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?
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
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
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
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