Anticipating a Fruitful Relationship With Iran

Iran will always want an independent foreign policy. Don’t we all? Iran tends to do things differently, which exposes old practices that have outlived their value (if they ever had any). Having Iran as an active participant in Mideast affairs offers great benefits to the U.S., offering alternatives to narrow Sunni and Israeli sectarian interests. We should relish the prospect.

Mideast expert Juan Cole has neatly captured the Mideast context at the moment:

Precisely because a breakout option has deterrent effects, regional hegemons such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are alarmed by Iran’s new capability. It is not because they think Iran will make a bomb (nuclear weapons have since 1946 had only a defensive capacity in any case, because of Mutual Assured Destruction among nuclear states). It is because they know the regime cannot any longer be attacked and overthrown, and that the long counterrevolution against Iran they have pursued is over. [Juan Cole in The Nation.]

Given this concise summation as the starting point, how should Americans view the emergence of Iran, assuming maintenance of the new nuclear accord, as a rising Mideast power?

First, the Syrian civil war cannot be settled without Tehran’s participation. With Iran effectively allied with the U.S. against the Islamic State and Iraq’s defender, Iran will have influence in Syria. The question is for all sides to agree on how much.

Second, Iran must benefit economically from the nuclear accord, else it will A) have been cheated and B) will know it has been cheated. If the goal for Americans is to take a major foreign policy crisis off the radar, that would be a strange way to reach the goal. But deciding to assist Iran economically and figuring out a way to do it are two very different things. The obvious way (thus empowering moderation in Tehran) would be providing access to Western economies, which means Iranian hydrocarbon pipelines, some of which logically should go through Syria. Thus, maintaining the nuclear agreement, promoting moderate behavior by Iran, and solving the Syrian crisis all fit nicely together: these goals constitute a rather tight little basket of mutually dependency.

Third is the vague long-term goal of creating the conditions for Mideast stability and growth to replace endless invasions, terror, sectarian warfare, and general aggression by everyone who can against everyone else in a mindless cycle of destruction radicalizing the population and leading to more destruction. A general lowering of tensions will make all the other problems far easier to resolve. For one example, the Yemen crisis would probably never have turned into an international war in the absence of Riyadh’s obsession with Iran; instead the world (i.e., the U.S.) now has a new failed state to prop up. The new post-U.S. invasion Iraqi regime would probably not have so grievously alienated its Sunni population had Iran not been under the threats of Israeli/U.S. aggression: in a benign regional political environment, Tehran might well have urged Baghdad to avoid sectarian repression, which would effectively have undercut the ISIS terror campaign right from the start and left the post-occupation Iraq as a functioning state.

Fourth is what Cole referred to as the “long [Israeli/Saudi] counterrevolution against Iran.” This counterrevolution impassions and complicates everything else in Mideast affairs; more, it ties U.S. diplomats in a foreign straightjacket, preventing them from protecting U.S. national interests because of the pressures on Washington from so-called friends and allies who use “the Shi’i menace” to interfere in U.S. internal affairs and manipulate Washington. It is not just Iran that justifiably wants an independent foreign policy; the U.S. too would benefit enormously from having one.

U.S. decision-makers have many serious Mideast issues on their plate: the return of Egyptian military dictatorship and decline of Egyptian stability; the potential collapse of the Saudi plutocratic state, perhaps as the result of a jihadi attack on its homeland; and rising Israeli extremism in a grossly over-militarized garrison state that feeds off every crisis within a thousand miles of its borders.  An endless crisis with Iran is not in U.S. national interests.

The Mideast would in many important ways be a far better place with Iran an accepted and active diplomatic and economic participant standing independent, involved, and creative. The burden on U.S. decision-makers would be far lighter if Washington and Tehran put into place a normal process of diplomatic interaction, explaining things to each other when they disagreed and keeping eyes open for opportunities to cooperate.

Turkey’s Palestinians

After 70 years of repression by Israel, Palestinians continue to struggle for freedom and continue to constitute Israel’s core problem, Israeli repression warping Israeli social values, endangering its security, undermining its economy. Is this stellar example of self-defeating behavior the future for Turkey? Is Erdogan really following Israel’s lead?

The landmark U.S.-Iranian nuclear compromise has hardly been shown the light of day, offering the potential of a saner Mideast, and already the old cycle of warfare is heating up again. By lumping ISIS jihadis with the PKK, Erdogan has intentionally confused many issues that need to be made clear and has established a prima facie case for being accused of launching sectarian warfare.

Whether or not sectarian war is Erdogan’s goal, the appearance is dangerous and tragic for everyone, not least a Turkey that is 15-25% Kurdish. Erdogan’s tactical moves over the past year have undercut his earlier claims that he aspired to resolve the domestic Kurdish issue, an issue quite simply the result of a long tradition of discrimination and marginalization by Ankara. It is not practical, much less moral, to “resolve” an ethnic issue by repression when a quarter of the country belongs to the minority ethnicity; resolution, especially in the modern world, should take the road of accommodation, i.e., resolving the minority’s grievances rather than trying to obliterate its challenge, be the result equal treatment, temporary preferential treatment in compensation, or separate treatment (confessional politics, autonomy, or independence). No country has a moral right to compel a minority to submit and, indeed, why should any society want to incorporate a group united in hostility?

The sordid history of the post-Civil War U.S., all the way up to a series of ethnic problems during this summer of 2015, illustrate the difficulty of truly resolving ethnic conflict. Real solutions must be bottom-up, neighbor-to-neighbor, but without visionary leadership from the top, creating a peaceful multi-ethnic society is virtually impossible, especially when discrimination is rooted in the legal system, as with the post-Civil War laws of the U.S. South. There is much opportunity in Ankara to demonstrate that it is not standing in the way of Kurdish integration into Turkish society, just as there was much opportunity in Washington in the 1950s with education, in the 1960s with city buses, and still is today with police bias.

By choosing to attack the PKK outside of Turkey, rather than emphasizing support for more moderate Kurdish fighters defending Syrian Kurds, Erdogan risks alienating and radicalizing a quarter of the population of Turkey. This might indeed enhance his electoral chances this fall, but it will also split Turkey and make Erdogan responsible for whatever violence follows.

