Retiring Hitler and "Appeasement" from the National Security Debate
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All of this puts the United States and Iran on a potential collision course.But how serious is the Iranian threat?Ahmadinejad's rantings are indeed frightening, as were Hitler's in Mein Kampf, but Ahmadinejad is hardly Der Fuehrer of Iran. By 1939, Hitler was the Nazi state, having eliminated all potential political rivals and military dissenters. In contrast, the Iranian presidency is relatively weak. Iran is a theocracy in which power is wielded in the first instance by those possessing religious authority, which Ahmadinejad does not. The supreme authority in Iran is not the president, but the chief of state, the Supreme LeaderAli Hoseini-Khamenei. The supreme leader,who is appointed for life by an Assembly of Experts consisting of 86 religious scholars elected by popular vote for an eight-year term, has the final say over Iran's domestic and foreign policies and can reverse or overrule presidential initiatives. Any decision for war, including the disposition and possible use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, would certainly not be Ahmadinejad's to make. Thus while Ahmadinejad may harbor Hitlerian dreams of exterminating Jews, he is not "the decider" in Iran.
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Nor is there any convincing reason to believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would be exempt from the grim logic of nuclear deterrence. The presumption of suicidal irrationality prompted calls in the United States for preventive war against the Soviet Union and Communist China before they acquired nuclear weapons. Preventive war proponents claimed that the Soviet Union and Mao's China could not be "trusted" with nuclear weapons that they would not hesitate to use them against the United States even at the risk of their own destruction. Luckily for the world, Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson refused to panic. As it turned out, both Moscow and Beijing were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons for the same reasons that other states have sought them since then: to enhance their national security and prestige, not to threaten or commit aggression. The case for Saddam Hussein as a crazed dictator who would eagerly supply weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to al Qaeda was never convincing and has been thoroughly discredited in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. Iraq had destroyed itsWMD following the Gulf War and had no program to acquire nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration mistook Saddam's intentions for capabilities (in very much the same way that Cold War administrations conversely tended to read Soviet capabilities into intentions).
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There is no evidence that Iran's regime is suicidal. On the contrary, compared to Saddam Hussein's recklessness in invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, Iran has displayed caution and patience. To be sure, its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its provision of weapons and other material aid to Shia militant groups in Iraq risk preventive retaliatory US military action, but the regime in Tehran apparently believes that the stakes involvedacquiring a credible nuclear deterrent and gaining a decisive influence on political outcomes in Iraqare risks worth chancing. They are calculated risks falling well within the boundaries of rational statecraft. Such goals certainly do not suggest a willingness to risk Iran's survival for the sake of striking the United States or Israel with weapons of mass destruction. Historian Trita Parsi believes that Iran's rationality is the probable:
[The] reason why thus far it has not shared chemical or biological weapons with any of its Arab proxies such as Hezbollah, and why a nuclear Iran likely would not share weaponswith terrorist groups. Israel has signaled Iran that it would retaliate against any nuclear attack in Israel by hitting Iranregardless of who attacked Israel. Tehran has fully grasped the meaning of the signal if any of Iran's proxies attacked Israel with a nuclear warhead, Israel would destroy Iran. But even without this stern warning, Iran would be unlikely to share the doomsday weapon with its proxies precisely because those groups would cease to be proxies if they acquired such a powerful weapon. Iran's ambition, after all, is to become the region's undisputed power; given its tendency to view all other actors as potential competitors, it's hardly likely that Tehran would undermine its goal by sharing the sensitive technology. Judging from Tehran's past behavior, the Iranian leadership is too Machiavellian to commit such an irrevocable and devastating mistake.22
International security specialist Robert Litwak concurs:
"[E]ven when a state sponsorship exists, as between Iran and Hezbollah, major constraints exert a powerful effect. State sponsors employ terrorist groups as instruments of policy, and that implies a high degree of control. AWMD transfer would be an extraordinary actboth in its escalatory character and its consequent threat to regime survival. Crossing that Rubicon would mean relinquishing control of the most valuable military asset in a state's arsenal. The target state would be taking the risk that the unconventionalweapon employed by the terrorist group might be traced back to it and thereby trigger a devastating US retaliatory strike."
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Unfortunately, invocations of the Munich analogy almost invariably mislead because they distort the true nature of appeasement, ignore the extreme rarity of the Nazi German threat, and falsely suggest that Britain and France could have readily stopped Hitler prior to 1939. Additionally, the Munich analogy reinforces the presidential tendency since 1945 to overstate threats for the purpose of rallying public and congressional support, and overstated threats encourage resort to force in circumstances where alternatives might better serve long-term US security interests. Threats that are in fact limited—as was Baathist Iraq after the 9/11 attacks—tend to be portrayed in Manichaean terms, thus skewing the policy choice toward military action, including preventive war with all its attendant risks and penalties. If the 1930s reveal the danger of underestimating a security threat, the post-World War II decades and post-9/11 years contain examples of the danger of overestimating such threats.