Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.
By Amitai Etzioni - Special to CNN
There is a growing interest among U.S. foreign policy officials and scholars in deterring Iran; that is, in tolerating a nuclear armed Iran but keeping it at bay by threatening it in kind should it use its nuclear weapons. Although the Obama administration has not embraced this position, some observers believe this is the direction it is headed.
One indication comes from Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser. In a speech late last year, he remarked, "We will continue to build a regional defense architecture that prevents Iran from threatening its neighbors. We will continue to deepen Iran's isolation, regionally and globally." And a recent report sponsored by the U.S. Air Force outlines a strategy for deterrence that includes expanding the United States' regional nuclear presence and improving American missile defense capabilities. As one expert puts it, "Deterrence against a nuclear Iran should not be terribly difficult."
For deterrence to work, the leaders of the nations that command nuclear arms must be rational. The champions of deterrence claim to demonstrate that Iran's leaders are not insane by showing that they react in sensible ways to changes in the world around them.
However, there's another type of decision-making process that sociologists have known about. It's nonrational behavior, such as when people act in response to deeply held beliefs that cannot be proven or disproven. People have long shown they are willing to kill or be killed for their beliefs, and that God commanded them to act in a particular manner. They may respond to facts and pressures, but only as long as those factors affect the ways they implement their beliefs - but not the beliefs themselves. Thus, a religiously fanatical Iranian leader who believes that God commanded him to wipe out Tel Aviv may calculate whether to use missiles or bombers and in what season to attack, but not whether to heed God's command to destroy the infidels.