Dynamics of Iranian-Israeli Hostility

EXCERPT. Iranian-Israeli relations are moving toward war. Any effort to avoid realization of the doomsday “Victory for al Qua’ida” Scenario, in which everyone in the Mideast except al Qua’ida loses, will require addressing both insecurity and ambition.

TEXT. A 2007 scenario analysis of Iranian-Israeli relations generated a “doomsday” scenario leading to an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran called “Victory for al Qua’ida.” In the original analysis, the most important causal dynamic underlying each of the four scenarios was identified, with the above graphic showing the “Insecurity Dynamic” described as key to the Victory for al Qua’ida Scenario. According to this dynamic, inequality generates both contempt by the strong and resentment by the weak, prompting both parties to search for a risky, “final” solution. That search in turn generates an endless feedback loop of rising distrust that leads to rising insecurity that leads to rising hostility that intensifies the search for a final solution.

A review of this 2007 scenario following the recent Israeli attack on Gaza and general election found that Iran and Israel appear to have moved closer to a military clash since 2007.

This essay introduces the critical topic of evaluating the dynamics underlying behavior in the Iranian-Israeli relationship, asking:

  • The degree to which the Insecurity Dynamic (on the right) identified in 2007 explains their relationship;
  • What other dynamics should be included to understand this scenario.

Note that a dynamic may be defined as required for the scenario but found to be non-existent in reality, thus casting doubt on the likelihood of the scenario coming true.

Validating the Insecurity Dynamic

The innovation of explicitly focusing on the dynamics underlying scenarios so as to draw attention away from the scenario stories, which are essentially fairy tales designed to provoke thinking, to the very real but frequently ignored or misunderstood dynamics that actually cause behavior is critical to transforming scenario analysis from an amusing tale-spinning exercise into a rigorous analytical method for thinking about the future.

A qualification to the original Security Dynamic leaps out immediately: it is not just the weak (i.e., Iran) that feel resentment or the strong (i.e., Israel) that feel contempt. Indeed, not only contempt but resentment seem mutual, judging from public elite commentary. The common Israeli comments that Iranian nuclear arms “cannot” be tolerated, an assessment that flies in the face of half a century of all sorts of hostile dyads tolerating each other’s nuclear arms without a nuclear exchange, is an example. This qualification suggests at least two avenues for exploration:

  • Inequality may not be the only source of discord;
  • The steps from inequality to the search for a “final solution” may be much more complicated than as drawn.

Be that as it may, the elements in general seem on target.

  • Distrust is palpable in the relationship, with each side egregiously interpreting the other’s behavior in the worst possible light.
  • Insecurity, at least on the part of Israel, seems surprisingly high, considering that Israel is infinitely the stronger of the two in strategic military terms. Indeed, an interesting question is why Iran, given its extreme vulnerability to attack, does not demonstrate more insecurity. One explanation may be the power of the regime to disregard and conceal opinion; another may be the leadership’s experience of resisting Saddam Hussein.
  • Hostility is intense, with little if any visible effort to ameliorate tensions.
  • Israel’s focus on nuclear war as a solution and Ahmadinejad’s focus on the eventual collapse of Israel show the mutual tendency to overlook the wide range of normal options and focus on highly unrealistic “final” solutions.

In sum, the Security Dynamic in general rings true as a structure for stimulating critical thinking about the dynamics actually at play.

Other Dynamics

If a whole scenario were the result of only one dynamic, analyzing the future would be easy. What other dynamics need to be considered to understand the level and durability of Iranian-Israel hostility over the last generation?

The change in both Israeli and Iranian foreign policy provide clues suggesting that not just insecurity but also ambition plays a critical role. This is perhaps too obvious to require belaboring, except that it informs any serious effort that might be attempted to resolve the situation. Israel has, to summarize a half century in a sentence, evolved from a pioneering society looking for a home, to a regional power not just demanding security but also developing a strong appetite for regional domination. Indeed, it is not clear that very many Israelis can even make the distinction between the two goals. With Palestinians subjugated, Egypt neutralized, and Saddam’s Iraq destroyed, all the tall Mideast mountains of opposition to Israel have been leveled, expanding Israel’s perspective far enough to make Iran visible as only mountain on the horizon. At the same time, as the Islamic Revolution has consolidated itself and Iraq has been transformed from Iran’s primary enemy into an increasingly friendly Shi’ite partner and as the old Soviet bias towards Iraq has been replaced by a new Russian bias toward Iran, Iran has developed ambitions of its own. Whatever truth there may be in the various details of Israeli and Iranian charges and countercharges, it is clear that each country aspires to be the leader of the region. While each might, absent security concerns, eventually see a path to moderation of its own ambitions and accommodation of its antagonist, neither has yet learned to do so.

At a minimum, explanation of how “Victory for al Qua’ida” might come about requires the addition of a dynamic explaining the clashing ambitions of these two rising powers. The “Danger of Ambition” causal loop diagram gives a very simple idea of the core dynamics. For starters, it is not just that their ambitions clash, but that the behavior of each tempts the other to exploit it to feed its own appetite. Israel exploits Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric to excuse its own expansion; Iran exploits Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians to excuse its self-promotion as the leader of Muslims. Each opposes the adversary’s ambition not just because it clashes with their own but also because opposition excuses their own. Up to a point, shadow boxing is useful, but the more intensely the two sides shadow box for convenience, the more likely it is that each side will begin to believe that the other really does pose a threat. Moreover, threats to ambitions get confused with threats to security. Legitimate opposition to the adversary’s gluttony get misinterpreted as an existential threat.

Israel wants military dominance, territorial expansion into the West Bank, and–certainly for some parties–expansion beyond that. Iran wants recognition of its natural role as a regional power, which clashes with Israel’s desire for preeminence. Any effort to avoid realization of the “Victory for al Qua’ida” Scenario will require addressing both insecurity and ambition.

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