The onus is now on Erdogan to demonstrate with action that sectarian war is not his goal. He can only do this by taking true initiative to 1) eliminate anti-Kurdish discrimination within Turkey, 2) facilitate the full political integration of Turkish Kurds into the Turkish political system, and 3) vigorously supporting justice (be it independence or autonomy) for regional Kurds. The latter is hardly imaginable without including some sort of international recognition for Rojava, perhaps along the lines of the Lebanese confessional state.

A no-fly zone is all well and good. Indeed, it ought to be a “no shoot zone.” The issue does not concern the creation of such a zone. The issue concerns how the various ethnic communities within that zone are treated. A no-fly zone in Syria enforced by Turkey could demonstrate to the world Turkey’s commitment to democracy and civil rights. Alternatively, it could demonstrate to the world a racist regime in Ankara intent upon suppressing Kurdish aspirations for freedom. But one thing it surely demonstrates is a politician once again taking the easy road – just bomb everyone. The PKK only exists because Turks in Turkey made Kurds in Turkey feel unwanted. ISIS and the PKK are entirely distinct issues for Turkey, not two identical  cases of “terrorism,” as Erdogan portrayed it: the PKK is the extremist fringe of an entirely justified Kurdish insistence upon justice, a situation caused by Ankara, a situation in which Ankara is the guilty party, while the Islamic State is a foreign threat.  [Or, is that in fact not the real story? Should we in fact interpret Erdogan’s charge that ISIS and the PKK are two peas in a pod as an admission that, by funding anyone who would fight against Assad, Ankara is also guilty of helping to create ISIS? Food for thought.]

Is it really so hard to figure out that anti-regime extremists are created by oppressive regimes?  Turkey should not follow the path of Israel. The way for Turkey to remain a powerful country is to become an inclusive one. But Erdogan is looking at reelection, not history, it seems. In any case, since he has decided to jump from the Mideast ethnic frying pan into the fire, it is now up to Erdogan to make the choice between democracy and ethnic war, and it is up to Obama to make sure that he makes the right one.

The sun shone briefly upon the Mideast last week, but now the thunderheads are once again blackening the political horizons.

Turkish Democracy at Tipping Point

Erdogan, the Mideastern leader who achieved regional preeminence by his good neighbor policy and policy of treating domestic Kurds with a greater measure of justice, has now asserted the right to deny statehood to Syrian Kurds. It  reminds one of nothing so much as the Israeli assertion of the “right” to deny statehood to Palestinians.

There is nothing new in history in the story of a local tough guy telling a minority that it must kneel down, but wasn’t it only a few years ago when Erdogan appeared to be the great new democratic hope of the Mideast? Has Turkey not been the shining example to the world, under Erdogan, that it is possible to have a politically active Islamic country that also treats its people with justice and allows democracy to flourish?

Yet, now, we seem suddenly to be watching the man who would be king choosing of his own free will to burn his kingdom to the ground beneath his feet: inciting domestic sectarian civil war, radicalizing his people, and suppressing the single Mideast society that appears capable of standing up to the Islamic State campaign of barbarism.

Democracy and MinoritiesConsider a multi-ethnic political system governed by the interaction of two dynamics: the nature of the ruling majority’s conflict resolution strategy (from negotiations to force) and the degree of activism by the minority. Four alternative outcomes can be identified:

  • war (red quadrant) – if the majority’s conflict resolution strategy is “forceful” and the minority is “active;”

  • repression (blue quadrant) – if the minority is “passive;”

  • democracy (gray quadrant) – if the majority’s strategy is “conciliatory” and the minority is “active;”

  • marginalization (green quadrant) – if the minority is “passive.”

Only what I am loosely terming “democracy,” i.e., a political system that both the majority and the minority support, constitutes a solid foundation for stability in the contemporary world because all societies today are well aware of the possibility of liberty.

Democracy in a multi-ethnic state requires political activism by minorities; they must participate. It a fatal mistake for the majority to imagine that it is offering the minority a gift if it shares power: rather, empowering the minority is the condition for enabling the majority to enjoy its own liberty. The majority of course always has the option of using force, but the cost is the sacrifice of democracy: the measures required to repress the minority will generate a reaction repressing the majority as well. The weakening of Israeli democracy as the result of its repression of Palestinians, which provoked the rise of the Israeli garrison state, and the return of the Egyptian military dictatorship as the result of the military suppression of the legally elected Morsi regime are but two examples. And when the minority being repressed is gaining power politically (e.g., Turkish Kurds) or gaining power militarily (e.g., Syrian and Iraqi Kurds), the cost will not just be the loss of democracy but the provocation of war.

Democracy and Minorities - TurkeyForce might work against a passive population, but increasing force against an increasingly activist population willing and demonstrably willing and able to defend its own interests leads to war, in this case a sectarian war by Turkey against regional Kurds and against its own Kurdish citizens, spelling the collapse of Turkish democracy.Over the last 10 years, the relationship between the Turkish regime and Kurds, both inside and outside of Turkey, moved slowly but steadily for several years from military conflict, repression, and discrimination toward political integration and cooperation but then, stimulated by the rising chaos of the Syrian civil war, began shifting in 2014 toward renewed confrontation (the arrow in the diagram).

Evidence on the ground of rising hostility in Ankara toward the Kurds is accumulating, Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric is signalling trouble to come, and Kurdish warnings of precisely that are further poisoning the atmosphere. One major unknown that might impact this slide toward renewed Turkish-Kurdish ethnic war is the recent Kurdish electoral success in Turkey, finally passing the 10% barrier for admission to parliament, which will for the first time give the Kurdish citizens of Turkey representation roughly equivalent to their proportion of the population. In theory, this victory for democracy should translate into greater justice for Turkish Kurds; unfortunately, evidence that this democratic advance will generate mutual good will remains difficult to identify.

