March 8th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Iran is a "rational actor"

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Hundreds of you have submitted very thoughtful questions for me through Facebook, Twitter and my blog. Over the next few days, I am going to post my text and video responses to some of the most common questions and a few others that caught my eye.

A number of you asked me whether I agree with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey who described Iran as a "rational actor" on my program a couple of weeks ago.

My answer is: I very much agree with General Dempsey.  It's very important to understand, however, what it means to talk about a "rational actor."  A rational actor is not a reasonable actor. It is not somebody who has the same goals or values as we have.

In international affairs or economics, the term rational actor is used to describe somebody who is concerned about their survival, prosperity or strength and is making calculations on the basis of these concerns.  It describes someone who calculates costs and benefits.

We all assume Iran is a rational actor - even the most hawkish people in this debate - when we assume that pressure on Iran will make a difference. We are assuming that Iran is watching the costs of its actions, calculating them and, presumably, will recognize that the costs outweigh the benefits. This is all that it means to say that Iran is a rational actor.

Indeed, Iran has been very calculating in its behavior, far more so than other so-called radical, revolutionary regimes. If you look at Mao's China, he talked openly about destroying the world and about sacrificing half of China so that global communism could survive. The Iranians never talk like that and they certainly don't do things like that. Their behavior for 30 years has been calculating. They respond to inducements and pressures in ways that are completely understandable.

Their goals are not ours, of course, but that's a very different issue.

Look at the nuclear issue putting yourself in Iran's position.  An Iranian official once said to me about five years ago, ‘We are not pursuing a nuclear weapons program; we are pursuing a nuclear program.’ I wouldn't trust that characterization, but here's what he then said:

‘But if we were to pursue a nuclear weapons program, would it be so irrational? Look at our neighborhood.  Russia has nukes.  India has nukes. Pakistan has nukes.  China has nukes.  And Israel has nukes.

Then on one side of our border the United States has 100,000 troops in Iraq.  On the other side of our border, the United States has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.  The president of the United States, George W. Bush, says he's committed to ousting our regime. Now, if you were in our position, wouldn't that make you nervous and wouldn't you want to buy some kind of insurance?'

That doesn't sound like the talk of a mad, messianic regime official, but rather of one that's looking at costs and benefits and calculating them.

You can pose questions for me on FacebookTwitter or on Come back throughout the week for more of my responses to questions on third party candidates in America, China's rise, oil prices and more.

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Topics: From Fareed • Iran • Reader Q&A

soundoff (673 Responses)
  1. tom gorham

    One thing I do not understand, and have not heard mentioned, about the whole Iran nuclear program is this. For any nation to get a nuclear weapon, do they not have to test it first? Why rush to war until a test is detected and then plan accordingly? I can only think of the following reasons why we would not wait until a test is detected:
    1) no test is needed because they have been given a working prototype to copy.
    2) no test is needed because testing will be skipped
    3) no test is needed because there is no weapon to test
    4) The whole thing is a bluff on the part of Iran

    There may be other reasons I have not considered. However, based on what I have listed, #1 and #2 above are the most disconcerting.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • SamN

      I agree, the nuclear weapons program is most likely an implied deterrent that serves to keep its critics guessing and a very well calculated one two. Think about it ever since the so called weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, the West has become extremely gun shy about going into another middle eastern State militarily in the name of WMD's and Iran knows that. It has worked considerably well for North Korea as a deterrent against the South which is allied with the United States.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  2. globalpolitics

    Iran is rational. Even the right wing Jerusalem Post says so!: Let us hope sanity prevails.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  3. Sidney

    Despite all the talk of India busting sanctions by buying Iranian oil, India could be an excellent mediator between the West and Iran and this will help a)difuse the nuclear issue and b) reduce tensions in the Gulf, which will lower Crude prices and help all economies

    March 12, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply

    SHIIAZIM = EVIL= terrorists= russia=666

    it is time to take stand aganist Iran terrorizim and aggression, and aganist syrian shiia thugs aggression and Iraqi shiia thugs killers those are helping hizboallah and all terror group with money and russia send the weapons to those shiia thugs from iran, iraq and syria to destroy lebanon, bahrain hamas iraqi sunni and syrian sunni today along those shiia thugs killed 150 women and children just because they are sunni , this is what shiia islam all about, and make no mistake when those shiia evil gets the nic weapoins they will use it, YOU HAVE TO UNDESTAND WHY,,,THE SHIIA WANT TO SEE WAR, CAIOUS , ADULTERY AND KILLING BECAUSE THEY BELIVE THAT AL MAHDI AL MONTADHAR WHAT SO CALLED SHIIA MASAIA WILL APPEAR WHEN THAT HAPPEN...THEY ARE PURE EVIL BEILEVE IN THIS EVIL MAN CALLED THE INVIBLE MASSAIA...

    March 14, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  5. auto

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    August 11, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
  6. Poetry

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    August 23, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
  7. shamsher

    i love it

    November 1, 2012 at 5:23 am | Reply
  8. Adam

    Finally, a well-done understanding of Iran's place and how it sees itself. I do not want Iran to gain WMDs, and I don't believe they want a nuclear plant just for peaceful purposes, but if they do get one they want it for insurance. We need to keep that leverage over Iran, but I'm not worried they'd lob a bomb over Israel for the hell of it.

    June 14, 2014 at 12:54 am | Reply
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