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Though it is as old as the debate about the Iranian nuclear program itself, the question now seems more apt than ever. The usual phrasing is whether Iran is truly bent on destruction or on the verge of becoming a modern-day Soviet Union, i.e., a nuclear power that can be deterred by mutually assured destruction (leave aside whether you believe the current or potential future occupants of the White House would, in fact, respond in such a fashion). On the one hand are people who point out that, though the Soviets were power-hungry totalitarians, they wanted to live and knew that using nukes was a suicide pact. On the other, you have people who argue that Iran isn’t rational in that way, and would be happy for martyrdom — or, more likely, the martyrdom of their ordinary citizens — for the cause of Islam, the Caliphate, and the return of the Twelfth Imam.
I have gone back and forth between the two sides myself, but a thought occurred to me today: Iran wouldn’t be the first instance in the modern era of an “ideological regime” driven to irrational action by nutty ideas. Thankfully, the last such regime — the Third Reich — existed in the pre-nuclear age.
I know people hold their breath when Nazis are mentioned, but please hear me out. Hitler was an ideologue, committed to racist and anti-Semitic ideas. If you look at the military history of WWII, you see that, even as the war turned against the Germans, they continued — indeed escalated — their effort to exterminate European Jewry, diverting trains, personnel, and materials away from the war to do so. The murder of slave laborers also meant an ever-diminishing ability to produce munitions and other war necessities. This was totally irrational from a military or a survival standpoint (I can’t be certain, but I imagine no high-ranking Nazi official believed that he’d get out alive if the war ended in defeat; either he would be killed in the effort, or condemned to death for his actions). Even within the war itself, Hitler was often irrational, invading the USSR out of hatred for Bolshevism and then throwing more and more soldiers into the maw after the cause had turned hopelessly against him.
Imagine if Hitler and the Allies obtained nuclear capabilities in the latter half of 1944. Does anybody think that the Nazi regime would not have used that weapon — probably against the Soviet Union — even knowing that one of their own cities would subsequently perish under mushroom clouds?
I think the same can be said today. It is not at all clear that the clerics in charge of Iran — as distinguished from the mass of ordinary Iranian citizens — are “rational” in the sense that they value survival to the point of being deterrable. Their hatred of Jews and Israel isn’t distinguishable from Nazi anti-semitism, and they are imbued with a religious — almost messianic — fervor to destroy Israel and all other “heathen” toward their millenarian goals. They believe that death in pursuit of that goal will be met with instant entry into Paradise. That sounds an awful lot like a recipe for “irrationality” and instability.
Image Credit: “Seyyed Ali Khamenei” by User:Seyedkhan – http://fa.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D9%BE%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%87:Ali_Khamenei.jpg. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.Published in