Are the Iranians Rational?
Israel W. Charny
Issue 9, Winter 2012
With a PS on Writing a Warning of a Threat of Genocide - see next article
G P N O R I G I N A L
Warring, Messianic, and Apocalyptic
GPN has commented on this critical issue regularly. Our stated position has been that there is a significant possibility that Iran is subject to an extremely dangerous process that derives from a configuration of its being bellicose, messianic, and apocalyptic.
Iran is clearly power-seeking and militarily dangerous. It is responsible for terror attacks in many countries in the world. It is strategically militant in many areas of the world with active programs through terrorist and quasi-governmental surrogates, especially Hamas and Hizbollah, repeatedly war-mongering and encouraging a culture of seeking the deaths of several other peoples ("Death to the Americans," "Death to Israel").
- A messianic Iran has its arms extended to the coming of a Messiah, and quite possibly even engages in active efforts to bring on the coming of a Messiah - in
their case a Muslim messiah of course. This is reflected in frequent
messianic metaphors in the mouths of key Iranian leaders like
Ahmadinejad. According to Muslim tradition the hidden Imam will
appear. Ahmadinejad has referred to being in touch with the Hidden Imam
on numerous occasions and has prayed and professed the Messianic coming:
One of the most disgraceful - for the Western world - statements of contact with the Hidden Imam was made by Ahmadinejad following a truly disgusting Invited Address by him to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2005. The London Telegraph wrote in January 2006 about Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations: "We have a mission - to turn Iran into the
country of the Hidden Imam," Ahmadinejad has said.
"Hasten the emergence of ... the Promised One, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace. They [the dead] have shown the way to martyrdom which we must follow."
Ahmadinejad wrote to President George Bush on May 7, 2006:
"According to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine prophets. To worship a God which is above all powers in the world and can do all He pleases..." "The Almighty God sent His prophets with miracles and clear signs to guide the people and show them divine signs and purify them from sins and pollutions. And He sent the Book and the balance so that the people display justice and avoid the rebellious...
"Divine prophets have promised: The day will come when all humans will congregate before the court of the Almighty, so that their deeds are examined. The good will be directed towards Heaven and evildoers will meet divine retribution. I trust both of us believe in such a day, but it will not be easy to calculate the actions of rulers... Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. The concept of apocalyptic thinking motivating, structuring and driving the behaviors of leaders of countries that have devastating arsenals of weaponry is frightening.
Throughout history, madmen with images of world domination have wrought enormous devastation throughout history. Add to this a charismatic individual leader, super-powerful archetypal images of gods and messiahs, and magical thinking, and there are huge numbers of people who will follow blindly. Order them to die for the cause, they will. Order them to kill for the cause, they will.
After all the minds of all of us human beings constantly use fantasies, images, pipe dreams, and far-reaching wishes for one or another magical or total event to bring about some perfection of which we dream in our personal cosmology.
The further terrifying truth about our human species is that a large number of us - possibly a majority - are susceptible to believing the magical nonsense announced with certainty by our leaders, especially religious or ideologically fervent governments.
Apocalyptic thinking goes beyond murdering target groups to achieve a more beautiful world so to speak. It also involves images of bringing about the end of all of world civilization as it currently exists, generally for the mythical purposes of inviting a messianically reconstructed replacement world. And the terrifying truth is that human science is moving toward the means to destroy the entire ecosphere and the planet. In fact, some scientists believe that the means are already at hand, such as the possibility that multiple nuclear explosions could affect the very gravity of Planet Earth.
Suicide Bombing Thinking
Apocalyptic thinking also includes the bizarre, ridiculous but deadly thinking that is manifested in suicide bombings where people assign martyr status to being the agents of the deaths of other people through their own deaths - always of course as it were in a quest for the better world. Some years ago the Western world guffawed at the thought that there could be anywhere near a sufficient number of human beings who would be willing to give up their lives to be suicide bombers. In fact, what proved to be the case is that, in one country after another, the number of would-be suicide bombers exceeded the demand by far.
It is utterly amazing how many human beings are available to solve the basic existential anxieties of our human existence by putting an end to it all, and with it also a disgusting added joy and satisfaction of putting an end to the lives of so many other people. The pathology of such resolutions of a universal basic existential anxiety fuses with the idealism and the horse manure of political ideologies to a point where people go on to be suicide bombers out of an inflamed sense of purpose, fullness and as if a contribution no less than to the betterment of life.