Fortunately for Turkey, the Kurds, and the whole world, the backsliding illustrated in the diagram above remains no more than the initial sliding down the slope toward chaos. Erdogan could turn back; the other parties in parliament could deny him power to form a new regime (though it is hardly clear that a rightwing-Kurdish coalition could even be politically feasible in Turkey, much less produce a multi-ethnic democracy). The Turkish middle class could promote equality under the law and an integrated society. All that is certain at this point is that Turkey is moving backwards, and if that is the case, where is the power to save the Mideast from itself?

Syrian Kurds: A Losing Strategy to Avoid

The Syrian Kurds, led by their military arm, the YPG, surprisingly now have the military initiative against the Islamic State. But flush with their small victory, they would be wise to think carefully not just about what would be a winning policy but also about what kind of policy would led to disaster. No matter how long a regime has existed or how powerful the state, overconfidence in one’s ability to implement bold steps and denial about the ease with which one can make obvious mistakes constitute an ever-present double-pronged threat.

A conceited policy-maker might dismiss simple modeling techniques for guiding one’s thinking during the process of planning a policy as “unnecessary,” and it is certainly the case that many professional policy-makers will carry out such evaluations in impressive detail with or without diagrams. On the other hand, examples of self-contradictory foreign policy steps are legion, suggesting that leaders frequently act on the basis of multiple, inconsistent goals and thus undermine their own policies. For example, the same week that Erdogan opened the border crossing to Syrian Kurdish refugees, he also warned against the potential danger to Turkey posed by Syrian Kurds, hardly a logical way to calm sectarian feelings and persuade Turkish Kurds that they can trust their own government.

If Ankara has not decided whether to alienate the Kurds once again or take the opportunity to step away from sectarian politics, the Kurds appear to have their own policy-forming issues. Even as they seize the initiative against the Islamic State by threatening its land links to Turkey (rather friendly “neutral” territory for the Islamic State), the YPG is being accused of sectarian crimes, threatening all the international good will they accrued in the high-profile battle of Kobani and feeding all the fears of Ankara that have for generations blocked the aspirations of Turkish Kurds for a nondiscriminatory multinational society. The additional fact that Turkey only opened the border after refugees cut through the Turkish border fence casts a further shadow over the delicate YPG-Ankara relationship. The YPG is winning momentarily on a remote battlefield with the help of other Syrian rebel groups and the U.S. while the Islamic State is in the midst of major military campaigns both in southern Syria and on the outskirts of Baghdad. Whatever reasons for confidence YPG may have, they certainly are not obvious. The fact is that the YPG is squeezed between the vastly more powerful Islamic State to the south and the vastly more powerful Turkey to the north, and if the Islamic State is defeated, the result is likely to be the resurgence of Assad, also no supporter of Syrian Kurdish aspirations for independence. The glory of the Kobani resistance and the roar of U.S. jets notwithstanding, Kurdish options in Syria could vanish like a desert mirage unless they play their cards very skillfully.

The danger for Kurdish interests of mistakes, perhaps made unintentionally as crisis-driven tactical responses to unanticipated provocations, may be easier to understand if only the Kurdish moves are graphed. The diagram “A Losing Strategy” illustrates a possible future series of YPG actions whose self-defeating nature should be clear. Indeed, one can hardly imagine a regime planning such a losing strategy, yet in the rush of events, regimes frequently do behave in this way. None of the possible responses by Ankara are included: is there any evidence to suggest that the Erdogan regime would tolerate such behavior?

A YPG strategy of moves consistently hostile to Turkey is a losing strategy  that the YPG should take care to avoid.

A YPG strategy of moves consistently hostile to Turkey is a losing strategy that the YPG should take care to avoid.

If the specific conclusion is that the YPG is treading a political minefield, the theoretical conclusion is that in addition to calculating a desired policy, regimes should also calculate the policy it needs to avoid. In practice, avoid self-defeating steps is in fact likely to be more important than taking the initiative. Given the track record of most players in the Mideast over the last 20 years, “do no harm” shines brightly as a very skillful approach.

Whether the allegations of YPG ethnic cleansing are accurate reflections of the behavior of YPG forces, the result of careless U.S. bombing in civilian areas, or just extremist Sunni propaganda, for the relatively weak Kurds, the media battle may be more important than their military victories. The real war for the Kurds is not to defeat the far more powerful Islamic State; the real Kurdish struggle is to come out of the broader regional war against the Islamic State with the international image of a society ready for self-government.

Washington also should be taking these reports seriously, and indeed the State Department has expressed concern—at least about the accusations against the YPG.  But Washington also needs to practice the human rights it preaches; it must not, if it hopes to stand as the symbol of a better life, allow the moral distinction between itself and the Islamic State be blurred. If the YPG cannot wrest away from the Islamic State even small towns like Tal Abyad without U.S. bombing of civilians, then it calls into question Washington’s whole strategy for defeating the Islamic State. Every Sunni civilian killed by U.S. planes constitutes a victory for the Islamic State by giving credence in the eyes of Sunnis worldwide to its claims to being their only hope for justice. Today, the Islamic State survives on the strength of 1) Sunni feelings that they have nowhere else to turn and 2) the perceived usefulness of the Islamic State as a hammer against Assad. Eventually, those regimes thus playing with fire will either awaken and extinguish the fire or get badly burned, and there is little doubt that the attitude of Sunni civilians will be a key factor in determining which possibility occurs. Those who do not wish for a conflagration that consumes the Mideast state system would be wise to avoid civilian casualties at all cost. Needless to say, such advice tends today to be dismissed with scorn in key capitals.

Syrian Kurds and Turkish Security: Zero-Sum Tragedy?

Having avoided disaster in Kobani despite Ankara’s thinly veiled hostility, a few short months later Syrian Kurds are taking the battlefield initiative against the Islamic State, giving Erdogan a security headache. The Syrian Kurds, only in Syria because they were made to feel most unwelcome in their homeland within Turkey, are led by those elements of the huge Kurdish minority in Turkey traditionally most insistent upon either equality or (at a minimum) autonomy. Should Erdogan misplay his reaction to the Syrian Kurds’ military advance that aspires both to cut the Islamic State off from the Turkish border (so valuable as a source of funds and recruits) and unite Syrian Kurdistan with Iraqi Kurdistan, he could reignite sectarian war within Turkey but this time with a hostile Kurdish army inside of the former state of Syria. A zero-sum tragedy that will either undermine Turkish domestic peace and democracy or deny justice to the long-suffering Kurds on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border appears imminent. Can a positive-sum rabbit nonetheless be pulled out of the sectarian hat?

