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 (675 Responses)
  1. martialeagle

    America invaded and occupied Mexico, Haiti, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. America developed the atomic bomb and used it twice.

    Israel was created by terrorist leaders(all of them), organizations( Irgun, Lehi, Stern Gang, Haganah) and acts( King David Hotel, Deir Yassin, Gaza, West Bank, Count Folke Bernadotte).

    Neither Islam nor Arabs are culpable for the Crusades, the Inquistion, pogroms, destruction of the Temple or the Holocaust.

    Iran did not overthrow a democratically elected American government and put a dictator in power. Iran did not support Mexico/Canada in a war against America that killed 4 million Americans. Iran did not shoot down a civilian American airplane. Iran did not declare America part of "an axis of evil" and then invade and occupy Mexico and Canada.

    Iran is the model of restraint and realism compared to the rabid radical American Empire's exercise in the politics of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. The sun has set on empires. Ask the Soviets and the British.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  2. SamN

    A Theatrical Game of Opportunity

    General Dempsey says Iran is a "rational actor". I disagree. Its is an “irrational actor. I would go further to say that Israel has also joined Iran on this "world stage" as an co-actor and that both nations have taken the “thread with caution” foreign policy the West has employed in the past few years as an opportunity to solidify their domestic and foreign political image. I'll explain:

    Iran: The 2009 uprising in Iran could have very well been the trigger for the Arab Spring and that it was successfully quelled then is no guarantee that the same would be for future uprising especially with the uprising next door in Syria. There has been over the past year or so a certain strain in the relationship between the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad with regards to political decisions and the administration of the State. Externally, the list is endless, economic sanctions by the West and an increased isolation from fellow Arab states. All this points to a regime that is under pressure and has sustained itself so far by using political rhetoric and posturing as a pre-emptive measure to keep its enemies at bay. However it is likely and I will want to emphasis “likely” that Iran has developed an impudence resulting from the combination of a United States which has almost unanimously decided that military intervention in the Middle East is not an option especially in an election year and as Daniel Levy pointed out on GPS an Isreal which will not attack Iran without United States backing. The ultimate goal of the administration will be to unify and distract its people and keep its international critics at bay by calling the bluff of the West and it seems to be working. Needless to say instigating a military action is not the goal of this regime.

    Israel on the other hand or rather Netanyahu and the Likud party seam to be using the spotlight primarily for political reasons. Rula Jebreal and Daniel Levy pointed out that the idea of a pre-emptive strike by Israel does not sit well with the entire Israeli parliament and that furthermore the stalemate with regards to the issue of Palestine has prompted Netanyahu to look for a distraction, and I agree. This is evident by the fact that the Palestinian problem if you may which has always been the defining issue between Israel and the United State was not addressed publicly at least during his recent visit to the White House. The argument for a nuclear Iran as a reason for a strike is somewhat baseless because by now everyone knows that Iran’s experimenting with cold fusion has primarily been used as a deterrent for public relations. It is very likely and again I emphasis “likely” Israel knows that Iran is posturing and is counting on a reluctant White House to do nothing at least militarily for now. Sounds far fetched? I agree, but look at it from the point of view of a sitting Prime minister of Israel: with the support of parliament at stake and the preference of the United States for a two state solution to the Palestinian issue, a view that most Israeli’s don’t share. There is really nothing much for Netanyahu to write home about. Is the White House been used as a prop in this theatrical production? I am afraid so. And it is very likely that this production is going to be on stage and unresolved for a while much to the advantage of Iran and Israel.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  7. auto

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

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

    i love it

    November 1, 2012 at 5:23 am | Reply
  10. 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
  11. Michael B

    I’d like to no your view as to whether Kim Jong-un is a rational actor. I think he totally is, & that many in Washington w/ deep distrust of North Korea don’t think he is and don’t even distinguish between KJU, KJI & KIS – it’s all the same to them – “Kim dynasty” – which is irrational.

    February 21, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Reply
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