Posts Tagged 'Saudi Arabia'

Arab Spring. Attempt at paradigm 2

By Torgeir Fjærtoft

In my previous blog input I maintained that to establish viable successor regime to the toppled dictators, the new power holders must initiate regional economic integration to create the employment necessary for social and political stability. Empowering people without improving their lives will undermine the empowerment because the continued frustration and rage can only be controlled by force.

So far, of the affected or vulnerable countries in the region only Saudi Arabia has responded to the Arab Spring by an economic program in the form of boosting internal transfers of oil income.  The Saudi intention is to contain internal ramifications of the regional popular uprising by improving people’s lives without empowering them.

As an oil producer with liquid assets abroad Saudi Arabia has a domestic freedom of maneuver that the new regimes following the Arab Spring have yet to acquire, be they oil producers or not. The regime in Riyadh can therefore be seen as a case study of the reverse end of the evolving Arab Spring, which has started with empowerment and needs to develop an effective economic policy. In the current context, an economic policy addressing the most pressing social problems would need three components: distribution, employment and production.  Saudi Arabia has succeeded as oil producer in terms of volume and income but failed to create commensurate employment. Economists, prone to reduce complex, multi-determined problems to simple equations, call for reversal of internal transfers, reduction in public sector employment, economic diversification by investments in new sectors, and competition. However, these are not options available to Saudi decision-makers at the moment.

What outside observers invariably fail to see is that the monarchy steeped in its ancient traditions is in its essence also a social contract. This basically tribal political culture is in one sense also modern.  Power, though in name absolute, is actually the function of elaborate transactions. Like in a Western welfare state, political support is earned by providing for constituents who judge their leaders by the yardsticks of their own lives. At the same time, power is also the function of the ability to negotiate a modicum of consensus within the elite, which means compromise, balancing opposing demands. These two constraints, people’s welfare and elite consensus, delineate the freedom of maneuver for the Saudi decision-makers, also now. Attempts to transcend these constraints will jeopardize the political stability.

There are two known cases when reductions in internal transfers had serious political ramifications. In the first instance, when in 1956 credit dried up, the extended royal family mobilized to prevent King Saud from establishing his own dynasty, leading to the current collective royal leadership model. In the second instance, the fall in oil prices in the 1980’s led to the Sahwa opposition in the early 1990’s. The Sahwa movement was precipitated in no small degree by reducing the number of public sector positions among the clerical graduates denied the presumed promise of secure employment.

Like in all societies, frustrated young men seek alternative ideologies and faiths with rejection as the common denominator. In Saudi Arabia the elite has throughout the history of the official Wahabist doctrine compromised by cooperating with external powers, first with the Ottomans, then the British and today with the US. Compromise, however necessary or wise, makes the official ideology vulnerable to domestic opposition groups, such as the Sahwa, who may reclaim it in a purer form. An additional vulnerability is the Shia minority surrounding the oil fields. Relations range from tenuous to tense.

By our Western standards, Saudi Arabia falls short, and we would like the Arab Spring as a democratic movement to take hold there as it did in Egypt. For this purpose we may accept a period of instability over the current stability. However, we may err in assuming that the alternative to the current stability is a higher degree of democracy, respect for human rights and the empowerment of ordinary people, including women and minorities. The alternatives could be worse than the current imperfections.  Changes could have other consequences than those intended by the initiators. One consequence of the Libyan uprising against Khadafy has been the flow of frustrated men and arms to terrorist movements in the region.

Destabilization of Saudi Arabia, as pivotal oil producer indispensable to the global economic stability and full of arms, could prove infinitely worse. If the Saudi decision-makers were to follow the advice of most economists, such a scenario would under the current circumstances be much more likely than stable economic growth and democratization.

Saudi Arabia’s oil: essential, but how vulnerable?

By Torgeir Fjærtoft

Saudi Aramco is a main sponsor of this year’s Norwegian oil, gas and off- shore fair, ONS, in Stavanger. When the Norwegian organizers accord such a role to the Saudi Arabian oil company, it is probably in recognition of the essential role of Saudi Arabia in the global oil supply , and therefore in the shaky global economic stability. To manage this role Saudi Arabia maintains spare capacity to adjust its volume of oil production to maintain supply and price stability.

How vulnerable is this role?

Currently two main factors bear on the Saudi ability to maintain its oil exports: the technology available to recover oil from the fields, a main topic at this year’s ONS, and the political stability in the region, essential to stable shipping lanes. The shipping lanes in the Gulf would be highly vulnerable in case of hostilities with Iran. To reduce this vulnerability Saudi Arabia maintains spare capacity in a cross country pipeline to divert oil exports to Red Sea ports. Skeptics point out that the Saudi surge capacity in production and contingency plans for shipping have yet to be proven viable and may not be dependable. Also, a new, emerging risk is the looming disintegration of Yemen which could turn into a new Somalia, lining both sides of the alternative shipping lanes with pirates and terrorists. The vulnerabilities are aggravated by the nerves of market actors and the calculations of speculators.

