The rational ayatollah hypothesis

In his Wall Street Journal column this past Tuesday, Bret Stephens took up “The rational ayatollah hypothesis” (accessible via Google here). That hypothesis — asserted, I would say, as a thesis if not a fact by our Supreme Leader about Iran’s Supreme Leader — holds that economics and other such considerations constrain the anti-Semitic behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So about those nuclear weapons that Iran is developing on — Israel is not to worry. Neither are we. It’s the Alfred E. Newman approach writ large.

Obama articulated his thesis in response to a question posed by Jeffrey Goldberg in his recent interview of Obama. I wrote about it in “Obama expounds the limits of Iran’s anti-Semitism.” I struggled because Obama’s observations are both ignorant and obtuse. Stephens takes up Obama’s thesis somewhat more elegantly than I did:

Iran has no border, and no territorial dispute, with Israel. The two countries have a common enemy in Islamic State and other radical Sunni groups. Historically and religiously, Jews have always felt a special debt to Persia. Tehran and Jerusalem were de facto allies until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and 100,000 Jews still lived in Iran. Today, no more than 10,000 Jews are left.

So on the basis of what self-interest does Iran arm and subsidize Hamas, probably devoting more than $1 billion of (scarce) dollars to the effort? What’s the economic rationale for hosting conferences of Holocaust deniers in Tehran, thereby gratuitously damaging ties to otherwise eager economic partners such as Germany and France? What was the political logic to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls to wipe Israel off the map, which made it so much easier for the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions? How does the regime shore up its domestic legitimacy by preaching a state ideology that makes the country a global pariah?

Maybe all this behavior serves Tehran’s instrumental purposes by putting the regime at the vanguard of a united Shiite-Sunni “resistance” to Western imperialism and Zionism. If so, it hasn’t worked out too well, as the rise of Islamic State shows. The likelier explanation is that the regime believes what it says, practices what it preaches, and is willing to pay a steep price for doing so.

So it goes with hating Jews. There are casual bigots who may think of Jews as greedy or uncouth, but otherwise aren’t obsessed by their prejudices. But the Jew-hatred of the Iranian regime is of the cosmic variety: Jews, or Zionists, as the agents of everything that is wrong in this world, from poverty and drug addiction to conflict and genocide. If Zionism is the root of evil, then anti-Zionism is the greatest good—a cause to which one might be prepared to sacrifice a great deal, up to and including one’s own life.

This was one of the lessons of the Holocaust, which the Nazis carried out even at the expense of the overall war effort. In 1944, with Russia advancing on a broad front and the Allies landing in Normandy, Adolf Eichmann pulled out all stops to deport more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in just two months. The Nazis didn’t even bother to make slaves of most of their prisoners to feed their war machine. Annihilation of the Jews was the higher goal.

Modern Iran is not Nazi Germany, or so Iran’s apologists like to remind us. Then again, how different is the thinking of an Eichmann from that of a Khamenei, who in 2012 told a Friday prayer meeting that Israel was a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut”?”

Walter Russell Mead has more here, all of it worth reading. I thought readers who have been tracking the deep thoughts of our Supreme Leader, as we all should, might find Mead’s thoughts and Stephens’s column of interest.