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No, Iran Is Not An Apocalyptic Nuclear Cult

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Yesterday, negotiations over Iran's nuclear program failed to meet the deadline. Talks have been extended, but already an emerging chorus of "I told you so" says that it's pointless to negotiate with a fanatical religious regime that views nuclear war as holy martyrdom. It's time to put this myth to rest.

For the moment, the 2013 interim nuclear deal that Iran signed with six world powers (U.S., UK, Russia, China, France, Germany) remains intact. Under the terms of that agreement, Iran agreed to curtail parts of its nuclear program in exchange for a modest easing of international economic sanctions. Progress since then has been slow but steady, but some significant gaps remain. One is how much capacity Iran would be allowed to retain to enrich uranium, such as the number of centrifuges that could remain installed. A second issue concerns Iran's demand that economic sanctions be permanently lifted and not just suspended step by step as it complies with the terms of a final agreement.

But critics of nuclear diplomacy see these negotiations, at best, as a delaying tactic. They argue that Iran will never live up to its obligations under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and end its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. This view is partly steeped in the belief that Tehran's theocratic regime is guided by non-negotiable religious dogma, and that nuclear deterrence—the threat of mutually assured destruction—is inapplicable to nation whose fanaticism has endowed it with the mentality of a suicide bomber, believing that it will be rewarded in the afterlife.


For some pundits and policymakers, little has changed since 1988, when Henry Precht, the former director of Iranian affairs at the State Department wrote:

The American consensus on Iran is persistent and clear: The leaders in Tehran are crazy, blindly ideological, resistant to international law and opinion, and virtually impossible to deal with….[But] if Americans read the Iranian record with the calm geopolitical interest of a Soviet or Turkish analyst, the [regime] would seem less mad, more insecure and inexperienced, less ideological, and more pragmatic.


The "Undeterrable" Country


Indeed, in the early years following the Iranian Revolution, there were fears that Tehran would form an alliance with the Soviet Union. Why would a theocracy find common cause with a Communist regime that rejected religion? In part, this prediction was based on the dubious argument that devout Marxists had embraced a secular form of religion that was similar to the ideology of the Ayatollahs. In 1980, Daniel Pipes, a conservative Middle East analyst, wrote an editorial in the New York Times explaining:

In an odd parallel, Islam claims to replace Christianity as the final revelation from God, and Communism claims to succeed capitalism as the final stage of economic evolution. The West infuriates both its would-be successors with its continued wealth and power. They respond by presenting the West with its most sustained opposition…..Both have revolutionary temperaments; claiming a monopoly on truth, why should either allow imperfect or evil ways to exist for another day?.... Activist Islam and Marxism emphasize international solidarity over nationalism, community needs over those of the individual, egalitarianism over freedom.


But, a funny thing happened after the Soviet Union collapsed. The same individuals who had earned their conservative credentials by warning about the all-encompassing threat of Communism began saying that, in retrospect, the Soviet Union was actually a more rationale adversary than Iran and the other "rogue states" that were now confronting the U.S.

In the animal kingdom, a rogue is defined as a creature that is born different. It is incapable of mingling with the herd, it keeps to itself, and it can attack at any time, without warning. Using the "rogue" taxonomy, countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea were portrayed not simply as outlaws who circumvented international norms— they were "bad to the bone," dysfunctional, unpredictable, and incapable of moderation.


"When we faced the former Soviet Union, we had a clear understanding of what it would take to deter adventurism by Brezhnev or Khrushchev," observed Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-NE) during a 1993 hearing on rogue states. "It seems more difficult to deter Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi."

Likewise, in a 1998 news conference convened to discuss the threat of ballistic missiles to the United States, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned:

"We had a core assumption about the nature of the Soviet Union, that it was essentially a collective, bureaucratic leadership susceptible to deterrence. ... They would not commit suicide. I think there are at least two or three regimes who will clearly, in the not-too-distant future, have access to weapons of mass destruction, about whom you can not say with certainty, deterrence will work."


