Friday, February 13, 2009

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.

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