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

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