On Thursday, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer released a fantastic op-ed regarding delusions of deterrence in American foreign policy. The op-ed was fantastic not because it shed any light on Iran, nor because it contributed any really new ideas, but because it clearly illustrated the myths that perpetuate the simplistic and counterproductive view of war hawks calling for an immediate attack on Iran.
However, what makes Krauthammer's argument so frustrating is that instead of proceeding to make a nuanced analysis about nuclear deterrence, Krauthammer simply recites the same load of false generalizations about Iran that seem to be confusing so many otherwise-intelligent people. These generalizations need to be corrected along with the notion that deterrence works.
Krauthammer starts off with a valid point:
"There are few foreign-policy positions more silly than the assertion without context that 'deterrence works.' It is like saying air power works. Well, it worked for Kosovo; it didn’t work over North Vietnam. It’s like saying city-bombing works. It worked in Japan 1945 (Tokyo through Nagasaki). It didn’t in the London blitz. The idea that some military technique 'works' is meaningless. It depends on the time, the circumstances, the nature of the adversaries."
Different military strategies work in different contexts, thus we should never take nuclear deterrence for granted. It’s fair to say that many nuclear optimists need to take this advice to heart. But Krauthammer’s three points can easily be thrown back at him as three common myths about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Myth #1: "The Iranian Regime is Suicidal."
Krauthammer compares Iran to the Soviet Union, noting that the Soviet Union never used suicide attacks while the Iranian government has. He attributes this to the fact that the Soviet Union was lead by “rational” atheists who wanted to avoid death, and concludes that because Iran is a theocracy, its leaders might be willing to start a nuclear war despite knowing that they will die.
It’s amazing how much a pundit who lived through the Cold War can forget about it. Communists may not have strapped bombs to themselves, but there was no shortage of Communists willing to die for the cause, as American forces in Vietnam and other battlefields learned.
Modern research in suicide attacks has shown that strategy, not religion, is a primary cause. Indeed, the use of suicide bombings was pioneered by the LTTE, a secular nationalist group that contained few Muslims. Individual suicide terrorists tend to have the same psychological tendencies as people who commit “normal” suicide, but these tendencies aren’t shared by their commanders.
In short, the idea that an entire nation or government might want to die has no historical precedent. Krauthammer’s comparison to suicide bombers brings up powerful emotional imagery but lacks any sound logic.
Krauthammer repeats the common claim that Iran’s leaders may wish to provoke an apocalyptic war to cause the return of the “hidden imam,” or Mahdi, a prophesized end-of-times figure. But Krauthammer and like-minded pundits are getting Shiite theology completely wrong.
The Mahdi isn’t mentioned at all in the Quran itself. Rather, belief in the Madhi comes from Hadiths. Muslims believe that the Quran is the exact word of God, while Hadiths are saying attributed to Muhammed or statements about his actions. Hadiths are often used by Islamic scholars to help interpret and provide context for sections of the Quran, but a Hadith alone is not very authoritative, and there are Hadiths that contradict other Hadiths.
Beliefs about the Mahdi vary widely, and have as much to do with pre-Islamic folklore and mysticism as Islamic theology. This is why the religious clergy who control Iran chastised President Ahmadinijad for suggesting that the Mahdi was influencing his government’s decisions. (Ironically enough, Krauthammer’s article links to the very same one I just cited—evidence that he’s either gifted with a very good selective memory or is counting on his readers not to fact-check.)
Clearly, the suggestion that Iran’s theocracy might view the Mullah as a divine missile-shield is absurd. Krauthammer seems to believe Iran might try to bring about the end of days with a nuclear war, but the very idea of forcing God’s hand is heretical and antithetical to Islam’s most fundamental tenants—submission to God’s will. Although the historical record shows a diverse set of beliefs about the coming of the Mahdi, there is not a shred of evidence that this kind of interpretation was ever accepted at any point in the last 1,400 years.
Myth #2: “Iran’s Quarrel with Israel is Existential.”
The Iranian regime is like any other: it wants to survive. It has cut deals with the United States in the past, violated its own laws to suppress internal dissent, and has prioritized its relations with Russia and China over the treatment of Chechen and Uyghur Muslims. The Iranian government scores rhetorical points with its own people and nearby countries by bashing Israel and claiming to stand up for the Palestinians, but it’s painfully clear that the Iranian regime is motivated by far more than genuine concern for Muslim brethren. (The first and second Chechen wars combined killed 75,000-300,000 civilians, most of whom were Muslim. Palestinian casualty counts are a blip in comparison.)
Iran had positive relations with Israel prior to the Iranian revolution, and Iran even worked with Israel as late as 1985—it was Israel that shipped American weapons to Iran during the Iran-Contra affair. (At the time, Israeli leaders were still trying to convince the United States to side with Iran over Iraq because they hoped Iran could resume its old role as a counterweight for hostile Arab states.)
Iran lacks a strong ideological commitment to Israel’s destruction, much less a commitment stronger than the wish to forgo its own survival. It’s true that the Iranian regime sponsored terrorist attacks against Israel long before any Israeli leader suggested bombing Iran, but that is because these attacks were a relatively low-cost way of boosting its anti-Israel credentials. Nuclear war changes the calculation.
Myth #3: “Israel is a ‘one-bomb country.’”
Krauthammer compounds his previous arguments by harping on Israel’s unique vulnerability. In reality, Israel is one of the least vulnerable countries to nuclear attack. It’s true that Israel’s size has caused it problems in the past—in wars involving conventional armies, where room to maneuver and retreat was key. But Israel is not uniquely vulnerable to a nuclear strike. Israel has multiple missile defense systems, a well-trained air force, and submarines that carry nuclear weapons, capable of retaliating against Iran even if the entire country was destroyed.
Better than that, Israel’s geography is a natural defense against Iranian attack. Israel’s (de-facto) capital is Jerusalem, which Iran could not eliminate without destroying Muslim holy sites. Close to 20% of Israeli citizens are Muslim, and Israel’s winding, North-South geography means that bombs dropped on populated areas would have devastating effects inside the Palestinian territories, as well as nearby Arab states. All of Iran’s rhetoric about Israel is based on its supposed or real victimization of the Palestinians—the very same people Iran would have to massacre in any nuclear strike on Israel.
Thus, it’s clear that there is no basis to consider Iran a short-term nuclear threat worthy of military action. Such action would only delay the Iranian program anyway, which is why even Israel’s intelligence and military leaders are against it.
Unfortunately, even if these dangerous myths do not succeed in driving the United States or Israel to war, they strengthen the Iranian regime by allowing it to portray the US as an aggressor responsible for the country’s woes. Real foes of the current leadership in Tehran ought to pursue a more nuanced approach that does not hold back political reform.
Of course, there are also myths that allow policymakers and members of the public to underestimate the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program. (These I will address in another article.) Unfortunately, the loudest voices talking about Iran right now are the ones calling for war. It is important for the public to seize the middle ground and reject alarmism without ignoring the issue entirely.