Sunday, November 28, 2010

Netanyahu Did Not Say This in Public...

Some things one simply does not say in public, but someday we may read in the Israeli official archives about a discussion concerning the U.S. and Iran that went something like the following...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Make Ahmadinejad's Day

Ahmadinejad, who strides the world stage but cannot manage his country's economy, is under attack from powerful domestic politicians. He has been a good man to work with, and now he needs America's help.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Those Who Provoke Are Guilty

Military exercises on an adversary's border or demonstrations in a neighbor's community are provocations, and when they succeed in provoking, those who held the "peaceful" demonstrations are guilty, as well as those who shoot first. If those conducting the "peaceful" provocations are more powerful, then their guilt is accordingly greater because the danger to the provoked side of not shooting first is correspondingly greater.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Washington and Tehran Can Both Win

Despite the appearance of rigidity, both Washington and Tehran have recently (not to mention historically) shown occasional willingness to be flexible, suggesting that if there were a will to resolve this unnecessary and dangerous conflict, there would be a way.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Must-Read on Bush vs. Iran

Iran-Nuke NIE Stopped Bush on War
By Ray McGovern
November 22, 2010

Why should George W. Bush have been “angry” to learn in late 2007 of the unanimous judgment of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon four years earlier? Seems to me he might have said “Hot Dog!” rather than curse under his breath.

If you want to understand the post-9/11 world, McGovern's piece is a "must-read" article.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evolution of the Washington-Tehran Dispute

Neither Washington's nor Tehran's behavior is fixed in stone; rather, each adapts and each sometimes passes the ball, though the other side usually fumbles it.
U.S.-Iranian relations today are plagued by untested assumptions that constrain policy, effectively putting  decision-makers in a mental box preventing them from seeing alternative tactics that might greatly enhance their side's national security. In other words, these decision-makers are using bad models. Good models are still wrong; model airplanes do not actually carry passengers anywhere. But a good model airplane enables engineers to build better real airplanes. Policy formulation is no different.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

If Policy Fails, Intensify the Policy!

Washington's effort to compel Iran to obey over the last three decades has only alienated Iran and made its regime more extreme. Might there be flaws in Washington's policy?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Modeling U.S.-Iranian Relations

As we move toward yet another round of "negotiations" between a Washington unwilling to grant Iran the right to play by the same nuclear rules as Israel and a Tehran unwilling to lose its new prominent spot on the regional political stage in return for some unspecified reduction in the U.S.-Israeli threat, the fate of the world is in the hands of politicians on both sides who pay more heed to special interests than to true national security. The trading of insults, the certainty that one is completely in the right, and self-inflicted damage to one's own security take the place of serious contemplation of what is being risked and what might be gained. If we built our homes with such abandon, we would all still be living in trees.

The battle between Washington and Tehran is being fought on a terrain filled with the peaks of a high-tension political environment, torrents of ideological commitment, and the precipices of conflict resolution by force. And that is just the simplified view of the model illustrated here. It is easy to understand why the dispute defies solution; what is hard to understand is the abandon with which powerful politicians toss out rash soundbites about a potential nuclear war. Even such a simple model as this might put their feet back on the ground...
Three driving forces propel U.S.-Iranian relations according to this simplified model, generating eight possible outcomes.
The critical question for investigation is where reality lies in relation to the upper left red octant, representing the war scenario, in which actions are based on faith rather than analysis, the political environment is hostile, and the conflict resolution strategy of each side relies on force rather than negotiation.

