Sunday, August 5, 2007

Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: Nuclear War or Mideast Compromise? Part I. Scenarios

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.

First, those powers launching or complicit in the nuclear strike will lose all claim to moral leadership and will see their own ability to distinguish right from wrong weaken. We are all part of a complex, adaptive world political system made up of interdependent parts. Our behavior affects others of course but also links back to affect ourselves. Using or supporting the use of or even advocating the use of WMD to kill civilians—whether cluster bombs or nukes—affects the user’s character.

Second, all will suffer from the fallout, reminding those of us old enough to recall the bad old days of strontium-90 poisoning the milk.

Third will be the outraged response of the victim.

Scenario analysis 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.

Other Relevant Scenarios

Numerous authors have recently laid out scenarios whose messages are worth considering. For example, al-Ahram on a possible U.S. attack on Iran, Carole Moore on an Israeli attack on Iran starting WWIII, and this thoughtful piece by Ryan Lanham on how arrogance could start an unplanned U.S.-Iran war.

The striving for power subsumes many of the goals of individuals, elites, and regimes. While a given group at a given time may focus on security, ideology, acquiring natural resources, the "search for power" is an abstraction that covers a wide range of such specific factors and thus is selected as the first axis for the scenario analysis.

Status, although not entirely independent of power, represents something different. One may certainly gain status via power, but it is also possible to have either without the other, and it is important to understand the desire for status (respect) regardless of power. While this point may be obvious to the weak, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, it is less obvious to those on top. In addition, it is often confused with or even equated to power, leading to the dangerous reasoning that "We will be respected if only we can acquire sufficient military force." Both Iranian and Israeli officials seem particularly prone to this line of reasoning, even though each country is frequently viewed in highly negative terms precisely because of its emphasis on power. In truth, it is respect, acceptance, inclusion that each of these societies seems to want the most. Arabs ostracize Israel, and the more Israel employs military force in lieu of a "good neighbor" policy, the more others deny its right to exist. Similarly, the more Iran strives to become a regional leader via loud rhetoric and efforts to catch up to Israel’s military power, the more some countries oppose it and attempt to marginalize it. This does not constitute a strong argument that status is necessarily one of the two most important concepts in the Iran-Israel conflict, but it does suggest that status is an unusually interesting issue for analysis. As such, it is selected as the second axis.

In sum, this scenario exercise explores possible futures of Iranian-Israeli relations on the basis of variations in relative power and status. The two axes define a "landscape" of four possible futures:
  • Mideast Bipolarity (equal power and equal status)
  • Nuclear Standoff (equal power but unequal status)
  • Respect (equal status but unequal power)
  • Victory for al Qua’ida (unequal power and unequal status).

Future posts will explore the details of these four potential futures.

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