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No, Iran’s Leaders Aren’t Irrational

By Taylor Marvin

Via Daniel Larison, Mark Adomanis has a very good piece at Forbes demolishing Lee Smith’s argument in Tablet that Iranian human wave tactics during the Iran-Iraq War prove Iranian leaders are suicidal lunatics:

“Anyone who has done anything but the most cursory reading about the Eastern Front in the Second World War knows that the use of human wave attacks is hardly a uniquely Persian phenomenon. The Soviets were infamous for using штрафные батальоны (penal battalions) to do all sorts of grisly and suicidal tasks including, yes, clearing minefields. Indeed the Soviets were, by almost any reckoning, far more reckless with the blood of their troops than were the Iranians. If you want to get some idea of just how brutally careless the Soviets were with human life, and if you have a strong stomach, read about the “Battle of the Kerch Peninsula” an oft-forgotten charnel house that truly makes the mind reel.

Smith seems to make the (very common) mistake of assuming that “rational” means “good” or “agreeable.” If your opponent is more technologically sophisticated than you but you greatly outnumber them (as Iran outnumbered Iraq and the Soviet Union outnumbered Nazi Germany), and have an essentially inexhaustible quantity of poorly educated, poorly trained, and poorly armed young men, it is perfectly rational to use this fact to your advantage. The goal of a war is not to win pretty, but to win.”

Smith’s clearly grasping to make any argument that the Iranian regime is less than a rational actor. His other examples don’t help his case:

It’s pretty easy to make a strong case that the Iranian regime really is suicidal. This is the same ruling clique, after all, that pioneered the use of the suicide car-bombing during the course of the Lebanese civil wars from 1975 to 1990. The Iranians tapped their local allies, namely Hezbollah, for martyrdom operations against Israel, the United States, and other Western powers.”

How is this evidence of irrationality? There’s a clear and obvious difference between using suicidal tactics and pursuing a suicidal strategy, and it’s astounding that Smith completely fails to grasp this distinction. Iran’s willingness to support Hezbollah is a perfectly rational strategy to asymmetrically oppose a regional rival, Israel, and isn’t fundamentally different from the proxy wars the US and USSR rationally used to counter each other while limiting the possibility of dangerous escalation during the Cold War. Smith’s Hezbollah example actually implies the opposite of what he thinks it does: given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, any Iranian attempt to counter superior Israeli forces conventionally would be less rational than Iran’s actual asymmetric strategy. As Adomanis notes, there’s nothing inherently irrational about using military tactics based on a high tolerance for casualties. Low tolerance for military deaths is a luxury of the powerful.

Smith goes on to make more outrageously misinformed assertions:

No country sets out purposefully to bring about its destruction. And yet history is nothing but the record of nations that have misunderstood the limits of their own power and the resources of their adversaries. Nazi Germany may have been suicidal, but the British Empire was not, and yet at the end of World War II both were finished.”

Does anyone really think that Nazi Germany was inherently suicidal? By late 1944 Hitler’s own behavior was growing increasingly erratic, but for most of World War II Germany’s actions were rational, even if the reasoning they were based on was ultimately misinformed. In retrospect Hitler’s invasion of the vastly larger and more populated USSR seems suicidal, but it’s important to remember that at the time German warplanners rationally predicted a quick victory over the disorganized and ill prepared Soviet Union. Invading the USSR was still a gamble, but given the information he was presented Hitler’s decision to strike the Soviets in 1941 before the USSR could prepare itself for an inevitable conflict with Germany was reasonable, if of course immoral. If Germany had been able to successfully capture Moscow before the end of December 1941 Hitler’s decision to open a two-front war would appear much more ‘rational’ to history. Ultimately Hitler did prefer national death to ignoble defeat at the hands of the hated Soviets, but there’s a clear distinction between suicide when your regime is already lost and actively seeking out national destruction.

Finally, Smith makes the bizarre claim that Iran’s falling birth rate proves all Iranians have lost the will to live:

Perhaps most tellingly, the plummeting Iranian birthrate—from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today—suggests that it is not just the regime, but an entire nation, that no longer wishes to live.”

There’s really no way to describe how breathtakingly stupid this is. Japan’s 2010 average fertility rate was 1.39 children per woman: is Japan even more suicidal than Iran? With a 1.95 2010 fertility rate can the recklessly suicidal UK government be trusted with nuclear weapons? Nearly all nations have seen birthrates dramatically fall in the last half century: in the US the average birth rate fell from over 3.5 to the present level of roughly 2 children per woman, or just over the Iranian level, in a decade! Is Lee Smith suggesting that America — a country he presumably likes — “no longer wishes to live”? No, because this isn’t an argument; it’s raving, and it demonstrates just how weak the argument of Iran’s irrationality is.

There’s a much simpler explanation for the dramatic reduction in Iran’s fertility rate: a nation’s birthrate is strongly tied to income levels. Iranian real GDP per capita plummeted during the bad years of the late 1980s, but overall has dramatically grown since the 1979 Revolution. This isn’t saying that the Islamic Republic’s government has been good for the economy — Iranian GDP per capita remains relatively low by world standards, and Iran’s relatively low inequality is more indicative of economic stagnation than social equity —  but average incomes have improved since the 1970s. Iran’s falling birthrate isn’t evidence of some national psychosis, but of gradually improving standards of living. Even opponents of the Iranian regime should celebrate this. There’s strong evidence that democratic reforms become more likely after standards of living reach a middle income threshold and even if gradually rising Iranian incomes don’t weaken the regime in the long-term improvements in standards of living, even in autocratic countries, remain gains for aggregate human welfare and make the world a better place.

Smith’s refusal to recognize the clearly understood link between income and fertility rates is astounding. Resorting to such patently ridiculous reasoning disproves his thesis better than any counterargument ever could.

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