The Futility of Trying to Wish Iran into Being Rational

It was little surprise when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff panned a potential strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by Israel. The Obama administration has been squishy on its relationship with Israel from the start, and fears an Israeli strike devolving into a crisis for which the White House is even less prepared than the current drama.

It was jarring, though, to see Gen. Martin Dempsey give far too much credit to the ability of this Iranian regime to be an equal negotiating partner.

In an interview aired Sunday on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, Dempsey was asked by the host if he viewed Iran's behavior as "highly irrational" and "sort of unpredictable," or whether they are "fairly calculating."

"I'll tell you that I've been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008," Dempsey said. "And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it's for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we're on is the most prudent path at this point." That's the path of sanctions and "open-hand" negotiation that has proven fruitless thus far, and brushing aside talk of the option of military action while claiming that all options are still on the table.

Any country that has made "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" chants part of their repertoire since 1979, that held three young American hikers on laughable charges for two years after plucking them off the Kurdish border, that operates off an apocalyptic view that "the Jews should be fought against and forced to surrender to prepare the way for the coming of the Hidden Imam” (Ayatollah Hussein Nuri Hamdani, 2005) is not operating rationally. The degree of calculation by which they buy time for their nuclear program walks hand-in-hand with, not in conflict with, Tehran's irrationality and unpredictability.

So why the insistence that Iran is, somewhere deep inside, willing to play by the rules toward America's preferred resolution? Not just from Dempsey, but take White House spokesman Jay Carney at today's press briefing: "We feel as I’ve said and others have said, as, most importantly, the president has said, that there is time and space for diplomacy to work, for the effective sanctions to result in a change in Iranian behavior, an agreement by Iran to live up to its obligations, to engage in negotiations and resolve this matter peacefully."

Diplomats might characterize the strategy as how you'd approach a disturbed person on a ledge. You don't point out that he's off the reservation, but calmly try to reason with the person that he is capable of making the right choice, doesn't have to hurt himself or others, and is a better person than that.

But even that can be counterproductive when allowed to drag on for too long. Anyone who's ever dealt with a person suffering from bipolar disorder, for example, knows that he is not operating with a rational mind and is not making rational judgments. Loving support is essential, but if you write off too much of the bad behavior from a person who refuses to get treatment, you're an enabler. You can be manipulated by the ill person. You have to draw the line somewhere with the destructive behavior toward others.

This is not to draw a comparison between radical Shiites who would annihilate the Jewish state and those suffering from bipolar; rather, it's illustrative of how there comes a point when glass-half-full approaches come to an end.

In diplomacy, you can cross the line into weaponizing your adversary with your words.

Perhaps more telling than Dempsey's words is how the Iranians covered them.