Anyone familiar with the history of U.S. foreign policy would find such rhetoric dishearteningly familiar. State Department reports described Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab-nationalist leader of Egypt in the 1950's and 1960's, as a "Hitlerian" dictator who sought to "merge the resources and emotions of the entire Middle East into a single assault against Western civilization." CIA analysts believed Fidel Castro to be "messianic," "erratic," and "in a high state of elation amounting to mental illness." Throughout the 1970's, the countries that formed OPEC were typically described as irrational actors who would bring down the global financial system, even if it meant their own economic self-destruction.

In recent years, the rhetoric directed toward Iran increasingly emphasizes its unique danger as a religious—and, specifically—Islamic state. In the 1990s, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer had opposed the idea of negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program. When dealing with the "most belligerent and paranoid regime on Earth," he argued, U.S. diplomacy becomes a matter of reaching out "to the unreachable and reasoning with the unreasonable." Diplomacy is "noble," he wrote. "It is also futile."


Nowadays, Krauthammer says that religion makes Iran more dangerous than the regime he previously described as the most paranoid and belligerent on Earth:

Deterrence. It worked in the two-player Cold War. Will it work against multiple rogues? It seems quite suitable for North Korea, whose regime, far from being suicidal, is obsessed with survival.

Iran is a different proposition. With its current millenarian leadership, deterrence is indeed a feeble gamble.


Likewise, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, testified before Congress that:

The calculus of deterrence for the Iranian regime originating from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is quite different from that for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. On the psychological level, for example, a theocratic regime that values life in the hereafter more than life on Earth is not likely to be subject to classic theories of deterrence, which rest after all on ending life on Earth for the aggressor.


Similarly, a report published by the think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, portrays Iranian religious beliefs as the Islamic equivalent of Christian "End Timers":

Some subscribe to a version of Shia Islam that assigns central importance to hastening the reappearance of the hidden Twelfth Imam…. much speculation has surrounded the question of whether [they] adhere to an apocalyptic version of Shia Islam that could someday prompt Iran to unleash a nuclear strike against Israel or the United States in order to hasten the reappearance of the Mahdi and usher in the Shiite messianic era. While some students of Shia Islam consider such concerns overblown, others take them quite seriously.

This mindset carries with it....the potential for miscalculation or overreach born of the belief that the impending reappearance of the Mahdi relieves decision makers of responsibility for ill-conceived or reckless policies, since the Mahdi will set things right when he reappears.

The possibility that an apocalyptic cult could someday emerge within the military or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and gain control over a nuclear device or weapon, which it might then use to advance its agenda, is probably exceedingly slim. But given the ambiance of messianic expectation in some circles in Iran, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, either. While such groups seem more preoccupied with eliminating the enemies of Islam than with their own martyrdom, there is a danger that such a group might act against these enemies without due consideration of the consequences for Iran.


Ayatollah Realpolitik

Certainly, Iran has played its own role in reinforcing these perceptions. During its war with Iraq in the 1980s, the increasingly desperate regime ignored its own law that forbade the recruitment of children under the age of 16 into the armed forces. Thousands of ill-equipped children, promised a place in Paradise as reward for their martyrdom, were sent into battle to help clear minefields. In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that Iran had been covertly developing uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, and had systematically failed to fulfill its obligations under the NPT. The belligerent and often bizarre rhetoric of Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, did little to ease international skepticism of Tehran's claim that its nuclear program was being developed strictly for "peaceful purposes."


But, does this mean Iran is dogmatic to the point of being suicidal? To the contrary, longtime observers of Iran have cited numerous examples of the country's pragmatism.


As Ariane Tabatabai, an associate at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, recently wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

A dissident Iranian Shia cleric, Mohsen Kadivar, points out that when Saddam Hussein's missiles targeted Iranian cities during the Iran-Iraq war, officials asked Khomeini for permission to retaliate in kind. At first he refused, hewing to the Shia ban on indiscriminate warfare. Eventually, though, he allowed similar attacks to be carried out.

