Editor's note: James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
By James Jay Carafano, Special to CNN
Trying to understand largely closed regimes is never easy. Consider North Korea or Iran. How are we to understand decision-making as opaque and unexpected as Lady Gaga's dress choices?
It's always tempting to avoid the difficulty of understanding foreign powers' seemingly unfathomable decisions by adopting simplistic explanations. Enemies we think we understand are dubbed "rational." Those whose behavior puzzles us we deem "irrational."
Irrational regimes are, of course, unpredictable and unmanageable. They must be treated as implacable enemies. If they are rational, however, then the threats they pose may be managed. There! See how easy that was?
Easy, yes. Helpful, no.
During recent congressional hearings, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been trying to explain why he told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that Iran is a "rational actor." He may be right. So what? It doesn't really help answer the question of what to do about Tehran.
If you don't understand what factors an opponent weighs as important benefits and what it considers to be worrisome costs, you can't predict what a rational decision might look like to him. Moreover, if you bank on the enemy being rational - without leaving allowances that the enemy might make mistakes, stupid choices, or be at least partially influenced by emotional fervor - your forecast regarding his next steps may be way off base.
And, if Gen. Dempsey is right and the other side really is coldly rational, then, Houston, we have a huge problem. There are many rational reasons why Iran would want a nuclear weapon, and want it quickly. For starters, it's a wonderful insurance policy for a regime. Once you go nuclear, no one messes in your internal affairs.
Moreover, nukes give you a much stronger hand at the negotiating table. They add an awful lot of oomph to your demands to lift international sanctions. And, of course, they let you threaten other nations with nuclear Armageddon unless they fall in line. If you're an isolated regime, what's not to love?
Once Iran goes nuclear, there is not much hope that rationality will somehow prevail in the region. Rather, the most "rational" response from states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt would be to fast-track development of their own nuclear weapons to offset a nuclear Iran's regional dominance.
Several years ago, the Heritage Foundation war-gamed this dark scenario. Participants from the Pentagon and several think tanks tried to act "rationally," yet it proved all but impossible to keep a crisis from developing into a nuclear war.
So what if Tehran is rational? That in no way makes the Middle East less dangerous or more "manageable" by Washington wise men. America can hope for the best-case scenario, but we must be prepared to handle the worst.