North Africa, West Asia

Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia: military postures and alternatives

The three countries, and groups within them, are locked in narratives of confrontation, victimhood and fear. At present, their narratives are incompatible and seemingly unbridgeable.  That is the real cause of the current conflicts.

Torgeir E. Fjærtoft
25 October 2013

Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia form a state system in the sense that they are locked in a dynamic relationship. They mutually shape each other’s policies. This state system has currently decisive implications for an almost contiguous crisis area from Lebanon, over Syria to Iraq, with impact also on the peripheral conflicts in Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan.  

How confrontation is shaped

The Nobel Laureate in Economics, the Israeli Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, shows how our minds cope with the future by associating new problems with our interpretations of past events. These interpretations are necessarily simplifications of our multi-determined, dynamic reality. But simplifications of the past form narratives about us versus the others that are convincing to the degree they are perceived as coherent, not to the degree they reflect nuanced facts.

The three countries, and groups within them, are locked in narratives of confrontation, victimhood and fear. At present, their narratives are incompatible and seemingly unbridgeable.  That is the real cause of the current conflicts. They respond to these conflicts by seeking military security against perceived threats.

Israel’s security thinking

Israel’s security thinking is driven by the collective, existential trauma of the Holocaust and probably strongly shaped by the diverging experiences of three wars: the feeling of abandonment by the US in the Suez crisis of 1956 gave impetus to the development of nuclear arms, at the time considered the panacea of security. In 1967, the preemption of an impending attack brought short-term victory at the expense of long-term security: the inadvertent conquests in the Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank became a threat to the democratic and Jewish character of Israel. In 1973, the decision not to preempt the impending attack caused a near-defeat and probably brought Israel close to using tactical nuclear arms. On balance, Israel’s historical experiences will probably make decision-makers prone to preemptive attack, but military victory could again undermine security as in 1967.

Iran’s security thinking

Iran’s security thinking is driven by a narrative of resistance combined with a revolutionary mission and strongly shaped by the war with Iraq from 1980 – 88. They see western and Saudi collusion behind Saddam Hussein. Those embracing the paradigm of resistance and revolution must adjust to new circumstances. It has become imperative to cooperate with former adversaries to stabilize the region and above all to prevent a sectarian polarization between Sunni and Shi’ia.  In an escalating crisis, threatening rhetoric combined with the use of Hezbollah as proxy in Lebanon and now Syria, and aggravated by the nuclear program, would fuse into the main security threat to Iran. Fear may generate the danger of preemption from vastly superior forces.

Saudi Arabia’s security thinking

Saudi Arabia’s security thinking is driven by the need to protect their way of life and their oil fields from regional aggression, and strongly shaped by the first Gulf War when western troops were called upon to protect Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi invasion.  The vast Saudi arms procurements are probably intended as prepositioned equipment for US troops in the event they need to be called in again. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia has also prepared for the eventuality of nuclear arms acquisition by an agreement with Pakistan to provide nuclear war heads. Chinese missiles were procured in 1987. These Saudi security policies could have some self-defeating effects. The presence of foreign troops may again provoke a destabilizing domestic opposition, and Saudi nuclear arms would in an escalating crisis invite pre-emption, especially from Israel.

Greatest risk is failure of crisis management

The greatest risk of war stems from failure of crisis management. Especially the dispersed and parallel Iranian command structures become dangerous in crises if central control yields to local initiatives.  Also an Israeli strategy of taking advantage of its vast military superiority to preempt an impending attack can go seriously wrong under the tension of a crisis.

As tensions grow, deterrence becomes more elusive. No amount of arms can change this equation. The only solution is to reduce tensions by political confidence building.  A regional process towards security and cooperation is no less realistic than when such a process started in Europe. A closer look at the nature of political change shows this.

The illusion of permanence

Our narratives that constitute our sense of political reality are inevitably wrong. They project the past on to the future, which always poses different challenges.  Change is inevitable, permanence an illusion. The illusion of permanence is probably the most common cause of poor political judgment.  As late as the early 1980’s the French intellectual Raymond Aron summed up his view of the relationship between the democratic West and the communist East during the Cold War by the catch phrase “war is unlikely, peace is impossible”.  But by the end of the decade the Cold War was over. Up until the Arab Spring erupted, the underlying assumption was the permanence of regime stability. Now, war and chaos are assumed permanent.

Alternative narratives: European change as a template

The implication of Kahneman’s theories about our cognitive processes is that we can influence the thinking of others by offering alternative narratives.

The process of change in Europe could serve as a template for alternative narratives in the Middle East. It started in 1963 with the courage of Willy Brandt to initiate change in defiance of odds by his catch phrase “change by approaching” the East, or Ostpolitik.

In the Middle East now it is equally necessary to defy odds to induce constructive change. It follows from Kahneman’s analyses that the European template is relevant to the degree it is believed to be. It can be made credible by presenting it as coherent narrative transposed to the different circumstances of the current Middle East. To work, this narrative must be attractive to the target groups, e.g. by adapting the European narrative to the ideas of Islam.

Another Conference of Security and Cooperation?

Willy Brandt’s initiative eventually led to the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, a process overcoming the setbacks of invasions and proxy wars, and culminating in the end of the Cold War in 1989. The process of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe could form a constructive template for addressing the broad range of issues in the current Middle East, with the three sub processes of security, economic cooperation and human rights.


Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1990. Wikimedia/David Valdez. Public domain.

Talk is power!

Kahneman shows us that the most effective way to make this happen is to start talking about it. Calling expert meetings below the decision-making level involving all concerned parties would be a good start. Any narrative about cooperation can be supported by the fact of interdependence.

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