Paul Pillar

Deterrence, Demonization, and Drumbeats on Iran

When a rhetorical drumbeat about anything continues long enough and loud enough, the substance in it comes to be widely accepted as common wisdom no matter how flimsy a factual basis, if any, the substance had to begin with. The demonization of Iran, and in particular the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a can't-possibly-live-with, must-prevent-at-all-costs proposition has become such a subject. Especially dismaying is the adding to the drumbeat by members of Congress or other political leaders who ought to know better. To what extent their doing so results from their own perceptions having been shaped by drums that have already been beaten and to what extent they are consciously manipulating a theme that sells is unclear. But the result is the same.

One subtopic on which the myth-making about Iran has proceeded apace lately concerns delivery systems Iran is likely to have in a few years. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) has repeatedly asserted that Iran will have by 2015 an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a weapon of mass destruction to the United States. This assertion is supposedly based on an executive-branch assessment, but as Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association explains, no such assessment says anything like that. There is only a worst-case scenario in an analysis released by the Pentagon that is subject to conditions such as external assistance and is by no means the same as what Inhofe is asserting.

A louder and longer-running theme in the drumbeat is the notion that the principles of deterrence somehow are repealed if one of the parties in a deterrent relationship wears a turban and a beard. The idea is that Iran cannot be deterred like the Soviet Union or China could because its leaders are a bunch of religious fanatics who only care about an afterlife. Many have conveyed this line; among elected leaders one of the most recent to do so is Representative Allen West (R-FL). The line is based on nothing more than a caricature of Iranian decision makers as mad mullahs. The history of the Islamic Republic gives no support for the idea that those decision makers are suicidal or that they don't care about staying alive, staying in power and not having Iran devastated. Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress has an excellent synopsis of what we do know on this subject. Duss notes that the arguments heard about disregard for human life apply more to the deterrable USSR and China than they ever have to Iran.

The only thing I would add is that if one wants to look for evidence of religious belief driving bellicose foreign policies, even to the point of starting a war, there is scarier evidence of that close to home. Such as with a recent president or a prospective future president from Texas.