by Bret Stephens
An Iran with nuclear weapons might behave as other nuclear powers have, but there are reasons to fear it would not. And the United States and its allies might succeed at containing it. But again, there are reasons to suspect they would not. No less important, it's an open question whether even a policy of containment that did succeed—over many years and through various crises—would not exact a higher price on the U.S., its allies, and its interests than a series of military strikes that prevent Iran from going nuclear in the first place.
Today there is an odd tendency to think of the Cold War as a period during which containment served strategically as a stabilizing force abroad and politically as a clarifying one at home. In fact, containment exacted a staggering strategic, political, and human price. Nearly 100,000 Americans died in the Korean and Vietnam wars, both fought to enforce containment. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers stood guard in places like the Korean DMZ, Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, and West Germany's Fulda Gap. Trillions were spent on defense, intelligence, foreign aid, and prestige projects like the Apollo space program. And the U.S. repeatedly toed the nuclear brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the several crises over Berlin, and the Yom Kippur War.
Throughout all this, the U.S. was riven by intense domestic debates and public upheavals, not least during the Vietnam War. Containment was repeatedly attacked for its excessive reliance on nuclear deterrence and "brinksmanship" and its huge peacetime military expenditures, sometimes giving way to enfeebling periods of detente. Nor did containment prevent the Soviet Union from making steady geopolitical encroachments through the acquisition of client states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Western Europe was never entirely safe from Soviet political encroachments, either, given so-called Euro-Communist parties and a fellow-traveling "peace" movement.
That all this now seems to be largely forgotten is both remarkable and even amusing considering how often the same neoconservatives who are wary of a containment policy toward Iran are accused of being wistful for the Cold War. Of course Iran is not the Soviet Union, and the challenge it poses the U.S. is not on the global scale that was the USSR's. But if comparisons with the Cold War are to be made, those comparisons must acknowledge what a complex, costly, and close-run thing containing the Soviet Union proved to be.
At the same time, it's important to note the ways in which containing Iran would differ from the Cold War model. For starters, Soviet power was mostly symmetrical with America's: "Regime change" against Stalin was never a serious option, nor did the U.S. have the means to stop Russia from developing nuclear weapons. Neither is necessarily the case with Iran today, where both military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities and a broader regime-change policy are feasible options—at least as long as Iran does not have nuclear weapons.
Then, too, the Soviet Union threatened the U.S. primarily and directly, a fact that did much to bolster American political will to persevere in the contest. By contrast, the threat a nuclear Iran would pose (at least until it acquires an ICBM capability) would be principally to countries other than the U.S., calling into question American readiness to sustain a containment policy for the long haul. "Why die for Danzig?" was the question advocates of accommodation with Hitler were fond of asking in the 1930s. Some Americans may soon be asking the same question about Doha or Dubai or Tel Aviv.
But 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."
Then there is the recent rise within Iran of an ultra-conservative sect that has sprung up around Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, an ayatollah who numbers Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among his leading disciples. In 2005, Mesbah-Yazdi published a book openly calling for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. "Divine, messianic support has been the determining factor in the success of the Iranian regime during various trying periods," he wrote. "We cannot be broken because of temporary difficulties."
A year later, the influential cleric Mohsen Gharavian, another of Mesbah-Yazdi's disciples, reportedly called for Iran not only to acquire but also to use nuclear weapons as a "countermeasure" against the U.S. and Israel. These are, of course, some of the more extreme voices in Iran, which are not necessarily authoritative. Still, Mesbah-Yazdi's call to develop nuclear weapons is, in fact, precisely what the regime is doing for all its many denials, just as the increasingly repressive direction of Iranian politics squares with his long-held anti-reformist views.
All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests. Ideology matters, not only on its terms but also in shaping the parameters within which the regime is prepared to exhibit flexibility and restraint. Ideology matters, too, in determining the kinds of gambles and sacrifices it is willing to make to achieve its aims. To suggest that there is some universal standard of "pragmatism" or "rationality" where Iran and the rest of the world can find common ground is a basic (if depressingly common) intellectual error. What Iran finds pragmatic and rational—support for militias and terrorist organizations abroad; a posture of unyielding hostility to the West; a nuclear program that flouts multiple UN resolutions—is rather different from the thinking that prevails in, say, the Netherlands.
Put simply, Iran has demonstrated time and again that it is prepared to pay a steep price to realize its ambitions. The real questions are: What are those ambitions? What does the regime think it can afford? And how would the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal affect their calculus?
Bret Stephens is a deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and the author of the paper's Global View, a weekly column.
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