If Policy Fails, Intensify the Policy!

Washington’s effort to compel Iran to obey over the last three decades has only alienated Iran and made its regime more extreme. Might there be flaws in Washington’s policy?

If a long-term effort to implement a policy is failing, despite repeated efforts to intensify that policy, then perhaps another approach is warranted. Worse than just a fix that fails, this may be a case of shooting oneself in the foot. Thirty years after the Shah’s dictatorship was overthrown, such seems to be the case in U.S.-Iranian relations.

In a perfect example of the zero-sum attitude plaguing U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, Ray Takeyh says on November 12, 2010 in the Washington Post:
The question that has perennially bedeviled Washington and its allies is how to compel the theocratic regime in Tehran to alter its objectionable practices.
He is of course quite correct that this is the question that Washington politicians have had in their heads, but he fails to point out the bias in such an extreme and condescending attitude that is responsible for the failure to achieve a solution. Iranians could put the statement differently:
The question that has perennially bedeviled Tehran is how to compel the imperialistic regime in Washington to alter its objectionable practices.
It is, after all, Washington that has troops, bases, and aircraft carriers spread throughout the Mideast and
Central Asia; Iran’s military is in Iran. It is Washington that is insisting on a discriminatory regional nuclear regime, giving Israel a blank check while carrying out economic warfare against Iran to punish it for nontransparency. Yes, Iran agreed to be transparent in signing the NPT, but does the fact that Israel is a nuclear rogue state spurning the NPT, developing nuclear arms, and threatening to use those arms against non-nuclear Iran excuse Washington’s nuclear discrimination in Israel’s favor?
Decades of U.S. hostility designed to prevent Iran’s natural emergence as a regional leader with an independent foreign policy has only cemented the control over Iran of conservative, religious, militaristic, repressive politicians. U.S. repression of Iran provokes Tehran’s repression of the Iranian people. U.S. threats against Iran stimulate the dangerous rise of an Iranian garrison state. The zero-sum attitude of Washington toward Iran has provoked exactly what U.S. foreign policy was allegedly designed to prevent. Perhaps someone should rethink the policy.

The ultimate policy failure is a “fix” that provokes the feared outcome.

Viewing this serious example of creeping policy failure pushing the world ever closer to the nuclear cliff more analytically, the following steps can be identified theoretically:

  1. a symptom is identified that is interpreted as indicating the imminence of some feared outcome;
  2. a “fix” is implemented;
  3. the “fix” in fact provokes the feared outcome.

Given this failure, one never knows for sure if the original symptom in fact was an indication that the feared outcome was approaching.

Washington’s hostility provokes Iranian resolve.

In the case of U.S. policy toward Iran, the more prominent the regional role that Iran plays, following the blue arrows in the diagram, the greater Washington’s effort to prevent Iran’s emergence as a regional power. Encircling Iran with threatening military force, diplomatic exclusion from regional decision making, the construction of an anti-Iran alliance, and economic warfare against Iran are Washington’s specific tools. While the immediate impact of Washington’s fix may be to constrain Tehran’s freedom of movement (the returning blue arrow), the longer-term impact (red arrows) is to provoke a rise in Tehran’s resolve and capacity. (One could graph a very important internal reinforcing feedback loop here as well, with Tehran’s rising self-reliance–e.g., its uranium refinement program, its manufacture of defensive missiles copying those Washington persuaded Moscow not to sell, its increasing refinement of gasoline–stiffening Tehran’s resolve and its stiffening resolve inducing further efforts to increase its capacity.)

The emergence of a new dynamic, “Addiction to Power,” accelerates Iran’s drive for power.

Now that Washington has provoked precisely the outcome it was trying (according to this model; in reality, other interpretations of Washington’s behavior are possible) to avoid, a further dynamic makes the situation even more serious for Washington. As indicated by the new arrow (red and white stripes), Tehran’s new resolve and capability not only provoke faster emergence of Iran onto the regional stage but Iran’s emergence itself provokes further resolve and capability, a cycle that can be expected to continue regardless of whether Washington continues to try to stand in Tehran’s path. A new reinforcing feedback propelling Iran’s emergence, which may be called “Addiction to Power,” has complicated Washington’s plans. After some delay, other factors, such as fear of attack provoking surrender or resource constraints, could of course lead to a tipping point and the emergence of some new dynamic that would shift Iran’s course, but for some period of time the Addiction to Power feedback loop can be expected to accentuate Iran’s rise.

Washington now, first, continues to face the problem of Tehran’s original attempt to gain regional status; second, faces the further obstacle that the very fact of Washington’s resistance has provoked Tehran both to gain in resolve and gain in capability; third, faces the internal reinforcing loop between rising resolve and rising capability; and fourth, faces the newly emerged Addiction to Power reinforcing feedback loop as the combination of rising resolve and capability whet Tehran’s appetite. Now facing four mutually reinforcing feedback loops, all intensifying–exponentially, not arithmetically–the force of Tehran’s drive for regional influence, Washington truly finds that it has shot itself in the foot.

_______________
Notes: 

  • Background material on system dynamics is available on the System Dynamics Page of the methodology site Analyzing the Future and on the website of the System Dynamics Society
  • System dynamics practitioners will notice that the first chart looks like the standard system dynamics pattern, or “archetype,” Fixes that Fail. The distinction made in this essay is that the “fix” does not just fail by producing a serious “side effect” (i.e., an unexpected effect, such as death from a medicine that not only cures the disease but is itself poisonous to the victim) but actually accentuates precisely the outcome that one was trying to avoid.
  • For a detailed discussion of an alternative policy Washington might adopt, see “Smarter Iran Policy Begins With a New Attitude.”
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