Beyond the current crisis over Iran, both regional political stability and global economic stability will hardly be viable without a degree of Iranian Saudi cooperation. There are even unconfirmed reports about nascent projects

In the longer-term, the relationship between oil and gas is the central issue in the future of the whole region as global energy supplier. To escape the current trend of increasing domestic energy consumptions over exports, at the expense of both export earnings and the global oil supply, Saudi Arabia needs to replace as much as possible of its current domestic oil use with gas, in power production, desalination and manufacturing.  Since Saudi Arabia is not a gas producer, at least not yet, such substitution takes regional cooperation.  Iran holds the second largest gas reserves in the world, and shares its huge South Pars field under the Gulf with Qatar.

In an even longer-term, the global dependence on fossil fuels from Saudi Arabia is not sustainable. Oil is a finite resource inflicting serious climate damage. In this perspective the Saudi oil minister is reportedly concerned about what the optimal oil price would be to provide effective incentives to several compelling policy goals: make marginal fields profitable in the interest of global oil supply, and at the same time encourage conservation of this essential, but finite resource. The price of oil should also be high enough to make alternative energy sources profitable and provide necessary incentives for research and development.

Saudi Arabia may tap the power of the burning sun for solar power, but drifting sand and dust in the desert makes this difficult with the current state of technology. Saudis are concerned that sand and dust are increasing due to climate change: less rain, more wind.  At ONS Saudi Aramco engineers told about their program to inject the climate gas CO2 to recover more oil, rather than water, a scarce, precious resource.

The ONS will hopefully continue to be a venue for discussions with Saudis on solutions to pressing global problems. Saudi Arabia will either be part of the solution or part of the problem. It will be their decision, but we can influence them by dialogue.

Coping with crisis: intervention versus regional cooperation

By Torgeir E. Færtoft


The perceived success of the NATO bombing to prevent mass murder by Gadaffi has revived the idea of humanitarian intervention, as set out in my previous blog input.  Humanitarian intervention now emerges as an option in Syria as violence persists and destabilization and disintegration looms.

But humanitarian intervention is still an intervention, with the risks and unintended consequences now especially evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, both failed attempts at social engineering by invasion.

Are there alternative policy options to the fatalism of non-intervention and the impotence of social engineering by force?

There are now some encouraging signs that regional political frameworks may be emerging to stem the threatening chaos in the practically contiguous belt of looming social and political breakdown from Somalia, over Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Somalia the AlQaida affiliate AlShabaab, who exploited the political vacuum left by the failed state, is forced on the defensive by a combination of Kenyan, Ethiopian and an African Union troops. As a result, there is now the prospect of a first functioning central government since it broke down in 1991. Across the narrow stretch of sea and pirate infested waters, in Yemen, where a Somalia like scenario has loomed for some time, the regional organization of the Gulf Arab states, the Gulf Cooperation Council, has engineered a political solution, which, if imperfect, is still a step in the opposite direction from chaos, violence and a heaven for organized crime and terrorism.  The GCC countries will now at an upcoming summit consider further integration steps.  In the case of Syria, Turkey holds the key to a regional framework for a political solution. In Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, now backing different sectarian factions, would need to cooperate. In the case of Afghanistan, a regional political solution needs Iran, who supported the anti-Taliban Northern alliance before it became the vehicle for the Western invasion, and then supported the Pashtu-based current regime. Iran must be joined by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which must keep the rivalry with India over Kashmir from spilling over to Afghanistan.

Why would the regional powers cooperate rather than undermine each other by proxies?   Greg Gause points out the temptation to exploit politically trans-boundary identities, ethnic and religious, with potentially backfiring effects. Often the temptation to undermine the adversaries outweigh the concerns about the destabilizing effect, but perhaps not now.  Both Somalia and Afghanistan, and to some extent Yemen, are victims of superpower rivalries during the Cold War. Today their instability has repercussions beyond their borders. Such repercussions, inevitable in all internal conflict leading to social and political breakdown, create incentives for the regional cooperation necessary for stability. Without stability development is not possible and human misery will persist.

A stable nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East possible? Illusions versus rationality.

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Should the current pressure by sanctions prove insufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear program, the risks inherent in the ultimate recourse to military attack are well-known: escalation, destabilization, collateral military and political damage, strengthening of Iranian resolve to acquire such weapons and rallying the Iranian opposition behind the regime. Still, the evolving perception in the current Israeli government and the Obama Administration seems to be that the risks arising from Iranian nuclear arms outweigh those of military attack.

Those that disagree with this relative risk assessment point out that living with Iranian nuclear arms, if need be, is the lesser risk. Beyond hoping to deter forced regime change or invasion, Iran can reap no military or political benefit from them, and therefore will have no incentive to try. This is the clear historical lesson of nuclear arms so far, as President Ahjmadinnejad himself repeatedly points out in interviews.

The view is entirely correct that nuclear arms are useless as instruments of power projection – and hopefully seen to be so – and therefore need not be feared by other countries. But, unfortunately, this reassurance totally misses the point. There is still the very real risk that these doomsday weapons can be released inadvertently by misunderstandings, misjudgments and technical malfuntions. This is another lesson of the Cold War that came to light after it was over; an insight that should be sobering to those who trust the stability of a nuclear balance of terror.

