Dealing with Iran: Self-Interest vs. Self-Sacrifice

Forget about the intricate details of our nuclear agreement with Iran–the number of centrifuges permitted, the degree of uranium enrichment allowed, the amount of advance notification required before inspectors can visit a nuclear facility. There is really only one question that matters: If Iran poses a physical threat to America—if we have reason to fear that its weapons will be used aggressively against us—why are we relying for our safety on an agreement with the aggressor?

England has nuclear weapons. So does France. So does Israel. Yet we have no need to sign treaties in which these nations promise not to take actions that threaten us. Why? Because the danger stems not from the weapons as such, but from the nature of the countries that possess them. When the weapons are held by an essentially free country, they are no threat to us. Such a country does not dictatorially subjugate people, neither its own citizens nor those of other nations. England, France and Israel recognize—however inconsistently—the value of liberty, and therefore have no fundamental conflict with America.

Iran, by contrast, is a danger to us. It is a theocracy which tyrannizes its own people and which seeks militarily to extend its power beyond its borders. It regards us as the “Great Satan,” the main obstacle to its goal of spreading Islamic totalitarianism. If its government is willing to initiate force against us, will it be deterred by its promise not to?

From the day it seized our embassy in Tehran—an act of war—and held Americans captive for a year, Iran has demonstrated its desire to use force against us. If Iran were a nation that showed no willingness to attack us, we could simply ignore it. But because it wishes to impose its Islamic rule wherever it can, Iran has made us into its foremost enemy. It is the world’s most active state-sponsor of terrorism, it has armed the forces killing American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, its leaders regularly orchestrate “Death-to-America” demonstrations and it is the patron of Hezbollah (which has slaughtered more Americans than any other terrorist group besides al Qaeda).

All we want—all we should want—is to protect our freedom against foreign threats. That goal is the essence of our national interest. Iran’s goal, however, is to destroy our freedom. The distinction between the two countries, then, is the distinction between aggression and self-defense, between the behavior of armed criminals and that of armed police officers.

If the threat to us arises from the nature of Iran’s government and the purpose to which its weapons will be put, will that nature and that purpose somehow change? If so, no treaty is required; if not, no treaty will protect us—as Neville Chamberlain, and the free world, learned in the 1930s.

According to President Obama, in confronting the Iranian threat diplomacy is always preferable to military action. But this same contention can be made for anything the Iranians might do in the future. What if they flout the agreement? What if they insist that ten years is too long for them to wait to construct nuclear bombs? What if they refuse to allow inspections? What if they brand the inspectors as spies and take them hostage? On President Obama’s premise, the response to whatever they do will be: more diplomacy. Indeed, the more threatening Iran becomes, the more imperative is the ostensible need to eschew force and to seek a diplomatic “solution.”

In reality, the only way to protect against a threat of force is by a willingness to use greater force. Yet force is the one thing Washington has now forsworn. Our politicians hail diplomacy as the only practical solution to this conflict. But what does our diplomacy actually consist of? Since we are obviously not able to rationally persuade the Iranians that aggression is morally wrong, our vaunted diplomacy amounts to one tactic: the payment of protection money. We offer them material rewards in return for their promise to lessen the threat they pose to us. But nothing is more impractical in the long run than paying protection money—an impracticality amplified by the bizarre fact that it is the stronger nation which is trying to buy off the weaker.

What explains this ineffectual strategy for dealing with America’s enemies? Our acceptance of a code of ethics, taught to us all from childhood, which regards self-interest as morally wrong. It is a code—the code of altruism—which demands that the strong sacrifice for the weak.

Despite lip-service about protecting our national interests, both Democrats and Republicans have been unwilling to make self-interest the unequivocal standard of our foreign policy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, quickly developed into altruistic, “nation-building” missions. And when we did take on an enemy that presented a genuine threat to us, whether al Qaeda under President Bush or ISIS under President Obama, we were unwilling to do what was necessary to totally eliminate that threat. In keeping with the doctrine of altruism, our policymakers were concerned about world opinion, about not appearing to be “unilateralist,” about making sure to only “lead from behind,” about deferring to the needs of others. After all, an unyielding commitment to self-defense is inherently “selfish.” So we took military action when our interests—i.e., the protection of our freedom—were not at stake, and we refrained from acting decisively when they were at stake.

What we need instead is a foreign policy based on an ethics of self-interest—a foreign policy that holds as its sole purpose the safeguarding of Americans against international threats. Its proponents would not seek the approval of other countries before deciding when to use force. Under such a policy, Washington would not attempt to defend us in fits and starts, futilely trying to straddle the two roads of self-interest and self-sacrifice, attacking one terror-sponsor today while mollifying another the next day. Nor would it espouse self-interest as an amoral expediency–as advocated by the unprincipled pragmatists and their school of “realpolitik.” Rather, the architects of a rational foreign policy would uphold self-interest as a consistent, moral principle—a principle in keeping with America’s founding values of individualism and liberty.♦♦

[This was published at Huffington Post, July 22, 2015.]

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