Dealing With Iran. Pt. 1. Contradictory Strategies

Politicians, particularly those unskilled in foreign affairs, frequently believe that threats are more effective than flexibly applying the full range of options, admittedly an approach requiring some skill and patience. What are the impacts of relying on the zero-sum policy of threats rather than seeking a positive-sum outcome? This post is the first in a series to examine the complexities of assessing in advance how Tehran may respond to the new U.S. policy based on threats.

For four decades, U.S. policy toward Iran has wavered back and forth, moving for a moment toward conciliation, then back to a strong emphasis on threat. “Carrot or stick?” is the perennial question in foreign policy. One hopes no leader would ever phrase the endless variety of choices in such a dangerously simplistic manner; this is no binary choice, though the behavior of politicians sometimes suggests that in their hearts, they truly believe it is. Simple as the question may be, no political science theory provides a surefire guide to policymakers; no analytical method a surefire process for calculating how an adversary will respond. As a result, both conciliation and threat repeatedly backfire.

With the understanding that policy is a flow of action like a pipe containing a mixed stream of warm and cold water, global dealings with Iran can be summarized as a world policy with a flow toward Iran connected in a circle to an Iranian policy flowing back to the world. In the “Dealing With Iran: Obama Strategy” diagram, the joint strategy toward Iran of the Six Powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) at the end of Obama’s second term is connected in such a circle with Iran’s response. Although Obama’s actual policy always included both threats and inducements, the diagram simplifies this, showing only inducements, i.e., a “flow of warm water.” The diagram pictures a “reinforcing” loop (actions of A reinforce actions of B), over time yielding exponential growth (a “virtuous circle” if you like the results; a “vicious circle” if you don’t).

Dealing With Iran - Obama StrategyDefined narrowly (in terms of the nuclear agreement, without linkage to other issues), the diagram illustrates accurately the positive-sum outcome that Iran limited its nuclear development and in return received economic benefits, benefiting both sides. This statement says nothing about the overall state of or trends in relations; it says nothing about the “limits to growth” of this particular cycle, of other dynamics that might be growing faster and perhaps pushing relations toward a turning point. All such considerations would require a more detailed assessment than is presented in this initial view. This is the simplest of models that nonetheless contains an essential, if temporary and limited, truth–a bit more than a snapshot, for it endured long enough to demonstrate its utility, but a good deal less than an accurate long-term forecast, given reality’s sensitivity to rapidly evolving political conditions. The diagram is a model of one dynamic, a dynamic that was for a time dominant; it is far from a model of reality.

In May, Trump unilaterally broke the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, demanding new concessions from Iran as the price for continuing to honor any agreement constraining Iranian nuclear R&D.  [See “Dealing with Iran: Trump Strategy.] The choice for Iran was to pay a higher price for maintaining their side of the bargain or going free and being faced with the threat of additional U.S. hostility. Indeed, before it had even had time to react, Tehran was in fact subjected to further threats. Washington, in sum, was punishing Tehran for keeping its side of a narrow (nuclear) bargain based on the claim that the original agreement made by Obama should have restricted other, non-nuclear Iranian activities. In stark contrast to thee unified P6 strategy during the Obama Administration, the isolated US strategy as of May 2018 under the Trump Administration tossed out the former global coalition policy of emphasizing inducements while keeping threats on the table, leaving only the threats/punishments and arguably strengthening those threats/punishments. 

Dealing With Iran - Trump Strategy

Does the reinforcing loop of bilateral cooperation (world offers trade; Iran gives up nukes) mean that reinforcing loops always work? No, the truth is that reinforcing loops almost always fail, perhaps because they require careful management or people with good will on both sides simultaneously. A reinforcing loop is simply a situation that is getting more and more…, i.e., exponential growth. Pretty soon something has to change, but if you happen to like the results, you won’t want to stop the momentum until it is too late…a good reason to think ahead. The Obama Administration might have benefited from following up the initial victory with a determined effort to adhere strictly to its side of the bargain and a sincere search for ways to strengthen the accord or the broader relationship. The joint campaign against ISIS gave Obama the opportunity; Obama’s arming of Riyadh for its bombing campaign in Yemen poisoned the broader context. By the time Obama left Washington, the agreement was ripe for failure for external reasons. 

