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Myth of the “Martyr State”

Matt Duss debunks the myth that the Iranian government is filled with suicidal maniacs:

According to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying Shia theology in the Iranian seminary city of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei — who, unlike Ahmadinejad, actually controls Iranian foreign policy — 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. “As the theory of the guardianship of the jurist requires, the most significant task of the Supreme Leader is to safeguard the regime, even by overruling Islamic law.”

The myth relies heavily on placing absolute importance on the peculiar religious ideas of the current non-clerical president, attributing them to the clerical leadership, and then studiously ignoring the many times that the leading clerics have rejected the building and use of nuclear weapons as contrary to the teachings of Islam. Only the most potentially alarming religious teachings, however badly misunderstood or misconstrued, seem to have any relevance for understanding what the Iranian government might do. The idea that the Iranian government might face more constraints on developing nuclear weapons because of its religious pronouncements never even comes up.

According to the “myth of the martyr state,” a particular form of fanatical millennarian belief is so strong in the government’s leadership that it will override all normal state interests and the natural desire for self-preservation. As Duss explains, there is simply no reason for believing that this is so:

“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.

Perhaps the most famous and ludicrous of the op-eds in question was Bernard Lewis’ 2006 classic that warned of the coming nuclear apocalypse that might begin on August 22 of that year. Lewis expressed the core of the myth:

In this context, mutual assured destruction, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, would have no meaning. At the end of time, there will be general destruction anyway. What will matter will be the final destination of the dead — hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.

If the last few years should have taught us anything about the Iranian leadership, it is that the current rahbar is a deeply cynical political operator interested in preserving a regime that he controls. Ahmadinejad has become an annoyance, and one that the clerical leadership will be glad to see gone after 2013, so speculation based on Ahmadinejad’s unconventional opinions is even less relevant than it used to be. It is easy to imagine a cynical leadership exploiting religious fanaticism so that others take all the risks, but engaging in self-destructive behavior is something else entirely.

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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