There are similar examples in which Iran has acted rationally with little or no regard to religious doctrine or sectarianism. Consider Tehran's relations with two neighbors to its northwest, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia is a Christian country, with good ties to Tehran, while Azerbaijan, a Shia-majority state, has had complicated relations with Iran. In Iranians' view, Azerbaijan tries to arouse their own Azeri population's separatism and enables some Israeli actions that target Iran.

It seems clear….that the regime follows its practical interests. When ideology serves these interests, it is put forward as a rationale; otherwise, it takes a backseat. Observers who continue to argue that the regime wishes to hasten the return of the Mahdi, and that Iran will therefore withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons, are contradicted by the facts. In actuality, Tehran highlights that it is party to a number of international treaties, and that its program has been in strict compliance with its international obligations. Whether or not this is the case is a different story, but a suicidal regime wouldn't bother preserving appearances.


Robert Litwak, an expert on international security at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center, has recently written a paper that offers an insightful view on what is really at stake for Iran. The nuclear negotiations have brought Tehran to a pivotal turning point, he argues, where it must decide whether it wants to continue to be a "revolutionary" state or a "normal" state. Iran has long defined itself as a country that will not submit to the international system, which it says primarily serves the interests of the U.S. and other Western powers. Its nuclear program has been both a symbol of defiance and prestige.

But that defiance has come at a high cost. The international sanctions are further crippling a domestic economy beset by hyperinflation and unemployment. "In short," Litwak writes, [Ayatollah] Khamenei's dilemma is whether the political costs of an agreement—alienating hardline interest groups, especially the Revolutionary Guard, upon which the regime's survival depends—outweigh its economic benefits."


The Obama administration, Litwak adds, has dropped the "rogue state" moniker in favor of "outlier." The White House did this to frame the issues in terms of Iran's non-compliance with international norms rather than as a unilateral U.S. political concept. Put another way, the U.S. is dangling the carrots of long-term benefits for Iran if it chooses to play by the rules.

"A deal… would be great, it would create a hope for the future among Iranians, it would lower their stress levels. It would also be a sort of détente with the U.S., which is an important step for building possible future relations," says Amir Mohebbian, a Tehran-based political analyst considered close to influential conservative circles. "But more importantly it will allow new foreign capital to be invested inside Iran."


The Iranian regime must also come to terms with the fact that its revolutionary stance is yielding diminishing returns. As the widespread civil unrest in 2012 revealed, appeals to nationalist, revolutionary ideals are no longer sufficient to rally Iranians behind their government. If anything, Iranians are co-opting that zeal to express their dissatisfaction at home. When a group of Iranian factory workers went on strike, their slogan was "Our salary is our absolute right!" This was an intentional variation of the nationalist government slogan, "Nuclear energy is our absolute right!"

Yes Nukes?

Some pundits in the U.S. have taken the opposite view of nuclear negotiations with Iran. If mutual assured destruction kept the U.S. and Soviet Union in check, they say, then why not do away with diplomatic brinkmanship and just learn to live with Iran as a possible nuclear weapons state?


But there are several issues concerning Iran's nuclear program that go beyond whether it's a "rational" or "irrational" state. For starters, allowing Iran to continue down its path would severely undermine the credibility of the NPT—a global arms control regime that has been hugely successful in halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide.


Another issue, applicable to all nuclear-weapons states, is security. What assurances are there that Iran's nuclear materials are adequately secured against theft? Those concerns take on even more significance given recent political instability in Iran, and the chaos that would likely accompany a potential regime change.

Most importantly, deterrence and mutual assured destruction are not a guarantee against nuclear war. The U.S. and Soviet Union came unnervingly close on more than one occasion. Even in the post-Cold War world, false indicators of a missile attack, which have occurred during times of political tensions, have put nuclear arsenals on high alert. The only irrational and suicidal view of nuclear weapons is the belief that more of them will make the world safer.