The two critical scenarios are "Compromise" and "Conflict." These extremes are distinguished from the other six scenarios by their importance and relative stability, the result of their internal consistency.
“Compromise” and “conflict” are words whose meaning is in practice often blurred. Is a country “compromising” when it goes to the negotiating table only to make the same old demands without offering any concessions? Does a “conflict” exist in the absence of military threat when an economic embargo is in place? This chart is designed to focus the mind on the real meaning of these two terms for the case under evaluation. 
Applying the abstract model to U.S.-Iranian relations, the above "Conflict vs. Compromise" Chart would convert into something like the following:
The actual meaning of "compromise" and "conflict" in U.S.-Iranian relations is far more detailed and precise than the mainstream media or glib politicians typically admit.
The fraudulent U.S. debate over whether or not Washington should "compromise" by talking is a red herring that conceals the true meaning of the word. In fact, "compromise" has very precise content for both sides. For the U.S., it implies recognition of Iran's right to play by the same nuclear rules as Israel, Iran's right to national security (which it obviously does not have if ringed by U.S. military bases or if its sea coast is patrolled by U.S. aircraft carriers and Israeli nuclear submarines). Compromise implies that Washington must make strategic adjustments to allow Tehran significantly greater regional freedom of movement, in brief a big step back from empire. For Tehran, it implies accepting a less tense environment that will remove from Ahmadinejad much of the "justification" for repressing domestic political opposition and refocus attention on both his economic record and his civil liberties record. It means relinquishing the nuclear non-transparency card in return for greater national security. For both, it means replacing a zero-sum mentality with a positive-sum mentality.

Washington and Tehran have much to think about between now and the opening of the next round of nuclear talks.
NOTE: For a review of scenario analysis, see Analyzing the Future.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Punishing Deterrence

Nothing irritates an aggressor so much as a weak opponent getting away with deterrence.

In about as concise a description of Israeli foreign policy as one could make, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated at the recent Halifax International Security Conference that “the objective is to defy, deceive and deter the whole world.” He was, of course, speaking of Iran, rather than his own country.

Defiance is understandable if one is under threat of aggression, as Iran surely is. Israel is not; Israeli troops are colonizing Palestine, not the other way around, and while Iranian leaders might well like to see Israel disappear, Iran is hardly threatening Israel with aggression; again, it is the other way around.

Deception is charge that does appear to hit the target. Iran always manages to leave at least a little doubt about its sincerity. But for a country that pretends it is not a nuclear power and pretends it is not an aggressor and pretends it is not practicing apartheid and pretends it is not a colonial power and pretends that it is not racist to criticize an adversary for practicing deception is really a bit much.

Barak’s killer point is to charge Iran with deterrence. Yes, here he gets it right. Iran is trying to deter aggression that must indeed feel to Iranians as though it is coming from “the whole world,” with Israel in the region and running submarines presumably carrying nuclear cruise missiles (see Harretz report) off Iran’s Indian Ocean coast while the U.S. is the proud owner of that archipelago of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How dare those arrogant Iranians try to deter U.S./Israeli aggression? Let them get away with it, and the next thing you know, Lebanon will start trying to deter Israeli aggression, then Palestinians will…well, you see how things could unravel if deterrence is allowed to go unpunished.

Sliding Toward U.S.-Iran War

Leaders, not societies, cause wars, so any evaluation of the likelihood of war should pay close attention to the nature of the leaders. Concerning the question of whether or not a war may occur between the U.S. and Iran by mistake, the nature of the leaders is of particular concern.

One of the primary factors contributing to the health and functioning of a political system is the nature of the leadership. Attitude toward skeptics, attitude toward new information, attitude toward colleagues, and attitude toward tradition on the part of leadership and opposition circles in the U.S., Iran, and Israel suggest a degree of dysfunctionality serious enough so that it could provoke a U.S.-Iranian war by mistake. The Leadership Cohesiveness chart enumerates half a dozen continua along which a political leadership can be evaluated. These “continua” or “axes” constitute a set of lens that can be used to reveal how effectively the leaders of the U.S., Iran, and Israel can be expected to manage their respective countries’ national security. Several of these axes suggest that the leadership in the U.S., Iran, and Israel will in the next few years be increasingly exclusive, dogmatic, and scornful, posing severe obstacles to any effort to reevaluate strategies, cool tempers, or search for pragmatic positive-sum solutions in a negative-sum national security environment poisoned by the fear of terrorism, the fear of aggression, and religious prejudice.