The nuclear balance of terror of the Cold War provides the analogies by which the risks of similar prospects in the Middle East must be asessed. The perceived stability has now proved an illusion.
This illusion was sincerely believed, as demonstrated as late as 1987 by the comprehensive study “Managing Nuclear Operations”.(1) In great and terrifying detail this study discussed how the nuclear balance of terror operated, or should it fail how nuclear war could actually be conducted – and hopefully stopped. Just like all responsible policy makers at the time, the analysts behind the study naively overrated the ability of the individual human mind as well as complex organizations to maintain rational and effective control during confrontation and crisis. The overriding concern of nuclear strategy during the Cold War was to deter, and, if perceived necessary, pre-empt, the ever-present option of the decapitating first strike by the other side. For this purpose, thousands of nuclear arms were kept on hair-trigger alert. In hindsight, we now see that the elaborate nuclear strategies of the Cold War, as set out in this study, conceived by the brightest minds of their time as the apex of logic and rationality, were actually inherently contradictory: nuclear war must at all times be possible to remain impossible. As a consequence the nuclear balance of terror, like the one Iran may now be on the verge on imposing on its region, was dangerously unstable.

Unknown to the overconfident analysts of nuclear strategy in 1987, the much-feared first strike emerged as a serious Soviet option only four years earlier, in 1983, in response to the mistaken belief
that the other side planned the same (2). Contrary to the common belief at the time, the lessons of the dangerous confrontations of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 had failed to inspire the caution needed to prevent a new skid to the brink of the abyss. Especially perilous was the cowardice of Soviet intelligence operatives, which prevented them from passing on correct information, fearing the personal consequences should the truth they conveyed challenge the conspiracy theories of their superiors in the Kremlin.(3)

All these fallacies of the Cold War decision-making on nuclear arms would be much worse in a region like the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The minimum of communication and cooperation that kept us all alive during the dangerous brinksmanship of the Cold War is practically absent. Both Israel and Iran officially deny possession and plans for nuclear arms, forcing the others to guess the answers to such vital security questions as capabilities, command and control systems, perceived missions, as well as the political and operational nuclear doctrines, should such exist at all. Saudi Arabia could easily aggravate this dangerously unstable situation by exercising their presumed option to acquire a ready set-up from Pakistan.

The rule of thumb is that nuclear deterrence can only be stable as long as it is unilateral, such as now when Israel alone is a nuclear power in the region (4). A bipolar deterrence introduces the terrifying option of a decapitating first-strike, which makes it inherently unstable. For each new nuclear-armed state added, the balance of terror becomes increasingly unstable because there will be more uncertain factors to juggle. In crisis, pressure and stress will impair human minds’ capacity to rationally weigh goals, costs and risks, precisely when this vital ability is most called for.
To keep us all alive under the menace of nuclear arms, rationality must prevail over illusions. The kind of dangerous suspicions during the Cold War that caused the close call in 1983 would be an almost permanent feature of a nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East. Preventing nuclear proliferation in the region is therefore imperative.

1 Ashton B. Carter, John D. Steinbrunner, and Charles A. Zracket Managing Nuclear Operations, Brookings 1987 (reviewed in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists December 1987)
2 Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitroknin The KGB in Europe and the West. The Mitroknin Archive, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 278-279. David E. Hoffman The Dead Hand. Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, Icon Books, (2009) 2011, p. 60-72
3 Andrew & Mitrokhin, p. 279, Hoffman, p. 62
4 Turkey has nuclear arms under Nato control

Iran beginning of 2012: diplomacy or war?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Most foreign policy analyses are flawed. They discuss issues and options on their own merit, as if actors’ behaviour were guided by our perceptions rather than their own. Actual behaviour is shaped by two factors: the actors’ motivation and their perceptions of constraints, external as well as domestic. To understand, we must try to enter their minds, admittedly a speculative venture.

The policy and the capacity of the United States remain the factors that weigh most heavily in the power equations of all regional actors in the Middle East. What motivation and sense of constraint is currently driving President Obama’s policy towards Iran? His number one concern is probably stopping nuclear proliferation, to discourage other countries in the region from acquiring their own nuclear arms in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which must therefore be stopped.  A nuclear balance of terror between Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey (already host to US nuclear arms under NATO) and possibly others would be unstable and dangerous, placing at risk vital but vulnerably energy sources as well as the countries themselves.
He probably sees the Iranian rebuff of his original offer of reconciliation in the light of the domestic power struggle in Iran which makes any change of policy extremely difficult to bring about. Obama’s original rhetoric failed to change Iran’s threatening behaviour, but a credible threat of attack could hopefully shake the current Iranian perception of superiority and impregnability sufficiently to induce contending factions to compromise. In other words, since Obama’s speech failed to change Iranian motivation, he now tries to change the Iranian perception of constraints.
Should also this last-ditch attempt at coercive diplomacy fail, he will resort to force. He has no hesitation about this, should diplomatic options fail. Obama has stated that he is influenced by the so-called “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr whose central message is that there is evil in the world that needs to be fought, but in a humble spirit. Nuclear arms are definitely evil.
His acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize was held in the spirit of Niebuhr. He would as US President use military force when necessary (“Wanting peace is in itself rarely enough to bring it about”). But he will calibrate his use of force. Military experts point out that even an underground plant can be incapacitated by a small charge collapsing the entrance and destroying machinery, such as centrifuges, by shock waves.
Obama’s own constraints are
•    His potentially limited time-window created by the presidential campaign since he could lose the election. The bad record of the massive and costly, but largely failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by Obama’s Republican predecessor and the rhetoric of his Republican opponents, probably adds a sense of urgency to stopping the Iranian nuclear program lest a new Republican President once more resort to extreme policies that could create worse problems than those they set out to solve.
•    The twofold challenge by Israel: the need of any US president to neutralize the Israeli lobby against him in Congress and the US public, and in the current policy predicament prevent unilateral Israeli attack on Iran which could force him to deal with Iran in a different, more violent scenario, in which Israeli vulnerabilities could force him to conduct more comprehensive operations.
•    The need for Iran as a constructive partner in a post-conflict phase to stabilize the vital energy supplies of Saudi Arabia and Iran itself. Also for the political stability of Iraq and Afghanistan after US withdrawal is Iran’s cooperation needed since such stability can only be achieved by cooperation of the regional powers.

