Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: Imagining Progress

Shortsighted policy highly likely to harm both the Iranian and Israeli people results from a failure on each side to conceptualize positive-sum outcomes, leaving policy in the hands of politicians focused on private agendas.


Featuring rhetorical war, terrorism, military provocations, cyberwar, and economic war that frighten and radicalize both sides, the Israeli-Iranian conflict begs for efforts actually to resolve the conflict, rather than just blindly choosing sides. “Blindly” is a considered characterization of the process of simply choosing sides and then supporting one’s chosen side…well…blindly. Such a strategy is the very definition of “zero-sum” behavior, and in human affairs, almost nothing is so simple: almost never in human affairs is it entirely impossible to bake a bigger pie. It thus follows that policy based on zero-sum assumptions is virtually never socially rational policy (while virtually never rational policy for society, it can of course be rational policy for a politician or military contractor exploiting war fever for personal or corporate gain). The challenge facing a sincere policy-maker is to devise a policy designed to seek a positive-sum outcome that is sufficiently safe and effective.

Evaluating how power and status, two core forces in international affairs, impact the Israeli-Iranian conflict leads to four broad scenarios describing where this conflict is headed, with the notable outcome that two of the four alternative futures are extremely dangerous, a third (Hostile Bipolarity) also very dangerous, and the single positive alternative (Respect) arguably a very long shot. Powerful forces on both sides benefit privately from the current sustained tension, and that, rather than any legitimate national security concern, is almost certainly the primary reason for the tension’s longevity. It is, nonetheless, a fool’s game.

That said, might reasonable and sincere policy-makers identify an appropriately cautious road forward toward a positive-sum outcome for the two societies and regimes? A starting point for imagining such a road forward is to enumerate, in order, a series of milestones that would seem necessary in order to negotiate such a road. The instant one begins to think in this manner, rather than focusing on the sterile insistence that one’s chosen side is innocent while the other deserves all the blame, it becomes obvious that a nearly endless array of perfectly reasonable steps forward exist.



  1. Halt the Rhetorical War
  2. Avoid Assassinations
  3. Avoid Further Support to Violence Dissident Movements
  4. Publicly Advocate Talks
  5. Agree to Talk Via Third Party About Specific Issue
  6. Agree to Talk Directly About Specific Issue
  7. Agree to Talk Via Third Party On All Issues
  8. Agree to Talk Directly On All Issues
  9. Agree on principle of no first strike Israel joins NPT and eliminates its nukes Israel and Iran agree to accept same rules on nukes


Notably, Step 1 is about as cautious as could be imagined, yet it fundamentally shifts the political context, and all politicians need to do is stop talking. Compared to thinly veiled threats of nuclear aggression, silence constitutes a significant shift. Steps 2 and 3 push open even further the door to progress, yet still without requiring commitments or even acknowledgement. In the context of endless counter-productive demonstrations of machismo, doing nothing can pack a powerful punch. If the adversary responds in kind, move forward to Step 4. Otherwise, you will have succeeded in occupying the high moral ground and will still have available all the old options of down-in-the-gutter violence. Progress emerges from imagination.

In recent years, unfortunately, imagination has been the rarest of qualities in policy-making circles of the protagonists. Those who have tried to help–Brasilia, Ankara, Moscow–have been slapped down by both sides, in a remarkable demonstration of the degree to which ruling elites in both Tel Aviv and Tehran have become allies, jointly pursuing tension for private profit.


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