A situation that at first glance may appear inevitably headed for conflict between the Kurds and Ankara may in reality be quite different. Ankara may be presumed to want border security and the loyalty of the domestic Kurdish population inside Turkey, while the Syrian Kurds may be presumed to want at the very least a secure political entity in Syria plus the right of regional Kurds to interact and secure civil rights for the Kurds within Turkey. These goals could easily be defined more ambitiously as the subjugation of the Kurdish people vs. the establishment of a unified Kurdish state slicing off some 25% of Turkish population and territory for integration with Iraqi Kurdistan and a chunk of Syria that might go all the way from Iraq to the Mediterranean, which would be very much a zero-sum tragedy.

In sum, the political situation within Turkey and the military situation along Turkey’s southern border are both at a tightly linked turning point mandating the most analytically precise political calculus. Turkish waving of a sectarian red flag or Kurdish demands for independence could cause a disaster. Cautious, open-minded policy planning and calm negotiation, on the other hand, could produce an historic positive-sum outcome, for each side, in this situation, can benefit greatly even as it gives serious consideration to the other side’s core interests.

An important initial step in designing a mutually accommodating foreign policy position on this delicate issue would be the very cautious definition of minimally acceptable goals, followed by the search for ways to gain further benefits without infringing on the interests of the other side. In other words, it is critical in such delicate situations to resist the normal impulse to make maximal demands that will be likely to provoke the adversary to dig in its heels and conclude that “force is the only language our adversary understands.”

If the two sides disagree on everything except the need for border security, trouble lies ahead.
If the two sides disagree on everything except the need for border security, trouble lies ahead.

 A logical first step in resolving tensions between Syrian Kurds and Turkey would be to focus on getting a secure border, something which the two sides are probably already in agreement at least over the short term, as illustrated in the diagram. Over the long term, Syrian Kurdish commitment to a peaceful border might well require the full integration of Turkish Kurds into the Turkish political system, something that appears much more likely now that the historic landmark of a Kurdish political party passing the 10% threshold for admission to parliament has been passed. The obvious Turkish step toward a peaceful border would be the opening of that border to Syrian Kurds, presumably in return for peaceful behavior by Kurds from Syria when visiting Turkey and Turkish police toleration of legal Kurdish political activity within Turkey.

Mideast Venn Diagrams - Positive-Sum Turkish Kurdish Goal Redefinition
Redefining goals more precisely or by focusing more carefully on the real goal rather than some intermediate goal that is thoughtlessly presumed to be required to achieve the real goal may reveal that both sides can win.

The position of the Syrian Kurdish goal of “autonomy” now partly in the zone of joint goals and partly in the Syrian Kurd zone is intended to signal that Ankara would not be likely to embrace that as a goal any time in the near future but might be willing to accept it as a tolerable outcome. Syrian Kurds would presumably need to maintain a clear focus on the need to behave in a way that would continue to elicit such Turkish tolerance of their rising political power. The diagram is just a snapshot of a possible stage in a long and complicated political process.

Given these caveats, the narrow area of overlapping interests illustrated in the diagram could be broadened significantly by minimally redefining key goals that differ, for the conflict in these goals is far more apparent than real. Rather than attempting to force the Kurdish minority in Turkey into loyalty through repression, Ankara can reasonably hope to earn the minority’s loyalty by further promoting on-going reform process that has now led to the electoral success of a moderate Kurdish party. Pitfalls certainly exist, e.g., Syrian Kurdish interest in the quick defeat of the Islamic State vs. Ankara’s desire to exploit the Islamic State as a means of eliminating Assad, but a mutual search for a positive-sum outcome should be able to manage this difficulty. After all, Assad is hardly likely to support Syrian Kurdish aspirations any more than the Islamic State is, so in return for Ankara’s support, Syrian Kurds might well offer to tolerate temporary Turkish support for the current Islamic State offensive against Assad. One might thus calculate that, as illustrated in the diagram, with a little creative redefinition of goals, Ankara and the Syrian Kurds could be seen to have broad common interests.

Once policymakers open their minds to the possibility of positive-sum outcomes, perhaps with the aid of such Venn Diagrams as shown above, fruitful negotiations with the adversary become conceivable, at which point more sophisticated analysis will be needed, though simple sketches can still be useful. This second stage requires evaluation of options at each step, with predictions about the response of the adversary.

Mideast Game Theory - Turkey-Syrian Kurd Rapprochement 1
Portion of the Policy Calculus that Ankara and the Syrian Kurds Need to Be Making, As of June 14, 2015

The June 2015 election over, the Turkish Kurdish HDP now holding enough parliamentary seats to deny the AKP a parliamentary majority, and the Syrian Kurds on the offense against the Islamic State along the Turkish border with Syria, the victorious AKP faces a tipping point: work with Kurds both domestically and internationally or provoke a slide back into sectarianism. To evaluate options, Turkey can conduct a policy calculus simplistically modeled in the “Ankara-Syrian Kurd Policy Calculus chart. Following the earlier diagrams, this diagram rests on the assumption that Ankara’s primary goal is border security. To calculate a winning strategy to ensure border security, Ankara faces, according to the diagram, the question of whether or not to open the border to Syrian (mostly Kurdish) refugees, thus avoiding the scandalous behavior of watching the Islamic State slaughter innocent civilians under the eyes of Turkish soldiers, as happened at Kobani. In the chart, Ankara is allowed only a “yes” or “no” answer. In reality, during the battle at Kobani last year and this week as a battle unfolded at the border crossing near Tal Abyad, Ankara adopted a third variation – opening and shutting and reopening border crossings. On June 14, Ankara reopened the crossing at Tal Abyad, allowing some 10,000 Kurds to begin fleeing to safety. So, public statements of concern notwithstanding, Erdogan chose “yes.”

