In his classic study of conflict, STRUGGLE, published in 1907, the great chess master Emanuel Lasker, who was famous for the maxim that “The threat is more powerful than the act” also made the point that a feigned irrationality can often be an effective strategy in a conflict situation. Since a truly irrational (crazy) person or organization or country cannot be combatted by the tools of rational dialogue he or she can only be mollified or nullified (isolated or killed). If a rational actor is pretending to be irrational, and its act is taken seriously by its adversaries, then they think they have only those two choices, and if isolation or death is not contemplated, only mollification (sometimes referred to as appeasement) is left. Witness the current, marathon, six power-Iranian circus.
Even better if you can manage a good cop, bad cop routine; i.e. ahmadinejad/Khamenei bad (irrational); Rouhani, Zarif good (rational), your opponents will want to be nice to the good cops in the hope that they will restrain the bad cops. Sometimes the good cops will underline the stark choice by temporarily acting irrationally, such as Zarif yelling at Kerry. But what if they are all bad cops, playing various roles?
The Persians in their multi-millennial history have only been conquered once–by the newly-Islamicized Arabs in the seventh century c.e., when the empire was exhausted after twenty years of battling the Byzantines. They adopted the religion and their conquerors were overwhelmed by their vastly superior culture. Persian Islam was always highly heterodox, valuing alcohol and the artistic representation of people (including Mohammed). Finally they went all the way and adopted Shi’ism. They are masters at survival and deception. The so-called Western “leadership” is pathetic in contrast. But they do back down in the face of overwhelming power, because they are not, in fact, irrational. After Khomeini’s first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, defected and fled to France, the “spontaneous” mobs filled the streets in front of the French embassy, just as they had earlier in front of the American embassy and then occupied it, holding the Americans inside as hostages. The French government, unlike the American government under Carter, reacted by telling the Iranians, if our embassy is occupied, the next day Tehran will not exist (the French, of course, had nuclear weapons). The Iranians retorted “But you will kill your own people”! the French responded that no one had forced them to become diplomats. The “spontaneous” mobs instantaneously melted away.
The remarkably successful sanctions could have been maintained or strengthened, or alternatively the nuclear facilities could have been seriously damaged with the promise that if rebuilt they would be attacked again. But no, they’re “irrational” and we don’t want to attack (gosh, see what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq when we did that) so nothing’s left but to mollify and cozy up to the good cops.
So Obama will get his “legacy”, Kerry and Zarif will get their Nobels and Iran will get its bomb. End of story–or end of history?