Home/Daniel Larison/The “Martyr-State” Myth and the “Consensus” on Iran That Never Was

The “Martyr-State” Myth and the “Consensus” on Iran That Never Was

Norman Podhoretz must not have a very good memory:

Not too many years ago, hardly anyone disagreed with John McCain when he first said that “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb.” Today hardly anyone disagrees with those who say that the only thing worse than letting Iran get the bomb is bombing Iran. And in this reversal hangs a tale.

The old consensus was shaped by three considerations, all of which seemed indisputable at the time.

Podhoretz includes the fantasy that Iran would be willing to annihilate itself in a nuclear war for religious reasons as one of these “indisputable” considerations, which confirms that the “old consensus” he refers to never existed anywhere except among hard-liners. The idea that Iran was and still is a “martyr-state” has never been widely held outside of very hawkish circles. Indeed, accepting this idea as plausible, much less “indisputable,” is one of the best giveaways that someone is a hard-liner on Iran with a very distorted understanding of the country. For that matter, the idea exists and circulates in the Iran debate to this day because hard-liners keep citing one another’s arguments to bolster the incredibly weak case for the “martyr-state” claim. So in this op-ed Podhoretz cites Bernard Lewis, whose understandingof Iran’s nuclear program in connection with Shi’ism is extremely warped to say the least, and assumes that Lewis’ view was the consensus view instead of the deeply contentious and ridiculous one that is always was. If he believes something this far-fetched is “indisputable,” is it any wonder that Podhoretz is confused by the “new consensus” that flatly rejects this idea as absurd?

Needless to say, Podhoretz’s assumption that launching a conventional attack on Iran now would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon gets things backwards. An attack would all but guarantee that Iran made the decision to weaponize that it has not made so far, and that would close off any possibility of resolving the nuclear issue in a way that keeps Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. The real options are not between containment and war, since war will lead to the need for containment in the future, but between a negotiated settlement that makes containment unnecessary and a resumption of the dead-end policy of trying to force Iran to give up its entire nuclear program that will lead to both armed conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran.

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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