I’ve been writing in this space for months now that Western policymakers who believe Iran can be contained or deterred by conventional methods once it goes nuclear are deluding themselves. As I wrote in a commentary nearly a year ago:
In the 1930s, Winston Churchill – virtually alone – called for swift action to remove Hitler before he could wreak havoc. What was the source of his clarity? Churchill simply understood that Hitler meant what he said in “Mein Kampf” and was developing the capacity to act on it. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe’s political sophisticates believed that Hitler’s rhetoric was purely for domestic consumption – a tool used to exploit the grievances of the demoralized Weimar Republic.
Today, a similar debate rages over Ahmadinejad and the mullahs whose regime he leads. But the sincerity of their beliefs should be in doubt to no one. The Iranian President is a man who, during his tenure as the mayor of Tehran, ordered the city’s streets widened in anticipation of the return of the Twelfth Imam, a figure who accompanies the apocalypse in Shiite Islamic theology. The American left would call for the head of any mayor in the United States who wanted to widen Main Street to prepare for the return of the Christ. Yet they apparently think a similar figure in the world’s biggest hotbed of religious fundamentalism can be expected to be a benign wielder of nuclear launch codes.
In the new issue of Commentary, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, in a piece entitled “Iran Cannot be Contained”, comes to the same conclusion from a different angle, rebutting those who think that because containment worked on the Soviet Union it can work on the Iranian regime:
… The most important difference between the Soviet Union and Iran may be ideological. A credible case can be made that Communism is no less a faith than Islam and that Iran’s current leadership, like Soviet leaders of yore, knows how to temper true belief with pragmatic considerations. But Communism was also a materialist and (by its own lights) rationalist creed, with a belief in the inevitability of history but not in the afterlife. Marxist-Leninist regimes may be unmatched in their record of murderousness, but they were never great believers in the virtues of martyrdom.
That is not the case with Shiism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.
The martyrdom mentality factors into Iran’s nuclear calculus as well. In December 2001, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a man often described as a moderate and a pragmatist in the Western press—noted in his Qods (Jerusalem) Day speech that “if one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”
We are, quite simply, running out of time. We can try to ignore reality, but reality won’t return the favor.