To overcome these constraints he has no alternative but to prepare surgical strikes, first as pressure and then, should that fail, as the ultimate recourse. However, to succeed coercive diplomacy and, if unavoidable, attack, need to be followed by military restraint and crisis diffusing diplomacy providing incentives for cooperation.

In Iran, the currently two main rivals, supreme leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, by all appearances share the motivation of a combination of a revolutionary Islamic and anti-Imperialist ideology, and traditional nationalistic quest for power, prestige and recognition. The overriding concern of both is the protection of the revolutionary Islamic regime in Iran.
Their expansionist revolutionary vision is therefore constrained by their perception of any serious risk to the regime their ideology may give rise to. But they appear to differ over whether the nuclear program has reached that stage yet. When President Ahmadinejad initiated a compromise with the concerned outside world fall of 2009, the deal came to naught because the Supreme Leader Khamenei failed to support him when the President’s rivals seized the opportunity to undercut his position.  In fact, the main constraints perceived by any Iranian actor, may be even the Supreme Leader himself, is presumably the intense domestic power struggles which make anyone proposing to depart from the current course, e.g. the nuclear program, vulnerable to attack by rivals.
After all, an Iranian politician advocating compromise on the nuclear program will be faced by the argument that, seen from Teheran, the current pressure they experience along with their reading of the Libyan experience (Kaddafi toppled by Western military intervention after he had given in to pressure to renounce his nuclear program) combine to form persuasive arguments for nuclear arms as guarantee against forced regime change. Also, as in any nuclear state, there will be powerful vested interests behind a nuclear program, which offers position, prestige and income to those involved.
The crucial question now is whether the Supreme Leader Khamenei will have the power to change course, should he decide that compromise would be the smarter course for Iran. Despite whatever policy assets he may see in nuclear arms, the constraint may dawn on him that Iran will be stopped in its nuclear program because as the program progresses, the concerned outside world will increasingly see the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms, including the risks of proliferation, as worse than the collateral risks of a limited, surgical attack, should failed diplomacy leave the world with those options. Consequently, whatever the Iranian motivations for the nuclear program, nuclear arms will not be an option for regime protection. The only chance for diplomacy in the current confrontation is that the Supreme Leader and hopefully contending factions in Iran will be brought around to see compromise and a degree of cooperation as the only viable options for protecting the Islamic, revolutionary regime.

Saudi Arabia
The Royal Family, the governing political elite of Saudi Arabia, is motivated by deep-seated suspicions and resentment of Iran, a sentiment shared by the majority of Saudis and consequently an integral part of the regime’s political legitimacy. These resentments are partly due to the religious Sunni / Shia divide, partly political because of the declared Iranian revolutionary intent to overthrow the pro-Western Saudi royal family.
But those of the Royal Family in responsible policy positions are known to differ over how to weigh the perceived Iranian threat against the constraints on Saudi anti-Iran policies. The King has blamed the US for invading the wrong country in 2003, toppling the stable Sunni regime in Iraq instead of the revolutionary Shia regime in Teheran, urging them to “cut off the snake’s head, not its tail”. But others in the ruling elite are known to think the risks inherent in the confrontation the King seems to be seeking, outweigh the risks currently emanating from Teheran, even with the perceived Iranian encirclement by proxies of Saudi Arabia (“the Shia crescent”, or even “full moon”) .
The Saudi constraints are the potentially disastrous implications of armed conflict for the vulnerable oil production in the Eastern provinces and oil exports through the choking point of the Strait of Hormus. In addition, conflict with Iran also carries serious opportunity costs for Saudi Arabia, in need of cooperation with the revolutionary Shia enemy to exploit shared gas fields in the Gulf. This is potentially serious since gas deficiency forces the Saudis to divert export earning oil to domestic purposes, such as desalination and power production. In case of armed conflict with Iran, the Saudis also fear for their domestic stability should, as a side effect of confrontation with Teheran, Riyadh’s conflicts escalate with its Shia minority in the oil producing Eastern provinces.
The Saudi interdependence with their indispensable ally the USA constitutes another constraint on Saudi policy. (The huge Saudi arms procurements are seen partly as a conscious policy of prepositioning equipment for US forces, partly as a means to strengthen alliances by creating commercial bonds with Saudi Arabia.) With Israel the Saudis share the feeling of having been let down by President Obama in his refusal to support the Arab dictators against the revolting people of the Arab spring (leading to the first independent Saudi military action in contravention of US policy, the intervention in Bahrain).  But in contrast to Israel, with whom the Saudis also share the view on the Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia lacks the capacity for independent military action against Iran To compensate, in case President Obama backs down from attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the Saudis, to retain the option of attack should they find that President Obama let them down again, even seem to have a tacit agreement with Israel to offer operational cooperation in case of an Israeli attack on Iran, over which they would have virtually no control, but for which they may have to absorb the brunt of the collateral damage of Iranian counter attacks due to vulnerability by proximity.