U.S.-Iran relations have for four decades been characterized by people of good will on both sides but almost never simultaneously. Timing is crucial. Careful management is also required: each side, looking anxiously for its promised payoff, will be quick to accuse the other of cheating if any unforeseen delays occur, such as Western failure rapidly to deliver on its economic promises. Domestic politics also interferes with positive-sum reinforcing feedback loops: anti-Iranian conservatives in the U.S. have from the start rejected the beneficial nuclear agreement for not including more benefits (preferring no loaf to half a loaf). More general obstacles to the continuation of desired reinforcing loops include running out of resources, since once the loop gets moving, its exponential nature will consume resources at a rapidly accelerating rate. Sadly, especially in international relations, many people fail to give credit to controversial positive-sum agreements for side benefits. The agreements are likely to be controversial in the first place only because of some prejudice against the other side. Even when the other side plays nice, the prejudice remains. Just as the nuclear agreement went into effect, Washington and Tehran both discovered to their mutual embarrassment that they needed each other’s help to fight ISIS in Iraq, but how many opponents of the nuclear agreement admitted that their opposition might have prevented needed military cooperation? The most basic contribution of the circular diagram is simply that it tells the user that the reality is a flow of current whose speed must be managed by the policy-maker, not an event to be chalked up as a permanent victory.

All of these considerations were obvious at the time, but something is only “obvious” when you focus on it, and policy-makers have many things to focus on. Putting a risk in a diagram helps keep it in focus. Computer models that show how dynamics (e.g., the flow of trade, the level of rhetoric, the size of troop deployments) evolve or might evolve helps keep subtle background changes in focus.

 

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Iranian Opportunity

U.S.-Iranian relations have for decades been plagued by political mistiming – whenever one side was momentarily willing to be reasonable and accommodating, the other was not. Finally, leaders in both Washington and Tehran appear to have the political space to be statesmen. Can it, finally, happen? Continue reading

Will Netanyahu’s Provocations Backfire?

Netanyahus combined efforts to push the U.S. into a war on Iran as a smokescreen for his plan to absorb the West Bank and to manipulate the U.S. presidential election may open the door to an alliance of U.S. and Israeli national security officials who believe in security through peace and justice.
Netanyahu is interfering in the current U.S. Presidential campaign to put into office a president who will kowtow to his factions agenda, namely to get the U.S. to attack Iran to facilitate Israeli consolidation of control over the West Bank. While U.S. politicians remain mostly in denial about Netanyahus interference in the U.S. political system and threat to U.S. national security, former Israeli foreign minister Livni openly criticized Netanyahu for endangering the U.S.-Israeli alliance by his anti-Obama attitude.
Although it is impossible to distinguish with certainty the responsibility of Washington from that of Tel Aviv for recent acts of anti-Iranian aggression, even the militantly right-wing website DEBKA seemed recently to be hinting that the recently murdered Iranian nuclear scientist was killed by Israel to provoke a U.S.-Iranian war:
By denying “absolutely” any US involvement in the killing, the administration implicitly pointed the finger at Israel, [emphasis in original] an unusual act in relations between two friendly governments, especially when both face a common issue as sensitive as a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama seemed to suspect that Israel staged the killing to torpedo yet another US secret effort to avoid a military confrontation with Iran through back channel contacts with Tehran, while the administration’s extreme condemnation is seen as tying in with its all-out campaign to hold Israel back from a unilateral strike. [DEBKA 1/14/12.]
Netanyahu seems simultaneously to be interfering in U.S. internal affairs and attempting to undermine U.S. foreign policy in a way that directly harms U.S. national security. While neither represents anything unique in the long, troubled U.S.-Israeli relationship, Netanyahu may well be carrying such anti-U.S. behavior to an extreme that will finally awaken the American public to the harm of allowing Israel to manipulate the U.S.
Ironically, Obama has numerous natural allies in Israel for any effort to avoid the dangers of a war with Iran, which would put Israel in a highly exposed position. The most obvious ally for Obama is ex-Mossad chief Dagan, who has, since his recent retirement, been on a public campaign to warn against the belligerence of the Netanyahu faction. Perhaps no foreign policy mistake by Obama is more difficult to comprehend than his failure publicly to associate himself with such Israeli national security officials as Dagan who fear that the poor judgment of Israeli political leaders will endanger Israeli national security.
Despite having the reputation of having been an extreme hardline defender of Israel quite willing to fight dirty covert war, Dagan has over the last six months made his distrust of Netanyahus war-mongering crystal clear. In December, he reiterated his concern, noting, on the subject of a possible U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran:
The commotion surrounding the immediate alternative of an attack may lead the Iranians into a reality in which they are (pushed over the edge) and try to obtain nuclear capabilities as quickly as possible instead of treading rather carefully while taking the international community’s demands into consideration….this situation could prove to be problematic because it may (affect the entire Middle East) in such a way that it would have security and economic-related repercussions for Israel…[Ynet News12/19/11.]
Dagan spoke publicly again in early January, implying that Israeli political leaders do not pay attention to Israeli national security, specifically accusing both Israeli defense ministers and prime ministers of ignoring IDF exercises designed to study Israeli national security issues [Israel National News 1/4/12].
Dagans calls for caution regarding Iran echo similar concerns voiced by leading U.S. national security figures, and, while falling far short of advocating that Irans interests be taken into consideration, nevertheless open the logical door to a new approach along those lines.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently made clear the threat to Israeli national security, even to its continued existence, posed by Netanyahus belligerent policy of provoking tensions simultaneously with Iran and Palestinians, observing:
At this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, it’s not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what’s happening. [The Corner Report 10/9/11.]
Former defense secretary Robert Gates also reportedly accused Netanyahu of endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank [Haaretz 9/7/11.]
Rather than listening, Netanyahu has evidently decided not only to dig in his heels but to attempt regime change in Washington. Netanyahu has long been confident of his ability to manipulate Washington and with good reason, but this time he may be biting off more than he can chew.
The more openly Netanyahu allies himself with the dishonored neo-con wing of the Republican Party that is struggling to reinvigorate the Bush-Cheney policy of U.S.-provoked imperial wars at a time when the U.S. is retreating from the Islamic world and struggling to recover from its decade of foreign adventures and financial excess, the more he opens political space for American officials who believe in a more cautious route to U.S. national security to ally themselves with like-minded Israeli officials.