Now, the ball is in the court of the Syrian Kurds (though no rule prohibits making two moves in a row). The most critical decision for the leaders of the Syrian Kurds as far as Ankara is concerned would seem to be the behavior of the refugees in Turkey: will their leaders counsel peace or violence? If the answer is “yes,” might the ruling AKP, which now needs a coalition partner, offer the domestic Kurdish party, suddenly possessing some 80 seats in parliament, an historic deal? Then things might get very interesting, since no assumption can be made that a domestic AKP-HDP coalition would automatically persuade the more radical Syrian Kurds to go along with a deal that they could easily undermine. So the decision-maker is left wondering how far into the future it is necessary to carry the policy calculus before actually making a decision.

Positive-Sum Foreign Policy: Modeling Introduction

While searching for positive-sum foreign policy offering enduring results (because they are supported by all sides)  may be good advice for policy-makers, the process of designing such a policy is hindered by prejudice and emotion, [see “Designing Positive-Sum Foreign Policy“] not to mention incomplete information about the adversary and pressure from allies with private agendas. So a little formal modeling may spruce up the busy policy-maker’s thinking. It so happens that among all the many sophisticated techniques for analyzing international affairs there is one so straightforward that it really can be done with a pencil on a napkin…and this approach can quickly facilitate identifying some major foreign policy blunders and opportunities in contemporary Mideast affairs.

Far from being a naively idealistic dream, the search for positive-sum outcomes in foreign policy rests on a foundation of cold logic, a conclusion that may be easier to accept by using a very simple modeling technique whose magic, aside from its simplicity, is that to employ it naturally filters out emotion and prejudice, revealing the logical skeleton of truth. This old technique, that requires nothing more than a napkin and pencil, is the Venn Diagram. Let the foreign policy goals of State A be listed in one circle and those of State B in another, then see if any overlap exists. If so, diplomats have room to work. And, indeed, how can at least some overlap not exist? Do not all regimes wish to remain in power, do not all societies wish to survive? Perhaps not; suicidal political groups could exist, and if you judge that to be the case, then perhaps your model will contain two separate circles, and so be it…unless you choose to question the veracity of your model. More likely, by stating goals in general terms, e.g., the desire for security or development or prestige, ground for making deals will be discovered. The approach is rather more logical than just snarling that the adversary is “evil” or “crazy,” both characterizations conceivably true but almost certainly a source of confusion for a policy-maker trying to achieve something.

An initial Venn Diagram of Iranian-Turkish relations might show disagreement over the desired composition of a future Iraqi (or Syrian or Lebanese or Yemeni) regime but agreement on the goals of oil trading and border security. This logically flawed diagram should provoke an immediate protest: the defined goals are not on the same level, since the goals on which they agree are general (easy to agree on) while the conflicting goal (nature of the regime) is precise.

A "Mental Model" Based on Judgment of Iranian and Turkish Goals

A “Mental Model” Based on Judgment of Iranian and Turkish Goals

Now comes time for creative diplomacy. Can the goals be redefined in a mutually acceptable manner to state that Turkey would like Sunni autonomy along its border while Iran would like Shi’i autonomy along its border? Their preferences, so stated, not only seem logical but feasible, given similar preferences on the part of many Iraqis actually living in those regions, changing the situation from an insolvable contradiction between Iraq’s two  powerful neighbors into a reasonable proposal for shifting the Iraqi regime from centralized to decentralized with broad domestic and regional support.

By redefining the goals of Iraq’s two neighbors from trying to control Iraq, not their actual goal, to border security via empowerment of friendly populations, Ankara and Tehran can enhance their states’ security, please friendly Iraqi populations (further enhancing their security), and perhaps enhance the stability of Iraq, affording a long-term second-order benefit. The enlargement of the area of agreement in the foreign policy goals of the two states additionally promotes a cycle of cooperation that will facilitate cooperation on additional

Mideast Venn Diagrams - Redefining Goals

Different but compatible goals…and a much less hostile relationship

issues after some delay as the leaders and bureaucracies on each side become increasingly accustomed to considering those on the other side as potential partners. The critical shift achieved by redefining the adversaries’ goals is to move them by making them more precise from mutually exclusive to different without being mutually exclusive, a process requiring no compromise–just a little creative thinking.

Nothing follows automatically from a diagram, of course. The red question marks in the center with arrows suggesting possible movement by each side toward a compromise solution signal where the real work of the diplomats will occur, but this work will be greatly facilitated by having a diagram that puts on paper the critical concept, all too often cast aside by prejudiced adversaries (especially those operating from a self-perceived position of strength), that a way forward can be imagined.­­­ If dismissed or not imagined, the positive-sum compromise that could resolve the conflict will not even be discussed.

Since the restructuring of the Iraqi government is the core issue under negotiation in this model, Iraq needs to be added to the model. Iraq’s role in conflict resolution is likely to be greatly influenced by both the Islamic State threat and the regional hydrocarbon trade regime envisioned by Ankara and Tehran.

The Islamic State, the latest incarnation of Sunni extremism and prime claimant to the Sunni dream of a restored caliphate, is also the latest challenger to the modern concept of international law. International law may be honored more in the breech than sincerely even by global leaders, but it is as close as the global political system comes to having an ideology to inform its interstate political structure. The Islamic State by its ideal of a caliphate and the open pride it takes in its terrorist behavior

A minimum of four states need to be incorporated in even the simplest Mideast model

A minimum of four states need to be incorporated in even the simplest Mideast model

(which in practice may only be slightly worse than the state terrorism practiced from time to time by numerous major states) challenges the global political system both on ideological and structural grounds. It is already central to the analysis of the foreign policies of Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus, four ruling factions but hardly any longer representing four real states. United by the pressure of the Islamic State, the four areas formerly constituting the states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria seem the smallest analytical unit possible in the region for the realistic modeling of interstate relations.

