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.

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