Arguing for the need to develop greater missile defense against Iran, Cliff May, president of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, gets a little nostalgic for the Cold War. “The Soviet Union,” he writes, “though an evil empire, was not an irrational one“:
Soviet rulers did not believe that martyrs for Communism would be greeted in Paradise by black-eyed virgins or that an apocalypse would summon the Mahdi (the Islamic messiah) from occultation.
The familiar claim here is that we can’t rely on deterrence with Iran because the country is run by suicidal jihadists. But as I’ve written before, there’s no evidence for the idea that Iran’s leaders desire martyrdom, or that Iran’s calculations are driven by a desire to immanentize the eschaton. As Andrew Grotto showed in an article last year for the Brown Journal of World Affairs, the “Iran as martyr state” argument rests upon claims from a few conservative op-eds and a comically shoddy report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, and has been bounced around the internet such that it now represents an article of faith for the “Bomb Iran” set.
As to May’s pining for the more rational strategic logic that obtained during the Cold War, this is, of course, precisely the opposite of what neoconservatives were saying about the Soviets at the time. As historian Gary Dorrien recounted in his book Imperial Designs, according to the neoconservative-dominated Team B report during the Carter administration, “Soviet leaders did not regard nuclear war as an unthinkable evil, and they were not deterred by a so-called balance of terror“:
Team B contended that the intelligence community overemphasized hard data about Soviet capabilities and ignored the Soviet objective of conquering the world.
[According to Team B]: “For unless we are prepared to acknowledge that our adversary is ‘different’ and unless we are willing to make the mental effort required to understand him on our own terms, we have no choice but to fall back on the only alternative position available, namely the postulate that his basic motivation resembles ours.” [...]
[Team B] asserted that while Americans used force only reluctantly as an occasionally necessary departure from normal life, Soviet leaders embraced and admired force: “The Soviet Union, to an extent inconceivable to the average Westerner, relies on force as a standard instrument of policy.”
In other words, neocons back then were saying exactly the same things about the Soviets as they’re saying now about Iran: They don’t think like us, so quaint ideas about “rationality” and “deterrence” don’t apply.
As Fred Kaplan wrote in 2004, “The Team B report (which has since been declassified) turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point.” Team B was wildly incorrect about both the nature and extent of the Soviet threat. This hasn’t stopped today’s neocons, however, from trying to rerun the exercise in regard to the Islamic threat — with predictably similar results. I think it’s pretty safe to say, though, that, now as then, the goal isn’t really to accurately assess the nature and extent of the threat to the United States, but rather to promote a conception of that threat that accords with and facilitates conservative domestic political objectives.