Iran, Soviet deterrence very different

September 1, 2012


— There are few foreign-policy positions more silly than the assertion without context that “deterrence works.” It is like saying air power works. Well, it worked for Kosovo; it didn’t work over North Vietnam.

It’s like saying city-bombing works. It worked in Japan 1945 (Tokyo through Nagasaki). It didn’t in the London blitz.

The idea that some military technique “works” is meaningless. It depends on the time, the circumstances, the nature of the adversaries. The longbow worked for Henry V. At El Alamein, however, Montgomery chose tanks.

Yet a significant school of American “realists” remains absolutist on deterrence and is increasingly annoyed with those troublesome Israelis who are sowing fear, rattling world markets and risking regional war by threatening a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Don’t they understand that their fears are grossly exaggerated? After all, didn’t deterrence work during 40 years of Cold War?

Indeed, a few months ago, columnist Fareed Zakaria made that case by citing me writing in defense of deterrence in the early 1980s at the time of the nuclear freeze movement. And yet now, writes Zakaria, Krauthammer (and others on the right) “has decided that deterrence is a lie.”

Nonsense. What I have decided is that deterring Iran is fundamentally different from deterring the Soviet Union. You could rely on the latter but not on the former.

The reasons are obvious and threefold:

  1. The nature of the regime.

Did the Soviet Union in its 70 years ever deploy a suicide bomber? For Iran, as for other jihadists, suicide bombing is routine. Hence the trail of self-immolation from the 1983 Marine barracks attack in Beirut to the Bulgaria bombing of July 2012. Iran’s clerical regime rules in the name of a fundamentalist religion for whom the hereafter offers the ultimate rewards. For Soviet communists — thoroughly, militantly atheistic — such thinking was an opiate-laced fairy tale.

For all its global aspirations, the Soviet Union was intensely nationalist. The Islamic Republic sees itself as an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism — the messianic return of the “hidden Imam.”  

It’s one thing to live in a state of mutual assured destruction with Stalin or Brezhnev, leaders of a philosophically materialist, historically grounded, deeply here-and-now regime. It’s quite another to be in a situation of mutual destruction with apocalyptic clerics who believe in the imminent advent of the Mahdi, the supremacy of the afterlife and holy war as the ultimate avenue to achieving it.

The classic formulation comes from Tehran’s fellow (and rival Sunni) jihadist al-Qaida: “You love life and we love death.” Try deterring that.

  1. The nature of the grievance.

The Soviet quarrel with America was ideological. Iran’s quarrel with Israel is existential. The Soviets never proclaimed a desire to annihilate the American people. For Iran, the very existence of a Jewish state on Muslim land is a crime, an abomination, a cancer with which no negotiation, no coexistence, no accommodation is possible.

  1. The nature of the target.

America is a nation of 300 million; Israel, 8 million. America is a continental nation; Israel, a speck on the map, at one point eight miles wide. Israel is a “one bomb country.” Its territory is so tiny, its population so concentrated that, as Iran’s former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has famously said, “application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” A tiny nuclear arsenal would do the job.

In U.S.-Soviet deterrence, both sides knew that a nuclear war would destroy them mutually. The mullahs have thought the unthinkable to a different conclusion. They know about the Israeli arsenal. They also know, as Rafsanjani said, that in any exchange Israel would be destroyed instantly and forever, whereas the ummah — the Muslim world of 1.8 billion people whose redemption is the ultimate purpose of the Iranian revolution — would survive damaged but almost entirely intact.

This doesn’t mean that the mullahs will necessarily risk terrible carnage to their country in order to destroy Israel irrevocably. But it does mean that the blithe assurance to the contrary — because the Soviets never struck first — is nonsense. The mullahs have a radically different worldview, a radically different grievance and a radically different calculation of the consequences of nuclear war.

The confident belief that they are like the Soviets is a fantasy. That’s why Israel is contemplating a pre-emptive strike. Israel refuses to trust its very existence to the convenient theories of comfortable analysts living 6,000 miles from its Ground Zero.

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Liberty_One 5 years, 4 months ago

Sure. We are told to hate and kill these people. Pre-emptively murder these people. Easy to say when you live 6,000 miles away from them.


jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Most people are good, decent human beings. Sometimes however, they are lead by some pretty awful leaders. It's been true for every culture, every place and throughout time. That is nothing more and nothing less than seeing the obvious.

You suggest that in the comfort of our secure homes, some 6,000 miles away, we should not hate these people. I agree. But should we trust their leaders? Again, in the comfort of our homes, 6,000 miles away, we certainly have that luxury. But when that 6,000 miles is eliminated, so too might that level of trust. Someone may see things very differently, not by virtue of different facts, but by how those facts might impact someone just a few hundred miles away. Or as people travel within a specific region, maybe just a border crossing away.

Look at it this way, suppose I lived in a house on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico, so close that I could sit in my living room and look into Mexico. I might view the events in Mexico different than if I lived in Maine and still different if I lived in New Zealand. The events in Mexico would not change, but my perspective would, my interpretation of those events would change.

uncleandyt 5 years, 4 months ago

Now look at it this way, suppose I lived in Lawrence Kansas and the local newspaper ran Krauthammer pieces week after week, month after month, year after year. Is there a chance that my interpretation of world events could be influenced?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

I suppose it would be. And that influence would be greatly exaggerated if that was your only source of information. However, I know you have a wide variety of sources available to you and I suspect you avail yourself of them. But your question highlights the need for a free and open exchange of ideas, via a free press. It's not something available everywhere in the world, but should be.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

I agree, deterrence never works. Therefore, Israel's nuclear facilities should be shut down immediately, and their nuclear weapons dismantled and destroyed. If they refuse to cooperate, an all-out war should be conducted to enforce said actions.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

Come on, that's a bit much.

He didn't say deterrence never works, he said it doesn't always work.

And, he's probably right about that - crazy people who don't mind killing themselves are less likely to be deterred by that possibility than sane ones with a healthy dose of self-preservation.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Oh, come on. This is just another one of Krauthammer's beating of the war drums all based on his double standards with regards to Israel and any other country in the Middle East.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

I'd agree that Israel should stand down their nuclear weapons. Bring them down to zero, just as their adversaries have. But only if their adversaries bring down their size to that of Israel, bring down their resources to the size if Israel's and bring down their populations to the size of Israel's. Then and only then would we be talking about comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. But if for some reason 95% of the Arab world does not choose voluntary euthanasia, then we're stuck trying to figure out how many apples equals an orange.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago


But, he's right that deterrence doesn't work equally in all situations.

Rational self-preservation has to be present for the notion of possible death and destruction to deter people.

That's why terrorism is so frightening - if one believes that dying for the cause is a good thing, normal deterrents won't stop them.

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