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. This post concludes this series in which the concepts of system dynamics and complex adaptive systems were integrated with scenario analysis to consider how the Iranian-Israeli confrontation may evolve.
The analysis of the 15 posts in this series on the Iranian-Israeli confrontation raises some serious but generally ignored questions. Could Israeli democracy survive the decision to launch a “preventive” nuclear war? Could the Israeli people’s self-image as a morally exceptional population survive the guilt of nuclear aggression against a weak country simply because that country might someday pose a threat? Could Israel after such aggression ever be accepted by the rest of the Mideast or the world as a whole as a legitimate country? Can a people stray that far from civilized norms and just return to decency the next day?
How would an Israeli nuclear attack change the behavior of other prospective or current nuclear powers? How would nuclear-armed Pakistan, where Islamic unrest seems to be approaching its own state of self-organized criticality, react to the shock of nuclear attack on a Moslem country trying to achieve its natural place as a regional power? If Israel were to launch a nuclear attack because of Iranian insults and Iranian nuclear research, then what excuse for nuclear war would be too trivial? Will the world suffer through an age of casual nuclear strikes, replacing the era of global terrorism by individuals and small, marginalized groups with an era of governments gone mad?
Of course, we do not know.
Scenarios do not predict the future, but they reveal the shape of potential dangers and opportunities. Power and status are by no means the only significant forces motivating Iranian and Israeli behavior. However, the desire for power and the desire for status are such core influences over the behavior of Iranian and Israeli elites that looking at these two drivers alone already suffices to explain much about the irrational, self-destructive course these two nations have chosen to follow. Neither side is being compelled to do this. Each side still has numerous options, but as extremists strengthen their hold on power and the uninformed are sent an ever more alarmist message of doom, logic evaporates like water in the hot desert sun. Iran and Israel are moving steadily toward a doom that will leave no one on earth untouched. Evaluation of how various scenarios might develop is one tool for helping them to discover a better path forward…for all our sakes.
These scenarios are not toys, they are not parlor games. One of the great values of theory is that it cuts through the endless arguments about the unknown details of specific cases straight to the bottom line.
The methodology of this scenario analysis is useful because of its theoretical perspective. We do not know what will happen, but we can see that the milestones of “Victory for al Qua’ida” push the region in a different direction than the milestones of “Respect” because, for example, vicious cycles have different implications than virtuous cycles. We can see that today’s behavior will not just produce an instantaneous response and end but will have consequences that perhaps play out slowly or perhaps do not occur at all until much later. We can see that states of criticality are fundamental threats, the possibility of which needs to be recognized in advance and watched out for. We can see from many concepts of complexity theory—interdependence of parts, adaptation, self-organization, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence--that intense inputs will generate unanticipated consequences, mandating that ambitious actions be accompanied by careful long-range planning, if success is to be achieved.
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 lay out 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 perhaps characterized by wild politics but with minimal violence 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 ours. 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 a particular direction. Complexity provides a detailed view of how the whole system functions. Point predictions may be impossible. But point predictions are really not what matters. Complexity seems to be an analytical perspective with the promise of illuminating the processes that will make our future and the conditions under which certain of these processes will become dominant forces. That is what really matters if we care about the future.
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. States of criticality will occur in Iranian-Israeli relations. They are fundamental danger zones. A wise society ill 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, even though the clues will be visible well in advance.
Prediction #4. Adaptation will occur in unforeseen ways –
sometimes at an unexpected location, sometimes after an unexpected delay. However it happens, we may be sure that Israel and Iran will evolve…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. (Daniel Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” Foreign
Affairs March/April 2006, 95-111) 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.
Prediction #5. New forms of social organization and behavior
will emerge in Iran and Israel. Crisis conditions will intensify the tendency for such emergence.
Brilliance, decency, incompetance, and evil surely exist in international relations – but these traits are not the unique personal possessions of any particular actor. They are contextual attributes, sectors of the environment through which actors move, following a sinuous evolutionary path buffeted by all manner of influences. These traits are less attributes of actors than of actions. The high and rising complexity of modern societies surely makes peering into the future more difficult but also offers the thoughtful decision maker a rich choice of purposeful actions to create whatever future is desired.