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is motivated by an overriding fear of a nuclear armed Iran, for the psychological effects it would have on Israelis, the sense of invulnerability nuclear arms could induce on Iran, daring them to more active hostilities by way of proxies such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and of course the ultimate horror of nuclear war, by accident if not by design. He apparently sees the Iranian threat in the context of the collective Jewish trauma of pogroms and the Holocaust. This sentiment is shared by practically all Israelis (although some of them will see the legitimacy the Iranian regime bestows on the Iranian Jewish minority as evidence that the issue between Israel and Iran is political, not racist).
However, there is strong disagreement in Israel, openly aired, over how to weigh the risks emanating from the Iranian nuclear program against the risks inherent in military options.  This disagreement is also reflected in conflicting views in the Israeli coalition government. As a consequence, the differences over Israel’s policy towards Iran remain unresolved at this time of writing, with Defence Minister Barak supporting the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Liebermann leading the opposition.  But since the differences are over tactics, not goals, this balance is volatile. Small changes in risk perception by individual Israeli politicians could change the balance and end the stalemate, sending off Israeli planes or cruise missiles from the Israeli submarines known to hide in the Gulf.
Israel’s constraints derive from the uncertain success of a unilateral Israeli attack and potentially disastrous effects of Iranian counter attacks, which in response to Israeli attacks could be widely perceived as legitimate defence by Israel’s neighbours, thus adding a serious political cost in the current volatile political environment of the Arab Spring.
Adding to the Israeli constraints, Israeli policy makers, with Israel’s total military and political dependence on the US, can ill afford to ignore the strong US rejection of a unilateral Israeli attack, openly and strongly voiced by the Obama administration. So far Israel has had virtually unlimited political capital in the US; no US politician would stand much chance of election without practically unconditional support of Israeli policies. But in the current American political climate, wary of new military entanglements, even US support could wither if Israel were seen to drag Americans into a new war.
To the military risks inherent in a unilateral Israeli attack cautious Israeli politicians are therefore in the current climate forced to add the combined political risk of Arab and American rejection.
But despite the fact that for these combined military and political reasons, the option of unilateral Israeli attack remains hotly contested in Israel, also in the current government, the unanimous Israeli view remains that the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms exceed the collateral risks of military action, unilateral, if need be. The prevailing Israeli view is that if left alone, they will go it alone.

In other words, the prospects of diplomacy versus war over the Iranian nuclear program are determined by the actors’ motivations and sense of constraints as outlined here. But the relationship between the actors is dynamic in the sense that their perceptions of constraints change by mutual influence. Therefore, the ultimate course of events cannot now be foreseen, although a US surgical strike against Iranian nuclear installations seems the more probable scenario at this time of writing. With the strong commitment by President Obama to prevent Iranian nuclear arms, a commitment shared by all possible alternative Presidents as well as US allies, Iran will be forced to change its current nuclear program. This will be an important victory for the efforts to reverse the dangerous current trend towards nuclear proliferation.

Will Israel reassess its security strategies?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Israel, with its legitimacy disputed in its region, drives vital political dynamics in the Middle East. All contending factions in the neighbouring countries relate to Israel and its policies, directly or indirectly, one way or the other. The region is now undergoing dramatic change in its political landscape.  As a result, traditional policies no longer work, in the sense that they fail to achieve intended effects, and may even have turned counterproductive. Will Israel reassess its security strategies?
Israeli security strategies have been threefold:
•    uphold legitimacy as a democratic, Jewish state,
•    project superior power,
•    deter and, when perceived necessary, preempt attack.
There are currently two major challenges to these Israeli security strategies: Iran, a threat aggravated by its nuclear program, and the emerging regional power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Power versus legitimacy
To explore the changing circumstances of Israel I will draw on the ideas of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Henry Kissinger, who, as professor and central policy advisor to President Nixon, became perhaps the foremost theorist and practitioner of diplomacy in modern times, in the sense of developing an overarching historical thesis on the relationships between states, while he exploited options and forged deals. In an interview with Der Spiegel on President Obama’s foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East, he reiterated his two requirements to stable and peaceful relations between countries: First of all a balance of power must prevent one country from overthrowing the existing order, but, secondly, to be stable, those parties to such an order must perceive it as basically just. None of these conditions are present in Israel’s relations with its region, but below I argue that the situation may evolve in this direction, conditional upon smarter moves by Israel in adapting to changing circumstances.

