Revision — From the November 2012 issue

The Mad Mullah Myth

The dangers of misunderstanding Iran

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In the more than thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, Western analysts have routinely depicted the Islamic Republic as an ideologically driven, illegitimate, and deeply unstable state. From their perspective, Iran displayed its fanatical character early on, first in the hostage crisis of 1979–81, and shortly afterward with the deployment of teenage soldiers in “human wave” attacks against Iraqi forces during the 1980s. Supposedly the same Shia “cult of martyrdom” and indifference to casualties persist in a deep attachment to suicide terrorism that would, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, end in catastrophe. Allegations of the Iranian government’s “irrationality” are inevitably linked to assertions that it is out to export its revolution across the Middle East by force, is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, and is too dependent for its domestic legitimacy on anti-Americanism to contemplate improving relations with the United States.

Images of Iran as a radical state are often conveyed through analogies with the twentieth century’s most criminal regimes. Some—including former British prime minister Tony Blair, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and a host of Israeli officials—have compared the Islamic Republic with Nazi Germany. For Walter Russell Mead, a prominent historian of American foreign policy, “It’s a legitimate argument and subject for discussion about whether the Iranians are jerks like Franco who will settle down to peacefully hang homosexuals and torture dissidents at home if left to themselves, or whether they are megalomaniacal nutcases who will interpret our forbearance as weakness—if we let them have Czechoslovakia they will start reaching for Poland.” The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens has compared Iran with the “Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions.” Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has looked to the Soviet Union for parallels, arguing that “the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime” with a “bankrupt ideology,” whose leaders, “like the men who once ruled Moscow . . . derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam.”

Even more extreme is the rhetoric about “mad mullahs” conspiratorially “chuckling behind their beards” as they work to acquire nuclear weapons, which they and/or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s lay president, will use to attack Israel, the United States, and other enemies of Islam. Bernard Lewis and his neoconservative acolytes have asserted that Iran would launch such an attack to hasten the reappearance of the Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, thus setting the stage for God’s final judgment and a more conclusive “end of history” than Francis Fukuyama ever imagined. In 2006, Lewis even identified a religiously significant date, August 22, which in that year corresponded to the twenty-seventh day of the Islamic month of Rajab, when Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed began his prophetic mission, as the time Iran might detonate its first nuclear weapons. As Ahmadinejad has mockingly noted, many Americans seem to think that all Iranians are “sitting in the desert, turned toward Mecca and waiting to die.”

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’s Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran will be published by Metropolitan Books in January.


’s Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran will be published by Metropolitan Books in January.

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