In the context of spreading hostility from Pakistan to Egypt among the various forces contending in the region, the increasingly acrimonious Iranian-Israeli competition poses a threat the world ignores at its peril. Each side has legitimate reasons to desire enhanced long-term security, but the Mideast is considerably larger than either. Both have plenty of room to maneuver without irresponsible threats of war. The Iranian-Israeli competition is being framed by irresponsible extremists on each side as a zero-sum game, a thoughtless gamble that threatens disaster.
Unlike the alleged "threat" posed by Saddam in 2003, an Iranian-Israeli competition fueled by extremists on both sides with a Manichean view of world affairs and a naïve faith in the utility of violence poses a very real threat indeed. It is the threat of the collapse of perhaps the greatest pillar of international morality still standing in the barbaric 21st century: nuclear powers shall not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers. Should this pillar be toppled, should the unique double tragedy of Nagasaki-Hiroshima be repeated and, much worse, extended to include nuclear strikes against non-nuclear countries that have not attacked first, the whole world will suffer.
Several techniques for thinking rigorous about the future (scenario analysis, system dynamics, complex adaptive systems concepts) can help us to understand the underlying reasons for what appears to be a quite unnecessary and irrational struggle – unnecessary because framing the problem as a positive-sum challenge would open conceptual doors to numerous ways forward and irrational because this struggle is being waged in ways that needlessly endanger the security of both sides.
This post begins a series of posts that will explore possible futures of Iranian-Israeli relations. The series will start with a scenario analysis focusing on the implications of variations in relative power and status over the coming years and go on to introduce several principles of complexity theory that are relevant to the evolution of the Iranian-Israeli political system:
- Interdependence of parts
- Effects Disproportional to Causes
- Individual variation
- Sensitivity to initial conditions
Scenarios, underlying dynamics, and the overall complex systems perspective combined constitute actionable intelligence about the future, recipes to enable decision makers to create the world they want.
- If decision makers want a Mideast of high tension; racial, religious, and cultural antagonism; where there is always an insurgency to justify occupation and regimes willing to become proxies; where outside powers can grab the oil they want but at the cost of funding huge armies to defend the supply lines from enemies they have created; a Mideast of colonies, lackey dictatorships, and apartheid, then these scenarios layout steps to build such a world.
- Conversely, if decision makers want a democratic Mideast, e.g., one in which people have the right to choose their own path; a Mideast in which all compete in the marketplace for oil, but do not have to fight expensive wars; a Mideast that is calm and focused on economic development; a Mideast that is not a profitable market for arms exporters but is also not a proliferation threat; a Mideast in which all people have states and all states have the right to exist, participate, and play by the same rules as their neighbors, then these scenarios lay out steps to build that world as well.
The choice is theirs. It isn’t simple, quick, or certain, but given patience, open-mindedness, and careful analysis of the future, choices that make a difference do exist.
Scenarios provide models of the future – extreme possibilities stripped of contradictory detail. Dynamics show the dominant forces that could push events in one direction. Complexity provides a detailed view of how the whole system functions. Point predictions may be impossible. Nevertheless, complexity seems to be an analytical perspective with the promise of predicting a great deal.
Prediction #1. Iran and Israel will co-evolve: without either necessarily perceiving it, they will influence each other, revolve around each other like binary stars, each in its individual orbit but bound to the other by their mutual insistence on making the other a priority, and traveling an unseen path together. Most likely, all the while each will see only its own uniqueness; neither will perceive the increasingly significant points of similarity as their mutual adaptation subjects them to similar pressures. Judging from current trends, each will feed on the other’s hostility to the detriment of both.
Prediction #2. Potential states of criticality threatening disaster will occur. They are fundamental danger zones. A wise society will avoid them. As tensions rise and groups organize to push radical agendas, thereby making tensions rise further, it is easy to slide into the unmarked state of criticality where going one step too far leads to some sort of disaster – perhaps a tremor, perhaps the "big one."
Prediction #3. Positive feedback loops will bring to the fore dynamics that were previously insignificant, and tipping points will be reached, to general astonishment.
Prediction #4. Adaptation will occur in unforeseen ways – sometimes at an unexpected location, sometimes after an unexpected delay. However it happens, Israel and Iran they will change, although our perceptions of them may not. The Israel still perceived in some quarters as a plucky pioneering movement of idealists adopted selective assassination of terrorists and then moved beyond that to assassination of opposing political leaders. Iran’s messianic Shi’ite spirit of the early 1980s has evolved into a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. vs. the Taleban in 2001 and support for the U.S.-sponsored regime in occupied Iraq today. Change is predictable; if unseen, the fault almost certainly lies in the eyes of the beholder.