Israel’s problem
In the absence of political acceptance in the region of its existence, Israel has primarily staked its security on the projection of superior power.  Power projection is mainly effective against regimes controlled by one leader or limited ruling clique. But this is precisely the decisive condition that is now changing in Israel’s region as people take to the streets. They are not intimidated by power, unlike the dictators they strive to overthrow, but driven by a quest for justice.

Against Iran, which, pending the victory of the Green Revolution, remains a centrally controlled dictatorship, the traditional strategy of power projection is still the only effective strategy. But in relating to the Arab Spring, it has lost its edge to the point of becoming counterproductive – to the degree that people in the streets succeed in empowering themselves. Towards the Arab public opinion only shaping their perception of legitimacy will work.

Israel’s legitimacy undermined by Israeli policies
Israel has undermined its twofold legitimacy, as a democratic and as a Jewish state. The underlying problem is its failure to merge the Jewish identity with the ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism of a modern democratic state. This failure to forge a modern state identity in Israel causes a basic problem of attitudes towards Arabs under its rule, aggravated by the occupation of the Palestinians following the war of 1967. These attitudes towards Arabs have eroded the democratic legitimacy, while the Jewish identity has been undermined by imposing Israeli rule on a large number of non-Jews. The Israeli historian, Tom Segev, describes in his book “1967. Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East” how evolving policies, not an original design, resulted in the current state of affairs, which is incompatible with the dual basis for the state of Israel, modern democracy and Jewish identity.

Balance of power changing
It was the new sense of power, legacy of the victory of 1967, that according to Tom Segev deluded the Israelis to make short-sighted choices, neglecting the long-term effects that created the current Israeli predicament.  As a consequence of the changes in Israel’s regional circumstances, the balance of power is also changing. Therefore, the internal political pressure in Israel, that has driven the occupation and the boycott of Gaza, is losing weight relative to the new external pressure; this must be the emerging perception of the power equation in the Israeli political elite, or so we must assume. The traditional strategy of power projection towards Arabs is becoming less effective, perhaps even counterproductive.

Israel needs to avoid long-term effects of mistakes
The current occupation, despite the overwhelming power behind it, will not be politically sustainable in the larger strategic picture now emerging. As a consequence, Israel is now, without an effective Palestinian state, set on a course that, if not corrected, will result in a new pluralistic state in which the Jews will be in a minority, and where the new majority will not, in the predominant Israeli view, share Israel’s democratic values. Under the current political trends the new Arab majority in Israel, which would be formed by the current minority of 20 % if joined by the Arabs on the West-Bank now under occupation, will likely come under strong influence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shot Hamas. In the perception of the Israeli political elite, Israel’s dual legitimacy would then erode. Israeli fear that such an altered Israel would no longer be democratic in the Western sense because they feel convinced that current Israel’s western democratic principles are not shared by the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the equality of women and acceptance of political dissent. Nor would Jews, with the trauma of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, feel safe in a state they no longer control. (In fact, according to the theories of the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, on the dynamics that cause humans to commit evil, the strong hostility Israel engenders could conceivably, in case power shifted hands, lead again to genocide.)

Israel needs regional allies against Iran
Where traditional power projection is still appropriate, the changed political circumstances of Israel make greater legitimacy in its region imperative. As Kissinger points out, without a shared perception of legitimacy, power will not produce stable relations. Israel will need political and probably military backing also from the regional powers to effectively and sustainably contain Iran, its overriding foreign policy concern also without Iranian nuclear arms because of Iran’s declared revolutionary vision aimed at Israel.
If Israeli politicians see a need to adapt policies to altered circumstances, they could take a clue from Kissinger. It was by his initiative to improve relations with China that the United States neutralized the potentially disrupting consequences of withdrawal from Vietnam. In the same vein, Israel will need to reduce current political tensions to forge regional alliances against Iran to off-set adverse effects of the changing political landscape. (At some point reduced tensions could even lead to improved relations with Iran. More about this in a later blog input.)
In forging regional alliances, the unresolved issues of the occupation and the boycott of Gaza will remain obstacles to those potential allies that share Israel’s concern over Iran. In Israel’s old ally Turkey popular resentment of Israeli policies limits the room for manoeuvre of the Government, should they find that concerns over Iran supersede resentment of Israeli policies. In Israel’s tacit ally Saudi Arabia, its ruling elite as well as its public opinion resent strongly what they perceive as Israel’s refusal to consider the Arab peace plan the King initiated, a sentiment shared by the other Gulf States.
Perhaps the single most important political actor bearing on Israel’s security interests now is the Muslim Brotherhood, an emerging regional political force based on political mobilization, because this movement wields significant power by its influence on Arab minds. But whatever the leadership could be persuaded to agree to, they will also have a limited room for manoeuvre towards Israel as long as the Brotherhood’s supporters resent so strongly Israeli attitudes towards Arabs, most blatantly manifested in the occupation and the boycott of Gaza.
For a balance of power in Israel’s region to be stable in Kissinger’s sense, alliances need to be more than tacit, transient, circumstantial or instrumental. Only a foundation of a shared sense of justice and perceived mutual benefits can provide peace and security. Perceptions and emotions shape motivation.
But should luck run out while a state of confrontation persists, even the coolest of minds cannot prevent everything from going terribly wrong; this was the lesson drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis by one of crisis’ central actors, Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence.

