As economic sanctions on Iran tighten, we will find out if that nation’s quest for nuclear weapons can be stopped. Sanctions worked on South Africa — so why not Iran?
Here’s why not: Very few South African whites were willing to die for apartheid. Most aspired to a normal, bourgeois life and understood their system of racial oppression could no longer be legitimated or sustained.
In contrast, Iran is ruled by messianic leaders who believe apocalyptic struggle against the Great and Little Satans — «a war of Islam against blasphemy,» according to Ayatollah Khomeini — is the path to utopia. The belief in the return of the 12th, or hidden, imam will not be undone by the falling value of the rial.
Perhaps ordinary Iranians have ordinary aspirations. But ordinary Iranians are not making the decisions. The leadership’s commitment to nuclear weapons is evident in their having endured an inflation rate of more than 50 percent, anemic economic growth and a 2011 unemployment rate of 15.3 percent, according to The World Factbook of the CIA.
It takes a short memory to believe that Iran’s leaders are what we consider to be rational actors. Recent history provides ample evidence of the indifference of ideologically driven regimes to human suffering. Communist regimes murdered millions of their own citizens in pursuit of their apocalyptic fantasies. Andrew Roberts’ history of World War II, «The Storm of War,» provides striking examples of this sort of commitment. British Major-Gen. Douglas Gracey, who commanded Indian troops in Burma in 1943, believed 99 percent of Japanese soldiers «prefer death or suicide to capture,» a judgment precisely confirmed in the battle for Iwo Jima: After 30 days of bitter fighting, 212 of 21,000 Japanese defenders survived. On Okinawa, 130,000 Japanese died and just 7,400 surrendered. In the closing days of the war: «With no allies left, and ultimate defeat certain, still the Japanese fought on with seemingly undiminished ardor,» Roberts wrote.
This indifference to costs extended to the civilian population. The March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo killed more than 80,000 people. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed another 140,000. Still, the Japanese government chose to fight on. Three days later 75,000 died in the bombing of Nagasaki. While Emperor Hirohito finally had enough, a group of Army officers attempted a coup to prevent his surrender.
This fanaticism was replicated in Germany. With the failure of the attack on the Soviet Union and German cities being bombed to rubble, it was clear that by the end of 1943 Germany was doomed. The Russian offensive of June 1944 lasted 68 days producing an average of 11,000 German casualties per day. But with nearly 7 million Red Army soldiers massed at their borders, «the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient disciplined fighting force well into the spring of 1945 … showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness,» according to Roberts. Starving, with no cooking gas, water, electricity or sanitation, the defenders of Berlin fought «with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation.»
There is good reason to believe that Iran is capable of this sort of ruthlessness. Echoing Ayatollah Khomeini’s belief that much of the Iranian population «was looking forward to martyrdom,» Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran, has said that Iran could survive a nuclear exchange that would obliterate Israel.
There is a natural tendency to interpret others by our own standards, to believe that what would deter us will deter those who are profoundly not like us. Seeing others as «others» is rejected as ethnocentrism, even a kind of racism. But grave errors have been made by failing to see how different others can be. A suitable response to Nazism was slow to develop because many thought that Hitler couldn’t really mean what he said or that cooler heads would eventually prevail.
Even if we consider Iran’s leaders to be «rational actors» — dismissing all that apocalyptic talk as just talk — this hardly guarantees that sanctions will work. There is nothing irrational in the belief that if economic hardship — small beer compared to what the Germans and Japanese withstood — can be endured, an Iranian nuclear weapon will be a game-changer. The Iranians have surely noticed that under the protection of a nuclear umbrella, North Korea can get away with sinking a South Korean ship and shelling an island. The consequence? An offer of food aid.
Whether we see Iran’s leaders as rational or irrational, there are scant grounds for confidence that sanctions will deter their quest for nuclear weapons.
David Rubinstein is a professor emeritus in the department of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He lives in Boulder, Colo.