U.S. Policy on Iran Is Designed to Fail

Intentionally or not, Washington’s policy toward Tehran is flawed politically, historically, and psychologically. It is a policy designed to fail.

Never, ever say please if you can get away with spitting in someones face. That, in this highly civilized new century, has become the essence of American policy toward Iran. Many in Washington will surely defend this approach as the only language they understand. Maybe so. One thing is for sure: it is the only language in which they have heard us speak.
In defense of Washington policy makers, they of course do not know how Tehran might respond to a sincere and consistent policy of inviting Tehran policy makers to sit down and reason together. And they can be excused for seeing little likelihood of being able to convince Tehran of sudden American sincerity between now and the Presidential election.
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A Policy Designed to Succeed
A policy designed to persuade Tehran to forgo militarization of nuclear technology would contain at least three shifts in U.S. policy toward Iran and one fundamental shift in the regional context. The policy shifts toward Iran are obvious: respect, inclusion, and security. The regional shift is sufficient movement toward justice for Palestinians to make radical Iranian involvement in the Levant irrelevant. Amazingly, all these U.S. moves, which Washington seems to find so distasteful, are fully consistent with U.S. national security.
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Nevertheless, it is worth considering how Americans would feel if China or Russia  invaded Mexico, set up a string of huge military bases there, and sailed an offensive Armada into the Gulf of Mexico, while loudly discussing the option of attacking the U.S. (of course, with pinpoint accuracy to avoid civilian casualtiesexcept for scientists working at the Pentagon), and demanded that the U.S. relinquish not just its most powerful weapons but its right even to conduct research toward some future emergency development of such weapons. How many American politicians would bend their knee and disarm in return for nothing more than the privilege of being invited to negotiations? How many who did bow down would win reelection?
Even the most reasoned high-level U.S. pronouncements about Iran come out wrong. Consider Defense Secretary Leon Panettas recent statement that Iran is only laying the groundwork for a possible future bomb. That would seem to settle the issue in a rational world. Countries have the right to lay the groundwork for future defense. But nohe then continued to point out that even though he admits Iran is not building nuclear arms, the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing. Leon, you really understand human nature. As long as you can spit in their face, dont ever say please.