Is it possible that religious-national leaders, driving for supreme power for whatever their ideology and identity, can fall victims to the same pathology of being suicide bombers? - meaning that they would destroy their nations in the course of killing their enemy en masse? Is it possible that religious-national leaders can believe their own messianic myths to the point of acting on them as if they will really bring on a better world?
There is also the consideration that those who die for the cause will be honored shahids - a 'great way to go.' Rational people cannot imagine how so many people line up to be suicide bombers. Do we really know how to answer the present puzzle? Many historians have pointed out that the 'great' megakillers of history often bring enormous death to their own people. In many cases this happens over a period of time - the original grandiose expansion of power that at first brings death to the enemy necessarily triggers counter-reactions and people fight back and kill large numbers of the perpetrator people, thus the losses of the Germans and the Japanese in WWII. Some thoughtful analysts believe these too are examples of megalomaniac leaders killing their own people, for the counter-retaliation and revenge they bring on their people cannot but cause many fatalities.
Moreover, many megalomaniac leaders kill millions of their own people directly. See Stalin and the deaths of an estimated 54 million Russians! See the no small number of Germans killed directly by Hitler. See the 36 million dead Chinese credited to Mao tse Tung!
Initiating a nuclear war has to cause millions of deaths not only of the designated victim peoples but of the perpetrators. One would think this is inconceivable for a leader to set in motion. But is it really so drastically different than all preceding events where leaders have presided over the murders of many of their own people? Can a national leader be a suicide bomber leader? Can a nation become transformed into a suicide bomber nation?
Killing Off the Jews! By God, There's a Goal that Brings Greatness!
There is a further deadly consideration. There is also for many in this world a highly desired objective of getting rid of the Jews. It is for many a profound inspiration, 'A life's work.' Even deserving of dying for it. Is it possible that the joy of ridding the world of the hateful Jewish state of Israel is 'worth' the obliteration of Teheran and perhaps more of Iran?
Another possible target of special choice is the accursed United States of America and its world empire. Is it worth dying to kill off America?
In Iran's case, there are several as if justifying theological concepts for going the route:
Deterrence for a Rational Iran but not for a Nuclear Irrational Iran
- The people are on a mission for Iran's greatness
- The people are on a mission to bring on the Messiah
- The people who give their lives for the cause are privileged and eternally honored 'martyrs' (shahids)
- If the enemy people who are destroyed are the Jews, this is
God's/Muhammed's will and a magnificent fulfillment of a centuries old
quest, and even a fulfillment of a somewhat universal hope (see
- If the Americans are to be the victims, they are the ultimate oppressor
of the Muslim world (a kind of Muslim version of an 'anti-Christ,'
moreover in full cahoots with the accursed Jews).
One defense analyst for Haaretz, Reuven Pedatzur, a political scientist trained at Tel Aviv University who is Director of the Galilee Center for Strategy and National Security in Israel, raises the specific question of whether the Iranians are rational. Pedatzur correctly sketches the alternatives. If Iran is expected to react as a rational state, deterrence strategies can work to stop Iran from using nuclear weapons and could even justify living with a nuclear Iran. On the other hand, if Iran is not expected to be a rational state, "there would apparently be no choice but to try to destroy Iran's nuclear program."
Pedatzur continues correctly that Israel's policymakers face a "complicated dilemma." Will Iran prove to be amenable to deterrents like the Soviet Russia proved to be in the Cold War? Or, "Are Ayatollah Khomeini's successors willing to commit suicide and bring doom to the Iranian people solely to kill a few hundred thousand inhabitants of the detested Zionist entity?"
Pedatzur cites the work of a professor, Ofira Seliktar of Gratz College in Philadelphia. Seliktar has researched a vast literature of the subject of Iran's rationality:
"The realization that Iran may soon develop nuclear weapons has generated a heated debate about the nation's ability to manage its arsenal. Part of the discourse about the nuclear rationality of Third Word dictatorship and rogue states, the debate has pitted so-called nuclear optimists, analysts confident that Iran is able to handle such weapons, against nuclear pessimists, who warn that the regime operates in a manner that deviates from the principles of rationality that underlay nuclear deterrence, thus rending the doctrine of mutual assured destruction invalid. This article examines the reasoning employed by the opposing groups, concluding that they are essentially articles of faith. Since there is virtually no margin of error in nuclear matters, political leaders need to be aware that should the optimist prove wrong, the consequences can be dire." Seliktar concluded that 2/3 of the researchers she studied can be described as falling into a nuclear optimist category, in other words 2/3 of the writers on the subject believe that a nuclear Iran will be a rational Iran.
