Saturday, February 28, 2009

Personal Responsibility in America

In a surprise reaffirmation of the fundamental power of the American economy, the Dow Jones average remained above 7,000 at the end of the week.

True, naysayers will point to various bits of contradictory evidence:
  • Washington's continuing efforts to pass billions to the rich;
  • the endless outpouring of new evidence of the breadth of the criminal behavior throughout society that created the financial crisis in the first place;
  • the continuing failure of the government to punish those responsible for this criminal behavior;
  • the careful avoidance by the elite of such embarrassing issues as the morality of starting wars of aggression on false pretenses, attacking cities, violating constitutional guarantees of human rights, or advocating "preventive" wars;
  • Obama's recent reaffirmation that he will not give up the war policy.
But what does such negativism mean in comparison with the market's ability to stay above the critical psychological threshold of 7,000? Once again, the rich have demonstrated their faith in the system. And why not? Isn't that system rewarding them with golden parachutes, bailouts,* new opportunities for war profiteering, and appointments as Official Foxes to guard the nation's financial hen house? One thing you have to admit: no matter how tough the times, this country takes care of its rich.
*The AIG story, of which Chapter II is just beginning, is a prime example. Too big to fail? AIG, like Brezhnev's Russia and Bush-Cheney's Administration, has already failed. Each of these organizations failed to do the job it existed to do. Each proved to be irresponsible to the point of provoking snide "ashheap of history" remarks. If AIG has employees processing paper in a way that is invaluable, so be it: keep the institution functioning (if we may apply that term to AIG in its present condition) under the following terms:

1) nationalize it;
2) remove all levels of management immediately;
3) starting at the top, conduct criminal investigations;
4) assess blame with extreme severity and maximum publicity;
4) move things along, announce that in lieu of possible jail, the government will accept a public apology, complete honesty in providing evidence, and the loss of all personal profits made during the AIG manager's time in the company in return for freedom and, perhaps, a job at a maximum annual income equal to the average income of an American worker.

In other words, taking responsibility and cleaning up are key, not punishment. No one starves, and only the minimum necessary amount of jail time is assessed (i.e., only for the recalcitrant). Settle things as fast as possible, with the following caveat: the issue of moral hazard must be addressed. No American must be left with any suspicions that CEO financial crime is rewarded.

Once AIG has been dealt with, then "We, the People" can turn to the far larger issue of moral hazard among politicians who profit personally from starting wars. The point is really very simple, right down there at the Sunday School level: either we have a system that expects its participants to take responsibility for their behavior or we do not.

Washington War Policy Unchanged?

U.S. soldiers leave one country, arrive at another; talk of "change" heats the air; the empire digs in for a long stay...

Given the efforts of the Pentagon to enhance the firepower and overall technical battlefield superiority of U.S. forces in pursuit of the goal of fighting a high-tech war that will minimize if not eliminate the death of U.S. soldiers, a good description of the military capabilities of a force of "only" 50,000 U.S. soldiers would be useful. I would modestly suggest that 50,000 U.S. soldiers is a rather large army. If the mechanics that keep the machines working and the cooks that keep the troops working happen to be locals or mercenaries, the destructive power of 50,000 U.S. troops would be quite sufficient to pose a real threat to just about any country that might consider itself to be a potential target.

So if Obama has now decided to keep up to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, he has sent a message to the region that will be heard by all. Radicals will have justification for warning of an imminent U.S. invasion; militarists will have justification for demanding emergency armament programs; dictators will have justification for jailing democracy advocates in the name of national security. Those who wish to prevent cooperation with the U.S. will persuasively say that "nothing has changed" with the replacement of Bush by Obama.

Iraq appears subjugated, while Afghanistan definitely does not, so Washington makes a tactical shift of forces from the former front to the latter. The base archipelago in Iraq is built and remains occupied; that in Afghanistan is just now being laid out. In a year the U.S. will have about the same sized military force for its war to control the region that it has had since 2003 but standing firmly on two legs rather than balancing on one, with troops free to move back and forth for minor tactical reasons. These tactical shifts will of course be trumpted as major changes, neatly obscuring the fundamental stability of the overall policy: the Empire is in the Muslim world to stay.

On the other hand, Obama said:
  1. "by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end";
  2. "under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011".
Taking Obama at his word, he appears to have said that:
  1. after August 31, 2010, the U.S. will no longer have the ability to conduct a war from Iraq;
  2. by January 1, 2011, the U.S. will have no troops in Iraq at all, including mercenaries hired from unemployed Latin American death squads.
However, he did not clearly state that the massive, city-like U.S. military bases in Iraq would be turned over to the Iraqi government, and he did not clear state that no military supplies would be stockpiled in Iraq for use in a possible future U.S. attack on neighboring countries. He also made no reference to mercenaries, civilian employees of the Pentagon, contract workers, or any other term that would cover the huge army of unofficial troops currently in Iraq. And he certainly did not condemn lying to the American people about the purpose of the war or apologize for torturing Iraqis or apologize for jailing Iraqis convicted of no offense. He did not condemn the policy of making war on cities. Most critically, he slid smoothly over the fundamental question of whether U.S. relations with Muslim societies should be based on force or reason.

Whether from the perspective of morality, security, or the strategic course of America's relations with the world's Muslims, what Obama omitted was far more important than what he said. Perhaps he is still thinking it through...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Israeli National Security

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz,

Iran has been increasing its involvement and control over Hezbollah's operations since terror operations head Imad Mughniyeh was killed a year ago. Hezbollah has not yet found someone of similar stature to replace Mughniyeh. Therefore, the Iranians have taken some responsibility for Hezbollah operations, using a large number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard and intelligence officers in Lebanon. This means operational cooperation between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has increased regarding all potential actions against Israel. Iranian officers, most of whom prefer to be based in Syria, often visit Lebanon and tour the Israeli border.

The Iranians are directly involved in running Hezbollah operations in southern Lebanon, and in addition, hundreds of Hezbollah militants head for Iran every month for training and exercises.

If, as commonly thought, Israel murdered Mughniyeh, then it evidently “succeeded” in pushing its two major regional enemies closer together. Enhancing the unity of one’s enemies is not normally considered an intelligent thing to do.

Pushing one’s enemies into each other’s arms is a great way to make one appear innocent while one plans a war of aggression, but for those who care about Israeli national security, alternative options are being ignored. A creative policy-maker could design a system of positive incentives to encourage the development of real, all-inclusive Lebanese democracy that would make Hezbollah’s policy of resistance less attractive to the average Lebanese Shi’ite voter. A creative policy-maker would also pull out the irritating Shebaa Farms thorn as fast as possible.

Given the long road that Hezbollah has traveled from the war of liberation following its creation in the midst of Sharon’s 1982 invasion to its current powerful position in the Lebanese government, if violent resistance were to start costing Hezbollah votes among the Shi’ite poor, that might induce Hezbollah leadership to reconsider its stance toward Israel and its ties to Iran. And if it did not, then Hezbollah would suffer a decline in its now-rising domestic political power.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Israeli Sabotage of U.S.-Iranian Detente

Since Israel’s recent election, people have begun to realize that the ruling Israeli elite from its major parties is trying to constrain Obama from fundamentally altering U.S.-Iran relations. Having concluded that it cannot immediately provoke a U.S.-Iran war for its own benefit, Israel is instead, according to this interpretation, resigned to seeing some U.S.-Iranian discussions and now hopes only to minimize the meaning and duration of those talks. This is a polite circumlocution for sabotaging the talks and damaging U.S. national security.

