Assessing Blame for the U.S.-Iranian Conflict

The U.S.-Iranian contest for status appears highly dangerous: even if the players are in the game for purposes short of war (e.g., national status, personal career), miscalculation is an ever-present threat. Moreover, the game is expensive on numerous levels, not least the waste of oil powering all those U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, assessing who is to blame is critical. It’s not about punishing the irresponsible but about discovering a solution.

Washington has placed more obstacles in the way of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that has Tehran, judging from a simple list, though policy makers seem curiously oblivious to their own actions. The list suffices to illustrate that Washington bears some of the responsibility for the conflict, and recognition of even that simple fact on the part of U.S. decision makers would constitute progress, but a serious assessment of where blame lies requires moving past mere lists, and a straightforward weighting scheme is the next step. The approach might clarify far more than just U.S.-Iranian relations.

Parsimony is the key to designing an unbiased weighting scheme.  All can probably agree that existential threats are the worst, lesser national security threats a bit lower on the scale of severity, threats to the regime (but not the state, much less the population) yet less severe. Insults, despite the propensity of politicians on the make to treat them as worth their weight in gold, are far less significant than military or diplomatic moves. Preparations are more difficult to score, but since every country feels that it has the right to prepare (to research, to arm, to train), it is hard to see how legally permitted preparations can be ranked as very seriously. By now it should be clear that the business of weighting schemes, albeit useful for measuring the significance of behavior, can get messy very quickly.

In an attempt to avoid such messiness, then, the following parsimonious weighting scheme is proposed, with a score of 8 for “Existential Attack” down to 1 for “Rhetorical Attack:”

  • Existential Attack – war that could destroy the society
  • Attack on State – war that could destroy the military but takes care to avoid destruction of society
  • Regime Overthrow Attempt
  • Lesser Military Moves – repositioning forces, arming adversaries
  • Non-military Use of Force – economic sanctions
  • Official Threat to Use Force
  • Diplomatic Campaign to Weaken Adversary
  • Rhetorical Attack – insults carrying no clear implication of action.

Much is of course overlooked. For example, is an official threat to attack by a nuclear state by definition an “existential threat” that should be scored higher than threats by states that possess no weapons of mass destruction? This weighting scheme is a short step on the road to placing blame, yet it already seems to improve our understanding by demonstrating how ridiculous glib protestations of innocence are.

The “Assessing Blame” table, scoring once if either state has even once done the relevant act, generates a much higher score for the U.S. than for Iran. Note that the issue of whether the U.S. has actually done anything to overthrow the Iranian regime is scored “0,” arguably introducing a pro-U.S. bias. Moreover, each state gets the same score of “5” for lesser military move, which again seems to introduce a pro-U.S. bias since it leaves the host of threatening U.S. and Israeli military moves scoring no more than the relatively minor Iranian military moves in Iraq and Lebanon. Third, each is scored “3” for conducting a hostile diplomatic campaign, but again consider the reality: while the Iranian campaign is for reform of the global political system to “cut the U.S. down to size” the U.S. campaign is arguably a far more serious effort to marginalize Iran. Iran’s call for reform is not only quite reasonable on the face of it (a pro-U.S. bias does obviously exist in the governance of the world and U.S. management of the world is fraught with errors), but Iran’s campaign calls for new leadership not the exclusion of the U.S. from world affairs.

The substantive elephant in the methodological room that is left untreated in the above analysis is the charge that Iran’s alleged policy of nuclear opacity may be designed to enable Iran to sneak up to a breakout capacity that would enable it to create a handful of nuclear bombs with which to threaten Israel, which has an official policy of nuclear opacity and is commonly thought to possess 200-400 nuclear bombs, not to mention a variety of delivery systems, all under a one-sided U.S. defensive umbrella. Since even a lopsidedly weak nuclear breakout is still something of a game changer, Iran’s apparent inability to present clear evidence that it is not traveling down this road deserves consideration…but only in the context of a vastly superior Israeli nuclear capability. Israel cannot, legitimately, have it both ways: either ignore the nukes and nuclear aspirations of both sides or pay attention to the nukes and nuclear aspirations of both sides. The contribution of a clear method is how clearly it brings such issues into focus.

In short, even a simplistic weighting scheme further reveals the degree to which blame for the U.S.-Iranian conflict lies not just partly but mostly on the U.S. side.

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