How do we feel about betting our lives on a 2/3 consensus?
Seliktar's research of opinions is obviously important and deserving of further reading, but Pedatzur goes off into an absolute conviction that there can be no other possibility than the conclusion that Iran will be rational - forget the 1/3 others in Seliktar's sample or any others of us who have other ideas and say otherwise. The judgment that there is a serious risk of Iran being irrational is made into anything from stupid to ridiculous to crazy to seriously dangerous. Thus Pedatzur cites the history of Khomeini, who had declared that he would never sign a cease fire with Iraq being compelled to sign a truce with Iraq when the bombs began to fall on Tehran, and convinces himself there is no risk of a megasuicide killing by Iran.
Pedatzur writes, "We should therefore note Israel's error when it magnifies the Iranian threat and depicts it as an existential threat. Israel's deterrent capability suffices to prevent an Iranian leader from entertaining thoughts about firing a nuclear warhead at it. The time has come to stop complaining about the bogeyman of existential threat and desist from jingoistic social actions that sometimes create a dangerous dynamic of escalation."
In contrast to Pedatzur, another American analyst, Louis René Beres, a political scientist who is a long-term nuclear strategy analyst, warns strongly against trusting or taking risks with emotional states and leaders.
"Most worrisome are those leaders who might combine recalcitrance and nuclear capacity with irrationality. Without a nuclear 'balance of terror' during the Cold War, it is likely there would have been a third world war.
"For Israel, America's core ally in the Middle East, a similar risk of enemy aggression stems from the obvious interrelatedness of our national vulnerabilities, and from our sometimes interpenetrating strategic doctrines.
"This is not the time for Americans or Israelis to argue foolishly on behalf of a 'nuclear weapons-free world.' It is time, however, for creating an improved and up-to-date U.S. strategic doctrine, a comprehensive and feasible plan that would jointly serve Washington's national security needs, and those of our critical allies in Jerusalem."
Conclusions of this Author
My own conclusions are as follows:
Tragically, as a psychologist and genocide researcher over several decades, I have come to an unquestionable conclusion that our species - God's creation of man we are told as it were in His image - is deeply flawed. A great many of us do irreparable harm and destruction to life. We abuse ourselves and others; we kill ourselves and others. Look at human history and put aside the fairy tales -- including the rosy 'Santa Claus' general psychology textbooks that barely present truths about human evil in many aspects of our lives.
I have written in the professional psychiatric and psychological literature that I believe all psychiatric and psychological diagnosis should be built around a standard format in which there are two guiding questions or dimensions. The first is diagnosing the extent to which a person is doing harm to themselves: Disorders of Doing Harm to Oneself. This category in effect registers the many problems in functioning, breakdowns, and emotional suffering that human beings complain about for which they seek out psychiatric and psychological care.
The second category refers to the harm(s) that people do to other human beings: Disorders of Doing Harm to Others. These include the basically obvious kinds of abuse that so many people thrust on others, such as violence or exploitative sexual relationships, but also the many more subtle ways in which people do what we colloquially but correctly describe in everyday language as 'driving the other person crazy.' That is very much the experience that many a child has with a parent who, without being directly abusive, is twisting the child's emotions and mind into a deep unpleasantness or terror or hurt. That is really the experience that many a marital partner has when their spouse kicks out from under them a feeling of being respected or secure in being cared for and loved.
The problem is that these disorders are often not recognized clearly in existing psychiatric diagnosis and the field of mental health often walks around and away from these disorders of harming others. For example, if you look at the prevailing professional literature in mental health, you will see more than once honest but really quite ridiculous assertions that the majority of parents who beat the hell out of their kids are psychiatrically normal on examination. Ditto for husbands and wives who physically abuse one another.
You will also find the same conclusion attached to a great many researches that established for us the important knowledge that the majority of those who committed genocide, such as perpetrators of the Holocaust, big and small, also were psychologically "normal" or what Christopher Browning calls "ordinary people."
