in Iran. That does indeed change the calculus, because the existing negotiated arrangement has a zero probability of achieving that goal. Sanctions likewise won't topple the regime, especially as they will be unilateral on the part of the US - Europe, China, and Russia won't join in, so their impact will be low on Iran. The only possible avenue that leads to regime change is war - and even that has a low probability of success, if you define success as "overthrow the existing regime and replace it with one consistent with US interests". If we learned anything from Iraq, it is that our ability to control what happens politically inside a country after we knock over its government is close to zero.

Very few, of course, have accused Trump himself or his administration of acting in a rational fashion. This is a Presidency driven by gut feelings, fear, and the desire to be the anti-Obama. Those things do help explain a decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear settlement. Let's just stop pretending that rationality can explain any of this.

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