Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thinking, Not Screaming, About Iranian-Israeli Tensions

EXCERPT: Decision-makers are failing to solve the extremely dangerous but artificially created crisis between Iran and Israel; indeed, they repeatedly throw gasoline on the flames. Can academic analysis resting on systematic methodology provide the necessary insights to enable the world to move forward? It is time to make a serious attempt.

Iranian-Israeli relations have been lurching from one insult or aggravating incident to another for many years, with decision-makers seeming to learn little and frequently to risk much. The longer the tension lasts without steps toward resolution, the greater the danger: people start to assume that conflict is inevitable, forgetting all the arbitrary inputs that occurred over the years and opportunities for a fatal misstep multiply. Ironically, the Iranian-Israeli crisis is artificial. No fundamental conflict of interests exists. They are not neighbors, do not compete for some essential scarce resource the way Israelis and Palestinians compete for land and water. The Iranian-Israeli crisis is completely the product of voluntary political behavior by national leaders on each side. Given the pattern of failure on the part of governments to resolve this crisis and the widespread popular confusion in the West about the underlying motivations and dynamics, it is time for academics to make a major effort to provide insight.

This post, which flows from a series of analyses I have made over the past two years of Iranian and Israeli foreign affairs, offers a model of foreign policy motivations composed of three variables: conflict resolution strategy, security, and influence. Innumerable other factors of course affect foreign policy; if one can be identified that is more important than one of these, propose it or try it yourself. All models are simplifications (including the mental models in the heads of decision-makers who call for war). No model is "correct;" some, however, may be more useful than intemperate rhetoric, talking at cross-purposes, or Big Lies.

The Model.

The model is composed of the following three variables:

  • conflict resolution strategy - from compromise to force;
  • state of security (perceived by oneself) - from satisfied to unsatisfied;
  • level of global influence (perceived by oneself) - from satisfied to unsatisfied.

Detailed scenarios can be developed for the resulting eight octants, but for the moment, it is perhaps sufficient to note that the top left, red octant (force, unsatisfied, unsatisfied) is the most dangerous.

The Current Trend.

The second image shows the rough position of Iran and Israel.

Israel is very far up in the danger zone, employing a conflict resolution strategy that strongly emphasizes force, a steady flow of elite references to insecurity (e.g., calling Iran an "existential threat"), and a focus on maximizing military power far beyond the capabilities of any of its neighbors suggesting high dissatisfaction with Israel's level of global influence.

Sample evidence of Israeli dissatisfaction with its global influence: Defense Minister Barak asserted the right of Israel to attack Lebanon if Hezbollah obtains (not "uses") certain unspecified weapons.

Iran's position is less clear. Iran has put very low emphasis on using force in international affairs since the Islamic Revolution, with the single exception of defending itself against Saddam's invasion and Khomenei's subsequent decision to attempt to punish Iraq after the tide turned. However, Iran is clearly attempting to arm itself as rapidly as it can, and its lack of actual aggressiveness (in contrast to its highly aggressive verbal stance on many occasions) may be a function of its military weakness. It seems much clearer that Iran has a perceived security problem; surrounded by American bases and threatened by Israel, how could it not? Iran's emphasis on mastering nuclear technology, armament program even in the midst of major economic problems, and rhetoric all suggest not just a perceived security problem but also dissatisfaction over Iran's global influence.

If the positions of Iran and Israel suggest imminent danger, the lack of change does little to offer hope. Israel's position does not appear to have moderated at all in recent years, despite the failure of repeated wars to solve its perceived security problems. Campaign rhetoric since the end of the Gaza attack suggests no lessening of Israel's reliance on force. Iran has repeatedly signalled a willingness to talk but, in a hostile international environment, has shown little willingness to change policies unilaterally. There is no reason to expect that a country will unilaterally offer concessions when already in a position of weakness, especially when its position is improving, as Iran's clearly has over the last decade with the removal of its main enemy Saddam Hussein,emergence of Shi'ite rule in Iraq, and overextension of the U.S. Until the U.S. or Israel moderates hostility toward Iran, evidence to show Iranian's intentions is likely to be scarce.

In Sum.
This model provides a simple framework for systematic thinking about a very complex subject. Future posts will address the individual scenarios that can be anticipated for the various octants, how scenario tracking can make turn the model into a practical tool for putting events into perspective, the underlying dynamics powering the scenarios, and some insights into reality that complexity theory can provide.

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