But the mistake is more serious than just egregious American bullying that accomplishes nothing more than to irritate Tehran and make a serious global issue dangerously emotional. Even in rational terms, Panetta is singing off-key. Perhaps in Washington, it seems rational for all countries, even those threatened with aggression, to trust Washington. Elsewhere, “rational” would not be the word for such a naive attitude. On the contrary, given Washington’s aggression against Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, its threats against Iran can only be interpreted as making only one policy “rational” for Iranians: maximizing self-defense capabilities. That is not the lesson Washington should be teaching.

In this context of endless bullying without any inducement to compromise, an incident that will inflame passions is almost inevitable.
Whatever you may think of U.S. or Iranian foreign policy, the fact is that every time Tehran underscores its independence and right to self-defense, Washington becomes more aggressive. If this is war, it is a one-sided war. Yes, Iran is insulting, warning, lecturing, posing, and desperately trying both to strengthen itself and to give the appearance of strength: only an unemployed Republican presidential candidate could define that as aggressive. Washington, in contrast, is intensifying a crippling campaign of economic warfare within a context of a simultaneously tightening military encirclement.
If Washington is bluffing, it is a convincing bluff, plenty convincing enough to make someone in Tehrans highly factionalized regime panic. Let us assume, for the purposes of conversation, that Washingtons Masters of the Universe have everything perfectly calibrated to force Tehran to beg for mercy without any risk of a disaster. Let us assume that the disasters of the Iraq invasion, the on-going mess in Afghanistan, and the endless elite-created recession are lessons learned, mistakes never to be repeated. Wiser now, the Masters of the Universe really do know how to run the world, we shall assume.
Still, from Tehrans perspective, things are starting to look a little scary. What if someone or some faction panics? What if a third party (say, an ambitious Israeli politician or an al Quaida type) sets a trap? What if Iranian decision-makers simply decide that Washington needs a slap on the face to wake it up?
What if Tehran calculates that things are getting out of control, that Washington leaders are not Masters of the Universe but just provincial politicians wrapped up in their election campaign? What might Tehran do? And how would American politicians, not exactly known for their ability to appreciate how the world looks to Muslims, be likely to react? In the current emotional situation, anything is possible, and almost every conceivable scenario will be bad news for Americans.
People do not respond very well to rude and highly public ultimatums, even when they are persuasive. Any Iranian politician who did so would almost certainly face discharge, arrest, and probably a firing squad for betraying his country. Moreover, how could an Iranian policy maker even defend a proposal to kowtow to the U.S. before his peers? The U.S. over the last decade has fought wars, either itself or via proxies, in Iraq, Somalia, Gaza, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. How many victories did it win?
Psychology suggests Tehran will not accept an ultimatum. History suggests the U.S. will only make matters worse if it starts another war. Both the U.S. secretary of defense and the recently retired Israeli head of Mossad see an attack on Irans nuclear establishment as at best a very short-term palliative. The U.S. campaign of economic warfare against Iran is empowering Iranian hardliners, putting the initiative in the hands of Moscow and Beijing, and alienating U.S. allies from Turkey to Japan (both of which are demanding the right to continue buying Iranian oil).
Washingtons policy toward Iran is a policy designed to fail. Why?

Challenge to the War Party

American media are being flooded with calls for aggression against Iran, all replete with glib assumptions and careful avoidance of any deep analysis of what might go wrong. Here is what I want:

an argument for launching a war against Iran that is intellectually honest and profoundly self-critical, an argument that enumerates assumptions and questions them, an argument that searches for what could go wrong and lays out a precise plan for avoiding pitfalls, an argument that shows how war will lead us to a world we can honestly expect to be better than it would have been without war.

I predict that no one can make such an argument. I challenge the smooth-talking, “they will welcome us with flowers” set–those of you who think wars can be managed and long-term dangers avoided–to prove me wrong.