Even this basic model of the Mideast, as riven by internal contradictions as it may be, is unified by the common desire of all ruling elites for survival. Yet, even at this simplest level, actual international behavior seems somehow to be missing the target. If all four want to survive, should this elemental fact not be better exploited to persuade them to compromise? A second fact is also obvious: all four want to participate. Nothing alienates a regime from the international community and transforms it into a troublemaker so surely as marginalization. By definition, he who rules desires to participate. Yes, theMideast Venn Diagrams - Common Interest efforts to marginalize, by refusing to negotiate until after receiving a concession or by refusing to invite one player to a regional conference, are conscious efforts to exert pressure, but such blatant discrimination can hardly be expected to elicit sincerely accommodating attitudes. And yet, foreign policy failure, based on precisely this behavior, follows foreign policy failure. The four ruling parties share at least these two goals: survival and participation.

How might this knowledge be used? Consider the statement: “all regimes want to survive.” Once again, the precise formulation matters. To say, “all leaders want to survive” has the wrong focus – on individuals rather than groups, thus reducing room for negotiation, for it is much easier to accept the continued participation of a faction than a specific hated leader. There may well be members of the faction who legitimately represent a portion of the population and do not share the blame for all the leader’s crimes. In any case, the leader is the symbol. An international argument over the future of Assad will lead to war; an international argument over the continued participation of Alawites in Syrian politics is quite a different thing.

As for participation, no state will support an international system that rejects it. The international political system was incrementally, experimentally created by the regimes that existed to facilitate communication. To refuse to communicate evokes nothing so much as the spoiled brat who sulks in the corner: not appropriate behavior for the leader of the system! Such tactics are not calculated to inspire confidence, trust, or gratitude, nor should they: they are the epitome of insincerity. The tactical goal of regimes trying to create a better world should be to entice all actors who exist (unless indeed the intent is in fact to exterminate them) to participate, to communicate. This is the first step toward determining how to deal with them. So even as the model gets increasingly complicated (with the addition of  more states and goals) in the effort to make it more realistic, it retains a simple yet valuable core: the region at the center–tiny as it may be–representing goals common to all is the point from which the design of foreign policy should begin.

Since all share some basic goals, negotiations have a place to begin. Can the area of agreement be enlarged? Could it be enlarged via creative redefinition of goals? Can discussions move smoothly from the core area of agreement to secondary goals amenable to compromise? One of the most valuable pieces of information to be gleaned from negotiations, even if one believes them to be “useless,” may be the identification of secondary goals of your adversary that turn out to be insignificant to you. Finding one is pure gold – something to offer that the adversary wants but you can readily give away. One glaring example in recent years has been U.S. refusal to extent diplomatic recognition to Iran, traditionally a nearly automatic diplomatic procedure that simply recognizes any power that exists but which was, in a major blunder, transformed by U.S. intransigence, into an additional unnecessary obstacle to resolving U.S.-Iranian conflict. valuable U.S. possession.

Having determined that the area of common interest exists but is small, the obvious next step is to identify ways to enlarge it, not necessarily with all other actors simultaneously but certainly in ways that try to avoid losing on one side what one gains on the other…at least until one determines that all out, unconditional warfare is the only solution. Aside from that very rare situation, negotiation should be pursued diligently – it is cheaper, safer, and can offer an endless array of unpredictable benefits if pursued with ears and eyes wide open because the political arena in the adversary’s camp will always be evolving in response to invisible domestic dynamics. If one puts on the table precise and credible offers impossible in today’s political environment for the adversary to accept, they may nonetheless become attractive without warning tomorrow. There is no telling, for example, what impact over time on Tehran’s support of Assad might result from a promise by Washington to support a post-settlement Iran-Syria or Iran-Turkey hydrocarbon pipeline, to support continued Alawite participation in a new regime, or to recognize the right of Iran to maintain close ties to the new regime. Indeed, the first option, i.e., the goal of economic development, may be the big goal omitted from our list of common goals, but its priority relative to sectarian conflict and the fear of being destroyed in civil war is uncertain, so it will be dealt with separately.

Designing Positive-Sum Foreign Policy

Positive-sum outcomes generate valuable secondary benefits and pave the way to effective foreign policy. Despite Washington’s penchant in this century for zero-sum actions that look bold but fall short on delivery, achieving the policy-making master stroke of a positive-sum outcome may be as simple as being able to imagine how to redefine the argument.

Imagine a house about be inherited by multiple people, one looking to sell, one dreaming of spending the rest of his life there, etc. Given the mutually contradictory goals, the problem of passing the house on in a way that satisfies everyone appears insoluble. The problem must be reconceived. The lucky inheritors would have continued living without the new windfall, so, viewed reasonably, they cannot lose, i.e., they cannot end up worse off than before and should be at least somewhat pleased to end up somewhat better off than before. They simply need to discipline themselves to define their goal not as victory over an adversary but as gaining something. The relative desiring to live there may insist on doing so but perhaps will accept the personal use of just a few rooms or some sort of time-sharing arrangement with another of his beloved relatives, while the relative looking for cash might accept a buyout rather than insisting on selling the whole property in order to get rich quick. This problem is so simple in principle and so familiar to anyone who has ever inherited anything that it seems ridiculous to belabor it, yet it befuddles decent families every day, and the concept, translated into international relations, lies at the core of U.S. foreign policy failures that imperil our security.

In international relations, the inherited house may represent our planet or perhaps some territory in dispute or an abstract concept, e.g., “national security.” In reality, it represents some endlessly mutating bundle of abstract concepts, but that should facilitate, not complicate the problem: dividing a tiny cabin among a dozen needy relatives may indeed challenge a Solon but anyone ought to be able to devise a method for sharing a huge estate in a mutually satisfactory manner. Consider the bundle of abstract concepts at dispute in the Mideast.

