Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren has said that he asked for the publication of his book to be moved up specifically so it would intervene in the debate over the Obama Administration’s proposed Iran deal. Part of his effort has involved an effort to reopen a discussion about the nature of the Iranian regime. In one of his op-eds, published in the Los Angeles Times, Oren took aim at a statement President Barack Obama made in a May interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, regarding the anti-Semitism expressed by some Iranian leaders. Asked by Goldberg whether a regime that espouses such views can be counted on to be entirely rational, the president responded: “Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”
A number of writers quickly pounced on these remarks, arguing that they revealed a flaw in the president’s policy. “Obama believes that the Iranian government’s anti-Semitism is subject to the same rational cost-benefit calculus as any other aspects of a nation’s behavior, even if anti-Semitism is itself irrational,” wrote Armin Rosen in Business Insider, suggesting that this represented “a tension in Obama’s thinking that could prove fatal to his top foreign policy priority.” Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies even wrote that the interview shows that, “Obama will even defend anti-Semitism to spin his Iran deal.”
A more measured response came from Walter Russell Mead, who wrote that not only is anti-Semitism a uniquely distorting form of bigotry, but Obama’s answers on Iran were part of a broader failure to understand how non-Western leaders think. “President Obama has been singularly unsuccessful at understanding and dealing with foreign leaders who don’t share his world view,” wrote Mead. “President Obama tried to deal with both Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan on the basis of Western rationality. He failed in both cases to understand that these men were driven by very different visions and priorities from those President Obama assumed that all rational people share. He was wrong about them, and he appears to have similarly misread the Saudis.” While it’s certainly true that Russian, Turkish, and Saudi leaders define their interests in (sometimes confoundingly) different ways from Western interlocutors, it’s unclear why this should qualify as its own separate form of non-Western rationality. But this does get at the broader debate that these authors are attempting to reopen.
Oren believes that such a misreading characterizes Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. “The question of whether Iran, run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his ayatollahs, is a rational state goes to the very heart of the debate over its nuclear program,” he wrote. Acknowledging that Israeli and American technical estimates with regard to Iranian capabilities “largely dovetailed,” Oren cautioned, “Where the two sides differed was over the nature of the Islamic Republic. The Americans tended to see Iranian leaders as logical actors who understood that the world would never allow them to attain nuclear weapons and would penalize them mercilessly—even militarily—for any attempt to try.”
“By contrast,” Oren continued, “most Israelis viewed the ayatollahs as radical jihadists who claimed they took instructions from the Shiite ‘Hidden Imam.’ ”
Oren raises a number of points that cry out for a response. First, as to this being at root a debate over Iran’s rationality, it’s helpful to think back to the release of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which was greeted with considerable alarm among hawks who had been constructing a case for war against Iran over the previous few years. The NIE’s assertion that Iran had probably ceased work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 was bad enough, but equally if not more damaging to the hawkish view was the NIE’s assessment that Iran halting its nuclear weapons program in 2003 was “primarily in response to international pressure,” which “indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” This, it continued, “suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.”
This remains the view of the U.S. intelligence community. Importantly, it’s also one shared by top Israeli security figures, if not its current government. “The regime in Iran is a very rational one,” Mossad chief Meir Dagan told CBS in 2012. Iran may not see things as Western governments do, but “they are considering all the implications of their actions.” “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people,” Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Ganz said in a 2012 interview explaining why he did not believe that Iran would ultimately choose to develop nuclear weapons.
Iranian leaders hold deeply offensive views of Jews, but any look at the history of the Islamic Republic doesn’t show that they are willing to risk national suicide to achieve the destruction of Israel.
Here we should note how Oren tries to steal a base with regard to differing U.S. and Israeli views. Regardless of what “most Israelis” may or may not think, the fact is that Israeli intelligence “largely dovetails” both with the U.S. view of Iran’s technical capabilities and with the U.S. view that Iran is a rational player, and disagrees with its own prime minister that Iran is bent on an apocalyptic suicide mission. Still, having established that Iran behaves according to a recognizable cost-benefit calculation, the question remains as to how Iran defines those costs and benefits and determines which costs are bearable to achieve which benefits.
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 any evidence. “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 op-eds and a report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, whose claims have been bounced endlessly around the Internet.
According to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying Shia theology in Qom’s seminaries, Ayatollah Khamenei 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. In the ideology of the Iranian Islamic Republic, “the most significant task of the Supreme Leader is to safeguard the regime, even by overruling Islamic law.”
It’s also worth noting that, even if Oren is right and Iran is a martyr state, this equally undercuts the argument being made by him, Netanyahu, and other opponents of the Iran nuclear deal that the P5+1 should simply walk away from the table and apply more sanctions pressure until Iran accepts a “better deal.” If Iran is committed, as a tenet of religious ideology, to obtaining a nuke, launching it toward Israel, and going out in a blaze of apocalyptic glory, no one has yet explained why Iran could possibly be deterred from this by continuing to inflate the price of chicken.
The added component of anti-Semitism provides a potentially more politically useful line of argument against a nuclear deal with Iran, forcing its defenders into an uncomfortable position of, in effect, arguing on behalf of anti-Semitism (on the assumption that there are writers out there unprincipled enough to claim such a thing). The argument here is that anti-Semitism is a uniquely problematic form of bigotry, one that prevents the holder of such views from experiencing reality in any normal way and therefore incapable of making sound judgments. “Jew hatred takes the form of a belief that conspiratorial groups of super-empowered Jews run the world in secret, cleverly manipulating the news media and the intelligentsia to hide the truth of their control,” write Mead. “Someone who really believes this isn’t just a heart-blighted ignorant boor; someone who believes this lives in a house of mirrors, incapable of understanding the way the world actually works.”
One can recognize that anti-Semitism is a particularly pernicious bigotry among bigotries, however, while still questioning whether holding such views makes any leader “irrational” by definition. And we actually have a way to test this theory very close to home, an example of not only of an anti-Semitic head of state, but one who actually had access to nuclear weapons: President Richard Nixon, whose obsessive conspiratorial suspicion of Jews has, thanks to his own Oval Office recordings, been exhaustively documented and would rightly prevent him from being elected in today’s America. Yet somehow, America and the world managed to survive him. Nixon made some good foreign-policy decisions (the opening to China) and some horrible ones (the escalation of the Vietnam War) but it’s unclear how, if at all, his anti-Semitism influenced his assessment of how these different policy choices would advance U.S. national interests as he defined them.
And so it is with the Iranian government. Its leaders hold deeply offensive views of Jews, but any look at the history of the Islamic Republic doesn’t show that they are willing to risk national suicide in order to achieve anything, whether it’s the destruction of Israel, the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s, or obtaining a nuclear weapon. As with Nixon, and unlike Adolf Hitler, there’s no evidence that hatred of Jews is so foundational to the Islamic Republic’s governing ideology that they would drop everything else to pursue it. (Indeed, shortly after taking power in 1979, as the Ayatollah Khomeini was in the process of wiping out political competitors and consolidating control of the revolution, Khomeini received a delegation of Iranian Jews and promised them protection.) None of this is to say that Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric should be ignored; it certainly shouldn’t. Iran should continue to be treated as a pariah and sanctioned until this threatening rhetoric, along with a whole range of other behaviors, ceases. But the nuclear agreement now being negotiated isn’t based on trusting that Iran won’t act upon its rhetoric, but on ensuring, through the deepest and broadest nuclear inspections regime ever created, that it can’t.
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Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington, DC.