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Deterrence Lessons From Iraq

Rationality Is Not the Only Key to Containment


What, me worry? Saddam Hussein, July 1983 (Francois Lochon / Gamma-Rapho Via Getty Images)

As Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear capability, outside observers have debated just how worried the world should be. Optimists argue that since nuclear war would be suicidal, no government would ever risk it, and they think the Islamic Republic would be no exception. Pessimists argue that Iran's radical and unstable regime might behave in unpredictable ways and cannot be trusted. Both camps seem to agree that rationality is the key to deterrence; they disagree over whether a nuclear Iran would be rational. 

Unfortunately, things aren't that simple. The link between rationality and deterrence is less direct than people think, and what constitutes rational behavior for the leaders of a particular country can be hard to read. Deterrence, in short, is a more complex issue than generally assumed. 

These points are brought home forcefully by a careful

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