- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Why the “Martyr-State” Myth Survives

Greg Scoblete comments [1] on Cantor’s use [2] of the “martyr-state” myth [3] that Iran will invite its own destruction with a nuclear first-strike:

This is an extraordinary claim, given that no nuclear state has launched an unprovoked nuclear strike against another country no matter how bitter the rivalry. Of course, it’s possible that Iran’s leaders may decide to do something that’s clearly insane, but the weight of historical evidence against this claim is enormous and self-evident. Pakistan has not nuked India (or vice-versa). The U.S. and Soviet Union avoided nuclear war, despite some harrowingly close calls. States that obtain nuclear weapons, with the single exception of the United States during World War II, do not use them.

If Cantor believes Iran will break this pattern, he needs to back it up with serious evidence, not a wave of the hand.

That will be difficult, since the evidence for this claim doesn’t exist. Cantor’s assumption that “Iran’s leaders would make good on their call to wipe Israel off the map” is based on little more than a badly distorted understanding of Shi’ism and a generic belief that “those people over there” are crazy and unpredictable. More than a few Iran hawks find the idea that Iran’s government would intentionally commit suicide more plausible than the idea that Iran’s leadership is capable of rational decision-making. Add in a major misinterpretation of the regime’s ideology, and you get the “martyr-state” myth that Cantor and many other hawks take for granted. This is how Iran hawks can imagine that a regime that is concerned above all with its own self-preservation would commit an unprecedented act of self-destruction: they ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that undermines the myth, and then simply assert falsehoods as fact because there is no real political penalty to be paid for making things up about an unfriendly government. Thus the “martyr-state” myth survives and keeps being recycled among Iran hawks despite the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Why the “Martyr-State” Myth Survives"

#1 Comment By mohammad On February 19, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

As an Iranian who has little sympathy for the regime in Iran, let me assure you of one thing: the most fanatical hardliner in Iran’s regime are the most corrupt ones and the ones who pursue their own petty interests at the expense of anything else. They have no interest in martyrdom except that of the others and the one that does not harm their interests in any way. Thus Iranians witnessed to an unprecedented amount of corruption in the time of Ahmadinejad, who became president by promising to hinder corruption. The ideological hardliners, who became more powerful in his time as president, didn’t hesitate to loot and plunder the public’s money. Nor their strict moralism of sexual codes prevents them from conducting a hedonistic life of sexual pleasures. What the America hawks on Iran do only helps these people have a voice and continue their influence. In a way hardliners from both sides help each other.

#2 Comment By SDS On February 19, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

Serious people know this is hogwash…..
Unfortunately the folks who push this garbage are listened to by the base; who’d rather not find out for themselves….

….which is the whole idea….

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 19, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

The only credible martyr state talk I know of comes from those who say there is a “Samson Option.”

#4 Comment By Johann On February 19, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

Mohammed makes a good point – … the most fanatical hardliner in Iran’s regime are the most corrupt ones and the ones who pursue their own petty interests at the expense of anything else. They have no interest in martyrdom except that of the others and the one that does not harm their interests in any way.

This is why the nuclear mutual assured destruction deterrent has worked so well. The people making decisions to go to nuclear war or not realize that they themselves will be in immediate danger, not just some poor cannon fodder peasants.

#5 Comment By icarusr On February 19, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

This is how Iran hawks can imagine that a regime that is concerned above all with its own self-preservation would commit an unprecedented act of self-destruction.

Mohammad is right about the corruption of the ultra right in Iran. But something a lot more tangible for the rational sceptic of Iran’s motivation: Khamenei is grooming his son to become the next leader. You cannot consign Tehran to nuclear cinder and want your own son to inherit your position, and the billions of dollars you have secreted away in various offshore accounts at the same time. This does not mean that Khamenei is irrational; but that those who think he is, in fact are.

#6 Comment By Fulton On February 19, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

I’ve always felt the basic proof that Iranian leadership is rational is that they are careful to make sure it’s somebodyelse who get’s the suicide bombing jobs.

#7 Comment By Mr. Patrick On February 19, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

The logic of the martyr state gets even more absurd the farther out you extend it: Iran is the pre-eminent Shia power in the world, the counterbalance to Saudi money and general Sunni numbers. After Iran is a radioactive cinder having martyred itself to destroy Israel, Iraq’s shaky Shia majority government faces alone the power of battle hardened, merciless Wahabbi extremists from Syria and its own west financed by an endless stream of petrodollars (and free Band-Aids and radios from us, of course).

The argument then, is that Iran hates Israel so deeply out of fanatical religious commitment that it will wipe not just its own people but its own religion off the face of the earth to destroy Israel. “Totally worth it”, the planet’s last Ayatollah would no doubt say from Paradise.

#8 Comment By James Canning On February 19, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

I think Eric Cantor is more a calculating liar, than merely an ignorant fool. For arguing Iran is bent on the military destruction of Israel. Calculating liar, and very dangerous.

