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.

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