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Against Iran Apocalypticism

The hawks have made a consistent habit of apocalypticism when speaking of Iran’s nuclear program: if we don’t act within such and such a time frame, we will pass the point of no return, and then catastrophe will ensue. There has never been much justification for this tone (and I’m not going to use this space to rehash why). But there is similarly little justification for advocates of a diplomatic solution (among whom I include myself) taking an apocalyptic tone towards setbacks in negotiations. Indeed, such a tone plays entirely into the hands of the hawks.

The most fundamental premise of the Iran hawks is that a nuclear (or even nuclear-capable) Iran is absolutely unacceptable, and that we are justified going to war to try to prevent such an eventuality even if there is substantial uncertainty that military action will succeed, because doing nothing guarantees a catastrophic outcome. A key premise of Iran doves must therefore be that this is not the case – that nuclearization would be a bad outcome, one worth paying a real price to avoid, but not catastrophic, and certainly not something that would justify all the dangers of military action.

Moreover, the dovish position holds that Iran seeks a nuclear capability for rational reasons (deterrence and the desire to bolster regional influence), and for emotional reasons that are entirely comprehensible (national pride, primarily).  If that premise is true, and if Iran has no more grandiose ambitions, to say nothing of suicidal plans to plunge the world into a nuclear maelstrom, then logically there really is no “point of no return” beyond which diplomacy becomes impossible. Instead, there are better and worse opportunities to get a deal on more or less favorable terms to ourselves.

If the possibility of a nuclear Iran is not worth launching a war over (and it isn’t), then by the same token we need not be so desperate for a deal that every mistake or setback raises the prospect of total failure and “inevitable” armed conflict. Instead of panicking at the possibility that a particular round of talks might fail, advocates of diplomacy should stress the clear rational interest for both parties in a diplomatic solution, and therefore express confidence that, ultimately, a diplomatic solution will be forthcoming – and that the real question is how long it will take and what price will be paid by both sides.

People should make the arguments they believe are true, of course, but the resort to hyperbole is really a rhetorical strategy rather than an argument, and in this case it’s a strategy that has the opposite effect of that intended, aiding the hawks more than the doves.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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