Iraqi Lessons

The Washington elite decision to invade Iraq occurred for reasons that thinking Americans will bitterly debate for much of the rest of this century. Like it or not, the influence of that decision will be heavy on the shoulders of every person alive on earth for the rest of that persons life. The question now centers on the lessons we all learn.
Lesson #1: War does not create democracy. If Washington invaded Iraq to defend freedom, the invasion was a disaster. The behavior of the U.S. toward occupied Iraq, the behavior of U.S.forces in Iraq, and the behavior of Iraqi politicians during the occupation have all tarnished the reputation of that ever out-of-reach ideal known as democracy.
Lessson #2: The American way of war destroys societies rather than saving them. If Washington invaded Iraq to save the Arab people, its destruction of the most advanced middle class society in the Arab world makes the failure of that goal crystal clear.
Lesson #3: A flashy war somewhere else will trick the American people every time. If Washington invaded Iraq to keep Bush-Cheney in office, the plan worked brilliantly, rescuing an apparently doomed administration. Perhaps the worst president in American history was able to preside over what was, in moral terms, perhaps the most immoral decade in American history, step nimbly over the thousands of dead civilians, ignore the tattered remnants of U.S. Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and announce with a grin that being president had been fun.
Lesson #4. Empires feast on war. If Washington invaded Iraq to build empire, the lesson to be derived from the perspective of the American people is quite different from the lesson that an empire-builder would derive. Despite being fought to a draw by rag-tag extremists”—many of whom were in fact genuine nationalists and having its uniformed forces essentially kicked out, the empire-builders have much to savor: Iraq remains, sort of, in the U.S. orbit, with huge and dangerous U.S. mercenary forces evidently planning to remain. Then theres that monster fortress embassy in the Green Zone. As for the ring of real fortresses, the U.S. military bases, just exactly what is happening to them? More significantly for empire-builders, the war facilitated the establishment of a larger ring of U.S. bases throughout the region, not just surrounding Iran but making clear that, for the moment, the U.S. is the winner of the Central Asian Great Game that Russia and Great Britain used to fight. Of course, the small matter of how to avoid a second embarrassing victory”—in Afghanistanremains to be worked out; some of our brilliant strategists are now suggesting the (to empire-builders) obvious solution: expand the failed Afghan adventure to Pakistan.
Lesson #5. Even winning a war can harm your security. OK, maybe the U.S. did not exactly win the Iraq war, but it certainly conquered the place and invented its current government. Yet who in the U.S. feels more secure? The war empowered bin Laden for years, multiplied anti-U.S. feeling worldwide, contributed greatly to a continuing U.S. economic mess, left the country profoundly divided, and left the U.S. embarrassingly irrelevant in the Arab world, as became obvious when the White House sat on the sidelines during the heady days of Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, Iran, which empire-builders and Likudniks so love to criticize, is manifestly more significant on the world stage than it was a decade ago. Much more seriously for real strategic thinkers, Russia and China are steadily moving forward with low-cost economic development projects to expand their global influence while being pushed more and more warmly into a strategic embrace by the squeeze the U.S. is putting on them.
Lesson #6. Aggression is complicated. If Washington invaded Iraq to get Iran, well, Washington transformed Iraq from Irans main enemy into, shall we say, a very friendly and submissive neighbor: dare we say Iraq is Persian for Canada? And now Washington is almost throwing Pakistan as well into Irans orbit. In the process, Washington also taught Iranians at least two lessons that will come back to haunt Americans. First, Iranian efforts to work with the Bush Administration were accepted briefly when desperately needed to construct a new Afghan regime, after which Bush immediately insulted Iran (remember Axis of Evil???). Second, tensions with Iran have greatly empowered Irans own militaristic, super-nationalistic neo-cons. Iranians have learned that hostility toward the U.S. pays a lot more than cooperation.
Lesson #7. War enriches the rich. This one is harder to contemplate; it’s a real conspiracy theory and surely must impute more deviousness to certain factions than they deserve, but if some of those who supported the invasion of Iraq did so to blind the 99.9% to the accelerating shift of power and wealth into the hands of the 0.1%, they certainly achieved what they wanted. One one level, the shift of wealth to the uber-rich occurred directly through the enormous benefits handed to CEOs profitting from the war. On a second level, war tensions distracted Americans. Linking the levels together was an insidious dynamic of rising impoverishment of the 99%, facilitating the task of persuading some of them to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of empire. That this in fact worked and did so on at least two crucial levels is pretty much beyond dispute; that it was planned from Day 1 is less clear. Nonetheless, now they own it all.
The American people (not the Occupiers; that courageous minority understands the need to defend democracy) are right: a self-satisfied if embarrassed grin followed by firm denial and a trip to the mall is the only way to deal with this mess. Face up to reality and we will all need psychiatrists.