The world is full of hapless people who do end up in mental hospitals when they go too far in really believing nonsense and letting themselves be afflicted to a point of disturbances, in their routine functioning that mark them as 'crazy.' But, sadly and dangerously our world also repeatedly has leaders who are 'crazy with power' who, once they are identified as crazy, are not dethroned because most systems of government do not have sufficient corrective machinery. World human history is full of a large number of political leaders who exercised enormous genocidal destructive power and killed tens of millions of human beings. Their self-anointed power entitles themselves to be superior and God-equivalent and to exercise their power to assign death to millions of other human beings without any hesitation.
What is unambiguously clear is that the mental health field has failed to provide tools for identifying the rotten madness of vested political figures and established leaders who, from their positions of power, determine that they are entitled and actually go and kill enormous numbers of people - into the millions. It's as if being an identified leader makes one untouchable for the concepts of mental health, and that is crazy, and more than that leaves us as a society conceptually impotent in the face of the worst kinds of insanity that humans can possibly exercise, namely the killing of millions of people.
My point here is that we have seen leaders and societies go completely "irrational" , "crazy", "mad," and proceed to destroy millions - see Hitler, Stalin, Mao tse Tung, Pol Pot… and the list never stops growing, let alone it would be tragic if we ignored a whole bunch of 'little guys' who use their offices as Presidents, Prime Ministers and military commanders to knock off 'only' a 'small number' of people, like Idi Amin, Milosevic, Bashir, or Assad.
So when we come to the question whether Iran is "irrational," we are not talking about a phenomenon that is new to this world or even rare.
It has happened many times before. We might have been somewhat better off were we able to recognize the truths that were staring us in the face and pushing at our very eyeballs of such as Hitler the maniac speaking of killing the Jews to a frenzied crowd; great Father Stalin who liquidated his own assistants regularly and was reported to engage in 'games' of putting out his cigarettes on their palms, let alone liquidated millions of one ethnic group after another in the Soviet Union; Mao who expressed himself with open sadistic glee about the thrill of killing people and undertook bizarre campaigns such as "the Great Leap Forward" which maimed the lives of countless everyday people and claimed the lives of millions of them, his countrymen.
Civilized people who believe in justice and Santa Claus and evolution of a better human being and society may feel uneasy and embarrassed as if by the presence of someone wild when one dares to raise a question of whether a given leader and/or government can be crazy enough to kill so many people - other peoples, AND so many of their own people. It can seem like the questioner is mad one, certainly rude and uncouth, and an undesirable spirit who should be unwelcome in the otherwise respectable halls of our academies or public forums.
But the facts are that it is long since time that we face the overwhelming propensity and HIGH probabilities of mass destruction on the part of certain leaders and governing organizations.
Are there serious problems with doing so in terms of standards of evidence rather than hearsay? Does such thinking open doors to unbearable abuse of others identities? Of course, and a fuller discussion of these issues is critical. But first the critical need is to identify in advance high probability of major killing.
What are the evidences of Iran's behaviors, policies, and guiding value concepts?
Is Iran irrational? Of course it is.
If irrational means destructive of human life by way of active worldwide terrorism absolutely. Iran is indicted in terror in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and South America.
If irrational means committed to the destruction of other peoples? Of course it is. "Death to Israel." "Death to America."
If irrational means a leadership that eschews democratic processes and further tortures and murders those who dare opposed them, the record is again clear. The Western world has expressed great respect for broad segments of the Iranian populations as inspired by modern knowledge, beautiful esthetics, and democratic values, but the Iranian regime has crushed the people mercilessly.
If irrational means subscribing to Earth is Round primitive ideology and committing state resources to the promotion of insane anti-facts, Iran is such a state that actively promotes denial of the Holocaust.
If irrational means susceptibility to or going over the edge to mystical religious messianic ideas which are linked to images of wide destruction in order to promote salvation, this theme -- that is present in many religious cultures but can be circumscribed more as a fabled metaphor more than a reality -- has moved to prominence and operational thinking in the minds of key Iranian leaders. See the compilation in GPN by Yael Stein, Tamar Pileggi, and Alex Barnea Burnley of statements not only by Ahmadinejad but by other Iranian leaders.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, writes:
"Are Iran's leaders that crazy? U.S. President Barack Obama has said decisively:
Western expectations that Iran will behave rationally and agree to a compromise under the increasing pressure of sanctions ignore Iran's perspective on the costs already incurred, the price of completing the journey and the advantages of turning back. For Iran, it is far more rational at this point to accelerate the program and reject any agreement the West would be prepared to sign.