Given the 60-year history of U.S.-Iranian “misunderstandings,” brief, pointed discussions about one or two individual issues can hardly accomplish anything except to create further misunderstanding—precisely Israel’s purpose.

  1. Misunderstanding #1: U.S. coup against democratic forces and institution of Shah’s dictatorship;
  2. Misunderstanding #2: Continued U.S. support for the Shah despite the viciousness of his Savak secret police;
  3. Misunderstanding #3: Iranian kidnapping of U.S. diplomats despite the “friendship” of the U.S. for Iran;
  4. Misunderstanding #4: U.S. support for Saddam’s Iraq after it invaded Iran;
  5. Misunderstanding #5: Three Stooges comedy routine known as “Iran-Contra;”
    Misunderstanding #6: Insulting Iran as part of an “axis of evil” after Iran helped the U.S. conquer Afghanistan;
  6. Misunderstanding #7: Imagining that Iran would sit passively by while the U.S. conquered neighboring Iraq and set up seemingly permanent military bases;
  7. Misunderstanding #8: The idea that Iran and Pakistan are separate issues when the Baluchi people live on both sides of the border and are in revolt against Pakistani repression.

One can imagine that at least some decision-makers in the U.S. might want from Iran:

  • Reduced support for insurgencies in the Levant;
  • Putting on ice any plans to militarize nuclear capabilities;
  • A deal that would allow U.S. forces to leave Iraq peacefully;
  • A land supply route into Afghanistan;
  • Help pacifying Pakistan’s Baluchistan.

One can imagine that at least some Iranian decision-makers in Iran might want from the U.S.:

  • Security guarantees against a U.S. or Israeli attack;
  • Acceptance of Iran’s right to play by the same international rules concerning nuclear technology that apply to the rest of the world or by the special rules that apply to Israel;
  • Acceptance of Iran’s right to participate in regional affairs;
  • Agreement that the U.S. military position in Iraq—U.S. troops, mercenaries, bases--will be temporary;
  • U.S. support for Iranian economic modernization rather than U.S. economic warfare;
  • Low-keyed, sustained U.S. moral support for democracy in Iran but no incendiary “regime-change” policies.

Any number of ways to make progress on these two sets of goals exist; surprisingly few genuine reasons for U.S.-Iranian hostility exist. But...the first step will have to be some genuine, sustained effort to address the misunderstandings. Taking that first step and having the type of short-term, insincere discussions that now seem acceptable to Israel are two mutually exclusive options.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Impacts of Threatening Iran

What are the impacts on Iranian behavior of Western pressure? No one knows. The answer is never certain because the same pressure tomorrow may have a different impact than it does today: context is constantly evolving. What we do know is that the impact of pressuring and threatening an antagonist is highly complex. It also seems pretty clear that its real complexity far exceeds the understanding of most decision-makers. If the above picture is worth 1000 words for you, then you can stop reading.
But just in case you think the picture requires explanation...
Start with the center left square: "anti-Iranian pressure, threats, insults." Arrows should be interpreted as indicating that X covaries with Y. Follow the black arrows, for the moment ignoring the others.
According to the picture, as pressure tactics intensify, two things happen (black arrows): 1) the domestic political power of the Iranian "neo-con" war generation led by Ahmadinejad increases because when a society is attacked from the outside, it comes together in self-defense, 2) Ahmadinejad's status as a global Muslim leader increases because almost no one else is speaking up for Palestine, thus leaving him without competition (i.e., he gets a free ride as a "defender of the faith" and "leader of Arab(!) nationalism" without being forced to back up his words.
Whatever expansionist, adventurist temptations may exist in the Iranian elite, these temptations are intensified by the rising domestic political unification behind their threatened but increasingly famous leader. "I might prefer lower gas prices and freedom to go out for a drink, but ya gotta admire the guy standing up to the whole Western world!"
That is the core story of the picture, but it is only the first stage. Automatically, without any further action by anyone, additional things (blue arrows) start happening. Will the rising power of the Iranian war generation persuade them to be magnanimous and promote domestic democracy? That is theoretically possible. It is also theoretically possible that it will so scare everyone else that someone will succeed in putting together a winning coalition to shove them out of power. But the argument made in the picture is that as the regime's power rises, so will its dictatorial tendencies. If you think some contradictory trend might simultaneously occur, then the picture needs to be modified. In any case, the argument in the picture is that dictatorial tendencies will rise and, being of course noticed in the West, will promote still further Western pressure.
In addition, Ahmadinejad's rising international status will intensify Iranian aggressiveness. Why? Politicians tend to become more aggressive as they gain power: few ever know when to stop. That in turn will further stimulate Western hostility. Why? People seldom recognize the degree to which they are the cause of the effects they deplore. It is highly unlikely that Westerners who are making careers out of sounding the alarm about a future Iranian threat will, as evidence that they are correct multiplies, stop and recognize, much less admit that the Iranian aggressiveness they see might have been provoked by their insults, threats, and efforts to marginalize and discriminate against Iran.
With the completion of the second stage in the process, we now have two unintended processes intensifying the initial Western pressure. Forget real data. Just make the simplifying assumption that every action by any actor has the value of "1." Even before Westerners choose to take any further action, the value of their hostility is already "3" (the original "1" plus "1" from the top blue feedback arrow and another "1" from the bottom blue feedback arrow. In other words, the impact is intensifying pretty fast.
But that is just the beginning. All actors in the system are linked. Israeli politicians are watching and reacting to the behavior of Iranian politicians. If all Israelis are highly educated observers (such as Ilan Pappe or Uri Avnery), then perhaps they will reason that they must try extra hard to calm the waters of international discord when Iranian dictatorial tendencies and international aggressiveness rise. However, if there happen to be any expansionist tendencies in the hearts and minds of any members of the Israeli elite, the view of an increasingly dictatorial and aggressive Iran will almost certainly whet their own appetite for militarism and aggression. Arguments to the contrary can be added to the picture and evidence to the contrary would be most welcome, but that at least is the argument the picture makes.
This brings us to the third stage (red arrows): as Israeli elite aggressiveness rises, their hostility toward Iran will also rise. Is this logical? Well, no; that you adopt an expansionist policy should be be connected to your feelings. A professional should maintain a solid firewall separating policy from feelings, otherwise hubris will result. But the picture is not presenting a story about logic; it is presenting a story about how politicians can be expected to act, regardless of their culture or nationality. For those who want to turn the above picture into a mathematical (system dynamics) model of the dynamics of threats against Iran, we now have a value of "4" on the original Western threat (after a single threatening act). That is, the impact of threats will rise four times (according to this simple picture) as fast as you would expect! For those who want to model this, the result will be highly nonlinear, showing an exponential rise in intensity.
In theory, the mirror image is also true. If threats are very dangerous, a consistently conciliatory policy would in theory undercut tensions equally fast. Unfortunately, there is a problem: people tend to remember threats a long time, and people learn distrust much faster than they learn trust.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mideast Peace Requires an All-Encompassing Solution

In a connected world, and the various social groups in the Mideast are getting very tightly connected, the concept of a marginalized group that everyone else can afford to ignore really doesn't apply. Ignoring a social group is like ignoring an infection: you will end up hurting yourself. It is very difficult to think of a government anywhere in the world that understands this. All decision-makers seem to spend their time either getting so involved with the trees that they can't see the forest or falling in love with their own little plans; either way, they are failing to do their jobs. They are failing to set in place a vision that speaks to the needs of everyone - including all the despised and forgotten little groups that, when thus mistreated, become the fuel for the next fire.