Pakistani Academic Warns of U.S. Threat

Opinion and policy emerge not just from the politicians but also from informed society. If a recent Pakistani academic’s assessment of the U.S. as a threat that Pakistan must counter by cooperation with Iran and Russia becomes representative of Pakistani public opinion, the U.S. is likely to face a significant diplomatic and strategic defeat.

At a recent meeting with an Iranian delegation, Punjab University Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Mujahid Kamran articulated an outspoken perspective on Pakistan’s role in the U.S.-centric global political system that Washington decision-makers would do well to contemplate [University of the Punjab Press Release 12/19/11]:

Dr Kamran said that Iran was a great source of inspiration and had set a standard for all the Muslim countries to take stand against the powers who want to control the world. He said that American people were not our enemy but a cabal of international bankers had manipulated wars and brought governments under debt. He said that US Congress and other institutions were their agent and don’t represent the aspirations of American people. He said that through National Defense Authorization, police state conditions would formulize [sic] in the US. He said that elite wanted to take control of Iran but Iranians had a government which represented people and it would not be easy for them to run over Iran. Iran stood like a rock, he said.  “A grim bulletin of Russian Ministry of Defense issued to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev states that the Chinese President Hu Jintao has agreed in principle that the only way to stop the West’s aggression led by the United States is through direct and immediate military action. Russian General Nikolai Makarov said he did not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war including nuclear weapons,” the Vice-Chancellor added. He said according to Chinese Rear Admiral Zang Zhong [sic], China would not hesitate to protect Iran even with a Third World War. He said that Pakistan should join Iran, China and Russia to expel US from the region.

A Chinese admiral allegedly recently issued an extraordinary warning to the U.S. about attacking Iran:

On Dec. 4, according to a report in Press TV, a news network owned by the Iranian government, Chinese rear admiral and prominent military commentator Zhang Zhaozhong said, “China will not hesitate to protect Iran even with a third world war.”
It is not clear when the statement was made or in what context. Once reported, the statement went viral in China and elsewhere.

Whether this remark was accurately translated or not, the point is clear: an attack on Iran could easily spark a broader war.

Reports of a Russian Ministry of Defense bulletin underscored the point:

A grim Ministry of Defense bulletin issued to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev today states that President Hu has “agreed in principal” that the only way to stop the West’s aggression led by the United States is through “direct and immediate military action” and that the Chinese leader has ordered his Naval Forces to “prepare for warfare.” [EU Times 12/7/11.]

American pressure appears to be generating broad global movement toward anti-American cooperation. Empires provoke the rise of opposing coalitions.

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.

Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Reconciliation

The Obama Administration’s stance toward Iran, while at least refreshingly nuanced, remains caught in the overall grip of provincialism and absence of creativity that has characterized U.S. policy since the Islamic Revolution. Recent remarks by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reflect this disturbing combination of insights amid blindness.

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs made important remarks on Iran this Friday which included both realistic caution and continuing evidence of the profound and dangerous degree of self-delusion in Washington. To his credit, General Dempsey supported Panetta’s attitude that war is not the answer, but other comments suggested that Washington remains deeply disconnected from reality. Asked if Washington was making efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to avoid accidental incidents that might lead to an undesired conflict, Dempsey said:

We have discussed this but have not come to a decision about opening up links or a hotline to seek an option to de- escalate any incident. It’s not our behaviour that’s the impediment to progress here. 

While this may well have just been a thoughtless and casual response, such lack of sensitivity to a longstanding adversary’s perception of reality betrays an astounding degree of provincialism, suggesting that an undesired war is indeed a very real possibility. Evidently the general and, almost surely, the rest of the Administration, would benefit from deeper consideration of which side’s behavior constitutes “the impediment to progress.”


U.S. and allied behavior includes the following impediments:

  • introduction of nuclear arms into the region (Israel);
  • threats of aggression;
  • establishment of a ring of military bases surrounding Iran;
  • highly public economic warfare against Iran;
  • sailing of nuclear-capable submarines off Iran’s territory waters (Israel);
  • a long violent invasion and occupation of Iraq designed to put Iraq firmly in the U.S. camp;
  • the belligerent sailing of a powerful U.S. attack fleet in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian behavior includes the following impediments:

  • impolite rhetoric demonstrating a lack of sensitivity to Israelis;
  • defensive aid to Hezbollah;
  • murky nuclear transparency designed to get away with as much as possible without clearly violating Iran’s nonproliferation commitments;
  • military and financial aid to Iraqi political allies to facilitate resistance to the U.S. invasion;
  • a political campaign to promote regional resistance to Israel;
  • a political campaign to promote the restructuring of the global political system away from its current U.S.-centric position toward a more “democratic” system that would deny the U.S. its current position of supremacy.



