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Israel, Iran And The Diversion Of Death: Revisiting a Terrible ‘Fantasy’ (Second of Two Parts)


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This article was written and first published by Professor Louis René Beres in The Jewish Press in March 1996. It is being reprinted here because the issues have now become far more immediate and urgent. These informed speculations on a “terrible fantasy” will appear in the pages of The Jewish Press in two parts, exactly as they appeared originally thirteen years ago. My sincere hope is that our new American president and Israel’s new prime minister will both discover some essential insights herein – insights that could still have some pertinent, direct and redemptive foreign policy implications for us all.

Louis René Beres

In many ways, Iran is now the Islamic terrorist writ large, the individual murderer in macrocosm. Although military analysts are certainly correct in pointing out that Iran is the major sponsor of Hamas and related Islamic terrorist groups (e.g., Hezbollah), it is as a direct threat to Israel that its terrors are most ominous. And this direct threat, in turn, is the ironic consequent of a society so acutely and pervasively afraid of death, so intensely fearful of being erased, that it may be uniquely willing to “die” as a state.

How can this make sense? How can a state be willing to die in order to avoid death? The answer is that the death incurred by war with Israel would be only tentative, a temporary (possibly even purgatorial) inconvenience necessary to assure true immortality. To kill Jews and to be killed by Jews, simultaneously, is not, for the devout Iranian Muslim, a way of losing one’s life, but rather the only sure way of preserving it meaningfully for all time.

These points should not be lost upon Israel’s decision-makers. In dealing with the enormous developing threat from Iran, these leaders cannot afford to restrict themselves to orthodox military calculations. Instead, they must now learn to look far beyond such calculations, into the prevailing soul and spirit of a country that “thinks” very differently from itself. It has been Israel’s unwillingness to look beyond the orthodox in its dealings with the PLO that has produced today’s repeated terrorist atrocities. Surely further Israeli concessions will generate further terrorism against Israel.

In figuring out what might determine both Iranian intentions and capabilities (the two factors looked at ordinarily by military analysts), two complex ideas must be examined: First, there is the specific Islamic notion that links life everlasting, the overriding promise of immortality, to the killing of Jews and to simultaneous death at the hands of Jews. Second, there is the more generic (but by no means mutually exclusive) notion that death is essentially a zero-sum phenomenon, and that the more death that can be meted out to “others,” the less likely it is that you, yourself, will die. Here, power is always a function of the capacity to bring mass mortality to these other human beings, and ultimate power is to remain the only one left standing.

The only one! Is this what Iran seeks for itself? If so, it must be understood fully by the State of Israel. Otherwise, Israel’s strategists will seek to preserve their country on the basis of wholly erroneous assumptions.

The only one! It is a goal so grotesque as to be unimaginable. Does Iran, as the individual Islamic terrorist in macrocosm, intend to survive all others, so that no others will survive it? Does Iran want to elude death at any price, so intently and intensely, that there must be no one, absolutely no one, who can threaten this objective? If Iran’s urge for “onlyness” is real, it is a prime force to be taken seriously by Israel, a force to be both fathomed and countered. In this connection, it is especially important for Israel’s leaders to plan preemptive strikes against any developing Iranian nuclear assets – strikes that would be known properly under international law as “anticipatory self-defense.”

In making their judgments, Israeli decision-makers should not be put off by the picture of an enemy that seems the very picture of madness. The inner-aspect of the Iranian power seeker may appear entirely incomprehensible, an aspect going completely against the grain of rational judgment, but this does not mean that it can afford to be dismissed. Mad or not, Iran’s desired effect upon its Jewish enemy would like to be annihilatory. It wishes to attract and to collect Jewish bodies, reducing and devouring them. Everything they once were would now benefit its own collective Islamic body, sustaining it in the present life, and, much more importantly, preparing it for life everlasting.

The goal of war, all war, is obvious: killing, preferably mass killing, of other human beings. The state that can produce mountains of corpses on the despised other side knows that it may also have to pile up corpses of its own, but this pile is for the benefit of all those who do not die. For the Islamic state, however, in our case the state of Iran,both piles are fundamentally and inherently good, insofar as both piles confer a vastly more important condition of aliveness. In this case, where the corpses are those of Jews and of Muslims killed by Jews, the radiance of immortality rewards doubly, clinging not only to those Muslims who have benefited vicariously, that is, to the civilian noncombatants, but also to the “victims” themselves, who have now guaranteed themselves a special place in Paradise.

The Iranian threat to Israel cannot be measured entirely in guns, battleships, missiles, etc. It must be ascertained much more subtly, with a view toward understanding that Islamic country’s individual and collective lust for survival. It may well be that this lust, this overwhelming desire to massively survive other people, is the key to Iranian power over Israel.

My analysis, no doubt, is confusing. It is not orthodox. It is not mainstream. But Israel can no longer afford orthodox, mainstream analyses. Recalling Sun Tzu, it must come to understand the importance of the unorthodox.

Iran, a society acutely afraid of death, afraid so intensely that it is driven to divert death to others, is not likely a state that is entirely subject to nuclear deterrence. Left to be analyzed like every other state, this Islamic Republic, this state that loathes so much because it is filled with the horror of death, could bring Israel into a primal chaos of unimagined proportion. In this chaos, every flower of civilization would be trampled; there would be neither escape nor sanctuary.

While Israel’s military and academic strategists debate the latest numbers about the Middle East Military Balance, this state that loathes Israel so intensely may itself be inattentive to equilibrium, emphasizing instead its presumably stable opportunities for the hereafter. It follows from all this, that the direct Iranian threat to Israel’s survival, like the indirect Hamas threat to Israeli security, must be understood in reference to heterodox analyses fashioned from the awareness that “all things move in the midst of death.”

Copyright, © The Jewish Press, March 27, 2009. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. The Chair of “Project Daniel,” he is also Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for THE JEWISH PRESS, where this article was first published thirteen years ago.

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About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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