The world pays attention to Israel, to Iran, to Afghanistan (this decade), and now even to Pakistan. Here's one forgotten place that needs to be part of whatever solution our brilliant leaders are dreaming up for the Mideast, brought to us...we might have International Crisis Group:

Nurturing Instability: Lebanon's

Palestinian Refugee Camps

Middle East Report N°84
19 February 2009

The vast Palestinian refugee population is routinely forgotten and ignored in much of the Middle East. Not so in Lebanon. Unlike in other host countries, the refugee question remains at the heart of politics, a recurrent source of passionate debate and occasional trigger of violence. The Palestinian presence was a catalyst of the 1975-1990 civil war, Israel’s 1982 invasion and Syrian efforts to bring the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to heel. Virtually nothing has been done since to genuinely address the problem. Marginalised, deprived of basic political and economic rights, trapped in the camps, bereft of realistic prospects, heavily armed and standing atop multiple fault lines – inter-Lebanese, inter-Palestinian and inter-Arab – the refugee population constitutes a time bomb. Until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved, a comprehensive approach is required that clarifies the Palestinians’ status, formally excludes their permanent settlement in Lebanon, significantly improves their living conditions and, through better Lebanese-Palestinian and inter-Palestinian coordination, enhances camp management....

Such short-sightedness makes sense neither for Lebanon nor for broader pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know well, the refugee population in Lebanon constitutes one of the more vexing problems: Lebanese do not want them to be assimilated in their country; Israel will not allow them to return; they are well-armed, socially marginalised and economically disenfranchised; and they could well be mobilised by opponents of an eventual peace deal to undermine it.

For those (and there are many such in Washington) who wring their hands in mock despair at the supposed impossibility of resolving complex social issues (i.e., can't be done, so fagetaboutit!), ICG has virtually provided us here with a formula for catastrophe:

Catastrophe <-- marginalized social group that is A) well-armed, B) socially marginalized, and C) economically disenfranchised.

If you want instability, insurgency, terrorism, here is the recipe for producing it. (Note: I am not revealing anything dangerous by publishing this recipe on the Internet. Folks like bin Laden already know this. It is only in Western decision-making circles where this will come as a shock.)

What does ICG recommend? Well, lots of things, of course, but the first is a real shocker: grant these refugees the right to work! They exist, they eat, and they have AK-47s. Think about it: would you, in your comfortable houses, prefer to have them working or standing around on street corners feeling insulted, seeing no future, and listening to jihadi preachers?

The truly educated among us may vaguely recall that the Lebanese army recently attacked and destroyed one of the Palestinian camps, making the situation infinitely worse. Without knowing anything about the precise current situation on the ground as far as the thousands of ex-residents are concerned, as a political scientist I can predict that we will hear from these folks again, and when we do, remember these words: it will be our fault for pretending they do not exist.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Counterthesis: Do Israelis Oppose "Greater Israel"?

I report the following argument, by Bradley Burston in Haaretz, not because I agree with it, but for the opposite reason - because it directly contradicts the argument I have been making that the election supports the hypothesis that Israel is becoming more committed to a policy of violence to achieve its goals.

if the 2009 election has conclusively demonstrated anything, it is the overwhelming consensus across Israeli society for the rejection of the bedrock right-wing principle of a Greater Israel encompassing and annexing all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Shockingly, the Israeli public may have voted for the right not because it rejects the idea of peace deals, partition, and a two-state solution, but because it believes the right is better qualified to find a way to carry out that undeniably painful process.

Israeli Government: U.S., Attack Iran for Us!

Haaretz reports:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told senior military leaders on Monday that Iran's development of nuclear weapons was likely to "threaten the existence of the State of Israel."

Barak told the top Israel Defense Forces commanders that should Iran achieve nuclear capability, it would enormously strengthen the immunity of groups aided by Tehran and dramatically boost the efforts of enemy regional elements to develop the same capabilities.

"It will be very difficult to stop the trickling if nuclear capabilities, even if primitive, to terrorist organizations," he said. "We have already received our first sign of such from Pakistan.

Barak added that once the Obama administration began to negotiate with Iran, any efforts to use military offense against the nuclear program would become more difficult.

"We'll see Iranian gestures and steps aimed at pushing off the issue," he said. The defense minister said it was of utmost importance that U.S.-Iran dialogue be relatively short, and followed by deep sanctions.

The Iranians of course aren't doing anything to provoke all this sudden furor in Israel. These words are designed to bully a new, inexperienced president into sacrificing U.S. national security on behalf of Israeli decision-makers who refuse even to consider alternative possibilities to directly challenging Iran with public threats of nuclear aggression. Will the Israeli effort to manage U.S. foreign policy work? The widespread Western disgust at Israeli barbarism in Gaza has weakened Israel's position, but that may not matter to Washington, where force is much respected. And force Israel demonstrated in spades last month for Obama's benefit.

Washington, you are permitted to talk to the Iranians if that will make you happy - but only briefly, to be followed by further pressures. Talk if you must, but insincerely, as a gimmick. Meanwhile, let's get on with the war.

Ah, excuse me, not to be so rude as to disagree, but...could we please have permission to slow down just a bit, please, sir? We understand that you have your timetable, but, well, it's just that we are...uh...engaged, you see, in this little pacification effort in Iraq. Of course, we won, and all that, but there are a few details, you see. I mean, you know, our boys are still there. Sure, Obama promised to pull them out immediately. But...well, it slipped his mind, and...again, not to be rude, sir, but...well, you are distracting him. Every time you scream "existential Iranian threat!" he grabs that yarmulke, you know, the one he actually wore when visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem (just to show his bias - imagine him wearing a keffiyeh to show his concern for all the recent collateral damage in Gaza!). I mean, not to criticize, surely, but, you know, he's not used to the yarmulke, and...well, to be frank, when he puts it on, it slips down over his eyes and he kinda loses sight of the ball, you know?

So maybe you could just ease off a bit, let him get his feet on the ground and make good on his promise to get our boys out of Iraq. I mean, they'd be kinda exposed, you know, in a...huh...war or something with Iran.

And then there's the recession; yeah, I know you aren't having one, that's because we are paying your bills. But we are having one, which goes back to Iraq again, but let's not go there. Point is, you know, wars are expensive when you do multiple wars simultaneously.