Examine the two lists. While both sides are playing tough, there can hardly be any doubt that U.S./Israeli behavior is vastly more provocative than Iran’s. After all, Iran’s impediments mostly add up to perfectly legitimate defensive moves and calls for global political reform, while Washington’s impediments are focused on the application of force (even if one does not count the appearance of a U.S.-Israeli terrorist campaign to murder Iranian nuclear scientists). Add the overwhelming preponderance of force on the U.S./Israeli side, and the mountain of U.S. impediments to improved relations emerges clearly. Those U.S. impediments may or may not bother Iranian hardliners, who benefit enormously from being able to scare their people into support or submission simply by letting them see what Washington is doing, but they are great cause for concern on the part of anyone hoping for regional peace.


If Washington ever decides that it wants to solve the U.S.-Iranian conflict, at this point, it probably has no effective short-term option; through short-sighted animosity, it has boxed itself into a corner and ceded its freedom of maneuver to the Israeli war party extremists. Over the long term, however, Washington does have an option that would be low-risk since it requires no strategic weakening of the fundamental U.S. power position but which might pull the rug out from under Iranian hardliners: offering Iran a bargain including respect, inclusion, and security in return for cooperation in moving toward a regional nuclear regime based on transparency on the part of all countries either in the region or with military forces in the region. Such words would not ever impress all Iranians (how could they, given the history of U.S. duplicity toward Iranian democratic aspirations?), but over time might well impress enough Iranian national security officials to change Iranian policy. The real impediment is this: as the side with the power, it is up to the U.S. to come to the realization that the first move is up to Washington, not to a weak–if noisy–Tehran that sits nervously in a defensive crouch.


Pakistan Contemplates Iranian Triumph Over U.S.

With the U.S. allegedly already in the midst of a covert war against Iran (most recently suggested by the violation of Iranian airspace by the now-famous captured drone), a Pakistani report illustrates a significant degree of sympathy for Iran. The potential for a Pakistani-Iranian entente rises with every passing day in the face of U.S. intransigence toward both.

In a very serious analytical piece about the implications of Iran’s shoot-down of a U.S. drone that violated Iranian airspace that appeared in Pakistan’s Nation [ Babak Dehghanpisheh, 12/11/11], you can almost hear the gloating. The title says it: “Iran Hits the Jackpot.” It must be easy for Pakistanis to feel some kinship with Iranians these days, with both countries’ airspace being violated by the U.S. military. The author reports that “Russian and Chinese officials have already asked to inspect the drone” and explains how the technology may flow into the hands of others, including Hezbollah. One can hardly help but wonder why the author did not mention the possibility of this technology now getting into Taliban hands as well; with a state of war between the Taliban and the Pakistani regime still in existence despite talk of talks, that may perhaps best be left clearly implied but unstated. The broader point about the leveling process of the U.S. high-tech weapons getting into enemy hands once those weapons are used is the real message, and the author reviews the many precedents illustrating the ability of Iranians and Hezbollah to manipulate such advanced technology to their benefit.

American readers should note the absence in this Pakistani review of any sense of “backwardness” on the part of the various Central Asian or Mideastern adversaries of the U.S. An American military secret, once revealed, can be made use of. The locals can fight back against the empire not just in their own ways but also using the empire’s supposedly unique techniques. Washington is changing how the whole world goes to war and is doing so much faster than it can itself figure out whether or not the ultimate benefit will be to the U.S. or to its adversaries.

Two years ago the U.S. rather shortsightedly took the opportunity to shoot down an Iranian drone over Iraq [Wired Danger Room 3/12/09], evidently without troubling itself to consider how U.S. occupiers might justify firing on an Iranian aircraft that was over Iraq rather than the U.S. Now Iran has paid the U.S. back, but the advantage goes very much to Iran’s benefit – in terms of the flow of valuable technology and the propaganda value. The domestic political position of Iranian hardliners has also surely been solidified; their argument that the world needs to be governed in a new way greatly strengthened.