On the other hand, some politicians apparently actually do want a war between the U.S. and Iran, as suggested by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham's barbaric ravings after the U.S. mid-term elections about "taking containment off the table" and "neuter[ing]" Iran.

Attitude Toward Skeptics. The more inclusive the attitude toward skeptics, the more likely a regime will be to give serious consideration to alternative perspectives, thus enhancing its ability to find a solution. In both Iran and Israel, an extreme right-wing regime rules with little evident interest in considering the opinions of actors outside the ruling faction. The present U.S. regime appears much more inclusive, but its policy toward Iran over the past two years has in substance closely adhered to the Neo-Con handbook for intimidating adversaries, and the recent electoral defeat appears likely to strengthen that bias. In none of these countries, does a conciliatory attitude offering the adversary genuine accommodation appear likely to gain even a fair hearing, much less become official policy.

Attitude Toward New Information.  Both stress and ideological commitment are likely to impair the receptivity of leaders to new information that challenges their belief structure. In the U.S. the heating up of the political environment resulting from the combination of unusual levels of hostility between the parties, the approach of the presidential election, and intense factionalism within the Republican Party seem likely to constitute increasingly severe obstacles to open-minded analysis, a trend that can be expected to intensify if the extremist (judging from their rhetoric) Tea Party advocates gain further power. The emergence of a moderate cross-party faction would of course alter this prognosis but currently appears unlikely. In the aftermath of the failure of the Brazilian-Turkish nuclear initiative, the domestic repression of moderates following Ahmadinejad’s reelection, the uncompromising attitude of senior clerics supporting Khamenei, the steady rise in the power of the (anti-Saddam) War Generation, and the failure of Obama to make a convincing case that his administration is ready to deal with Iran in a fair manner, it is likely to take a great deal of new information indeed to overcome Iranian distrust of the U.S. and to make a conciliatory attitude toward the U.S. politically viable in Iran. As for Israel, the rising tide of fascism appears so far to face virtually no serious, organized opposition: rising settler violence with police support; Netanyahu’s successful and publicly insulting defiance of Obama combined with Obama’s timid retreat; the collapse of the Israeli left; the weakening of Israeli democracy and strengthening of overtly racist laws all suggest a declining willingness to consider new information.

Attitude Toward Colleagues:  In all three countries, public rhetoric is enflamed and attitudes toward colleagues in other factions or parties hostile to the point of undermining domestic political stability. In both Israel and Iran, armed groups are using violence to make political points, while demonstrations are held to provoke opponents in ways reminiscent of Ireland in years past. In the U.S., be it accusations that Democrats opposing the neo-con wars were somehow unpatriotic, insulting remarks about Obama, or Tea Party attitudes toward violence as a political tool (also here on immigration and here for a general review), evidence of a breakdown in the norms of political behavior is mounting, as well. Congressional behavior in the health care debate also suggests an increasingly contemptuous attitude toward colleagues based on an assumption that winning, rather than making good policy decisions, has become the primary goal of many.

Attitude Toward Tradition:  Rising racism at the center of the Israeli regime is a clear challenge to the Israeli tradition of democracy. In Iran the post-revolutionary tradition of clerical control is being challenged by the military. In the U.S., a whole range of traditions—protection of U.S. civil liberties, non-use of nuclear arms for aggression against non-nuclear powers, “empire-lite” by persuasion rather than overt invasion—have been undermined since 9/11. In all three countries, tradition is becoming a weaker and weaker bulwark against sudden, emotional shifts in behavior.

The U.S./Israeli/Iranian Ca
To the degree that skeptics are excluded from the debate, new information is viewed with a dogmatic attitude, colleagues are treated with scorn, and traditional values are challenged, policy becomes the captive of the emotional tide of the moment. With numerous political actors in each country pouring gasoline on the fires of national security fears for a host of personal and ideological reasons, massive nontraditional military moves (Israeli threats of aggression against Iran, U.S. armada in the Persian Gulf and its huge Mideast/Central Asian archipelago of new military bases surrounding Iran, and the Iranian nuclear program), and a continuing jihadi effort to provoke civilizational confrontation, the danger of a U.S.-Iranian war by mistake seems only likely to increase in the absence of a fundamental shift in strategic thinking.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

U.S.-Iranian War Even If No One Wants It?