The risks of fallibility
Henry Kissinger, in the interview in Der Spiegel, described Obama as a “chess player”, Kissinger’s professed ideal for a foreign policy operator. In this ideal, Kissinger unfortunately fails to grasp the limits to rational analyses and control, limits described by the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, as I have set out in a previous blog input. Kissinger therefore fails to address the weakness in his balance of power ideal, how it can maintain under stress the stability which is its purpose. Kissinger notoriously fails to address the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in his own diplomacy in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 war he acted more like a poker player, pressuring the Soviets by raising the US nuclear alert.
Kissinger’s Middle East brinksmanship of 1973 is an analogy to the current confrontation with Iran. The requirements of diplomatic pressure are seen to need the option of war to be credible. The problem for crisis management is that the path to building diplomatic pressure by making the threat of war more credible is the same as to actual war. When the parties to such a confrontation edge towards the brink of war, they could by inadvertence, if not by design, tip over the edge and find themselves in a situation immeasurable worse than what they set out to avoid.
Kissinger, in the interview, stated that the concept of victory in war is now meaningless.  There would be no victors in a war between Israel and Iran, only losers. Kissinger has joined other central actors from the Cold War in calling an end to all nuclear arms since they serve no purpose, but remain an existential threat. As a step towards realizing this vision in the region, trust must be established that no new nuclear arms are in the process.

From power projection to consensus building
But Kissinger still fails to address the basic risks inherent in any power thinking, be it by “chess players” or “poker players”: the ramifications if one “player” tries to outsmart or call the bluff of a posturing opponent.  Everybody could easily find themselves without bearings in situations resembling what Clausewitz described as “the fog of war”. Kissinger’s basic assumption is flawed, the primacy of the power equation, one nation’ power relative to others. Today, almost all national interests can only be protected in cooperation with other countries as self-motivated partners, while conflict entails huge costs to all, especially opportunity costs.
Kissinger’s work “Diplomacy” of 1994, setting out to summarize his ideas, makes his flaw clear. The book starts out with the peace negotiations following the end of the Thirty Year War resulting in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, in hindsight seen as the starting point for the modern international system of nation states pursuing national interests to be mutually checked by a balance of power. Kissinger’s hero was the French leader Cardinal Richelieu for his adept exploitation of this principle, then a novelty, to pursue the national interests of France. But Kissinger, in his analysis of the innovative principles driving the negotiations leading up to the agreement of Westphalia, commits a serious omission: It was not the novel principle of Richelieu, pursuance of national interest by power, that prevailed as much as another novel principle, consensus-building diplomacy, driven by the unassuming Trautmanndorf, the emissary of the weaker party, the Austrian emperor.

From confrontation to cooperation
Israel today, dominated by the spiritual heirs of Richelieu, probably needs to find another Trautmanndorf. He bequeathed the heritage of consensus by compromise, a necessary first step towards effective cooperation in joint interest, such as the current European cooperation.
In fact, only cooperation and economic integration along the European model can solve the really serious security problem in the region, economic stagnation and unemployment. Especially young unemployed men are a ticking bomb in any society. Only effective economic cooperation can prevent despair, desperation and aggression caused by a feeling of hopelessness.  To cope with this security threat, Israel could, in the spirit of Trautmanndorf rather than Richelieu, take the European Union’s agreement with those non- members that qualify for membership, the European Economic Area, a proven instrument for peace, security and prosperity, and suggest to neighbouring countries and the Palestinian Authority that relevant parts of it could be applied selectively and gradually. That could be a beginning to a new regional process that in everybody’s interest.

Israel’s options
What can Israel now do to escape the long-term effects of the mistakes of 1967 that Tom Segev points out? In this perception of the current predicament, the only option available to Israel is to exercise its right to terminate the occupation of the West Bank. (Israel already did so in Gaza.) In the same vein, the single most effective move to counter Iranian ability to conduct “asymmetric warfare” in Lebanon would be to reach an agreement with the post-Assad regime in Syria over the Golan, to deprive Iran of its channel to Hezbollah.
Kissinger’s point that those parties to the political order must perceive it as basically just, or legitimate, has important implications for both Israeli and western considerations of strategies in the altered circumstances: It matters what the Muslim Brotherhood, the emerging regional political power, thinks of Israel and the West, perhaps even more than what Israel and the West think of them. They are today the most effective channel for influencing the perceptions of the new emerging elite that will shape Israel’s vicinity.

Israel, in its inevitable reassessment of its security strategies, may lament the passing of the old dictators for the stability they provided, but indulging in such counterfactual thoughts, which some Israeli seem to do, remains an exercise in futility.  Within Israeli power, however, is the ability to influence perceptions among the emerging Arab political elites of options in relating to Israel, on the continuum between confrontation and cooperation.

How misperceptions may cause war, and how we prevent them?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

In a previous blog contribution I have raised doubts about the realism of Israeli, Iranian and Saudi Arabian perceptions, both of each other’s power and intentions as well as the risks inherent in war. As they edge dangerously towards the brink of war over the prospects of Iranian nuclear arms, the question becomes imperative of how these perceptions are shaped?

The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his application of insights into the limitations of the human mind in decision making, questioning the realism of the traditional models premised on decisions reached exclusively by rationally weighing options. Applying his theories to political decision making about war, he warns against misperceptions built into the human mind[1], in short:

  • Overrate own capabilities and control of events,
  • Exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries,
  • Misjudge how adversaries perceive us,
  • Expect adversaries to understand that our own behaviour may be dictated by the constraints of circumstances, but attribute adversaries’ perceived hostile behaviour to their nature, character or persistent motives.

These warnings stare us in the face when we consider the current narratives of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their narratives share basic messages, but cast each other in reverse roles of aggressor and victim.

To overcome the cognitive limitations that Kahneman points out, it is necessary to critically examine the historical analogies that form the narratives. In fact, applying historical analogies is our only way to analyse policy options along the continuum between confrontation and cooperation. We think about policies in terms of alternative scenarios. A scenario is a narrative about what has not yet happened based on an interpretation of what has. But our concept of the past is a construct.  We are forced to make a choice among the infinite number of variables that shape political reality; consequently, any description is a choice. Besides, each new policy choice will face a unique set of circumstances since there is no repetition in history. Yet, there will be a generic core in each new policy dilemma. Henry Kissinger, a central analyst and political actor during the Cold War, set out the relevance of his study of the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic upheavals of Europe by maintaining that “history teaches by analogy”.  Following up on Kissinger’s dictum I maintain that historical analogies are relevant to the degree they are believed to be. No new situation is identical to any previous, but there will be elements that can be transferred and lessons to be learnt, especially from such recent formative experiences as the Cold War. The current reading of the Cold War is mostly mindless. Rarely do analyses extend beyond the simplistic image of “We, the West, won; they, the Soviets, lost”.

The current dangerous crisis in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia is mainly driven by the Iranian nuclear program. Still, Iran seems to misjudge the implications, and instead appears to be driven by a sense of strength following the perceived weakening of their adversaries following the US defeat they see in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this, Iran resembles the state of mind of the Soviet Union in 1975. That year the Soviet leaders experienced a similar hubris following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, which precipitated an aggressive foreign policy starting in Africa and ending in Afghanistan.  (The legacy today is two failed states, Somalia and Afghanistan, that prior to becoming pawns in other countries’ rivalries were on the threshold to modernity, but are now the source of great suffering and cause of dangerous regional instability.)

The year 1975 launched a new era of cooperation with the signing of the Helsinki accord on Cooperation and Security in Europe. The Soviet agreed to principles of human rights, an agreement that, although entered into in bad faith, nevertheless proved to undermine the Eastern bloc regimes, contributing to their eventual demise at the beginning of the 1990’s. Yet, the policy of cooperation and dialogue gave the Soviet leaders a false sense of supremacy, seducing the leaders, obsessed with prestige and power and deluded by ideology, to the catastrophic foreign policy adventures that caused the climate of cooperation of 1975 to turn into a deep frozen Cold War only five years later, leading the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1983 as the result of misreading of intentions.

What are the lessons for dealing with Iran today? First of all, a non-confrontational approach could prove a more effective policy for advancing regime change than threats, probably even more so in a pluralistic polity like Iran. But avoiding political confrontation is not in itself enough to prevent dangerous misjudgements since it could be misread as weakness and tempt the adversary to exploit the situation. In hindsight it becomes obvious that what caused detente to turn into dangerous confrontation were exactly the misjudgements built into the human mind that Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for identifying in the field of economics. Kahneman would find all his insights into to fallibility of decision making confirmed by the decision makers in both the West and the East during this period, as he no doubt will today in the confrontational relationships in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, only effective dialogue, by balancing advocacy of owns views with exploring the adversary’s, can overcome these fallacies of the human mind.  This is as true in interstate relations as it is in interpersonal communication. But if it is so obvious, why is it so difficult?  Again, the answer is found in the way our minds are wired, and the solution is to be found in understanding this connection and learning how to deal with it. Kahneman points out that our brains react with positive emotions when our views are confirmed, but cause discomfort when we are contradicted.  In the words of the British Ambassador during my posting at the UN, Sir Crispin: “Gentlemen, let us never forget, we are all animals”.

Given these constraints, how can we bring the “human animals” to better understand, cope and cooperate on win-win options?  Professor Daniel Shapiro at Harvard Program on Negotiation has identified five core emotional concerns that affect our will and ability to overcome the fallacies that Kahneman find potentially catastrophic:

1.           Appreciation: The desire to feel understood and honestly valued.

2.          Affiliation: Recognizing shared identity traits.

3.          AutonomyMaking decisions without imposition.

4.           Status: Positive emotions grow when status increases self-esteem; Negative emotions fester in competition for status.

5.            Role: A role should fulfill emotional needs. Temporary roles may facilitate communication and compromise.

These concerns form the generic core of the motivation for all political behavior. They will therefore be the litmus test for any constructive political process in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Daniel Kahneman’s  good news is that when we chose to engage in deliberation, yet another part of our brain is activated.



[1] Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon Why Hawks Win, Foreign Policy, No 158 (Jan. – Feb., 2007), pp. 34-38