If Western nations wish to avoid a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf and prevent a nuclear Iran, they must adopt crippling sanctions that will bring Iran's economy to the brink of collapse. That means a complete United Nations-imposed oil embargo enforced by a naval blockade, as well as total diplomatic isolation. And they must warn Iran that if it tries to jump the last wall, the West is willing and capable of inflicting devastating harm."
"Let's begin with a basic truth: No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction."
I don't think it is only the Israeli government that should be adamant that Iran not have nuclear weapons.
Summing Up the Conclusion
Summing Up: DANGER - VERY REAL DANGER
In a new important book on the incredible contagion and social psychology of anti-Semitism, my colleague psychologist Steven Baum says, super-shockingly and disturbingly to me too, "I am scared and saddened because I know enough about the psychology of genocide to believe that a Second Holocaust of Israel is imminent" (Preface p. xiv). I definitely do NOT believe that, but I definitely am very scared of that possibility.
Predictions: I don't know
1. I don't know
2. I am relieved not to be a policy maker - I would go crazy with the responsibility in this case
3. IRAN MUST BE STOPPED
Israel W. Charny is the Executive Director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and retired Professor of Psychology and Family Therapy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University. He is Editor-in-Chief of the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GENOCIDE, published by ABC-Clio Publishers, US and UK, Author of FASCISM AND DEMOCRACY IN THE HUMAN MIND, published by the University of Nebraska Press, Both the encyclopedia and the book on fascist and democratic thinking were awarded "OUTSTANDING ACADEMIC BOOK OF THE YEAR" by the American Library Association.
He is also the author of FIGHTING SUICIDE BOMBING: "A WORLDWIDE CAMPAIGN FOR LIFE"published 2007 by Praeger Security International [Greenwood Books], and republished in India and Sri Lanka along with the Praeger edition by three publishers: Penguin Books, Pentagon Press, and Lancer.
Please click here to see a PS: On Writing a Warning of a Threat of Genocide
Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud (2011). Text of speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented to the United Nations 66th General Assembly in New York on September 23, 2011
Baum, Steven K. (2012). Antisemitism Explained. Lanham, MD: University Press of America
Beres, Louis René (January 6, 2012). Nukes don't kill, people do. Haaretz English Edition. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/nukes-don-t-kill-people-do-1.405749
Chang, Yung and Halliday, John Mao. The Unknown Story. New York: Random House. 2005.
Chang, Yung and Halliday, John Mao. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. London: 2004
Charny, Israel W. (2007). The Ultimate Existential Meaning of Suicide Bombings: The Killing of Human Life. Chapter in Fighting Suicide Bombings: A Worldwide Campaign for Life. Westport, CT. Praeger Security, International, pp. 79-89.
Charny, Israel W. (2006). Fascism and Democracy in the Human Mind: A Bridge between Mind and Society. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press
GPN Genocide Prevention Now Issue 3, THREAT. Ahmadinejad Reports Aura of the "Hidden Imam" Enveloped him in his Speech to the U.N. and Calls upon Bush to Accept Islam
LaGuardia, Anton (January 14, 2006). 'Divine mission' driving Iran's new leader. Telegraph. Statements made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations
Pedatzur, Reuven (December 20, 2011). Are the Iranian's Rational? Haaretz
MEMRI Middle East Media Research Institute (May 2007). The Doctrine of Mahdism. Inquiry and Analysis #357
Netanyahu, Benjamin (March 5, 2012). Address to AIPAC with excerpts broadcast on Israel Radio News, Channel 2, March 6, 2012.
Ottolenghi, Emanuele (March 5, 2012). Only crippling sanctions will stop Iran. Editorial: International Herald Tribune (Global Edition of the New York Times)
Seliktar, Ofira (2011). Assessing Iran's nuclear rationality: The "Eye of the Beholder" Problem. Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 2 (2), 188-206.
Stein, Yael; Pileggi,Tamar; Burnley, Alex Barnea. More "Mein Kampf": A Chronology of Statements of Incitement and Hate Language by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian Leaders. GPN Genocide Prevention Now, Issue 4, Fall 2010. http://www.genocidepreventionnow.org/Home/GPNISSUES/Issue4Fall2010/tabid/90/ctl/DisplayArticle/mid/473/aid/143/Default.aspx
Nuclear weapons, destruction, and genocide
Executive Director: Prof. Israel W. Charny, Ph.D.
Director of Holocaust and Genocide Review: Marc I Sherman, M.L.S.
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The contents of this website are the responsibility of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem.