Goodbye to the myth of Iran’s “Mad Mullahs”?

December 9, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

After years of portraying Iran’s leaders as irrational actors driven by religious zeal, American neo-conservatives and their Israeli allies appear to be shelving the “mad mullah” argument used to underline the danger of Iran getting nuclear weapons. The mullahs are now seen as shrewd calculators of risk.

The change of tone was reflected in a report on Iran and the bomb by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Washington-based conservative think tank whose hawkish views influenced the decision-making on going to war in Iraq.

The report, published this week, is based on the assumption that sanctions and sabotage will fail and Iran will have a nuclear weapon by the time the next U.S. president takes office in 2013.

And how, according to AEI, has Iran behaved on the road to the nuclear club? “There is a clear pattern … Far from being hothead provocateurs, Iran’s leaders – including both Supreme Leader (Ali) Khamenei and President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad – often play a shrewd, long game … The nuclear program is a case in point. Each escalation – conversion, enrichment, installation of advanced centrifuges, higher enrichment – has been dribbled out.”

“Iranian leaders have rarely been willing to provoke a crisis merely to shift the ground inexorably toward a particular goal. Nor is this an aberration. Historically, the Islamic Republic has handled trouble well and it has often emerged with its goals achieved at the end of each crisis.” In a passage on Afghanistan, the study notes that “Iran has pursued a pragmatic, cautious policy to exert influence.”

Shrewd, cautious pragmatists? That’s a long way from a string of assertions by American hawks and Israeli leaders that Iran was working on a nuclear bomb with the express purpose of dropping it on Israel, in the full knowledge that doing so would be tantamount to national suicide given Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and second-strike capability. Irrational behavior taken to extremes.

The loudest warnings have come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told a meeting of American Jews in 2006, when he was still leader of the Likud opposition, that “It’s 1938 (the year before World War II began) and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs (and) is preparing another holocaust for the Jewish people.”

The real concern, as the AEI report makes clear, is not that Iran would attack Israel but that a nuclear-armed Iran would profoundly change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East. That is “the real prize,” in the words of Thomas Donnelly, one of the authors of the report. It stresses that U.S. national security strategy for the past six decades has rested on the premise that for the United States, the Middle East is a critical region that must not be dominated by a hostile hegemon.

Containing a nuclear Iran the way the United States contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War would be difficult and costly, according to the report, and require more U.S. troops in the region than there are now.


Aspiring to domination is a perfectly rational aim for Iran, the most populous country in the region (78 million) and achieving that aim has been brought closer by U.S. policies – first by knocking out Iran’s main rival, Iraq, and then by handing over Iraq to a government run by a prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who is much closer to Tehran than to Washington.

How to deny the prize of regional dominance to Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, is a problem whose solution has so far eluded the United States, its western allies and Israel. Ever tightening sanctions for the better part of a quarter century have failed to curb Iran’s ambitions. So has, more recently, a covert campaign of sabotage and assassinations.

How close Iran is to getting a bomb, or the capability to build one at short notice, has long been a matter of dispute between experts. Warnings of an imminent nuclear “breakout” go back to 1984. In the latest round of the nuclear guessing game, the shortest time line is six months, forecast this week by the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Part of the uncertainty stems from the fact that Iran, which denies working on nuclear weapons, has mimicked the way Israel went about building its own nuclear arsenal in the 1960s, with a mixture of secrecy, denial and ambiguity. It is also uncertain whether there has been a political decision by Ayatollah Khameini to go ahead and make a bomb.

“The United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” President Barack Obama has said repeatedly, calling a nuclear-armed Iran “unacceptable.” That goes along with the assertion that “all options are on the table,” short-hand for a preventive military strike on nuclear installations.

It’s a message that would have more weight if it were not complemented by public comments about the inadvisability of military action. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for example, laid out in detail this month why he thought that an attack would do no more than set back the nuclear program for a year or two but result in a conflagration that would consume the Middle East.

His reasoning is sound but it results in a mixed signal from Washington. At times, silence is golden.

(You can contact the author at


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The most likely use Iran will make of its new nuclear capability would be not to start a nuclear war but rather to carefully provide a nuclear umbrella to its allies Hezbollah and Hamas.

This sounds cautious and pragmatic, but in reality Hezbollah and Hamas are already able to fire missiles into downtown Tel Aviv and in the case of Hezbollah these missiles are quite heavy. So this situation will be unacceptable to Israel thus excluding a peaceful outcome.

Posted by skamble | Report as abusive

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Posted by Israel remains unlikely to strike Iran – CNN (blog) – | Report as abusive

Iran will have nuclear weapons technology thanks in part to bomb plans provided to the former Shah’s goverment courtesy of the Eisenhower Administration. And Iran now has the means of developing advanced stealth drone delivery technology obtained through that nation’s advanced Keylogger virus technology.

As for the US, it can only lay claim to a feeble Stuxnet virus, and corrupted weapons development contracting system, and a congress too distracted with winning back the White House to be bothered with the real world.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

“a covert campaign of sabotage and assassinations.”

By governments that claim they are respecters of human rights and adhere to the rule of law and legal process.

I remember that China built the A and H bombs when they were still overtly hostile to western capitalism but about a decade before the rhetoric got even nastier during the Cultural Revolution. But I don’t recall that there were any assassinations of leading Chinese or even Russian scientists who were suspected of working on either country’s nuclear programs.

Are the “operatives” who do the new dirty work people who loved spy novels and the thrill of the chase? Or are they crazier and less responsible than they were over 50 years ago?

The way the Security Council is structured; having the bomb(s) gets the large countries the veto power. About 230 countries would like that system changed.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Iran wouldn’t have achieved anything without the assistance of the us indirectly so quit the bullshit , and if you say Iran is so bad why are you supporting its followers in Bahrain who are trying to create an islamic repablic that follows and belongs and financed by the Iranian regiem and why are you not doing anything to the Syrian regime who is killing his people on daily basis with the help and assistance of all the evil regiems in the middle east (Iran – hizbulla – muqtada alsadar of Iraqi shiaat militia , while you take the excuse of democracy in Bahrain – i would ask you to compare the damage caused by alwefaq group who follow the radicals iranian mullahs the bahraini people socially , economicly , and the greave they put us in by closing roads , burning tyres on the highway , threatning people and attacking sunnis and sunni mousques ,why are you still supporting them , have you watched the vedios of thier subotage on youtube ,instead of praising alwefaq who are the arm of hizbulla in bahrain , go and save the helpless people who have been butchered for the past 8 months

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Posted by Israel remains unlikely to strike Iran – CNN (blog) – | Report as abusive

Iran will be around in 50 years no matter what. Persia has been around for 3000 years. Israel on the other hand is symbolic cross roads that has changed hands many many times. Unlike other historical powers in the area it’s culture does not derive from an area of intense agricultural output (usually the hallmark of centuries old civilizations that maintain increasing population) but through human capital and trade.

Therefore it will always be Israel that will be at risk compared to Egypt, Iraq or Iran. You might beat them once but they will still be there.

So whatever is done should be done for a long term goal. Attack Iran now and you actually get the population to hate Israel and become a much worse problem in 30 years. Right now, traveling around Iran I can tell you one thing for sure – the average Iranian does not like Israel but they certainly dont have enough energy to hate them or do away with their country.

Posted by John2244 | Report as abusive

the clock is ticking for Iran

Posted by HAL.9000 | Report as abusive

“Goodbye to the myth of Iran’s ‘Mad Mullahs.”

Hello to the reality of it. No disrespect, but come on. You call yourself a “Grand Ayatollah” and it pretty much becomes the duty of normal people to take you down a notch. So here it is: Anyone calling himself “Grand” or “Supreme”….. or letting other people say it for him…. is a blasphemous idiot.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The “mad mullah” theory was stress tested 30 years ago when the Revolution was at its bloodiest period and Saddam Hussein launched a massive unprovoked attack on Iran, with active support, or at least benign neutrality, of the rest of the world. Rats are at their most insane when they are backed into a corner, yet Iran’s leaders exhibited almost supernaturally cool decisionmaking throughout the course of the 20th century’s longest hot war, an existential conflict for Iran. Despite having its tankers and main oil terminal attacked by freshly acquired French jets and missiles, despite having one of its civilian flights shot down by the US Navy, despite having its infantry subjected to poison gas (to the eerie silence of world opinion), Iran never resorted to the “mad mullah” options at its disposal: closing off Hormuz, responding with its own poison gas, 9/11-styled stunts, etc. Subsequent events–Saddam’s desperate invasion of Kuwait as he turned his fangs on his Gulf paymasters, ten years of Iraqi sanctions and no-fly zones, and then his final humiliating removal at the hands of the US–all served to vindicate the coolheaded patience of Iran’s rulers. The “mad mullah” brand was always intended for the consumption of those ignorant of recent Persian Gulf history.

Posted by SkepticReader | Report as abusive

Hillary will claim that this is a provocation for war, because Iran has a US military radio controlled air plane. Ironically it was captured in Iranian territory. What is up with the US wagging covert war all over the middle east? Maybe all the killing and destruction to innocent people in the middle east turns Americans on, sure isn’t saving the economy. I wish the US would make a peaceful foreign policy before provocation of WW3.

Posted by particle | Report as abusive

“The “mad mullah” brand was always intended for the consumption of those ignorant of recent Persian Gulf history”
Yes, 99.9% of Americans.
The image of Iran perpetuated in the main stream media is a desert wasteland populated by savages.
Textbook propaganda from the playbook of Goebbels.
Never give the enemy a human face.
The average Joe might think twice before calling for Iran to be “nuked back to the stone age” or “turned into a glass car park” if he realized the modern Iranian lives a life very similar to his own.

Posted by RandomName2nd | Report as abusive

So, to follow Benjamin Netanyahu’s logic (2006=1938) we are now in 1944. Just a few months more and the war will be over. Reconstruction will begin. One hopes that it will include the reconstruction of damaged minds.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

When you have the NYT claiming unequivocally, even after re-examination of the evidence [wikipedia: wipe off the map], that Ahmadinejad wished to wipe Israel off the face of the map, that is, nuke it, you know that they are simply liars, just as in the lead up to the Iraq war. Just evil, unfeeling, detached purveyors of war. After that, you can’t believe any critical information concerning the ME which NYT provides. Most of their opinion, and even news writers, are just propagandists, evidently in service of the Israeli enterprise.

Regarding Panetta: “His reasoning is sound but it results in a mixed signal from Washington. At times, silence is golden.” Actually, Panetta’s cautions to Israel against bombing Iran, suggest to me that Israel, and its supporters, have become so insane with their own propaganda, that they are actually seriously thinking of carrying out this possibly world war/world depression provoking attack. That possibly being the case, it is best, to put it mildly, that Panetta speak up.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

I was reading some specialists article, he was advising like “do not wait hit nuclear weapon over Iran, then all problems will be disappear within so short.” here is similar type columnist advising (almost!) ” more recently, a covert campaign of sabotage and assassinations.” The problem is US and allied are thinking one sided, But I don’t think they are so unwise. This is not human rights or anything else just business of US and allied to protect their Establishment in Mid-east for long run. whatever, this is very good topic to observe as a observers, how every parties handle time.

Posted by Ari_317 | Report as abusive

Your r right!!!!!!
The so Called “Mad Mullah” by Western media, That “Mad Mullah & Army”, is enough to retaliate any awkward action from USA & Puppet European Allies ruler under the Influence of Zionist, The Best Instance we know “US DRONE CAPTURE BY THE IRANIAN FORCES”,The Myth of Mullah are not going to end, They will rule the entire world………………

Posted by AMBAIG | Report as abusive

A nuclear Iran – if we are to abide by post Cold War era thinking, the world would have been a better world today. Sadly, the reality is otherwise.
The US is the most powerful nation on earth – no serious challenger can come close. Fringe players like Iran and North Korea take upon themselves, to chisel at the fringe. You may want to disagree on their right to so do, but fact is, with tenacity and cool calculations, they have chiselled and about to arm themselves with nuclear capabilities. The doctrine of containment used in the last decades failed.
Essentially, there was no resolve and gross miscalculations on the part of the US – it has underestimated its own ability to strike. US failure is Iran’s and North Korea’s gain – that’s the maths of defense detente. Its a weakness that the Ayatollahs have calculated extremely precise and Iran’s progam, is irreversible. The world will have to live with this fact and stop believing Iran is that stupid. If it can land a US R170 Sentinel, then I think, the US is being stupid in allowing this to happen – there is no margin for error in the business of stealth. The Ayatollahs being astute mathematicians, have proven they can calculate.

Posted by rissey | Report as abusive

I am still amazed at the arguments of the Israel and America regarding a nuclear armed Iran. That the world isn’t safe with a nuclear armed Iran, but the historical facts show that it is a nuclear armed America that keeps the world unsafe. America is the only nation that has actually used nuclear weapons on INNOCENT PEOPLE. The US has over 20,000 nuclear warheads, but are striking up a fear campaign against a peaceful nation. War mongers. Here we go again. I say that the Nobel Peace prize should be revoked from Pres Obama, because it’s now obvious that he is no better than Pres Bush

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Florinda Donner: “If something is strange and threatening, it is only because you’re new at it.”

The rhetoric US and Israel have had and continue to have is to serve the interests of xenophobic Israel.

There are better ways to live in peace than biblical destruction of all and every might-be-enemies.

Posted by kordo | Report as abusive

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Debusmann’s definition of sanity is laughable. The Mad Mullahs are “mad”. Is it sane to repeatedly threaten to murder the entire Jewish population of Israel? The President of Iran admits he has had hallucinations telling him the “Mahdi” will return very soon. Reuter’s has clearly shows their anti-Israel bias. All the Jew haters who minimized Iran’s threats in their comments only show their hatred clouds their rationality as does the author. They act as if the very insane President of Iran has never threatened to wipe out the “Zionist” entity. To the Jew haters, threats of genocide are acceptable when they are made against Jews.Iran has murdered innocent Jews in other countries such as Argentina. But it is not 1939 and the Jews will not suffer the same fate which occurred at the hands of the author’s countrymen during WW II. They have their own country, 300-400 nukes and the second best ground forces and Air Force in the world. Albert Einstein told David Ben Gurion Israel must have nuclear weapons and never sign the nuclear non proliferation pact which would eventually result in Israel losing the protection of their nuclear weapons. He knew the Jewish people must always be able to defeat any enemy or face extinction. The comments made here prove him correct.

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Posted by Anwar Sadhe | Report as abusive

The US should let israel deal with their own problems. Americans owe them nothing.
Without zionist americans israel will cease to exist.
Let’em fund their own charities and fight their own wars.

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