Are the Mullahs sane?

No nuclear power will attack another one for fear of committing national suicide. That is the familiar logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (M—A—D), which kept the US safe but pretty nervous over fifty years of the Cold War. Stalin and Mao rattled some fearsome sabers, and Castro tried to sneak nuclear  missiles into Cuba. But as saner voices took over in the Communist powers, the Cold War settled down to a long, drawn—out struggle. Nuclear deterrence created stability.

Mohammed El—Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has just been quoted as saying that Tehran is only a few months away from a nuclear bomb. It doesn't matter whether it is months or years. The real question is whether the logic of M—A—D will still work. If it does, a NATO—style containment strategy makes sense. If it doesn't, massive preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities are the only solution. They would be much more destructive than Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam's Osirak reactor, which killed one French engineer.

So the important question is whether Ahmadi—Nezhad (aka, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) is a sane man, in the way that Krushchev and Deng Xiao Ping were.  Would he risk tens of thousands of Iranian lives by attacking Israel?  This is a man who was almost certainly a mover in the 1988 Iran massacre, when thousands of civilians were murdered by the regime. He was no doubt deeply involved in the Iran—Iraq war. He led the most fanatical types in the El Qods brigade, and his regime claims to sign up thousands of volunteers for suicide attacks. What we know adds up to a ruthless fanatic.

Insane people have led to war before. In his magnificent history of the 20th century, Modern Times, Paul Johnson points out that in the weeks before Pearl Harbor, clinically mad people came to power in Imperial Japan, leading straight to what Japan's top military leaders knew to be national defeat.

"(US) Ambassador Grew reported (22 October 1944) that the Emperor was told plainly he would be murdered if he opposed the war policy. ... The result was to precipitate into power the reckless, indeed the emotionally unstable, such as (Foreign Minister) Matsuoka. ... Roosevelt, who, thanks to 'Operation Magic,' which cracked the Japanese codes, read some of Matsuoka's messages, thought them 'the product of a mind which is deeply disturbed.'

This view was shared by Matsuoka's colleagues. After one liaison conference the Navy Minister asked, 'The Foreign Minister is insane, isn't he?'" (p. 389)

We have other examples. Muammar Qaddafi was once called "schizophrenic" by Anwar Saddat of Egypt. North Korea's glorious leader Kim Jong Il is wildly eccentric or worse. Robert Mugabe seems to be extremely unstable, and even France's Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, fancies himself as a new Napoleon, a pretty good example of what psychiatrists call narcissistic personality disorder.

In paranoid psychosis people show no sign of unreason except in a narrow range of bizarre beliefs. Paranoid schizophrenics seem to be normal, but as soon as their paranoid system kicks in they are in fantasyland. Such people are convinced they are being followed by the CIA, or that they are really Jesus resurrected, or that they are on a mission from God. Even normal people develop paranoid beliefs if they are shut into cults with constant indoctrination. The Jim Jones cult took ordinary people and drove them to mass suicide in Guiana.

Martyrdom has a special role in the Khomeini sect of Shia Islam. Shias believe in the resurrection of the martyred Twelfth Imam, who will rise to bring Allah's rewards to the faithful, and render final defeat to the infidel. Many Shia Muslims practice ritual self—mutilation in imitation of the Hidden Imam.  Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran when President Jimmy Carter refused to support the Shah, so that today we have a martyrdom cult in control of Iran's formidable military. We have Jimmy Carter to thank for the greatest danger in the world today.

Ahmadi—Nezhad is a creature of the Khomeini cult. If he is not a true paranoid, living in that cult could make him very much like one. But he might also be faking aggression to intimidate other countries. The question is whether he is more like Japan's "emotionally unstable" Foreign Minister Matsuoka? Or is he like the saner leaders of Imperial Japan — ruthless and aggressive but not mad?

How would we know?  Just as FDR could tell from intercepts that Minister Matsuoka was 'deeply disturbed,' we are no doubt trying to gather streams of psychological information about Iran's new prime minister today. It may not be easy.

My guess is that Ahmadi—Nezhad means what he says about wiping Israel off the face of the map. In Iran's theocracy the Prime Minister is supposed to obey Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who constantly plays off the "moderates" against the hard cases. There are plenty of mullahs who like the good life. They are famous for their corruption. The previous Prime Minister, Rafsanjani, is a billionaire, something that doesn't usually happen by accident. Tehran's saner factions must therefore be working right now to keep the regime from blowing up the Middle East.

Civilized nations today are faced with a chance that the Prime Minister of Iran would initiate a nuclear exchange. But a single nuclear bomb will not be enough for Iran. Behind the scenes the Supreme Leader seems to be pulling the strings, supporting Ahmadi—Nezhad to keep Rafsanjani under control, and vice versa. In the meantime, the regime is using Iran's oil to buy power, international influence, and dangerous technology over a period of years.

Yes, they want to kill Israel and the US, but they seem to be going along a long, steady path in that direction.

If that is so, there is a rational strategy behind the visible fanaticism, and a containment strategy might be the best choice for civilized nations. Ahmadi—Nezhad may be ready for martyrdom, but his Supreme Leader may be pulling for the long term.

If crunch time can be delayed, improved missile defenses will help protect the saner nations of the world. But we cannot rule out the possibility that the martyrdom cult will take over in Tehran, just as it did in in Tokyo in 1942.

James Lewis is a frequent contributor.

