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

Norman Podhoretz must not have [1] 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 [2] 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 understanding [3] of Iran’s nuclear program [4] 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.

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14 Comments To "The “Martyr-State” Myth and the “Consensus” on Iran That Never Was"

#1 Comment By carl lundgren On December 12, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

What evidence other than the screeds of the usual suspects is there for this comment? It’s even phonier than the “Israel will be wiped out” comment that never was. At least there, there was a statement to deliberately mistranslate.

#2 Comment By philadelphialawyer On December 12, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

Iran, since the hostage crises, has been a reasonable and cautious actor on the regional stage. With regard to the USA, Iran has been restrained and patient in the face of US espionage, sponsorship of terrorism, sanctions, diplomatic attacks, support for Iraq’s aggressive war against it, the downing of a civilian passenger jet heading to Mecca on a religious pilgrimage, and interference in Iranian elections.

The notion of Iran as a “martyr” state is and and always has ben a crude, false caricature. And the less said about Bernard Lewis the better.

As to the three points of consensus, as Mr. Larison states, only the hard right ever really believed them…

“The first was that Iran was lying when it denied that its nuclear facilities were working to build a bomb. After all, with its vast reserves of oil and gas, the country had no need for nuclear energy. Even according to the liberal Federation of American Scientists a decade ago, the work being done at the Iranian nuclear facilities was easily ‘applicable to a nuclear weapons development program.’ Surprisingly, a similar judgment was made by Mohamed ElBaradei, the very dovish director of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Oh boy. First of all, oil and gas are Iran’s only real exports. Perhaps conserving them against domestic use by developing nuclear power makes sense, in that context? Funny how the US had no problem with that logic when the Shah began the nuclear program. Indeed, the US encouraged him to do so. Next, virtually any nuclear work will, by definition, also be “applicable” to weapon research. That is a very, very low bar to cross over.

As for El Bariedi, he repeatedly threw cold water on the outrageous US and Israeli allegations all along, and I’m really not sure what statement Mr. Podhoretz is referring to, as he provides no quote or link. If it is merely an echo of the statement of the “liberal” AFS, that, again, proves nothing at all. El Bariedi, by the way, was not so much a “dove” as a man with some integrity. He refused to toady to the US and actually ran the IAEA with a degree of independence. Needless to say, the US did everything it could to undermine him, and, of course, as soon as he was gone, the US got its beloved sanctions rammed through, even though no one has proven that Iran has ever broken the actual treaty.

The second consideration was the “martyr” state non sense, already dealt with by Mr, Larison.

“The third consideration behind the old consensus was the conviction that even if the mullahs could be deterred, their acquisition of a nuclear capability would inevitably trigger a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East…..”

The guffaws here should be quite loud! Israel has gone nuclear for decades. THAT’S what’s driving any nuclear arms race in the Middle East that does actually exist. Podhoretz has little to say about that, though. Indeed, he has nothing to say.

Israel, apparently as an adjunct of the US, falls into that category of States whose atomic bombs, somehow, don’t “count,” when it comes to all the bad consequences, direct and indirect, of nuclear weapons. The USA, which is the only country to ever use nuclear weapons, should decided for itself, according to the Podhoretzes of the world, who is good and sane and safe enough to have them, and who is not. Somehow, “proliferation” and “arms races” are always and solely the fault of the nation joining the nuclear club, and never the existing members (which actually have a treaty obligation to work towards disarmament), especially the US and its allies.

Much the same noises were made when Pakistan got it bomb, and trade and other sanctions were imposed (only to be lifted after Nine Eleven in return for Pakistani support in Afghanistan), even though its chief rival, India, already had the bomb. Speaking of which, Iran borders Pakistan, and is not far from India, either. Nor is Russia so far away, nor possible US nuclear weapons at our various bases and ships throughout the Gulf region, and, of course, there are the Israelis. All of which suggest that even IF Iran was building a bomb(which it isn’t), it would be for defensive, deterrent purposes.

In the face of all this, Podhoretz has nothing. Nothing but fake nostalgia for a consensus that never existed except in his head and among other neo cons. A three legged stool with two broken legs and one that isn’t there!

#3 Comment By CharleyCarp On December 12, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

The old consensus, to the extent it existed at all, was based on a myth of the efficacy of military intervention. This myth has been exploded, killed by IEDs in the exurbs of Baghdad and Kandahar. It’s the 800 pound gorilla that the neo-cons just can’t seem to face: even if the public agreed with their goals, they don’t believe we have the means to actually realize them. And so no amount of argument about the goals, how right they are, means anything.

#4 Comment By James Canning On December 12, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

I think more attention should be focused on the sheer stupidity of the US in blocking Iran’s attempt to buy replacement nuclear fuel for the research reactor in Tehran. The US in effect forced Iran to commence enriching uranium to 20%.

#5 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 12, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

Beware of old men who pant to send younger men off to war. Especially old men who have never experienced the horrors of war themselves. Apparently the man served in some kind of intelligence function as a draftee, but that hardly counts.