Oh yeah, there's that little incident, well, series of incidents, adventure?...ah, anyway, you know what I Afghanistan...and Pakistan. Yeah, there too now. Gotta fix that up, know, get our ducks in a row, so to speak. Then, of course, we'll take your Iran thing under advisement. OK?

A Mideast Story

I do not claim to know the truth of the story that follows, but it matches observed behavior ominously well and thus deserved to be taken seriously…

At some point during the last decade of the last century, a consensus arose among the Israeli ruling elite that force was the path to success. Sensing, if vaguely, both the length of the path and the risks of the strategy, these decision-makers designed a plan. Perhaps they designed the whole plan in detail at the beginning; perhaps they just laid out the general direction and filled in the details as apparent initial success whetted their appetites for more.

Step I was the elimination of Arafat personally and the whole PLO as independent actors, so as to subordinate the Palestinian people once and for all. Feeling, with some justification, that they had achieved this by 2005, they agreed to Bush’s idea of a Palestinian election to provide a democratic veneer to the Israeli victory.

Although shocked by the Hamas victory in January 2006, they reacted with dispatch, launching an economic war against the new Palestinian regime and encouraging a mini Palestinian civil war. In accordance with the consensus on force as the tool of choice, the speed of the Israel reaction suggests that little serious thought was given to alternative approaches, such as welcoming the newfound Hamas willingness to play by democratic rules. Israel was determined to drive home the point that Palestine belonged to Israel.

In the event, Hamas ended up being partially overthrown, keeping control only of Gaza. Again adjusting tactics rapidly but retaining the underlying strategy of force, Israel focused its economic war on the population of Gaza. At the same time, Israel continued its harsh suppression of West Bank Palestinians, despite the subservience of the Abbas regime. The Israeli elite consensus in favor of force prevented Israel from taking advantage of the opportunity to make the West Bank a showcase of how Palestinians might live profitable, if not exactly free, lives in return for subservience. Offered no hope of a better life should they accept subservience to Israel, the population of Gaza naturally continued to support Hamas.

Although Hamas’ electoral victory had knocked Israel slightly off balance, it nevertheless moved smoothly to take Step II of its strategic plan, preparing for and, when given the excuse by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers, executing an invasion of Lebanon. Israel had been trying firmly to subordinate Lebanon for a generation and resolved to erase the bitter memory of its retreat from that country in 2000. Lebanon was not in itself terribly important, but Hezbollah’s “resistance” rhetoric and odd rocket attack were both distractions and a symbol that resistance might not be futile. In the second shock of the year, Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody draw, quite sufficient to put a shine on its resistance armor and tarnish the reputation of the regional superpower.

Keeping its eye nonetheless on the distant goal line, Israel both balanced the Hamas and Hezbollah balls and advanced the Syrian ball, attacking a Syrian “nuclear reactor” under construction on September 6, 2007. Whether or not the attack on a building under construction eliminated any real, if only eventual, threat to Israel, Step III smartly dismissed any Syrian pretentions to independence and drove home the lesson that Israel’s neighbors did not have the freedom even to possess technology without Israel’s permission. Any Egyptians or Saudis or Turks, much less Iranians, aspiring to study advanced technology could take note as appropriate.

By 2008, Israeli decision-makers were itching to teach both Hamas and Hezbollah the lessons they had failed to teach in 2006. First, they signed a ceasefire with Hamas in mid-2008 but cheated by maintaining the economic war against the population and again by launching a small attack in November. Hamas logically refused to extend the ceasefire in December, giving Israel the excuse it was looking for, and it launched what was intended to be a decisive military attack to destroy Hamas as an independent actor (if not literally to exterminate it). The Israeli blitzkrieg faired better in the Gazan ghetto than it had in the unwalled hills of Lebanon. Despite the survival of Hamas as an independent actor, Israeli decision-makers felt they had achieved sufficient success to move on to address once again the failed mission in Lebanon.

Israel marshaled its forces along the Lebanese border and sent its jets to violate Lebanon’s borders to the sound of rhetorical threats warning Lebanon that Israel would attack if Hezbollah sought revenge for Israel’s murder of a Hezbollah official or even if Lebanon imported weapons without Israel’s approval. Meanwhile, Hezbollah continued to strengthen its domestic political position and now seems within reach of winning the upcoming Lebanese election. Assuming both that Hezbollah gives Israel no pretext for invading and that Hezbollah does indeed appear headed for victory as the election approaches, Israel will face a major decision: a Hezbollah regime in Lebanon three years after Israel’s invasion to destroy that party would represent a severe symbolic challenge to Israel’s claim to regional domination.

Whatever happens in Lebanon, Israel seems intent on moving to Step IV, knocking Iran off the regional stage. While Israel has been focused on the preliminary steps in its strategy of using force to achieve dominance, Iran has much less aggressively and more smoothly been making its own bid for regional leadership. First, Iran tolerated the American intrusion into the region, benefitting from the American elimination of Iran’s two enemies, the Afghan Taliban and Saddam. Second, Iran used Israeli bad-neighborliness as justification for its own claim to regional leadership.

Israel stumbled against Lebanon, stumbled again against Hamas, and strained its formerly close ties with regional power Turkey but nevertheless seems intent on pursuing its strategy of force to achieve its goal of regional domination. After all, Israel still has its U.S. blank check, not to mention European support and support from various Arab dictatorships. Israel has established its ownership of Palestine. Israel has established its right to control how its neighbors arm themselves. Attacking Iran would only extend these principals from the Gaza Ghetto and the Levant to the Asian shore of the Persian Gulf.

Will Israeli decision-makers see the victory over Palestinians, the messy and imperfect bloodying of Gaza, and the draw against Hezbollah as evidence that they have a good strategy for challenging a power on the region’s edge? If so, what state will be next to be taught an Israeli lesson?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dynamics of Iranian-Israeli Hostility

EXCERPT. Iranian-Israeli relations are moving toward war. Any effort to avoid realization of the doomsday "Victory for al Qua'ida" Scenario, in which everyone in the Mideast except al Qua'ida loses, will require addressing both insecurity and ambition.

TEXT. A 2007 scenario analysis of Iranian-Israeli relations generated a “doomsday” scenario leading to an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran called “Victory for al Qua’ida.” In the original analysis, the most important causal dynamic underlying each of the four scenarios was identified, with the above graphic showing the “Insecurity Dynamic” described as key to the Victory for al Qua’ida Scenario. According to this dynamic, inequality generates both contempt by the strong and resentment by the weak, prompting both parties to search for a risky, “final” solution. That search in turn generates an endless feedback loop of rising distrust that leads to rising insecurity that leads to rising hostility that intensifies the search for a final solution.

A review of this 2007 scenario following the recent Israeli attack on Gaza and general election found that Iran and Israel appear to have moved closer to a military clash since 2007.

This essay introduces the critical topic of evaluating the dynamics underlying behavior in the Iranian-Israeli relationship, asking:

  • The degree to which the Insecurity Dynamic (on the right) identified in 2007 explains their relationship;
  • What other dynamics should be included to understand this scenario.

Note that a dynamic may be defined as required for the scenario but found to be non-existent in reality, thus casting doubt on the likelihood of the scenario coming true.

