Evolution of the Washington-Tehran Dispute

Neither Washington’s nor Tehran’s behavior is fixed in stone; rather, each adapts and each sometimes passes the ball, though the other side usually fumbles it.
U.S.-Iranian relations today are plagued by untested assumptions that constrain policy, effectively putting  decision-makers in a mental box preventing them from seeing alternative tactics that might greatly enhance their side’s national security. In other words, these decision-makers are using bad models. Good models are still wrong; model airplanes do not actually carry passengers anywhere. But a good model airplane enables engineers to build better real airplanes. Policy formulation is no different.
The first step toward improving the bad mental models used by decision-makers is to write them on a napkin over lunch or graph them on a computer. If the explanation or drawing is ridiculous, laying it out will make its failures much easier to see. Immediately, someone will ask, “What does this mean?” or “Why don’t you mention X?”
Since we all run multiple scenarios (conservatives love “help, the sky is falling!” while liberals love “kumbaya”) through our fevered little brains all the time, try naming a couple of factors you think matter, put each on an axis, and name each of the four alternative scenarios that results. An example for U.S.-Iranian relations using three key factors (driving forces) has been analyzed in “Modeling U.S.-Iranian relations.”
Examination of the specific policies inherent in a compromise between the U.S. and Iran reveals the fundamental policy changes a move away from the near-war status quo will require.
A simple second step is to see if your scenario set includes a “dream scenario” and a “nightmare scenario.” Chances are it does, so concentrate on them. Based on the scenario exercise, the “Conflict vs. Cooperation” chart above was generated, illustrating several core attributes of a U.S.-Iran “war scenario” and a U.S.-Iran “accommodation” scenario. The details illustrate the very real distinctions in a wide range of policies implicit in these two scenarios. The Compromise Scenario would, for example, require major U.S. military deployment policy shifts (not to mention Israeli deployment shifts) and a fundamentally new U.S. attitude toward the mirage of U.S. domination of the Mideast. This contest for Mideast influence is not about “good” vs. “evil;” it is about real, specific, and highly arbitrary policy positions.
Call this the “peace” scenario if you want, but by “peace” one should mean not just the absence of falling bombs but friendly, stable, productive relations that benefit both sides – not surrender, not empire and colonization, but a mutually satisfactory relationship. Today the U.S. and Iran are very, very far from such a situation, causing great harm to both societies, although burnishing the “tough guy” credentials of several politicians. The analytical point is that realizing the accommodation scenario entails a number of very specific policy shifts, among which are the rather obvious ones enumerated.

A third big step forward would be to investigate how reality is evolving. The world does not stand still. Neither Iranian nor American leaders or societies have policies or attitudes fixed in granite; changes occur, even if sometimes they do so at a glacial pace. Alternatively, policies may be maintained in the face of changing conditions, resulting in the buildup of pressures that can create a political earthquake. Calling one side “good” and the other “evil” only obscures the view of whatever evolution may be occurring either in policy or reality.

Both Washington and Tehran adapted their conflict resolution strategy and degree of ideological commitment regarding bilateral relations during 2010.
Washington’s conflict resolution strategy appears to evolve toward conciliation during the first six month’s of Obama’s administration, but Tehran chose not to test that policy in any very clear and consistent manner; similarly, Tehran’s conflict resolution strategy appeared to evolve toward conciliation during the Ankara-Brazilia nuclear initiative, but Washington chose not to test that possibility in any very clear and consistent manner. Tehran’s level of ideological commitment appears to be increasing steadily, but in Washington, Obama gave the impression at the beginning of his administration of a marked shift toward pragmatic analysis. Meanwhile, the political environment appears to have remained consistently challenging, with neither side making any significant military adjustments.
If the world is right where it was a year ago and if politicians on both sides are portraying the other side as recalcitrant, this does not mean that nothing changed. Rather, this means that an historic opportunity appears to have been missed by leadership incompetence on both sides. This analysis of scenario evolution suggests that flexibility that could have been exploited to achieve progress in fact existed in the positions on both sides and that the failure by each side to make serious efforts to make serious efforts to transform the highly threatening politico-military environment into a more benign environment played a critical role in the joint U.S.-Iranian 2010 policy failure. Tehran toyed with Brazilia and Ankara without making crystal-clear concessions on nuclear transparency, thus wasting an opportunity to occupy the moral high ground. Washington, trying to escape from a mess in Iraq and falling further and further behind in Afghanistan, nevertheless failed to explore the broad area of common interests it shares with Tehran in stabilizing both countries. With regional stability at risk and nuclear war on the horizon, neither Americans nor Iranians can afford such incompetent policy-making.

This scenario evolution analysis also suggests that both Tehran and Washington speak not just the language of force but also the language of reason; unfortunately, both seem somewhat hard of hearing when the other side uses soft language and a bit lacking in the finer social graces.


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