Have the international political context and the respective domestic political contexts of Iran, the U.S., and Israel placed Iran and the U.S. on a slippery slope leading to war, whether or not anyone actually wants it?

Political science theory offers an explanation of how war may occur even when neither side desires it.

Are U.S.-Iranian relations on such a path?

One can of course debate the sincerity of either Iranian or American leaders in professing that they desire peace, but even if we take both sides at their word, does a significant danger of war still exist?

The classic arms race, in which two risk-averse but security-conscious adversaries each arm because they fear the other and in the process convince the other wrongly that they have aggressive intent is one obvious path toward undesired war. Both Tehran’s effort to enhance its nuclear capabilities while minimizing the transparency of its program and Washington’s massing of offensive naval capacity in the Persian Gulf and offensive aerial capacity in Saudi Arabia and Israel are ratcheting up feelings of insecurity on each side and empowering violence-prone politicians. Countervailing steps, be they presidential addresses in Cairo or Turkish/Brazilian efforts to find compromises, seem far from sufficient to outweigh this constant pouring of gasoline on the fire of mutual national security concerns.

An arms race creates an incendiary environment for an undesired clash. Another criterion tosses sparks on the tinder: the degree of “true believer” attitudes, i.e., an orientation toward ideology rather than practical conflict resolution that would impede willingness to search for a genuine positive-sum compromise. If to this dangerous mix is added an actual preference for violence, then war seems predictable. In the diagram, the red octant represents such a situation.

Toward War No One Wants
The Political Behavior Model illustrates a world described by three factors:
  1. Environment
  2. Ideological commitment
  3. Conflict resolution strategy.
The “challenging” extreme of the environmental axis can be viewed as representing an arms race, certainly an example of a fundamental political challenge. The three axes produce eight ideal alternative worlds or scenarios. The red octant, which one might label “war,” represents the most extreme scenario, where ideologically committed actors caught in a challenging security environment prefer to resolve disputes through violence. [For a technical review of scenario analysis, see Analyzing the Future.]

The obvious point of this theoretical construct is that it points out ways for those trying to avoid war to influence the course of events: action along any one of the three axes might suffice to alter the course of events. The question for U.S.-Iranian relations is the degree to which reality is moving toward the war scenario.

Given the continuing high level of U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s continuing development of nuclear capability, the military environment is if anything increasingly challenging. Israel remains under the control of factions that have historically shown themselves to be quite willing to use force and that continue vociferously to defend in public the logic of that dangerous attitude. In Iran and Israel, ideology seems strongly to influence behavior, with religious fundamentalism and zenophobia powerful in both societies. Now the U.S. mid-term elections have emboldened a faction likely to place unusual, for Americans, emphasis on ideology rather than pragmatic problem-resolution and that will be very willing to rely on force.  Along all three axes, the U.S.-Iranian relationship appears to be moving toward the war scenario.

This trend does not make war inevitable; indeed, general recognition of the rising danger might make politicians more sober. However, this analysis suggests that multiple, separate pressures are currently pushing politicians in the direction of war, a situation that will take great commitment to resist. With political careers in all three countries invested in looking tough regardless of the risk, where such commitment might be found is unclear. The easy way forward thus appears to be to continue sliding toward a war that perhaps not a single individual--Iranian, American, or Israeli-- actually wants.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Election 2010: Republican Party Split?

Election 2010 does not feel to me like a Republican victory so much as a fundamentalist coup that threatens to split the Republicans. Democrats should use their slap in the face as a wake-up call, stop chasing the neo-cons, and send the voters a clear message. They won't of course; too many have been on bent knees for too long, ever since 9/11.