Validating the Insecurity Dynamic

The innovation of explicitly focusing on the dynamics underlying scenarios so as to draw attention away from the scenario stories, which are essentially fairy tales designed to provoke thinking, to the very real but frequently ignored or misunderstood dynamics that actually cause behavior is critical to transforming scenario analysis from an amusing tale-spinning exercise into a rigorous analytical method for thinking about the future.

A qualification to the original Security Dynamic leaps out immediately: it is not just the weak (i.e., Iran) that feel resentment or the strong (i.e., Israel) that feel contempt. Indeed, not only contempt but resentment seem mutual, judging from public elite commentary. The common Israeli comments that Iranian nuclear arms “cannot” be tolerated, an assessment that flies in the face of half a century of all sorts of hostile dyads tolerating each other’s nuclear arms without a nuclear exchange, is an example. This qualification suggests at least two avenues for exploration:

  • Inequality may not be the only source of discord;
  • The steps from inequality to the search for a “final solution” may be much more complicated than as drawn.

Be that as it may, the elements in general seem on target.

  • Distrust is palpable in the relationship, with each side egregiously interpreting the other’s behavior in the worst possible light.
  • Insecurity, at least on the part of Israel, seems surprisingly high, considering that Israel is infinitely the stronger of the two in strategic military terms. Indeed, an interesting question is why Iran, given its extreme vulnerability to attack, does not demonstrate more insecurity. One explanation may be the power of the regime to disregard and conceal opinion; another may be the leadership’s experience of resisting Saddam Hussein.
  • Hostility is intense, with little if any visible effort to ameliorate tensions.
  • Israel’s focus on nuclear war as a solution and Ahmadinejad’s focus on the eventual collapse of Israel show the mutual tendency to overlook the wide range of normal options and focus on highly unrealistic “final” solutions.

In sum, the Security Dynamic in general rings true as a structure for stimulating critical thinking about the dynamics actually at play.

Other Dynamics

If a whole scenario were the result of only one dynamic, analyzing the future would be easy. What other dynamics need to be considered to understand the level and durability of Iranian-Israel hostility over the last generation?

The change in both Israeli and Iranian foreign policy provide clues suggesting that not just insecurity but also ambition plays a critical role. This is perhaps too obvious to require belaboring, except that it informs any serious effort that might be attempted to resolve the situation. Israel has, to summarize a half century in a sentence, evolved from a pioneering society looking for a home, to a regional power not just demanding security but also developing a strong appetite for regional domination. Indeed, it is not clear that very many Israelis can even make the distinction between the two goals. With Palestinians subjugated, Egypt neutralized, and Saddam’s Iraq destroyed, all the tall Mideast mountains of opposition to Israel have been leveled, expanding Israel’s perspective far enough to make Iran visible as only mountain on the horizon. At the same time, as the Islamic Revolution has consolidated itself and Iraq has been transformed from Iran’s primary enemy into an increasingly friendly Shi’ite partner and as the old Soviet bias towards Iraq has been replaced by a new Russian bias toward Iran, Iran has developed ambitions of its own. Whatever truth there may be in the various details of Israeli and Iranian charges and countercharges, it is clear that each country aspires to be the leader of the region. While each might, absent security concerns, eventually see a path to moderation of its own ambitions and accommodation of its antagonist, neither has yet learned to do so.

At a minimum, explanation of how “Victory for al Qua’ida” might come about requires the addition of a dynamic explaining the clashing ambitions of these two rising powers. The "Danger of Ambition" causal loop diagram gives a very simple idea of the core dynamics. For starters, it is not just that their ambitions clash, but that the behavior of each tempts the other to exploit it to feed its own appetite. Israel exploits Ahmadinejad's rhetoric to excuse its own expansion; Iran exploits Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians to excuse its self-promotion as the leader of Muslims. Each opposes the adversary's ambition not just because it clashes with their own but also because opposition excuses their own. Up to a point, shadow boxing is useful, but the more intensely the two sides shadow box for convenience, the more likely it is that each side will begin to believe that the other really does pose a threat. Moreover, threats to ambitions get confused with threats to security. Legitimate opposition to the adversary's gluttony get misinterpreted as an existential threat.

Israel wants military dominance, territorial expansion into the West Bank, and--certainly for some parties--expansion beyond that. Iran wants recognition of its natural role as a regional power, which clashes with Israel's desire for preeminence.
Any effort to avoid realization of the "Victory for al Qua'ida" Scenario will require addressing both insecurity and ambition.

Israeli Media: Do NOT(!!!) Bomb Iran

In the midst of a wave of euphoria and hubris on the part of "bloody-flag-waving" politicians in Israel, a wholesale rightwing movement by the Israeli electorate comes a cool, reasoned essay in the Israeli media calling for peace with Iran.

The Prime Minister's Bureau will probably soon be occupied by a politician whose career has been partially based on Iran scare tactics. Benjamin Netanyahu, formerly "Mr. Terror," is now "Mr. Iran," and has declared that "Iran will have no nuclear arms."

Notwithstanding the boisterous nature of the declaration, this will hopefully be the case, but if what Netanyahu means is that Israel, under his leadership, may become embroiled in an attack on Iran, then there is room for grave concern. Now is the time to tell Netanyahu: "No bombing." Netanyahu (and some among us) should drop any thoughts about a military option.

Israelis have learned to judge Iran according to the threats of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even if their impression is partially correct, it still constitutes demonization. Just like Israel is not all Avigdor Liebermans, a pyromaniac in his own right, Iran is not all Ahmadinejads, although he is in power....

The U.S. is not the only one on the verge of change - so is Iran. The U.S. is after elections and Iran is before them; from both, new and encouraging voices are being heard. Barack Obama has avoided issuing threats against Iran in recent statements, and Ahmadinejad responded that he proposes "holding talks on the basis of mutual respect." This is excellent news, which is more capable than any bomb of neutralizing danger.

It is now necessary to grant a genuine chance to the new winds blowing between Washington and Tehran, and avoid inflaming the situation with bellicose declarations. Israel's war drums should promptly be put away. Netanyahu and Lieberman need to forget their inflammatory rhetoric before they stir the justified ire of Washington. Perhaps diplomatic exchanges will succeed in stopping Iran from going nuclear, but even if they don't, it would be best for Israel to get used to the idea that Iran may join the club of which, according to foreign reports, Israel, India and Pakistan, among others, are members. What is even more important is for Israel to finally wean itself of the ideology that force is a solution to everything, and that it is the policeman (aka thug) of the Middle East. Hamas isn't being nice? We'll bring it down by force. Iran and Syria have reactors? We'll bomb them. Imad Mughniyeh is dangerous? We'll assassinate him.

Once in a while this can work, but it can also end in disaster - and certainly will against Iran.

If Israeli decision-makers did in fact attack Gaza to test the hypothesis that an attack on Iran would succeed and if Israeli decision-makers are in fact "learning" from their attack the lesson that violence works, then here at least is one voice from the Israeli elite with a calmer, more reasoned perspective. The danger to Israeli democracy resulting from its policy of security through the frequent intense use of military force is slowly becoming recognized in Israel. Whatever the impact of this single Israeli media essay on Israeli elite decision-making, it is at least somewhat reassuring that such articles can be published in the mainstream Israeli media.

