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Iran Still Isn’t a Martyr-State

Jonathan Adelman manages to cram almost every lazy, bogus claim about the Iranian government and containment into one article:

A rogue state operating outside the normal international boundaries is more likely to take radical gambles. A militarily, economically and politically weak regime, led by radical mullahs with an eschatological world view on the coming of the Mahdi, may take chances for great goals that no other state would ever take.

Adelman compares Iran with the USSR, and then somehow concludes that the vastly weaker, technologically inferior, less influential, and much less threatening regime is much harder to contain because of its supposed irrationality. Never mind that Adelman’s evidence of its self-destructive “irrationality” is limited to the following: Iran doesn’t have a “hot line” with its adversaries, it supports terrorism, and engages in cyber attacks. The first point is an odd thing to mention here, since it tells us nothing about the regime’s irrationality. It tells us that Iran has worse diplomatic relations with some other countries that the USSR had with America. Support for terrorism is deplorable, but it isn’t proof of irrationality of the kind Adelman means here. Weaker states employ these tactics because they do not wish to risk open confrontation. If a regime were truly willing to invite its own destruction, it would directly attack its militarily superior adversaries rather than use proxies. Launching cyber attacks is evidence of hostility, but as we all know Iran is not unusual in trying to use them, since the U.S. or Israel has apparently used such attacks against Iran in the recent past. Do we suppose that the USSR would not have used such attacks if the technology had been available to them at the time? None of this proves that the Iranian regime is irrational, which leaves us with the original absurd idea that a medium-sized regional power is supposedly harder to contain than a superpower.

Since there is no evidence of self-destructive irrationality in Iranian actions, Adelman is reduced to appealing to the “martyr-state myth” so ably debunked two years ago by Matt Duss. Duss wrote:

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 anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.”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 neoconservative op-eds and a report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, whose claims have been bounced endlessly around the internet.

The one constant in Iranian regime behavior over the last three decades is the regime’s desire for self-preservation and retaining power. Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and it hasn’t decided to build them, but even if it acquired them it could be deterred just like any other nuclear-armed state. Compared to the USSR, Iran would be vastly easier and cheaper to contain. Iranian leaders aren’t going to invite their own annihilation along with the destruction of their country, and they certainly aren’t going to do it because of half-baked misinterpretations of their own religion that the regime’s leadership doesn’t accept in the first place.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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