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Ahmadinejad Calls for New Global Political Order

2011: Most nations of the world are unhappy with the current international circumstances. And despite the general longing and aspiration to promote peace, progress, and fraternity, wars, mass-murder, widespread poverty, and socioeconomic and political crises continue to infringe upon the rights and sovereignty of nations, leaving behind irreparable damage worldwide.
Approximately, three billion people of the world live on less than 2.5 dollars a day, and over a billion people live without having even one sufficient meal on a daily basis. Forty-percent of the poorest world populations only share five percent of the global income, while twenty percent of the richest people share seventy-five percent of the total global income.
More than twenty thousand innocent and destitute children die every day in the world because of poverty. In the United States, eighty percent of financial resources are controlled by ten percent of its population, while only twenty percent of these resources belong to the ninety percent of the population.
What are the causes and reasons behind these inequalities?…
The rulers of the global management circles divide the social life from ethics and spirituality while claiming the situation is the outcome of the pursuit of the path of divine prophets or the vulnerability of nations or the ill performance of a few groups or individuals. They claim that only their views and approaches can save the human society….
Who provoked and encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade and impose an eight-year war on Iran, and who assisted and equipped him to deploy chemical weapons against our cities and our people?
Who used the mysterious September 11 incident as a pretext to attack Afghanistan and Iraq , killing, injuring, and displacing millions in two countries with the ultimate goal of bringing into its domination the Middle East and its oil resources?…
Who dominates the policy-making establishments of the world economy?
Who are responsible for the world economic recession, and are imposing the consequences on America, Europe and the world in general?
Which governments are always ready to drop thousands of bombs on other countries, but ponder and hesitate to provide aid to famine-stricken people in Somalia or in other places?…
Efforts must be made with a firm resolve and through collective cooperation to map out a new plan, on the basis of principles and the very foundation of universal human values such as Monotheism, justice, freedom, love and the quest for happiness.
The idea of creation of the United Nations remains a great and historical achievement of mankind. Its importance must be appreciated and its capacities must be used to the extent possible for our noble goals.
We should not allow this organization which is the reflection of the collective will and shared aspiration of the community of nations, to deviate from its main course and play into the hands of the world powers.
Conducive ground must be prepared to ensure collective participation and involvement of nations in an effort to promote lasting peace and security.
Shared and collective management of the world must be achieved in its true sense, and based on the underlying principles enshrined in the international law. Justice must serve as the criterion and the basis for all international decisions and actions. [International Business Times 9/22/11.]

2008: He accused the United States of oppressing Iraqis with six years of occupation, saying Americans were “still seeking to solidify their position in the political geography of the region and to dominate oil resources.”[CNN 9/22/11.]

2007: Ahmadinejad invited “all independent, justice-seeking and peace-loving nations” to join Iran in a “coalition for peace.” [CNN 9/22/11.]

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The more blatant the discriminatory behavior of the U.S. (e.g., asserting the right to violate the borders of other states at will), the more attractive Ahmadinejad’s message becomes in the eyes of all global observers.

If Iran can make such a clarion call for global justice, why not Pakistan? If Iran can hit back at U.S. violations of international law with legitimate force, why not Pakistan? In the context of Pakistan already beefing up its air defense capabilities for the precise purpose of stopping U.S. aerial attacks inside Pakistan (unless permitted by Pakistan), if Iran can do this, might Pakistani generals be tempted to chat with the Iranians about how they did it? If Iran can say this, might Pakistani politicians be tempted to make similar calls for global justice?

Indeed, they already are:

Pakistan should develop relations with Iran and China on permanent basis, former information minister and MNA Syed Sumsam Bukhari urged the government and linked resolution of problems to preservation of national dignity.
“Developing warm relations with Iran and China is need of the hour,” he told party workers and media persons. [The Nation 12/11/11.]

Washington’s outdated two-party Cold War mentality is undermining U.S. national security step-by-step every day as it offers a policy of intransigence toward antagonists and friends alike. If Washington cannot learn how to be sympathetic toward the views and needs of others, then it must at least learn to compromise. Insistence on victory always and everywhere at the expense of others is too difficult and too expensive; it is a policy designed to fail.