Rhetoric, especially when as inaccurately translated as much of Ahmadinejad's has been, is no basis for policy. Why can't we find politicians capable of speaking...and acting...with this degree of clear thinking?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

One More Small Step Toward Mideast War

Dan Gillerman, Israel's permanent United Nations representative from 2003 until last September, has just added the latest Israel war threat to what has become a long list. The money words:

"Israel has made it very clear that it will not live with a nuclear Iran, and I believe that Israel has the ability and the capacity to make sure that it will not happen."

This belligerent remark serves first of all to strengthen the myth that it is Iran that represents a threat to peace. It of course might theoretically also constitute just one more push to persuade Iran to compromise, except that so far no one is offering Iran a compromise. In contrast, Iran is being ordered to accept humiliating rules that apply to no other country on earth.

No one knows, obviously, how any country on earth might at some unspecified future moment behave. But, unlike several other countries, Iran has no record of starting wars. Moreover, we do know a fair amount about the sort of contextual conditions that prompt countries to start wars, including feelings of insecurity, being forced to accept rules others need not follow, being shut out of normal international intercourse, and being denied a place in the world commensurate with their power. The bottom line is that those accusing Iran have not even begun to make a persuasive case that Iran would pose a future threat.

Gillerman's remark also provides yet another piece of evidence that the recent Gaza attack was about Iran more than Gaza - the coincidence of timing is very suggestive. Specifically, it supports the contention that Gaza was an Israeli test of the hypothesis that violence works and the interpretation that Israeli decision-makers learned the lesson that in fact violence does work. But Lebanon is the country that should be most immediately concerned.

Creating Pakistan

Ayaz Amir's article, "Missing the essence of Talibanism," should be required reading for Western decision-makers. Mr. Amir, it is not just Pakistani officials who "are not getting it." Read the whole essay in Pakistan's The News.

Islamabad diary

Friday, February 13, 2009
by Ayaz Amir

I think we are not getting it. Talibanism in Afghanistan is a revolt against the American occupation. Those who can't see this deserve an extended stay in a re-education camp. From this perspective the true godfather of the Afghan resistance is the United States of America.

But Pakistani Talibanism, as represented by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan and Maulana Fazlullah in Swat, is a slightly different phenomenon. It may have originated as a side-effect of the Afghan war but it has now mutated into something with a personality of its own. With all its primitive and even barbaric permutations — the bombing of schools, the insistence on what amounts to female segregation, the slitting of throats — it is a revolt against the Pakistani state. Or rather a revolt against the dysfunctional nature of this state.

Far from being defeated, much less crushed, this revolt is spreading. Hitherto it was confined to the Frontier Province. But on February 7 we saw this revolt cross the River Indus for the first time when a police check post in Mianwali (Qudratabad near Wan Bachran) was attacked by Taliban fighters. On Feb 11 another police outpost near Essa Khail came under attack....
There is a stratum of privileged people in Pakistan, a middle class which also lives comfortably or gets by reasonably well, and then an entire population of have-nots, with no stake in the existing order of things, whose existence may not be short but it is nasty and brutish all the same.

Which are the elements flocking to Mahsud's banner in Waziristan and Fazlullah's in Swat? Not the big Khans or Maliks but the have-nots. Beware Punjab's huge under-class which will be fodder and recruiting ground for the Taliban if the revolt in the north-west, escaping the best ability of the Pakistan military establishment to suppress it, snakes its way into the adjoining districts of Punjab.

Every Punjab town, large and small, has a mosque, if not more than one, sympathetic to the Taliban brand of Islam. So at least there is a handy network — a Ho Chi Minh Trail, so to speak — down which the ideology of the Taliban can travel, whether we like this ideology or abhor it being a separate issue altogether....

Al Qaeda may be a factor in the larger situation but the Taliban revolt in Pakistan has acquired an impetus of its own. Like a runaway plant it is rearing its head wherever it can — freebooters, buccaneers, committed Islamists, all drawn to its cause.

There are people who don't have enough to eat, who don't have a job and no prospects in life. If they are wronged they have no redress. There are people tortured daily in our police stations, people caught up for years in the endless grind of court cases. There is endemic corruption all round. Every government department, without exception, serves itself, not anything as esoteric as the people. If this is not recruiting ground for Talibanism, what is?...

If dollars alone could do the trick the US would not have lost in Vietnam. Dollars alone cannot prove triumphant in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

If history is any guide, the American effort in Afghanistan is doomed. Not for nothing is it called the graveyard of empires. The Americans will come to this realisation sooner or later but by that time it may be too late for us.

Talibanism is a form of radicalisation. The only way to fight it is through radical leadership. But do we have anything of the kind? The PPP and PML-N are both wedded to the status quo. Both are pro-American, both terrified of getting on the wrong side of the Americans, both incapable of independent thinking.

At a conference in Qatar in December 2003 — attended from Pakistan by Mushahid Hussain, Ejaz Haider of Daily Times and myself — Richard Holbrooke came up with the astounding statement that if the participants chose to speak about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Iraq war they would be wasting their time. He spoke like one who was utterly sure of himself, someone who had all the answers. The impression he gave throughout the three-day conference was of being a stuck-up guy. And it's on him that our leadership, civil and military, has been fawning these last few days. Just goes to show the kind of stuff we have.

But this is the best we have, the sum total of our collective political intelligence. And it is with this that we must fight the Taliban revolt. It is not going to be easy.

I am so embarrassed by the American propensity to pour its wealth and power and energy into a suffering country like Pakistan without taking the time, without having the humility to taste the soup before pouring in its seasoning. I have only had one true Pakistani friend in my life. Veena, wherever you are, my apologies and my deepest sympathies.

Two suggestions:

  1. American and Pakistani societies need to communicate far better. Where is the foundation that will fund a serious effort to engage people like Ayaz Amir who can help us Americans learn about Pakistan?
  2. Washington needs to appoint someone outside of the American power structure that has done so much to create this mess in the first place to oversee any U.S. effort to repair the damage. Why? No American "establishment" solution will work; Pakistanis will have to find their own way to a just society, and that society will certainly not be either a lackey of the West or a copy of the West. Its form will be unpredictable, but it is very predictable that it will not fulfill any vision in the head of the Washington establishment.
This struggle is not about forcing Pakistan to fit itself into a mold that comforts Washington. This struggle is about the Pakistani people inventing a society in which they can live lives acceptable to them. The West is in very big trouble if Pakistanis decide that they must turn to the Taliban to realize their aspirations.

International Law...Israeli Version

The new Israeli warning that it has the right both to violate Lebanese airspace and to attack Lebanon if it attempts to protect its airspace comes on the heels of Defense Minister Barak's February 2 assertion of the right to attack Lebanon if it imports weapons not approved by Israel.

Israel asserted the right to control Gaza and the West Bank after conquering those regions and got away with it. Now it asserts the right to sovereignty over Lebanon, which is recognized even by the U.S. as an independent country. Israel, it seems, has the right to violate Lebanon’s territory, attack it if it tries to protect its territory, and even attack it if it imports weapons that are not authorized…by Israel.

