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|
- Ideological commitment
- 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.