"Respect:" Part V of Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Whereas the previous post in this series on the future of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation presented the pessimistic “Victory of al Qua’ida” scenario, this post discusses a far more optimistic outcome based on basic mutual respect and a recognition that to “live and let live” entails a measure of compromise…even by the strong. “Respect” is not a scenario based on equality: Israel retains its current dominance in absolute power but alters its behavior in ways calculated to address the concerns of its neighbors.


Realizing that Israel’s overwhelming military dominance gives it the option of taking a chance for peace, a new Israeli leader renounces expansionism. Israel implements a secret one-year plan to shift bilateral and regional dynamics so as to lay the groundwork for a relationship built on respect, if not trust, rather than military force. The plan calls for a patient focus on signals requiring no response, to be followed by low-key, unconditional offers that are easy to accept. Tel Aviv’s first move is to condemn calls for a preventive attack on Iran as “immoral.” After ignoring several rhetorical flourishes by hardline Iranians, Israel then plays up a moderate Iranian statement. A few weeks later, Israeli diplomats “happen” to encounter Iranian diplomats at an international meeting and casually raise the idea of a review of differences. Two weeks later, Israel officials adopts a “no first strike” principle and publicly notes its appreciation of Iran’s official stance that nuclear weapons violate Islamic principles. The following month, after commenting to the press that “Nixon is remembered for having the courage to visit China,” the Israeli prime minister says he would meet Iranians anywhere to ensure “peace in our time.” Meanwhile, Israel makes overtures to Syria, quietly stops violating Lebanon’s air space, and launches a program to clean up cluster bomblets in Lebanon left over from Israel’s 2006 invasion. Realizing that its Palestine policy is also integral to its relationship with Iran, Israel replaces military attacks on insurgents with police work, frees all Palestinian members of parliament that it had jailed, releases or tries the 10,000 other Palestinian prisoners, and replaces its policy of economic warfare against Palestine with efforts to facilitate economic growth. Although these steps in no way diminish Israel’s real superiority in power, they ease tensions, attract the notice of pragmatic Iranian leaders whose priority is economic development, and make it more difficult for hardliners to mobilize support for confrontation. Iran remains weak and loses influence along the eastern Mediterranean coast, bilateral issues remain unresolved, and Israel remains the dominant power, but the tone of Mideast politics turns away from confrontation, and moderates everywhere are empowered.

Comment: This scenario is likely to be transitional: status usually follows power rather than preceding. But offering status and respect can make reality more palatable, especially if combined with the hope of economic progress. Moreover, just as exclusion of Iran from international meetings to which other countries of equivalent power (e.g., Turkey, Saudi Arabia) are invited can be expected to provoke anti-system behavior (e.g., the arming of insurgent movements, statements calling for restructuring of the system or alterations of international borders), inviting Iran to participate and listening with a respectful attitude may well raise Iranian willingness to cooperate.

Demanding that Iran accept the system’s rules before inclusion puts the cart

Note: The vertical double bar indicates a time delay between any initial
concessions made by Side A and the rise in trust on the part of Side B.

before the horse: power needs to be acknowledged by inclusion, in the expectation that inclusion will gradually induce behavior modification. If the advocates of our current international political system seriously want it to be the long-term global system, then it is incumbent upon them to make the system attractive to outside forces (countries, insurgencies). This may of course prove unacceptably costly but should be the goal; policy should be sufficiently flexible and conciliatory to induce outsiders to join the system. There is no moral or logical reason to expect that an external actor would be willing to modify its preferred behavior as a condition of entry into whatever arbitrary global political system happens to have been set up by the current powers who find themselves temporarily “in charge” of the globe. The “Respect” scenario is sensitive to such concerns and rests on the assumption that if the strong award equal status to the weak, they lose little but the weak gain much and so are significantly more likely to accept the current system.

That said, equality of status has real meaning:

  • Equal treatment
  • Equal right to participate
  • Common standards.

Equality of status implies the equivalent of domestic free speech and for the same reason: we are not perfect, so we hypothesize that the best we can do is guarantee a free marketplace of ideas in the hope that the best will rise to the top. Similarly, the best we can do internationally is to allow all actors the right to speak out. Participation goes a long way toward inducing a willingness to work within the system. In contrast, when you have already been isolated, opposing the system that has rejected you costs little and gains much.

The concept of common standards is also critical. It is hard to make the argument that a country should voluntarily join the system when the system discriminates. Discriminatory rules that give one country the right to offensive nuclear weapons while denying another country even the right to nuclear technology are waving a red flag in front of a bull. Telling an outsider that accepting discriminatory treatment is the price of admission does not constitute an invitation: it constitutes rejection.

The “Respect” scenario is likely to be transitional precisely because once the real meaning inherent in equality of status sinks in, Israel will be faced with some hard choices that will boil down to returning to the bad old days of high tension or making some real compromises. The price of those compromises will depend in great measure on how thoroughly the “respect” policy has been implemented.
Since “Respect” is a scenario founded on the willingness of the strong to behave with respect toward the weak, the most critical milestones to realize this future are actions that Israel (not to mention its U.S. patron) will have to make—and frequently will have to make unilaterally and with patience. The weak can afford to offer little, so the burden of proof is on the strong to demonstrate a sincere desire to climb out of the gutter of threat and hostility. But the strong of course do not want needlessly to endanger the security they have struggled so hard to obtain, so successful steps toward the “Respect” scenario are initially likely to focus on statements of principle and low-cost diplomatic initiatives, leaving the more substantive concessions for later. As the peaceful settlement of the Cold War demonstrates, what cannot be accomplished in a period of high tension when ideologues are in control can sometimes turn out to be quite easy once the mood has calmed and power has shifted into the hands of open-minded leaders.

Key milestones include:

  • Israel renounces expansionism
  • Israel condemns calls for a preventive war against Iran
  • Israel announces a “no first strike” nuclear policy
  • Israel “welcomes” a moderate Iranian statement
  • Israel terminates practice of violating Lebanese airspace
  • Israel replaces military attacks on Palestine with police work
  • Israel offers to clean up cluster bomblets in Lebanon
  • Israel releases jailed Palestinian members of parliament
  • Israel negotiates with Syria on returning the Golan Heights
  • Israel diplomats offer to meet informally with Iranian counterparts
  • Israel proposes talks with Iran
  • Iran and Israel agree on joint working group on bilateral ties
  • Israel proposes Mideast security conference including Iran
  • Israel and Iran agree on trade and “people-to-people” exchanges.

The five scenarios derived from consideration of various combinations of relative power and relative status in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation summarized in the graphic on the right represent only the beginning of a complete analysis of this highly dangerous relationship. Not only have many variables of significance–such as ideology–been omitted, both the broader international context and the domestic political context have been slighted. These scenarios represent no more than the foundation for the type of careful analysis of possible Iranian-Israeli futures that needs, for everyone’s security, to be conducted to gain control over the frenetic pace of irresponsible statements and actions. Nevertheless, even this study suffices to make clear that negative assumptions about the inevitability of disastrous outcomes is not warranted. Given the will to think before acting, logical pathways toward a better future can be conceived and planning to walk those paths can be done. The next post in this series will address a critical element that we must understand to do such planning: the causal dynamics underlying the various scenarios.


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