The Pursuit of Knowledge

Dealing With Iran

There's a reason why paranoids have enemies: they create them.

By From the September 2009 issue

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IT IS NEARLY 30 YEARS SINCE Islamist students and Revolutionary Guards, with the support of the Iranian government, invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 American citizens into captivity—a captivity that would last 444 days, and which included the usual humiliations of blindfolded parades before the media and scripted confessions. President Carter chose not to regard this outrage as a declaration of war, though de facto, and probably de jure, that is what it was. His subsequent attempt to rescue the "hostages" was a disastrous failure and, instead of learning from the experience, the president left office with the determination to brand himself as the exponent of soft power in a world of violence. His failure to retaliate at the moment when retaliation was called for is the root cause, in my view, of Khomeini's triumph, and of the growth in the belligerence and military capacity of Iran, which will shortly be a nuclear power able to threaten all of us. It also enabled the Iranians to believe that "hostage-taking" is a cheap and effective way of humiliating adversaries and achieving short-term political objectives. Two years ago Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized 15 British navy personnel from a patrol boat in the Gulf and enjoyed the opportunity to show the powerlessness of the Royal Navy in the new world of "war by media." The 15 were released, after the usual humiliations, and Iranian power, belligerence, and self-confidence was ratcheted up another notch.

In the dispute over the recent elections it has been possible to glimpse the real source of policy in Iran-the paranoid old geezers in beards who emerge from behind the president to declare that Britain and America are the "evil enemies" of their country. At their behest innocent people are taken prisoner from the British embassy—Iranians, this time, but accused of collaboration with a hostile foreign power. And again we rush around in a flurry of doubt, consulting our feeble partners in the EU, wondering whether to break off diplomatic relations, while the BBC goes out of its way to remind us that Britain and America have a long and disgraceful record of interference in Iranian affairs, and that after all the paranoia might be justified.

Actually, paranoia is always justified. The paranoid is the person who creates the enmity that he begins by suspecting. When reasonable people witness the Iranian Revolutionary Guard parading their blindfolded hostages, or the bearded loons delivering their humorless indictments of the Great Satan, they respond with indignation. Who are these people, they ask, who assume the right to threaten and intimidate whomsoever they choose? Nothing makes me regret the decline of the Royal Navy more vividly than witnessing Iranian belligerence, in all its primitive self-deception, put on public display. So yes, these guys are right to believe they have enemies, and they can count me among them.

But what about our governments? Do they respond as you and I respond to the sight of flag-burning, air-punching, slogan-shouting men who seem to have nothing behind their beards save teeth? The answer, I fear, is no. Their response may not be as feeble as President Carter's was. But it still falls far short of anything that the Iranians need to take seriously. The Iranians have been permitted a run of cost-free bellicosity, during which we maintain embassies and trade relations that serve no purpose but to maintain the supply of innocent victims, should victims be needed. We constantly endeavor to enter into dialogue with senile buffoons who have mastered no style of speech save that of the monologue; we tolerate the presence of President Ahmadinejad in New York, where he is able to address Columbia University without fear of being blindfolded and paraded on television as he deserves; we negotiate with the Islamic Republic through the UN and the EU, but without making any threat that Iran needs to take on board. We even go so far as to neutralize the only country, Iraq, that has made war on Iran, so leaving the Islamic Republic over-armed and under-threatened. And in all this, it seems to me, we repeat a mistake that caused all the great catastrophes of the 20th century: the mistake of not taking paranoia seriously.

The paranoid personality is the one who cannot accept the Other. Although he recognizes that other people exist after their fashion, he responds to them as threats and mysteries that he must do his best to bring under his own control. Only when dominated by the self is the Other acceptable, since only then is he not truly other. The paranoid has no conception of equal dialogue or partnership, and it is impossible for him to look on himself from outside, and to judge what he finds. He receives all criticism as an assault, self-criticism included. He proceeds through life with uniform motion in a straight line until encountering some external force or immovable obstacle.

STATES CAN BE PARANOID in the same way. This was what the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had in common, and what made them so dangerous. Paranoid states regard others as threats or mysteries, which must be brought under control. They have no conception of dialogue and regard diplomacy as war by other means. They crush opposition at home, since self-criticism is as much a threat as the existence of other plans, other schemes, than the plans and schemes that propel them. They proceed in a straight line until encountering some external force, like Nazi Germany, or hitting a brick wall, like the Soviet Union.

Our politicians never understood this. They did not see, in 1938, that diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, and treaties like the one signed at Munich, were steps on the way to capitulation. They never saw that diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were of no use to us, and of enormous use to the Soviets in tying our hands. A paranoid state will sign treaties; it will present a smiling face like the faces of Hitler at Munich and Stalin at Yalta; it will indignantly protest whenever some minute obligation undertaken by others seems to have been neglected. But it cannot be bound by treaties and will always regard them as instruments for achieving its ultimate goal of domination. Its dialogues are carefully disguised monologues, and it looks for the sources of criticism not in order to listen to them, but in order to silence them.

Hence all diplomacy with the Soviet Union had the effect of increasing Soviet power, as we bound ourselves by treaties that the Soviets disregarded, and as we opened our resources, our media, and our gullible intellectuals to a power that would never reciprocate so precious a gift. It is only when Ronald Reagan arrived on the scene, and decided to place a brick wall in the unalterable path of the great machine, that it came abruptly to a halt.

Now I don't say that Iran is quite as paranoid a state as the Soviet Union. But it has a striking "personality disorder" that emulates those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It extends only a circumscribed permission to its domestic critics; it lives under a delusion of enemy encirclement, identifying the tiny state of Israel as the mastermind behind a worldwide anti-Iranian conspiracy—and would that there were one. It has the paranoid conception of treaties, namely as low-level warfare, with which to tie the other's hands. And it is programmed by plans and schemes which, conceived in the heads of wizened old theocrats and translated into the mouth of the demagogue Ahmadinejad, are entirely un-alterable by any fact or argument that might tend in a contrary direction.

If in ordinary life you encounter a real paranoid, there is only one safe way to proceed. Do not enter into dialogue; do not give hostages in the form of things that you want from him; do not make any part of your life depend on his decisions or goodwill. Steer a course around him and make for the hills. It seems to me that this is also how we should deal with paranoid states. Break off diplomatic relations, cutback all ties of trade and mutual interest, and ensure that nothing that we want or need depends upon the other's say-so. Whether or not we respond to Iran in this way, Iran will treat us—the English-speaking world—as its enemy. But if we respond as I advise, then we will be in the best position to defend ourselves from any future aggression while getting on with building that solid brick wall in the unalterable path of the mullahs.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.