#6 Comment By mohammad On December 12, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

As an Iranian living mostly in Iran, I can attest to the the fact that there is a small minority of hardliners, indeed a very small one, which is always talking about martyrdom. But almost everybody knows that, even if there was some real and sincere desire for martyrdom, say, 30 years ago, now it is just a show; a show for having a voice and continuing to have a grip on power and money. It is just business. Nobody really cares about “revolutionary values” (whatever they once meant) anymore. Specially, the young generation is very much into gaining all the world’s success and pleasure they can get their hands on. A martyr state? Complete b.s! If anything, Iran is now a nation of half religious, half hedonist, people and sometimes you cannot be sure who is which one. Most Mullas want nothing better than to live in pleasure in harmony with the USA and Europe. Heck, they love to travel to the USA and Europe, and they cannot wait to have their share of women. They specially fantasize about blond women, which they see in porn movies.

#7 Comment By Myron Hudson On December 12, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

Podhoretz seems to be sinking deeper into a personal alternate reality. Foreign policy is not the only arena in which he states complete hogwash as established fact.

I say seems to be. It is possible that it’s calculated. The Nazis demonstrated that a lie repeated loudly and often will eventually take hold.

#8 Comment By TomB On December 12, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

One thing you have to admit and that is the efficacy of all the hyper-ventilation such as Podhoretz’s in distracting from what Israel is doing, which distraction certainly isn’t lost on the arabs.

As opposed to *whatever* Iran is doing right now for instance, not only is Israel finding ever more conditions for the Palestinians to meet before Israel will then supposedly at least talk about slowing the settlement building and maybe, finally, after 45+ years, talk about what land it will give back.

And then there’s Israel’s moves to ethnically cleanse its beduin from the Negev upon which all sorts of Israeli settlers and developers and etc. have set their eyes upon. Some 40,000 people to be grabbed by the scruff of their necks, their houses and settlements bulldozed, and then thrown into some crappy housing somewhere they don’t want to be in circumstances they don’t want to be in.

And then gee, Israel wonders why it’s so hated by the arabs. And while we help distract from that as well as support and subsidize it, no wonder why the arab as well as lots of others to hate us for it too, and will continue hating us for a long long time. wqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqe

#9 Comment By Puller58 On December 12, 2013 @ 7:09 pm

I remember him hoping that Bush would bomb Iran. He and Marty Peretz are two of the biggest Israel Firsters in the neocon community. (Podhoretz’s son John is quite boring in contrast to his father.) If pushed hard enough, he’d start screaming about Nazi this and that and anti-Semiticsm. (You can catch the same act from Alan Dershowitz who had to be chided by moderator Tim Sebastian at the Doha Debates on BBC tv. This crowd is ready for a straight jacket.

#10 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On December 12, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

Hardliners all seem to operate from a fundamental (and fatally flawed) conceit — to wit, that people who are dealt with forcefully will conform their behavior, if not their world views, to those of the party exerting the force. Perhaps this was the case during that brief period of time when industrialized nations colonized pre-industrial ones. But as the examples of China, Vietnam, and various African countries shows, national indignation never goes away; underground movements can never completely be defeated; force is at best a temporary solution. And that is in the context of great imbalances of military power. When, if ever, does force cause a modern nation-state to kowtow to another? When Japan and Germany attacked the US, the US pulled together and annihilated their military forces. When we were attacked on 9/11, we unleashed a fury of violence against the perpetrators and a bunch of other people who had nothing to do with the attacks, just for good measure. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind think that Iran’s rational response to a military attack would be to roll over and say “Sorry, guys, it won’t happen again, promise!” Even if Iran lacks the conventional military ability to attack the United States back, it would redouble its non-conventional efforts, through state-sponsored terrorism. The entire premise of the attack-Iran crowd is fundamentally flawed.

#11 Comment By Robin Messing On December 12, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

Podhoretz relies very heavily in his analysis on the ultra-hawkish views of Bernard Lewis. Podhoretz writes:

“As Bernard Lewis, the leading contemporary authority on Islam, put it in 2007, to these fanatics “mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. ”

Let’s not forget that back in 2006 Lewis was saying that Ahmadinejad might launch a nuke attack on Aug. 22, 2006.


And this is THE LEADING contemporary authority on Islam???? We want to give up any chance for a peaceful resolution and launch a war because THIS guy is sounding the alarm??? Give me a break.

#12 Comment By Jay C On December 12, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

Also, isn’t the “conventional” (among neocon hawks, anyway but never mind for now) viewpoint of Iran as a “revolutionary state”, motivated by Islamic martyr-zeal just a tad out-of-date? In 1980, maybe – but why should that dated prism still be valid for assessing today’s Iran and its international aspirations? Of course, it’s a “rational” view for neocon fearmongers and warhawks, but is objectively valid?

#13 Comment By Jonathan On December 13, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

It’s sad- Bernard Lewis produced some genuinely solid scholarship back in the day, as it were. Those days are no more, alas. Unfortunately, he has continued to be a decent writer with a trenchant for “popular” appeal (which isn’t necessarily a high bar in historical writing, especially in smaller sub-fields like Islamic history, I’m afraid), which ensures his textual presence in every bookstore in America…

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 13, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

Likud-firsters engaged in propaganda subversion to manipulate American foreign policy.