The martyr state myth
In the Republican presidential primary debate in Ames, Iowa two weeks ago, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) caused a bit of an uproar with his suggestion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not mean the end of the world. "Why would that be so strange," Paul asked, "if the Soviets and the Chinese had nuclear weapons? ...
In the Republican presidential primary debate in Ames, Iowa two weeks ago, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) caused a bit of an uproar with his suggestion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not mean the end of the world. "Why would that be so strange," Paul asked, "if the Soviets and the Chinese had nuclear weapons? We tolerated the Soviets. We didn’t attack them. And they were a much greater danger. They were the greatest danger to us in our whole history. But you [didn’t] go to war with them."
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) quickly declared Paul’s remarks to be evidence that Paul was "not the kind of guy you need to have sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." West insisted that the sort of deterrence that obtained between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War was "out the window with Iran. If they get a [nuclear] device, they’ve already told us what their intentions are."
Hailing West’s comments, conservative Hot Air blogger Ed Morrissey helpfully explained that deterrence wouldn’t work against Iran, because "The mullahs’ strategic goals are metaphysical; they want their Messiah to arrive and establish a global Islamic rule. According to their view of Islam, that will come at the end of a great conflagration, and there isn’t a much better way to start one of those than by lobbing nukes at Israel, the US, or both."
It’s tempting to dismiss this as simply the raving of Congress’s leading anti-Muslim hysteric, accompanied by the usual noise from the right-wing blogosphere. But similar assertions about Iran’s supposedly suicidal tendencies have been made by other conservative leaders. Indeed, the belief that Iran is some sort of "martyr state," and therefore uniquely immune to the cost-benefit calculations that underpin a conventional theory of deterrence, seems to have become something of an article of faith for many Iran hawks.
Speaking in Denver last year, former House Speaker and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich claimed that the Iranian leadership would be willing to accept the destruction of Tehran in exchange for wiping out Israel in a nuclear conflict. "It’s impossible to deter them. What are you going to threaten?" Gingrich asked. As suicidal jihadists, Gingrich said, Iranian leaders believe their dead martyrs go to heaven and Israelis "go to hell." (As for why such radically devout Muslims might countenance the destruction of Islam’s third holiest city, Jerusalem/Al Quds, Gingrich did not say.)
In a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Harvard law professor and part-time Middle East analyst Alan Dershowitz declared Iran to be "the world’s first suicide nation — a nation whose leaders have not only expressed but, during the Iran-Iraq war, demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice millions of their own people to an apocalyptic mission of destruction."
The "martyr state" myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime’s End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.
War-related casualties for both sides in the Iran-Iraq war (a war started by Iraq, not an "apocalyptic mission of destruction" by Iran) are estimated at about one and a half million. It’s unclear where Dershowitz got the idea that Iran "sacrificed millions" of its own people in the war.
Two states that did sacrifice millions of their own people, however, are the Soviet Union and China, the two states now being offered by Iran hawks as examples of states that could be deterred as Iran supposedly cannot. Some 7 million people are believed to have been killed in in the Ukrainian forced famine, known as Holodomor, under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and many more in forced relocations and purges. Historians estimate the number of deaths during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61) to be between 20 and 43 million. Yet even these staggering domestic death tolls did not mean that these regimes had any interest in sacrificing themselves.
The idea that Iran’s rulers are, as a result of their Shiite Muslim theology, committed to triggering the apocalypse if and when they obtain a nuclear weapon is similarly suspect. It is true that some Iranian leaders, most notably Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believe in the imminent return of the "Hidden Imam", also known as the Mahdi, or Shiite messiah. Ahmadinejad lards his speeches with references to the Hidden Imam, so much so that several years ago he was publicly rebuked by leading Iranian clerics, who told Ahmadinejad he "would be better off concentrating on Iran’s social problems…than indulging in such mystical rhetoric." Iran’s Etemad Melli newspaper quoted one of Ahmadinejad’s critics as saying that, rather than obsessing over the return of the Hidden Imam, "Ahmadinejad would do better to worry about social problems like inflation."
Earlier this year, associates of Ahmadinejad produced a film claiming that unrest in the Middle East was evidence of the Mahdi’s coming. A number of American conservative websites declared the film to be evidence that "the Iranian regime believes the chaos is divine proof that their ultimate victory is at hand."
In fact, far from representing the actual views of the Iranian regime, the film received intense criticism from within the regime, with senior clerics charging members of Ahmadinejad’s circle with apostasy and "sorcery," and further deepening the rift between Ahmadinejad and his former patron, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli Iran analyst who co-authored a biography of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he devoted an entire chapter to beliefs about the Mahdi, notes that the film was "so inaccurate in its contents and predictions that it raised the ire of the senior clergy at the Bright Futures Institute, which specializes in all matters relating to the issue of the hidden Imam." In Iran, Javedanfar continued, "predictions about the Mahdi’s imminent return are not in short supply. Some con men do it to make a quick buck, others do it for political purposes. None have religious standing, nor do they have an impact on the decision making of the Supreme Leader who has the final say on all matters, because he is not a messianic."
According to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying Shia theology in the Iranian seminary city of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei — who, unlike Ahmadinejad, actually controls Iranian foreign policy — is much more concerned with the here and now. "Not one of [Khamenei’s] speeches refers to any apocalyptic sign or reveals any special eagerness for the return of the Hidden Imam," Khalaji wrote in a 2008 report, Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy. "As the theory of the guardianship of the jurist requires, the most significant task of the Supreme Leader is to safeguard the regime, even by overruling Islamic law."
In a 2009 article for the Brown Journal of World Affairs, national security analyst Andrew Grotto probed the question "Is Iran a Martyr State?" and found that such claims are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition."The martyr state view rests on bold, even radical claims about Iran’s goals and behavior that defy conventional expectations of states’ actions," wrote Grotto, "but no government in recorded history has willfully pursued policies it knows will proximately cause its own destruction."
"Given the novelty of the martyr state argument," Grotto continued, "and how unequivocally its proponents present it, one would expect to encounter an avalanche of credible evidence. Yet that is not the case." Finding both that "references are scarce in this line of writings, and certain references are cited with striking regularity," Grotto determined that the "martyr state" view essentially rests upon a few neoconservative op-eds and a report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, whose claims have been bounced endlessly around the internet.
The Iranian nuclear program, and the outstanding questions that the international community still has regarding its true nature, represents a continuing challenge to the United States and its allies in the region. Nuclear proliferation — by any country — remains a significant national security concern for the U.S. But the prospect of an Iran with a nuclear capability is problematic enough without bringing in wild claims about the Iranian appetite for destruction. Indeed, by potentially engendering a hysterical overreaction, the pervasiveness of the "martyr state" myth actually detracts from our ability to develop policies to effectively meet that challenge.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress and the Director of Middle East Progress at the Center.
Matthew Duss is a visiting scholar in the American Statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment and served as foreign-policy advisor to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders from 2017-22.
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