One great thing about watching history unfold is that it’s so full of surprises.
The United States and Iran suddenly “find themselves on the same side of a range of regional issues” in the Mideast, the New York Times reports. “‘The Americans are confessing Iran stands for peace and stability in this region,’ said Hamid Reza Tarraghi, a hard-line political analyst, with views close to those of Iran’s leaders.”And a slim majority of Americans favor a negotiated settlement with Iran about its nuclear program.
Who would have thunk it?
A vocal minority of Americans still oppose any rapprochement with Teheran. And, of course, everyone in the U.S. seems to agrees that, one way or another, Iran must be prevented from getting nuclear weapons — or so the mass media tell us. The possibility of tolerating a nuclear-armed Iran scarcely ever comes up.
So why is an Iran with a couple of nukes, or even just the capability of making them, the Prince of Darkness, while an Iran that renounces the right to make nukes might be on the way to international respectability, perhaps even as a U.S. ally?
The argument that an Iranian bomb would start a Mideast arms race makes no sense, since Israel started that race decades ago. The argument that it would upset our Saudi and Gulf State allies makes “realist” sense, but few Americans outside the foreign policy establishment care much about those alliances. Why, then, does the premise that Iran must never get the bomb go virtually unchallenged?
The most fundamental facts in the debate about Iran, as in any debate, are the assumptions that both sides share in common. Yet those are the facts most likely to be ignored. Since everyone takes them for granted, why bother talking about them?
Anyone who does want to talk about them will quickly discover that the shared assumptions don’t usually form any systematic philosophy or ideology. They’re much more likely to be connected as parts of a taken-for-granted story. In the political arena, especially, those stories are likely to have the features that scholars of religion often associate with the term myth.
American foreign policy debates are full of myths, all tied together in a vast, tangled web. The consensus that Iran must never have a nuke emerges from this web.
There is the moral dualism of the Wild West yarn, with good guys pitted against irrational evildoers; American exceptionalism, the heroic tale of one virtuous nation leading the whole world toward peace and decency; old-style progressivism, an optimistic narrative of reasonable negotiated solutions to every conflict; the myth of “realism,” a gritty story that says all of us are condemned to vie endlessly for power, and the guy with the biggest gun earns the right to rule the roost; and so many others, all interacting in endlessly complicated ways.
Firm opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran is surely embedded in the “moral dualism” myth. But that begs the question of why Iran is a “bad guy” only if it has nuclear capability.
One key to the mystery lies in the observation that both sides in any dispute usually share a common mythic narrative. Though Iranian leaders debate with each other about nuclear policy, all seem to take one story for granted: No nation can be taken seriously as a world power unless it has at least the capability to make the gun of infinite power, the nuclear one.
U.S. policymakers have long assumed the same story. It’s a myth marked “Made in 1940s America.”
In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mythic worldview, America’s exceptional virtue entitled it to organize the postwar world as a progressive, harmonious “neighborhood,” where a handful of big powers kept order, including the Soviet Union. But the rising “realist” myth prompted FDR to insure U.S. preeminence by keeping the “secret” of the bomb rather than sharing it with Stalin.
Harry Truman rebalanced the mythic scales, putting “realist” fears ahead of progressive hopes for global cooperation. The cold war narrative of national security took control, though it actually plunged us into what a recent history of America’s cold war calls “the politics of insecurity,” or as I call it, the myth of homeland insecurity. For the foreseeable future, that new myth told us, our nation would always be threatened.
Stalin saw the Americans rushing to embrace the atomic bomb as the new symbol of national pride, power, and security. So he made sure he got one of his own, fast. Truman, constantly on guard against new perils, countered with the decision to build the hydrogen bomb, which cemented the myth of the nuke as the weapon of infinite power. Mythologically speaking, any country that had one could lay claim to infinite national power.
Since the cold war ended, American leaders have had higher hopes that FDR’s progressive myth might shape policy — as long as all the world powers joined a single “international community” under America’s benevolent guidance. But suppose a nation that doesn’t share this narrative gets the weapon of infinite power and thus rises to the level of a world power? How can we count on it to play by the rules of the global “neighborhood” that Roosevelt had envisioned?
Then the “realist” myth kicks in, warning that our national security is at serious risk — a lesson we all learned again (the myth tells us) on September 11, 2001. Hence Iran must never get the bomb.
At least that’s the story that rules American public discourse today, still shaped by the myths of the 1940s — especially the myth of homeland insecurity, which requires someone or something to play the role of mortal threat. A nuclear-armed Iran will fill the bill just fine, at least for now.
It’s crucial to understand the role of myth in political life. It’s equally crucial to see that political myths can change surprisingly quickly. Hardly anyone was talking about national security or insecurity in the America of the mid-1930s, while nearly everyone was talking about those fears in the America of the late 1940s. Similarly rapid and unexpected changes can happen again.
Myths can change even faster if we recognize that, though they have great power over us, they are produced by human choices. It’s immensely difficult to challenge such potent myths as “national security” and “the bomb as entry ticket to the ‘global power’ club.” In principle, though, we are always free to create new myths to reshape our political life.
We can create a myth that sees Iran as a rising power taking its rightful place in the international community. We can create a myth that sees the bomb as a mark of national fear rather than pride and strength. We can create a myth that see nuclear capability as a barrier, rather than a key, to national security.
If we want to, we can create all sorts of myths that become the shared premise of our national debates so fast it leaves us scratching our heads in wonder and saying, “Who would have thunk it?” Perhaps, when it comes to Iran, we’re seeing something like that happening right before our eyes.