#9 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On February 19, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

I will begin to take the Muslim-martyr-state (Sunni or Shia) notion seriously when someone can point out to me even ONE suicide mullah — an actual Muslim cleric who does the deed himself, not some naïve, pimply-faced, teenaged idiot who straps a few sticks of dynamite and a detonator to himself, or even well educated Saudi nutcases, like the 911 hijackers (notice their leader Osama didn’t join them). My suspicion is that such acts by mullahs will never happen, except maybe if we manage to render Iran so desperate (through military assault) that suicide becomes the only available option, even for those in power. In the meantime, I’ll accept that the mullah’s of Iran are rational actors, risking only other people’s lives for Allah, not their own. Those who wish to keep power generally want to keep intact that which they have power over.

#10 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On February 19, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

The proof that the Iranian regime is rational is how they behaved in the Iran-Iraq war. Yes, they held out for eight bloody years of senseless slaughter, but Iraq was, after all, the aggressor, and fearsome resistance to an aggressor is by no means unprecedented. But when it finally became clear that continuing the war would truly be suicidal, the ended it on terms that allowed Iraq to claim victory.

That is the behavior of a regime that is tenacious when attacked, but not the behavior of suicidal aggressors.

#11 Comment By Brian J. On February 19, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

I think you’re misunderstanding the argument. A nuclear-armed Iran wouldn’t be a martyr-state, because they believe that if they can decapitate Israel and keep it from launching its own nukes, they would survive. If Iran were to destroy Israel via nuclear weapons, would you really be willing to launch on Iran, knowing that your orders would kill millions of civilians?

#12 Comment By icarusr On February 19, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

But when it finally became clear that continuing the war would truly be suicidal, the ended it on terms that allowed Iraq to claim victory.

This issue – the “poisoned chalice” that Khomeini drank in accepting cease-fire/defeat – became a major electoral issue eight years ago. The two protagonists were Rafsanjani, the President of Iran in the Reconstruction period, and Rezaei, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards during the war and a conservative (though not lunatic) opponent of Rafsanjani.

In his memoires, Rafsanjani took the credit/blame for advising Khomeini that the war was lost. “There is no more money,” he said to Khomeini, “and there are no more weapons.” Khomeini, practically on his deathbed and having just signed an order to execute about 5000 political prisoners without trial, relented. He is alleged to have said that he would accept the blame for ending the war, so that reconstruction can begin without any sniping by the war party.

Fifteen years later, the sniping began. Rezaei alleged that Iran could have continued the war and won, if only the defeatist politicians had not poisoned the mind of the Great Khomeini. The point is not so much who is right, but the fact of the debate in the course of a presidential campaign. There was no argument by anyone that Iran should have continued with the war to produce more martyrs. Though passionate, the debate was about facts and figures: how many tanks, how many divisions, how much in reserves, and so on. Both, incidentally, lost to Ahmadinejad.

This is not the hallmark of a millennial decision-making cabal. Both Rafsanjani and Rezaei are billionaires; both have extensive family connections throughout the regime and outside the country. Neither can be remotely described as wanting to go down in a blaze of glory or, in the case of Rafsanjani, as having much interest in throwing others on mines.

#13 Comment By Daniel Larison On February 19, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

“I think you’re misunderstanding the argument.”

No, I’m not. For one thing, Israel has a second-strike capability and would retaliate against any attacking state. There is no chance that Iran could “get away” with a nuclear first-strike, and that’s why it would never happen. The only reason to think that Iran would risk taking such an action is if you believe them to be suicidal fanatics, and that’s clearly nonsense.

#14 Comment By STJ On February 19, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

Be careful how much rationality we credit any state actor with. If Iran were to get nuclear weapons you would then have to count on, not only the current crop of leaders but all succeeding generations to be rational at all times. While I think it’s unlikely Iran would use their nukes, history is full of actors who made the “irrational” decision. I hope the current negotiations work b/c a nuclear armed Iran is going to be dicey.

#15 Comment By Henri James On February 19, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

I’m of the opinion that Iran wants to be a caliphate, not a parking lot.

#16 Comment By SDS On February 19, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

It would be good if readers recognized the serious differences; Shia v Sunni…..

It would be more expected for Saudi or other Sunni fanatics to have a martyr-state mentality….

They’re the ones spawning suicide bombers; not Shia…..

#17 Comment By Warren Bajan On February 19, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

If certain Evangelicals seeking the Rapture by getting a catastrophic war in the Middle East ever come to power, The Good ole USA will be the “Martyr State.”

#18 Comment By carl lundgren On February 19, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

“This is why the nuclear mutual assured destruction deterrent has worked so well.”

Too well. This is why Israel does not want a nuclear Iran.