How long will Washington continue to provide the weapons that Israel uses to bully its neighbors? If Israel is allowed to get away with telling Lebanon what to do, what country will be next? Syria, which it recently attacked…for having technology not approved by Israel? Jordan, if the horrors of the recent Gaza campaign provoke a change in Jordan’s pro-Israel policy?

Then, of course, there is Iran. Iran makes unauthorized comments about Israel. Iran develops unauthorized technology. No need to argue about the likelihood of Iran actually building a nuclear weapon or using it. According to the principles of international relations in Israel’s part of the world, Iran has already broken two rules.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Israeli Coverup

The flames of Israel's little war in Gaza may have cooled, but the economic war against the people of Gaza continues...without even the barest justification. And Americans remain in denial, in part due to Israel's highly effective propaganda campaign. In this context, it is worth remembering how Israel managed the news during the fighting. Consider this report, from France24.

Nous ne sommes pas à Gaza. Nous, journalistes occidentaux.


Heureusement, quelques courageux journalistes palestiniens parviennent à couvrir cette guerre. Pour FRANCE 24, Radjaa Abou Dagga raconte au quotidien la violence de l’opération, les avancées des troupes au sol, les combats dans les rues. Tous les jours, nous lui parlons au téléphone, alors que nous ne sommes qu’à quelques kilomètres de distance. Nous lui disons notre estime, notre confiance et notre amitié. Mais nous ne sommes pas avec lui, parce qu’une vaste opération de communication orchestrée par l’armée israélienne nous en empêche.

La fermeture totale de la bande de Gaza est une honte. Un déni de démocratie. Et signe l’échec de la presse face à la communication. A deux reprises depuis le début de l’opération, la Cour suprême du pays a ordonné à l’armée d’ouvrir Gaza à la presse. Tsahal refuse d’appliquer la loi de son propre pays.

General Mideast War Increasingly Likely

EXCERPT: A scenario analysis study over the August 2007-February 2009 period indicates that the Mideast appears to be taking significant steps toward a general Mideast war, perhaps provoked by al Qua’ida but in any case, benefitting only al Qua’ida.

TEXT: Evolution of Iranian-Israeli Relations

The Mideast appears to be taking significant steps toward a general Mideast war, perhaps provoked by al Qua’ida but in any case, benefitting only al Qua’ida. Rigorous analysis of trends since 2007 suggest that the Mideast political situation is not under control and is steadily worsening. A few pieces of good news for those who hope for peace and justice, or at least a measure of stability, are on the horizon (e.g., talk of an Obama Administration move toward compromise with Iran, relative calmness in Lebanon, movement of Turkey toward a more balanced position between Israel and Palestinians, a tentative movement toward an Iraqi understanding by Washington and Tehran), but the steps that have actually occurred are overwhelmingly in the direction of intensification of regional hostilities.


The original scenario analysis of Iranian-Israeli relations done in August 2007 rested on two parameters: the degree of equality in status and the degree of equality in power. Relative status is highly bimodal and thus tricky to summarize – Western powers following the U.S. lead accord Iran virtually no status at all, indeed egregiously trying to isolate and insult its regime, while according Israel a blank check regardless of its behavior. Elsewhere in the world, Israel can frequently do no good while Iran frequently is accorded status out of proportion to its actual actions (as differentiated from its rhetoric). The distinction between Iran and Israel in terms of power, particularly military power, is much clearer. Since the relative distribution of power still overwhelmingly favors Israel, the two scenarios generated by unequal power (“unequal power + unequal status” and Nuclear Standoff [“unequal power + equal status”]) merit updating to assess whatever changes may have occurred over the year-and-a-half since the original study. The moderately negative Nuclear Standoff Scenario was updated recently. This essay updates the disaster scenario Victory to al-Qua’ida.

To make the purpose of this essay perfectly clear, the immediate task is to accept the premises of the original study and ask how the world has evolved. In brief, what evidence exists that reality is evolving toward any one of the scenarios? For this exercise, the milestones originally defined will serve as useful guides. The more fundamental questions about the propriety of the two axes (power and status) and the utility of adding one or more additional axes (at the cost of exponentially rising analytical complexity) will be held for future discussion.

The Victory to al-Qua’ida Scenario.

Iran continues striving to escape from Israeli nuclear blackmail and remains frozen out of regional affairs led by Israel while Israel remains frozen out of regional affairs led by Iran - leaving both feeling deprived, anxious, and insulted. In the zero-sum context of each side trying to marginalize the other, no leader proves sufficiently statesman-like to agree to unconditional bilateral talks. This leaves each issue separating the two sides festering, which further strengthens extremists. The division of Palestine becomes more absolute, leading to ever rising Iranian involvement that in turn pulls Saudi Arabia in on Israel’s side. A similar proxy struggle intensifies in Lebanon. The competition spreads to Jordan, collapsing under the weight of an Iraqi refugee population exceed one-quarter of Jordan’s own population, and these refugees become increasingly radical, supporting a rise in Palestinian radicalism. The Moslem Brotherhood overthrows the Jordanian monarchy, offers citizenship to the refugees, and—on the basis of ex-refugee and Palestinian support--easily wins a free, democratic election. That immediately energizes both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq. Hezbollah walks out of a shaky Lebanese government of national unity that had been able to accomplish little because the West had withdrawn its support after Siniora’s fall from power. Hezbollah wins power in a free election. On the nuclear front, Israel refuses even to discuss the principle of a nuclear-free Mideast, leaving Iran with no incentive to compromise on that issue and feeling confident as its influence spreads rapidly in Jordan and Lebanon. Iran intensifies a policy of nuclear catch-up that is part fear-driven and part negotiating tactic but which is seen in Tel Aviv completely as indicating offensive intent. Simultaneous, in response to Israeli provocations, both Lebanon and Jordan ask Iran for military aid. Iran responds. Netanyahu rides panic among Israelis to victory as the region remains haunted by a double threat: Israel threatens to commit the ultimate crime of nuclear war against a non-nuclear power while Iran searches for some comparable or asymmetric counterthreat. Al Qua’ida sees its chance, blows up an Israeli embassy in a way that gets the attack pinned on the new Jordanian regime, and Israel invades. Israel’s tactics of collective punishment against the whole population causes a wave of resentment sparking regional war.


The Victory to al-Qua’ida Scenario given above is exactly as I wrote it in August 2007, but with highlighting added. It seems frighteningly close to the actual evolution of events to date, except that it totally misses the (still potential) impact of a compromise-oriented Obama Administration that could, though it still has not chosen to, have a profound overnight impact.

  • Considering just the two principals, no statesman capable of breaking the zero-sum competition between Iran and Israel has yet emerged.

  • Extremists on both sides have indeed been strengthened, though offers from the Ahmadinejad administration to talk to the U.S., the obvious U.S. need for Iranian cooperation on several fronts, and Khatami’s decision to run for president offer some hope of moderation.

  • The division of Palestine has indeed become even more striking, with the pro-Israeli stance of Abbas during Israel’s attack on Gaza and the continued post-conflict collective punishment of Gaza by Israel. Moreover, this has indeed enticed the Saudis—and even more blatantly the Egyptians—further into competition on, respectively, the side of the Israelis and of Hamas.

  • Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood been energized in both Egypt and Jordan, but cracks have appeared in the Jordanese regime over that country’s hostility to Hamas.

  • Netanyahu has indeed moved closer to power, though the actual outcome remains unclear at the time of writing, and the reason seems less panic than a combination of hopelessness and hubris.

  • Another development totally missed in the original scenario was the strength of the Turkish reaction to Israel’s Gaza attack. In retrospect, one might have forecast that Turkey under the leadership of a Muslim party could only stomach an Israeli policy of brutality and collective punishment for so long. Whether or not a real reorientation of Turkish-Israeli relations will follow remains unclear, but this is a milestone that should be added to the study.

  • Israel has indeed continued to refuse any discussion of the most obvious cause of Iranian-Israel hostility – the Mideast nuclear double standard. [For an example of the blindness of Israelis on the double standard, see historian Benny Morris' attempt to analyze the inevitability of Israeli aggression against Iran that completely ignores the option of offering Iran a deal.]

  • Finally, Hezbollah indeed appears within reach of an electoral victory in Lebanon.

To have the system take so many clear steps in the direction of the most disastrous of the four scenarios in only a year and a half should give all observers pause. The most important message of this scenario analysis is not just the commonplace observation that the Mideast is highly unstable (although Israeli and American decision-makers seem frequently to be in denial even about that) but that the danger of major war is rising. That conclusion may be obvious to any who step back and think dispassionately; how many decision-makers take the time to do that is unclear. Moreover, this exercise spells out the multiple tendencies contributing to that rising danger: the rising power of extremists in Israel, the apparent conclusion of Israelis that the lesson of the Gaza violence is that violence and collective punishment pay, the aggravation of domestic politics in Arab countries, and the aggravation of Iranian relations with Arab countries.


Further research:

  1. Update scenario description.
  2. Review milestones.
  3. Identify causal dynamics.
  4. Consider adding a third axis.
  5. Evaluate Iranian-Israeli relations as a complex adaptive system.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Peace Between Israel & Iran? Little Good News

EXCERPT: The tracking of these scenarios on Iranian-Israeli relations over the past year suggests we should not to be lulled into complacency; the threat of war is growing.

TEXT: In September 2007, a base study of the future of Israeli-Iranian relations posited several alternative scenarios for the future of the then highly tense relationship, including a Nuclear Standoff Scenario depicting a still dangerous but relatively well-managed regional political situation. Now, with the passing of the Bush Administration, the conclusion of Israel’s attack on Gaza, and the holding of the Israeli general election, where do we stand?

Nuclear Standoff Scenario.

Following a transitional period of very high tension but with mutual political skill that keeps the extremists on each side at bay, Israel and Iran succeed in avoiding war. Nuclear parity, achieved either through denuclearization of the Mideast or Iran’s achieving sufficient nuclear capability to deter Israel ends up lowering tensions as it becomes evident to all that parity means standoff. To the extent that Iran remains isolated, it remains dissatisfied, but its progress in real power terms means that it comes to accept the trade-offs. Iran and Israel play in separate sandpiles, and Iran’s ties to China, Russian, and Asia generally become the focus of its attentions. Israel takes the wind out of the sails of Iranian aspirations to dominate the eastern shore of the Mediterranean by removing itself from Lebanese domestic affairs, returning the Golan Heights, and allowing a genuinely independent Palestinian state.

Key Dynamic.

The key dynamic causing behavior in this scenario was identified as a feedback loop in which willingness to negotiate on one side promoted willingness to negotiate on the other side.


  • Agreement on principle of no first strike
  • U.S. campaign to reduce the number of nuclear states
  • U.S. cuts some domestic nuclear programs to "move toward a non-nuclear world"
  • Israel joins NPT
  • Israel declares existence of nukes
  • Israel offers plan to reduce nukes
  • Israel and Iran agree to accept same rules on nukes
  • formal recognition of independent Palestinian state
  • return of Golan Heights to Syria

Developments Since September 2007.

In the year that has passed since this scenario was written and the milestones defined (the above list includes milestones defined in 2007 plus some implied by the scenario), none of the milestones related to the nuclear issue has even been seriously addressed in public, as far as I am aware. Significant debate has centered around the issues of establishing a Palestinian state and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, but the prospects of a breakthrough on either front seem dimmer now than a few months ago.

Moreover, rather than political skill having kept the extremists at bay, in Israel the extremists have gained notable ground in several ways:

  • The savagery of Israel’s attack on Gaza, which it had itself provoked by reneging on its own summer 2008 ceasefire agreement;

  • Outright calls for the most extreme measures, including murder of enemy leaders and ethnic cleansing became common and evidently were deemed acceptable by the culture, for they were not punished;

  • In the general election, moderates seemed invisible, with all major parties competing to outdo each other’s toughness and the most extremist improving its standing and the others showing willingness to compromise with it despite its rhetoric.

Israel appears to have been moving away from the Nuclear Standoff Scenario in terms of its overall posture but the specifics relate to Gaza rather than Iran. The two big questions appear to be:

  1. Whether or not obvious indications that its American patron is considering moving precisely in the direction of this scenario with Iran will pull Israel along with it or make the increasingly empowered Israeli extremists feel pressured to take action while they still have time.
  2. Whether or not Israeli decision-makers will interpret the results of Israel’s attack on Gaza as evidence that they should attack Iran.
In Iran as well, moderates have been on the defensive. Three trends have greatly strengthened the hand of Iran's neo-conservative war generation led by President Ahmadinejad:

  • foreign pressures against Iran, including demands that Iran accept rules on nuclearization much stricter than those other countries are expected to obey, have made it easy for Ahmadinejad to portray himself as a nationalist leader protecting his country;
  • the rise to power in Iraq of Shi'ite factions with close historical ties to Iran has opened the door to both a rise in Iran's regional status and to Iranian participation in Arab affairs;
  • the lack of progress toward Palestinian independence plus the tepid support of Arab regimes for the Palestinians has enabled Ahmadinejad to pose as the leader of Muslim voices for justice.
As Iran moves toward its own general election, the main questions appears to be:

  1. whether or not the Obama Administration will make serious moves toward accommodating Iranian interests;
  2. whether the development of U.S.-Iranian understanding will undercut or provoke Israeli hostility toward Iran.


This was a very modest scenario, positing only minimal movement by Israel and Iran toward a rational compromise, falling far short of mutual trust or understanding but involving a pulling away from the nuclear abyss. That the two sides were unable to achieve any measurable movement in this direction despite the passing of the Bush Administration and despite the lack of any abrupt moves at all by Iran, which simply kept moving incrementally toward greater regional political activism, should be cause for considerable concern about the prospects for regional stability over the next year. These interim results should be read as a warning not to be lulled into complacency by the fact that more than a year has passed without the outbreak of Israeli-Iranian violence.

In a future post, a much more dangerous scenario will be updated: Victory for al Qua’ida. Subsequently, the Iranian-Israeli political relationship will be examined as a complex adaptive system to see how such a perspective may shed light on the dynamics underlying its evolution.