Dempsey, Rational Countries, and the Apocalypse

Iran wants to be safe, to prove itself, to be a regional hegemon, and to protect Muslims. Iran has pretensions, might take a different path, will work with the UN, and responds to American foreign policy. All these comport comfortably with the Western sense of what countries could and should do and why. If there are practical reasons for Iran to pursue nuclear capability, there must be practical reasons for it to stop.

But practical is not the same as rational.

Contrary to Goldberg, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability did not begin with the invasion of Iraq, and any fears Iran had about being next on President Bush’s hit list were quickly allayed. The ayatollahs regarded the overthrow of Sunni, militaristic, aggressive, secular Saddam as an opportunity to pursue their own goal of expansionist, transnational Shi’ism.

The revivalist Shi’ite impulse has nothing to do with protecting Iran or regional hegemony. Ahmadinejad says and believes he has been chosen to expand God’s realm, and he isn’t the only one who thinks this is the time. The important thing is not whether God did or didn’t, but that it is, for apocalyptic Shiites, a positive impulse -- doing God’s work -- not a negative one.  “For the glory of God” precludes abandoning the quest and precludes finding merit or friends in the secular, liberal, decadent West.  It precludes democracy at home and tolerance abroad. It demands sacrifice.

Nuclear capability -- used or held -- will make it harder by orders of magnitude to take action against an Iranian regime that sees itself as the rational center of a new world order.

[1] Is Bashar al-Asad rational as he uses mortars on the city of Homs, kills children in Hama, and cuts off refugee escape routes? Yes.  His goal is to survive as Syria’s ruler and prevent the massacre of his heterodox Alawite minority. The alliance with Iran serves that end. The Obama administration wasted bloody months appealing to Asad to be a “reformer,” and trying to “woo” him from Iran to the West. To permit access to power by the majority would be suicide. To give up Iran would be the same. The U.S. could provide nothing as meaningful as being alive and in control, and he rationally calculated that we would allow him to remain so.