National Security & Defense

Unthinking the Thinkable: Iran and the Bomb

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, on September 14, 2007. (Photo: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl)
Wishful thinking won’t prevent the ayatollahs from bombing Israel.

Lore has it that a Holocaust survivor, asked by a journalist what he had learned from his experiences, replied, “When someone says they want to kill you, believe them.” I have been unable to locate a reputable source for this story and now suspect that it is apocryphal. Whether or not an actual Holocaust survivor really said those words, the cautionary tale conveys an important truth: Serious threats should be taken seriously. Although few disagree with this advice in principle, many are reluctant to apply it to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran’s history of menacing behavior is extensive. Consider two provocations that have come during the supposed post–Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action détente. In September 2015 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei wrote on his website that “God willing, there will be no Zionist regime [i.e., Israel] in 25 years . . . during this period, the spirit of fighting, heroism and jihad will keep you worried every moment.” In March 2016, Iranian media reported that the government had tested two ballistic missiles, one with the words “Israel must be wiped out” inscribed in Hebrew. 

The regime’s official position is that Israel should be dissolved peacefully via referendum. So say spokesmen like the unctuous current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Are we to believe, though, that Khamenei intends to keep Israel worried by “the spirit of fighting, heroism and jihad” every moment — right up to the time when a peaceful ballot ushers the Eastern Mediterranean Republic into existence? As for the missile, no outlet, to my knowledge, had a subscript reading “via peaceful referendum.” Both statements, then, can be credibly interpreted only as threats of violent destruction. The same must be said for a banner that was televised during a military parade last week. It threatened to “turn Tel Aviv and Haifa to dust” if Israel makes a mistake.

In light of such threats against Israel, the United States, and the West generally, one would expect educated people to be uniformly horrified at the prospect of Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. Some are, but many respond breezily to this worry: We made it through the Cold War; unsavory regimes already have nuclear weapons, you know; and nobody would invite certain self-destruction. Could such facile dismissals possibly reassure anyone? The first two are like saying, “You’ve survived a game of Russian roulette before — why not add two rounds to the chamber and play again?” The third can be maintained only by a very inattentive observer of humanity.

A decade ago, as an undergraduate at Idaho State University, I first became aware of this species of denialism. This was not long after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s notorious “wipe Israel off the map” statement, which is translated more accurately, but not reassuringly, as a threat to “erase the regime in Jerusalem [i.e., Israel] from the page of time.” During a public lecture, a history professor informed his audience that such hyperbolic statements are, in the context of Persian culture, merely a mechanism for “blowing off steam.” Some folks exercise, some do yoga, and some call for genocide.

Such views are hardly eccentric. In 2012 The Atlantic published an article called “What Will Iran Do if It Gets a Nuclear Bomb?” Not a single one of the five academics who expressed their views on this question worried that Iran might use the bomb for more than theatrics and political leverage. “A nuclear-armed Iran is not likely to act much differently,” said Kyle Beardsley, assistant professor of political science at Emory University. “Having a nuclear weapon would give Iran a bigger bark,” said Sarah Kreps, assistant professor in the department of government at Cornell University. But, she went on to say, not much more of a bite.

In a 2015 article for the Washington Post, Mark S. Bell characterizes the spectrum of opinion among pundits and scholars as follows:

Optimists argue that nuclear weapons are not much use for anything other than deterring nuclear attack. Nuclear weapons, therefore, would not enable Iran to do much in international politics that it cannot already do. Pessimists argue that nuclear weapons are powerful tools of international statecraft. According to this view, acquiring nuclear weapons would enable Iran to engage in a range of behaviors that are currently too dangerous for Iran to undertake.

These “dangerous behaviors” include territorial expansion using conventional military and other familiar forms of belligerence.

Is that the darkest vision that these gloomy pessimists can conjure? Ironically, the optimists concede that nuclear weapons aren’t good for much other than deterring nuclear attack. But then nuclear weapons must also be good for

Calling nuclear weapons ‘powerful tools of international statecraft’ is understatement to the point of euphemism.

launching a nuclear attack. And calling nuclear weapons “powerful tools of international statecraft” is understatement to the point of euphemism. It’s like describing a loaded Glock in the hand of a criminal as “an instrument useful for generating one-sided financial transactions.”

If The Atlantic and the Washington Post are to be believed, the threat assessments of all credible people exclude consideration of scenarios in which the threats are actually carried out. Memo to credible people: Self-destructive acts of evil aren’t unknown among those who extol jihad and martyrdom. If you’d sacrifice yourself to kill a dozen infidels, you’d do the same to kill millions. Who doubts that the 9/11 hijackers would have detonated a nuclear bomb in New York City if they could have? Who can be confident that those who control Iran’s military apparatus, or who may control it in the future, wouldn’t be willing to do the same?

Left unexplained is why the experts would fail to take this possibility seriously. Allow me to venture a hypothesis. In the penultimate chapter of their book on conservatives in academia, Passing on the Right, John A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. note that academics, in addition to being less religious than other Americans, have a tendency to downplay the role of religious belief in shaping history. Plausibly, the bias they identify explains why liberal academics, and liberals generally, insist that secular concerns like poverty, not religious belief, are the primary “root causes” of such terrorism.

What seems to be at work here is the “false consensus effect,” the cognitive bias that leads one to assume that one’s own beliefs and motivations are more widely held than they actually are. Liberals value tolerance, especially racial tolerance. So if the false consensus effect is present in their thinking, we would also expect them to downplay the role of attitudes that are wildly out of line with that priority. Consistent with that prediction, we find liberal academics, commentators, and politicians downplaying genocidal hatred and emphasizing strategic considerations when they analyze the regime’s motives.

Contrary to the assurances of the intelligentsia, a nuclear attack by Iran is not unthinkable. True, it would not be in accord with Iran’s national interest, as defined by Western experts. But a fanatical regime may regard “death to Israel” and “death to America” as being higher priorities. (Those slogans seem to be more popular in Tehran than “national interest — yay!”) Risk assessments shouldn’t be circumscribed by the presumed limits of human depravity. Evil need not be rational. Self-deception about that reality is the ultimate form of unilateral disarmament.

— Spencer Case is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado–Boulder and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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