The core concepts bedeviling the Mideast essentially amount to: national security, participation in the international political system, quality of life, and cultural freedom of choice. Our perspective toward resolution of disagreements determines whether these disagreements will be solvable or not. Viewed as a zero-sum situation, the goal of national security, for example, cannot be solved within the bounds of the multi-state system, i.e., security through superior strength automatically generates insecurity, thus containing the seeds of its own defeat for the weaker side will try harder to surpass the stronger. The goal of cultural freedom of choice, defined by picking winners and losers for large geographic regions, is also unrealistic if not unachievable given the mixture of populations, though the proponents of ethnic cleansing provoke endless horrors in their continuing efforts in that direction.

But if goals are defined as “progress toward…” and the bundle of conceptual goals addressed as a whole, then opportunities burst forth like flowers after a desert rain. This is not to argue that diplomats should be expected to join hands and treat each other with new-found love but simply to point out that a foreign policy focused on inventing modest, short-term, positive-sum steps forward is likely to be more effective over the long run than a foreign policy based on a simplistic, black-and-white view of the world. And this is particularly true for a country that aspires to lead the world but lacks the power to compel the world to obey, especially if that superpower benefits from stability, cooperation, and economic progress. The result of the three trillion dollar experiment in remaking Iraq by force should suffice to convince every American that whatever conception of the future world an American has in his or her mind, that future cannot be created by the U.S. through force.

Nonetheless, U.S. policy on a long list of specific issues demonstrates that the predominant world view on the Potomac remains black and white, which may simplify the writing of speeches and the foreign policy decision-making process but essentially rules out foreign policy success. Washington’s current approach to Iraq is dominated, to the degree that can be determined from public sources, by aerial attack, about as black and white as any policy can be. Yes, the White House recognizes that more subtle, delicate compromises will be required (e.g., forming a national Iraqi army, sharing the Iraqi state budget without sectarian discrimination, controlling the feared Shi’i militias, providing work for Iraq’s young men), but American hard thinking and resources focus on the air war. Destruction may in fact be required, but Iraq is already rather well destroyed, and ISIS is spreading further destruction. Still more destruction, akin at best to additional surgeons wielding knives, can do no more than buy time at the cost of increasing the difficulty of finding a solution before the patient dies. Yemen, where U.S. “ally” Saudi Arabia is running the aerial attacks is a similar case. Palestine, where U.S. “ally” Israel implements a dual policy of brief military attacks plus background political and economic repression of the whole Palestinian society, constitutes an even more extreme example of black-and-white policy: punishment if you do nothing and more punishment if you protest.

Zero-sum policy, i.e., policy whose goal is not problem resolution but defeat of the adversary, also reigns supreme on key non-military issues: Iranian surrender continues essentially to be the goal of Washington regarding the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute despite the obvious destabilizing impact of pushing Tehran into a corner, humiliating it, and leaving it concluding, with great justice, that Iranian national security will have been severely undermined. A technical solution to the nuclear issue that leaves Iran insecure and determined to get revenge would constitute a significant defeat for U.S. foreign policy, helping no one but Iranian…and Israeli…extremists.

U.S. foreign policy should be designed to achieve long-term goals consonant with U.S. interests. Instead of awarding the title of “U.S. ally” to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel that pursue foreign policy goals that harm U.S. national security, Washington should work with all states willing to be cooperative. Beyond that rather passive approach, Washington should take the search for productive conflict resolution strategies based on creative linkage among the various issues it faces in interstate relations as the primary purpose of foreign policy. Making it the “primary” purpose of U.S. foreign policy would involve: 1) a major shifting of budget priorities away from the Pentagon toward the State Department and the political analysis arms of other agencies and 2) a shift in tactics away from drone attacks toward the funding of programs to offer alternatives to the people of disadvantaged societies. When foreign aid for social work (not weapons) takes 90% of all U.S. funds used outside its borders, we will know that Washington’s foreign policy priorities have been changed. The search for positive-sum conflict resolution strategies would quickly reveal opportunities for the U.S. because one country will often treasure a success that costs another country little or even turns out to benefit both. Allowing Iran to participate in regional diplomatic conferences may reveal areas where Iranian and American goals overlap, as in combatting ISIS; allowing Iran to export natural gas to Europe would enhance European efforts to achieve energy independence from Russia.

Sincerity at the negotiating table is a critical component of an effective strategy for identifying positive-sum outcomes. Even a brother would be suspicious if, in discussions about how to share an inherited house, he were assured, “Oh, no problem, just let me have the house; you’ll always have a place to sleep.” A far more sincere-sounding message would be, “Tell me what set of rooms would make you comfortable, and I’ll give you a deeded right and the key by Tuesday, 5:00 pm.” At the U.S.-Iran level, Washington might offer support for an Iran-Turkey natural gas agreement, the long-awaited Iran-Pakistan pipeline, regular high-level military consultations on ISIS, and diplomatic recognition the day that the two sides sign a nuclear deal. Those U.S. politicians desiring the continuation of U.S.-Iranian tensions understand this, which explains their efforts to prevent Obama from having the power to offer Tehran the instant cancelation of specific aspects of the U.S. sanctions program, for the quid pro quo of U.S. promises on sanctions in return for Iranian promises on nuclear research lie at the core of any prospective solution.

The logical next step after A) deciding to search for creative positive-sum solutions and B) making one’s counterpart a specific offer is implicit in the above ideas of how Washington might effectively approach Tehran for a nuclear deal: think multilaterally. Rather than publicly slapping down friendly regimes that offer compromise solutions, consider how the U.S. might benefit from allowing other countries also to benefit and invite others to take the lead. Iranian economic ties with Turkey and Pakistan would not only benefit all three states but would raise the interest of each in supporting regional moderation, in turn strengthening the security of the West. An Iran with a rising middle class benefitting from economic integration trumps a marginalized Iran committed to asynchronous warfare as the route to influence. Making the political marginalization of Iran the goal simply amounts to rejecting a solution.