#19 Comment By agorabum On February 19, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

icarusr – very interesting information on the end of the Iran/Iraq war. And also a clear demonstration that the regime is rational on foreign policy; it was a basic calculus of money/material/men that led to the end of the war. Pragmatists make peace – only deluded fanatics try to occupy all of Iraq…

On another note, Cantor (like so many hawks) misrepresents the “off the map” comment, which is an argument that it was a mistake to create Israel, an explicitly Jewish state, in the British mandate of Palestine. And that there should only be one country there – Palestine – with no special Jewish rights. It is not a declaration that Iran is just itching to lay waste to all of Israel and would do it if it just had enough nukes.

#20 Comment By AnotherBeliever On February 20, 2014 @ 8:43 am

Brian J, presumably, like us, Israel can detect and respond to a nuclear attack in the brief space before any nukes hit its soil. Of course, it makes no difference in the end for Israel, but Iran would also be decimated within the hour. This is the whole point of trigger targeted nuclear strategy: mutually assured destruction. The acronym is wildly appropriate.

So it would likely not be necessary for anyone to launch attacks on Iran to respond. But on the off chance Israel is bluffing about the capabilities it hints at, keep in mind that Russia has as many nukes as us. Maybe no one would nuke Iran at all, in the end, but there would be serious reprisals from a global community briefly mostly united.

Iran has barely advanced to the level of being able to theoretically move forward with a test nuclear detonation, though it would take at least several months to actually do it. Possibly much longer. It’s a whole other leap to making the things deliverable. This entire discussion is hypothetical. Better to keep it this way by following the track of diplomacy as far as possible.

#21 Comment By TPart On February 20, 2014 @ 9:01 am

One of the reasons I visit this site regularly is to read the comments of Fran Macadam, Icarusr, essayist-lawyer. Their comments offer tantalizing tidbits of information not seen elsewhere. Can I request you to consider writing full length articles?

#22 Comment By a spencer On February 20, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

Painting all muslims as potential ‘martyrs’ has been an effective lever for politicians to scare their constituents. Constituents have rarely given them a reason not to.

and before this gets trolled with – “muslims have rarely given them a reason not to” – there have been a couple billion muslims who have walked the face of the earth in the last 1400 years. An infinitesimal number have actually martyred themselves, I suspect.

#23 Comment By jegan On February 20, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

Well, I would expand on the following:

“[T]hey ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that undermines the myth, and then simply assert falsehoods as fact because there is no real political penalty to be paid for making things up about an unfriendly government.”

Todays’ GOP makes things up about . . . . everything.

#24 Comment By Sheldon On February 20, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

A question for Daniel Larison:

Imagine you are Prime Minister of Israel. Ignore for purposes of this thought experiment the notion – common in TAC and other precincts – that Israel really just doesn’t want Iran to have a nuclear capability in order to preserve its “hegemony” in the region. Focus just on the issue that’s the subject of your post: the likelihood that Iran would launch a first strike. You know Israel’s history. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is total indifference and total lack of concern and 10 is night-sweats terror to the point where you feel pre-emptive military action is absolutely necessary, where would Prime Minister Larison be? Would you really be at 1? I’m genuinely interested in your answer.

#25 Comment By MNP On February 20, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

I suppose in a world where they could do so with no negative consequences, Iran would nuke Israel off the map. But that’s a moral thought experiment (what would you do if you knew you wouldn’t get caught) and has about as much relationship to the political reality as… well as something that has no relationship to reality.

Congressional GOP, proving everyday in every way that Iran is far better at thinking clearly than they are.

#26 Comment By Darth Thulhu On February 20, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

Henri James wrote:

I’m of the opinion that Iran wants to be a caliphate, not a parking lot.

Caliphs are for Sunnis, not Shi’ites.

The whole point of Shi’ism is the belief that authority to make religious decisions in Islam should have descended through Muhammad’s bloodline and not been tied to military generalship and monarchial rule.

Hence all the clerics and all the theocracy and all of the often-ceremonial weakness of the elected Iranian President.

Sunni fundamentalists like the late Osama bin Laden want to recreate a caliphate. Shi’ite fundamentalists want to expand the power and reach of the clerical leaders of the “One True Faith”. It’s a significant difference.

#27 Comment By Sheldon On February 20, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

MNP, if your comment is a reaction to my comment, I don’t understand it. Do you really think it’s politically unrealistic to speculate on how an Israeli prime minister would regard and react to a nuclear Iran? I assure such speculation is ongoing in quite a few governments, inside and outside the region. But perhaps you mean something else.

#28 Comment By Sheldon On February 20, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

“assure you”

#29 Comment By a spencer On February 20, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

Sheldon,

You didn’t ask me, but if we’re including all hypotheticals, including the unlikely chance that anyone would even have the opportunity to support or dissent Prime Minister Larison,

>>Israel really just doesn’t want Iran to have a nuclear capability in order to preserve its “hegemony” in the region.

all hypotheticals? What if Iran already has the capability?

#30 Comment By Puller58 On February 20, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

Iran and Israel. The yin and yang of our time.