No nuclear power will attack another one for fear of committing national suicide. That is the familiar logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (M—A—D), which kept the US safe but pretty nervous over fifty years of the Cold War. Stalin and Mao rattled some fearsome sabers, and Castro tried to sneak nuclear  missiles into Cuba. But as saner voices took over in the Communist powers, the Cold War settled down to a long, drawn—out struggle. Nuclear deterrence created stability.

Mohammed El—Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has just been quoted as saying that Tehran is only a few months away from a nuclear bomb. It doesn't matter whether it is months or years. The real question is whether the logic of M—A—D will still work. If it does, a NATO—style containment strategy makes sense. If it doesn't, massive preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities are the only solution. They would be much more destructive than Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam's Osirak reactor, which killed one French engineer.

So the important question is whether Ahmadi—Nezhad (aka, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) is a sane man, in the way that Krushchev and Deng Xiao Ping were.  Would he risk tens of thousands of Iranian lives by attacking Israel?  This is a man who was almost certainly a mover in the 1988 Iran massacre, when thousands of civilians were murdered by the regime. He was no doubt deeply involved in the Iran—Iraq war. He led the most fanatical types in the El Qods brigade, and his regime claims to sign up thousands of volunteers for suicide attacks. What we know adds up to a ruthless fanatic.

Insane people have led to war before. In his magnificent history of the 20th century, Modern Times, Paul Johnson points out that in the weeks before Pearl Harbor, clinically mad people came to power in Imperial Japan, leading straight to what Japan's top military leaders knew to be national defeat.

"(US) Ambassador Grew reported (22 October 1944) that the Emperor was told plainly he would be murdered if he opposed the war policy. ... The result was to precipitate into power the reckless, indeed the emotionally unstable, such as (Foreign Minister) Matsuoka. ... Roosevelt, who, thanks to 'Operation Magic,' which cracked the Japanese codes, read some of Matsuoka's messages, thought them 'the product of a mind which is deeply disturbed.'

This view was shared by Matsuoka's colleagues. After one liaison conference the Navy Minister asked, 'The Foreign Minister is insane, isn't he?'" (p. 389)

We have other examples. Muammar Qaddafi was once called "schizophrenic" by Anwar Saddat of Egypt. North Korea's glorious leader Kim Jong Il is wildly eccentric or worse. Robert Mugabe seems to be extremely unstable, and even France's Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, fancies himself as a new Napoleon, a pretty good example of what psychiatrists call narcissistic personality disorder.

In paranoid psychosis people show no sign of unreason except in a narrow range of bizarre beliefs. Paranoid schizophrenics seem to be normal, but as soon as their paranoid system kicks in they are in fantasyland. Such people are convinced they are being followed by the CIA, or that they are really Jesus resurrected, or that they are on a mission from God. Even normal people develop paranoid beliefs if they are shut into cults with constant indoctrination. The Jim Jones cult took ordinary people and drove them to mass suicide in Guiana.

Martyrdom has a special role in the Khomeini sect of Shia Islam. Shias believe in the resurrection of the martyred Twelfth Imam, who will rise to bring Allah's rewards to the faithful, and render final defeat to the infidel. Many Shia Muslims practice ritual self—mutilation in imitation of the Hidden Imam.  Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran when President Jimmy Carter refused to support the Shah, so that today we have a martyrdom cult in control of Iran's formidable military. We have Jimmy Carter to thank for the greatest danger in the world today.

Ahmadi—Nezhad is a creature of the Khomeini cult. If he is not a true paranoid, living in that cult could make him very much like one. But he might also be faking aggression to intimidate other countries. The question is whether he is more like Japan's "emotionally unstable" Foreign Minister Matsuoka? Or is he like the saner leaders of Imperial Japan — ruthless and aggressive but not mad?

How would we know?  Just as FDR could tell from intercepts that Minister Matsuoka was 'deeply disturbed,' we are no doubt trying to gather streams of psychological information about Iran's new prime minister today. It may not be easy.

My guess is that Ahmadi—Nezhad means what he says about wiping Israel off the face of the map. In Iran's theocracy the Prime Minister is supposed to obey Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who constantly plays off the "moderates" against the hard cases. There are plenty of mullahs who like the good life. They are famous for their corruption. The previous Prime Minister, Rafsanjani, is a billionaire, something that doesn't usually happen by accident. Tehran's saner factions must therefore be working right now to keep the regime from blowing up the Middle East.

Civilized nations today are faced with a chance that the Prime Minister of Iran would initiate a nuclear exchange. But a single nuclear bomb will not be enough for Iran. Behind the scenes the Supreme Leader seems to be pulling the strings, supporting Ahmadi—Nezhad to keep Rafsanjani under control, and vice versa. In the meantime, the regime is using Iran's oil to buy power, international influence, and dangerous technology over a period of years.

Yes, they want to kill Israel and the US, but they seem to be going along a long, steady path in that direction.

If that is so, there is a rational strategy behind the visible fanaticism, and a containment strategy might be the best choice for civilized nations. Ahmadi—Nezhad may be ready for martyrdom, but his Supreme Leader may be pulling for the long term.

If crunch time can be delayed, improved missile defenses will help protect the saner nations of the world. But we cannot rule out the possibility that the martyrdom cult will take over in Tehran, just as it did in in Tokyo in 1942.

James Lewis is a frequent contributor.