The use of force against third parties has a funny way of ruining relationships: we are all linked by a complex and highly adaptable network, be it us and our relatives and their friends and our friends, or states in the global political system. Actions send waves throughout the social network, reinforcing or weakening various links. The allies of A may be the best trading partners of A’s military rival, and if A is a superpower that started a war against its ally’s trade partner without seeking its ally’s advice, well…

  • Washington rudely dismissed Ankara’s effort to mediate the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute; now, several years later, Ankara has abandoned its regional good-neighbor policy and is toying with a dangerous policy of Sunni-first sectarianism, openly hostile to the Kurds and seemingly turning a blind eye to Islamic State recruitment practices. It appears that Ankara learned that the U.S. does not appreciate moderate advice from its friends, a lesson that apparently pushed Ankara away from the U.S. and toward policies that harm U.S. national interests.

  • Progress on U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks appears to be facilitating the slow, mutually-embarrassing dance toward anti-ISIS military coordination.

Actions are hard to target; everyone else is interpreting the significance for themselves of A’s behavior toward B. Since keeping track of all the ramifications on third parties and their attitudes toward you of something you do is effectively impossible, taking small steps that benefit as many actors as possible is better long-term policy than striking vicious blows that instantly alienate many and slowly worry many more.

How much effort is Washington putting into finding solutions to major regional conflicts that all sides will find at least tolerable? A solution to the Syrian conflict is hardly imaginable without both Ankara and Tehran gaining something.Shutting Tehran out of the diplomatic process constitutes nothing more than a defeat for long-term U.S. national interests, which are best served by persuading as many states as possible to cooperate. A solution to the ISIS/Iraq conflict requires reassuring both Sunni and Shi’i Iraqis. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires listening to Palestinian grievances.  Who in Washington is sincerely dedicated to listening and responding to the demands of all parties involved in these disputes? Black and white categorizations are for children. Can anyone name a political faction in the Mideast so morally superior as to merit total victory? Can anyone name a political faction so extremist that no significant number of “men in the street” credit it with defending their legitimate interests?

By moving the focus of attention from defeating an adversary to finding a linked set of agreements of mutual value, we (whether “we” are relatives or states) make the pie larger rather than spending our time snatching tiny slices out of each other’s hands.

Is Moscow Stabilizing the Mideast?

Israel holds a massive U.S.-funded hammer; Saudi Arabia also has more arms than it appears capable of using wisely; Iran, a natural regional power, sits crippled by international sanctions and antagonized by its marginalization: a dangerous regional setup. Will Moscow’s now promised (again) defensive missiles rebalance the strategic regional equation just the right amount so as to give it a new stability?

With American arms pouring endlessly into Israel and Saudi Arabia, a defensive Russian system to enhance Iranian national security would go far toward balancing the regional military equation: all states seek security and its lack frequently provokes dangerously risky behavior. The ground-to-air S-300 missiles to Iran, if delivered, will bring in tow Russian prestige and, most likely, Russian personnel, making Russia a player again in the Mideast. It can be assumed that Putin, a cautious strategic thinker, will be determined to protect what he delivers. The missiles should also make it easier for decision-makers in Tehran to advocate moderation in world affairs and a focus on economic development. Iran in a post-sanctions environment combined with improved ties to Russia will have many options and may find its interest in (not to mention its fear of) Israel relatively diminished. This, in turn, could hardly be more timely for the U.S., which needs Iranian cooperation to find solutions to three dangerous crises: the Yemeni civil war, the Syrian civil war, and ISIS. Ukraine or not, is Moscow doing the U.S. a favor?

With American arms pouring endlessly into Israel and Saudi Arabia, a defensive Russian system to enhance Iranian national security would go far toward balancing the regional military equation: all states seek security and its lack frequently provokes dangerously risky behavior. Particularly in a region plagued by three militant religious states, marginalizing and discriminating against one of the region’s natural powers is a recipe for trouble.

If Iran reacts to the provision of legitimate defensive capabilities and the opening of economic doors by focusing on building its strength, the Mideast could become a remarkably more stable region, but it will first have to creep through a vast domestic and international minefield. Israeli aggression against Iran’s Syrian and Lebanese Hezbollah friends will constitute a constant war magnet, as Israeli air strikes in Syria during the final days of April—raw meat for every Iranian hardliner—demonstrate. Similarly, Iran will surely have to contend with increasing hostility from a Saudi Arabia already becoming noticeably more oriented toward regional anti-Iranian military adventures. Some Iranian factions may view Russian support as an opportunity for more aggressive regional behavior, but two factors will influence any such argument:

  1. Iraq at the moment represents both a challenge (defeating ISIS) and an opportunity (consolidating the already predominant Iranian influence;
  2. Syria, Iran’s No. 2 issue in an environment where an Israeli attack is removed from the strategic equation, is a place where a hardline policy by the U.S. will likely provoke a hardline Iranian response but equally where an international diplomatic environment conducive to taking Iran’s strategic concerns into account might well persuade Iran to compromise.

But the lure of warming political and economic ties with both Russia and China plus likely counseling from both to move cautiously in combination with U.S. support for a Syrian compromise may persuade Tehran to accept a positive-sum solution. The current broad international pressure upon Riyadh to moderate if not abandon its rash military interference in Yemen enhances the likelihood of such an outcome. To phrase it more realistically, in terms of dynamics rather than snapshots of events or decisions, consolidation of Iraq as part of Iran’s sphere of influence, U.S.-Iranian cooperation against ISIS, new warmth in relations with Russia, enhanced Iranian national security, and international economic opportunities may each enhance the impact and attractiveness of the other factor, generating a slow but steady movement of Iranian foreign policy toward pragmatism.

An Iranian move toward moderation, in turn, could hardly be more timely for the U.S., which needs Iranian cooperation to find solutions to three dangerous crises: the Yemeni civil war, the Syrian civil war, and ISIS, and the two are already unofficially working together to address the latter. Ukrainian tensions notwithstanding, is Moscow doing the U.S. a favor by offering Iran enhanced national security?

Iran Outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia Over Yemen

With President Rouhani’s calm style, the new U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, and Iran’s coordination with the Pakistani-Turkish Yemeni peace initiative, Iran is projecting a degree of moderation and rational behavior far beyond the norm for major actors involved in the Mideast. The contrast with Saudi Arabia’s air campaign interfering in the Yemeni civil war could hardly be more blatant.

Continue reading