It’s easy to become jaded by rhetorical excess — especially when that excess appears to us to be both transcendently silly and far-fetched. North Korean propaganda films featuring mid-twentieth-century levels of animation technology can be particularly amusing — until, that is, you ponder the intent. Yes, they really do want to kill vast numbers of Americans.
In the jihadist world of America as the Great Satan and Israel as the Little Satan, the gap is not between rhetoric and intentions but between rhetoric and capability. In other words, jihadists say what they mean but can’t typically do what they say. So we listen, chuckle when the rhetoric is particularly excessive (or ill-stated in English), and move on. We get in the habit of discounting or ignoring the fact that there are people in this world who are basically shrieking, “I will kill you!” and treat them as if they’re really just posturing for the radicalized home audience (the existence of such an audience should be troubling on its own terms).
History demonstrates that when a nation or movement is screaming its murderous intent, we should listen. Israel has learned again and again not only that jihadists mean what they say, but they’ll also overestimate their own capabilities, striking as soon as they believe they have enough strength, even when they don’t. Israel experienced the marriage of rhetoric and reality most dangerously in 1948, 1967, 1973, and during the second intifada. The United States has experienced it through terror attacks, most notably on 9/11.
I bring this up because today marks the first effective day of the Obama administration’s “deal” with Iran, a deal made essentially on the pretense that Iran’s nonstop rhetoric about obliterating Israel is mere window dressing – that it’s just bad diplomatic manners rather than a heartfelt expression of intent. Constant vigilance is required to prevent Iran from believing it has the capability of fulfilling its long-expressed goals, and with this new deal, our vigilance slips just as the sanctions were truly beginning to bite. We gave Iran a reprieve, and we got nothing in return.
A man screaming for your head is disturbing enough if he’s merely waving a plastic spoon. He becomes terrifying when he’s waving a loaded gun. A nation that has been screaming for our head — and for Israel’s — for more than thirty years is on the verge of seriously upgrading its capabilities, and it appears as if our diplomatic strategy is partially premised on the idea that Iran’s jihadists aren’t telling the truth about themselves or their core beliefs. This is a deadly mistake.
It’s past time to take Iranian rhetoric seriously.