Iran's Leaders Are Not Suicidal

Critics of a nuclear deal claim the regime in Tehran is fanatical. Where's their evidence?

A mural of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Revolution (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

I often appreciate David Brooks’s columns, even when I disagree with them. I appreciate them because Brooks is more a conservative than a Republican. He roots his arguments in conservative virtues like tradition, order, and a belief in human fallibility, not in the GOP talking points of the day. And in creative ways, he spots the cultural divisions that lie beneath policy spats. On domestic policy, he carries the largely forgotten spirit of 1970s “neoconservatism,” embodied by men like Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Nathan Glazer, who emphasized the limits of government planning without romanticizing unfettered capitalism.

But on foreign policy, which Brooks thankfully writes about less, his style changes. The generalizations expand and the evidence contracts. And he resembles less the empirically minded domestic-policy “neoconservatives” of the 1970s than the foreign-policy zealots who stole their good name.

His latest column, about the perils of striking a nuclear deal with the Iranian government, offers an example. Brooks starts by declaring that, “Over the past centuries, Western diplomats have continually projected pragmatism onto their ideological opponents.” That’s true. What’s also true—but Brooks doesn’t acknowledge—is that Western diplomats have erred in the opposite way: by overestimating ideology and underplaying national interest. Western diplomats who viewed Hitler and Stalin as ideologically antithetical were baffled when they joined forces in 1939 to carve up much of Eastern Europe. Western diplomats who assumed that a shared commitment to communism made Russia, China, and Vietnam permanent allies were astonished when Russia and China became bitter enemies and when Vietnam and China went to war.

The past several centuries are replete with diplomatic mistakes, but what makes learning from those mistakes so hard is that they don’t all teach the same lesson. Just as investors sometimes go bankrupt because they assume too much risk and sometimes go bankrupt because they assume too little risk, governments sometimes incur danger by underestimating the zealotry of their foes and sometimes incur danger by overestimating it. Contrary to Brooks’s implication, hundreds of years of “Western” foreign policy cannot be boiled down to: Always assume that your foes are ideological fanatics willing to risk everything to dominate the world.

The frailty of Brooks’s historical argument becomes clear when he cites examples of the West’s refusal to take its enemies’ ideology seriously. “Western diplomats,” he claims, “assumed that the world leaders before 1914 would not be stupid enough to allow nationalist passion to plunge them into a World War.” But depending on how you define “Western,” at least two of the five major combatants in World War I were “Western” themselves. Which means, according to Brooks, that British and French diplomats underestimated the danger of “nationalist passion” not only among their foes, but in their own countries as well.

By backhandedly acknowledging that passion drove the “West” in World War I too (that certainly includes the wartime United States, which under Woodrow Wilson became fanatically repressive and xenophobic), Brooks undermines his own argument. The point of his column is that Americans should not project their own pragmatism onto a fervently ideological regime like Iran’s. But Americans can be fervently ideological too, even if democracy is a preferable ideology to theocratic Islam. Just read George W. Bush’s second inaugural address or listen to Bill O’Reilly’s recent declaration that the United States is fighting a “holy war” against radical Islam or watch Sheldon Adelson tell a cheering crowd that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran. In warning Americans not to assume that Iran’s leaders “put G.D.P. over ideology and religion,” Brooks forgets that America doesn’t always put GDP first either.

To varying degrees, ideology motivates all regimes. But Brooks’s argument is that Iran is an extreme, “apocalyptically motivated” outlier. It’s so fanatical that it cannot be relied on to adhere to any diplomatic agreement. And if it gets a nuclear weapon, it may well use it, even though such a move would likely lead to the death of Iran’s leaders and the destruction of their country.

These are big claims. Brooks is arguing that Ayatollah Khamenei is far more ideologically fanatical than Stalin and Mao, since neither of those mass murderers used nuclear weapons. To be convincing, such a claim requires more than vague references to the West’s historic tendency to underestimate the ideological devotion of its foes. It requires some evidence that in the 36 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian foreign policy has proved reckless to the point of being suicidal.

Here’s what Brooks says on that point (the italics are mine):

it could be that Iran has been willing to be an international pariah for the past generation for a reason. It could be that Iran finances terrorist groups and destabilizes regimes like Yemen’s and Morocco’s for a reason. It could be that Iran’s leaders really believe what they say. It could be that Iranian leaders are as apocalyptically motivated, paranoid and dogmatically anti-American as their pronouncements suggest they are. It could be that Iran will be as destabilizing and hegemonically inclined as all its recent actions suggest. Iran may be especially radical if the whole region gets further inflamed by Sunni-Shia rivalry or descends into greater and greater Islamic State-style fanaticism.

That’s four “coulds” and a “may.” The only concrete evidence Brooks cites is that Iran “finances terrorist groups and destabilizes regimes like Yemen’s and Morocco’s.” But as reprehensible as those behaviors are, they don’t come close to making Iran a suicidal regime. Iran is doing the same thing regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are doing: It’s seeking proxies that will extend its reach. Supporting Hezbollah gives Iran a power base in Lebanon; supporting Hamas (which also enjoys backing from Turkey and Qatar) gives it influence among the Palestinians; supporting Bashar al-Assad safeguards a reliable ally in Syria; supporting the Houthis expands Tehran’s influence in Yemen.

Through its proxies, Iran is fighting a regional cold war. And like the United States, U.S.S.R., and China when they were fighting their global cold war, it is doing so in a distinctly non-suicidal way. Iran is seeking to extend its power without doing something so aggressive that it provokes retaliation that imperils the regime’s survival. Iran isn’t doing truly reckless things like invading a Saudi ally in the Persian Gulf or launching chemical or biological weapons at Israel, either directly or through its terrorist proxies. And it never has. This is a regime, after all, that accepted a UN-sponsored ceasefire rather than fight to the death against Saddam’s Iraq and that cooperated with the United States to depose the Taliban.

That’s why the Bush administration’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran is “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” It’s why Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2012 that “we are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.” It’s why Benny Gantz, then head of the Israel Defense Forces, declared the same year that “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” It’s why Meir Dagan, the longtime head of Israel’s intelligence agency, called the Iranian regime “rational” in an interview with 60 Minutes. And it’s why Ron Burgess, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.” Could all these men, who analyze intelligence about Iran for a living, be wrong? Sure. But Brooks provides no evidence that they are.

“It’s hard to know what’s going on in the souls of Iran’s leadership class,” Brooks writes, “but a giant bet is being placed on one interpretation.” Actually, concluding an imperfect deal with Iran or not concluding one—and thus hastening the chances of war—are both giant bets. And while it’s certainly “hard to know what’s going on in the souls of Iran’s leadership class,” we don’t have to resort to world-historical theories about the West’s tendency to underestimate the fanaticism of its foes. We can simply look at what this Iranian regime, for more than three decades now, has done. David Brooks doesn’t even really try.