Richard Cohen seems to confuse Iranian willingness to use proxies to launch attacks with the incompetence and stupidity of the alleged assassination plot:
The mistake with Iran is the tendency to think its leadership is rational.
Yes, that’s it. If there’s one thing that unduly affects Western views of the Iranian government, it must be the tendency to credit them with too much rationality. After listing numerous instances of Iranian-sponsored attacks using their proxies, Cohen completely misses that the alleged plot breaks with the pattern of how Iran’s regime has operated in the past. Cohen doesn’t realize it, but he is making the skeptics’ argument for them. It is the skeptics who find the alleged plot hard to believe because it was such a risible attempt, and it doesn’t make sense because of how greatly it differs from the successful attacks Cohen lists. The attacks Cohen refers to aren’t proof of irrationality. They are evidence of hostility and even malevolence, which aren’t the same as irrationality. Irrational in the sense of being self-destructive is exactly what these other attacks aren’t, which is what makes the alleged plot so puzzling. That doesn’t prove that the government’s claims aren’t true, but the government’s claims concerning this plot don’t imply what Cohen thinks they do.
Americans have been regularly told by pundits and officials that various third- and fourth-rate authoritarian rulers over the last twenty years should be viewed as mad and irrational. If we were talking about the morality of their actions or their politics, these descriptions might have merit, but when we are talking about a regime’s inclination to engage in self-destructive or suicidal acts they are typically misleading. When one tries to apply lessons from the alleged plot to what Iran might do with a nuclear weapon, as Cohen does, it is simply ridiculous.
Daniel Trombly explained why last week:
That said, some of the takeaways from those believing Iran to be an undeterrable, uncontainable state are even more confusing. Two pieces here posit that because Iran was willing to undertake an assassination on US soil, deterrence will not work when it has nuclear arms, because either it will not be able to control its weapons or because it does not believe the US has a credible retaliatory capability.
This argument, quite frankly, is not borne out by the evidence. An Iranian strike against the US would prove that terrorism is not easily deterrable, which has been the case for a long time. It hardly proves war beyond covert action is inevitable, as Haddick states. Pakistan has aided and abetted terrorist groups which have conducted multiple mass casualty attacks against India, including against the Indian government itself. This has not significantly undermined conventional and nuclear deterrence. In fact, it’s the effectiveness of deterrence that has led Pakistan to shift its strategy from using conventional assaults on India to fidayeen and terror attacks by proxy – the famed stability-instability paradox.
In response to these outrages, which actually happened and which were indisputably linked to terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan (and with the acquiescence and/or help of Pakistan’s government), the Indian government has responded carefully and soberly in the knowledge of what an escalating confrontation with Pakistan could mean. Meanwhile, we’re seeing a great deal of agitation for war with Iran on the basis of some remarkably flimsy evidence.