Remember that idyllic era when the principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD) helped thwart nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union? In "Does Iran have something in store?" on WSJ.com's Opinion Journal, the eminent Middle-East scholar Bernard Lewis asks, "Would the same constraints, the same fear of mutual assured destruction, restrain a nuclear-armed Iran from using such weapons against the U.S. or against Israel?"
He's concerned about the distinct strain of apocalypse heard in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's expressions of faith. The Iranian president actually prayed during his September 2005 UN speech to "hasten the emergence of... the Promised One" -- the twelfth Imam. Known as the Mahdi, his second coming, like Christ's, is expected to be heralded by a final battle between good and evil. "For people with this mindset," writes Lewis, "MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement."
But then, trying to slip one by us, Lewis switches abruptly from Muslims who look forward to the Apocalypse to terrorists, as if they were automatically identical. He explains that they all believe the slaughter of large numbers of fellow Muslims (as in the African embassy bombings) does the victims the favor of making them instant martyrs. In heaven, "Allah will know his own." (If you think that sounds like a glorified version of "Let God sort 'em out," you're not the only one.)
It's true that there is a faction of Islamic theologians who yield to no one when it comes to sophistry. Consider one Sheik Nasir bin Hamid al Fahd, commissioned by bin Laden to issue a fatwah. Coming up with the figure of ten million Muslims killed by American weapons, he decreed that taking an equal number of Western lives was only fair play.
Thus, Lewis concludes, once armed with nuclear warheads, Iran's leaders will have no compunctions about launching an attack on Israel (the US would presumably remain out of range). Palestine destroyed in the process? Iran devastated in retaliation? No problem -- just more grist for the mill of apocalyptic terrorists.
A question cries out for asking: Doesn't anybody in Iran, however much they admire Ahmadinejad for staring down Israel and the West, want to live? "There must be many such," Lewis writes, "probably even a majority in the lands of Islam."
No way. Does he mean there are actually Muslims who choose life over martyrdom for themselves and their families? Is it any wonder Lewis, still unable to walk a mile in the shoes of Middle-Easterners after he's studied them for what -- 70 years? -- is accused of Orientalism?
Neither does he seem capable of intuiting that there might be a method to Ahmadinejad's madness and that, like Khomeini, Qaddafi, and Saddam, he uses bombast as a means to an end. For example, according to The Financial Times on August 17, at the same time that Ahmadinejad was expressing his disappointment with the EU3 (Great Britain, France, and Germany), his minister of defense, Manouchehr Mottaki, was playing the diplomat. Referring to uranium enrichment, he declared, "We are ready to negotiate over all issues including suspension."
Is Lewis also unaware that Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khameini, to whom Ahmadinejad defers, often acts as a foil to Ahamad's rash declarations? Furthermore, has he never been exposed to rumors that Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons is motivated not only by Iran's proximity to Israel, but to oil-rich countries like Kazakhstan?
However ample Iran's oil supply is now, it will eventually be depleted by its burgeoning population. The nukes can be brandished to buttress Tehran's forays into foreign territories. However acquisitive that scheme, at least it's not Armageddon because it seeks expansion of the state, not the inevitable contraction that nuclear war incurs.
But it's when he hypothesizes about the day that Ahmadinejad promises to reveal whether he plans to continue enriching uranium that Lewis goes all in with his credibility. August 22, he explains, is when Muslims commemorate Muhammad's flight on a winged horse to Jerusalem, then to heaven and back. "This might well be deemed an appropriate date," Lewis conjectures, "for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world."
This is the man who's been called the most widely read Middle-Eastern scholar in the West? Lewis continues. "It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22." Still, "... it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind."
One understands this kind of fear-mongering from the hard right. Lewis's article is being used by National Review Online and World Net Daily to hype the urgency of an attack on Iran. But, in its audacity, it could also be the product of the opposite extreme. In fact, it was reproduced on radio personality Alex Jones's come-one, come-all-conspiracists site, InfoWars.com.
Still, we owe Lewis a debt of thanks for shedding light on a long-overlooked question: How do Islamic terrorists expect the West to react if they pull off a massive attack? Recall 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's decision to refrain from blowing up nuclear reactors for fear it might "get out of control." Wasn't it retaliation he really feared?
But what do bin Laden and Zawahiri think would happen if nuclear suitcase bombs which they managed to finance and then authorized were set off in Western cities? You can bet that not only substantial portions of the Middle East, but also the Muslim dream of an Islamic state, would go up in the smoke of nuclear counter-strikes.
Not to mention Hezbollah, which, after its recent exertions, isn't likely to be too pleased if -- 72 virgins or no -- its members find themselves in heaven following retaliation for one of Al Qaeda's grandiose schemes. Sectarian fighting in Iraq is beyond tragic, but it's nothing compared to the civil war that, Allah's entreaties notwithstanding, would break out in heaven.
In forfeiting his credibility to give voice to doomsday prophecies on behalf of the Neocons, you have to wonder. Bernard Lewis is 90 years old -- has his eminence become too grise?