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Assumptions in the language of conflict management: US and Israeli war games against Iran

A scene from the film 'Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'

Three war games have recently reviewed the US and Israeli options and outcomes in the face of Iran’s nuclear program. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has very briefly analyzed these games and has presented its own conclusions.

I am here going to respond to Jeffrey White’s analysis of these games. I am most interested in his choice of language, and unfortunately only have the time to comment on two out of the three games.

White provides highlights of the Harvard war game, which had as its goal an investigation of the general evolution of events and international actions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

1) The US could not organize “meaningful support for sanctions.”

2) Russia and China engaged in their own “secret negotiations with Iran.”

3) Iran ‘won’ the game by increasing its supply of uranium and “was proceeding to weaponization.”

My response:

1) The game is conducted by an American institution and focuses on the central role of the US as the catalyst or primary actor, seemingly subordinating other state actors as responders to US policy on the issue. That the US could not coordinate sanctions may well be rewritten as any number of other states having varying levels of ‘success’ in rolling out their own plans. I don’t here mean to say that the agency of other states is not recognized by individual players who represent state actors, but rather that we should be aware that the game assumes the central motive of investigating US interests in degrees related to a binary dimension, success/failure. This game assumes then that the dominant articulation of US interest in regards to Iran, the Middle East, and Asia, is an inviolate constant. It does not investigate international interest, simply US interest. I would argue that it investigates this the issue not simply from the point of view of war games conducted by the interested nation’s institution but also assumes the given that US power is hegemonic, if not implying that US hegemony is good then at least ignoring the question entirely. I argue that ignoring the question of articulating power can lead to or facilitate a quest to maximize power for power’s sake and forgetting why an exertion of national will is necessary in the first place. The danger inherent in accepting dominant paradigms of trans-regional power is that actors may forget that it may well be desirable to seek political action for something other than the accumulation of power but may be the means to a multitude of goals.

2) That it would be stated that Russia and China would seek “secret” negotiations with Iran relates to my first point. It suggests that any negotiation with Iran outside the schema presented by US arbitration or national interest is a breach of some unvoiced law. What is here meant by secret? That the US or those of its allies in full compliance with its national interest were not invited to bilateral talks between Russia or China and Iran? Just as the US and European nations have the right, as independent state actors, to enter into private negotiations with a second party, I would think that China or Russia would also enter into dialogue with those they see fit without necessarily seeking outside approval. If the full transcript of bilateral talks are not made available in the case of the US and some second party, this might be for the reason of its national interest, such as the mutable outcome of sensitive negotiations not yet concluding in formal agreement. That the bilateral talks of non-US actors working independently of this forcibly centralized player are articulated as “secret” suggests a displeasure with independent action that may be counter to US interest, but disguises this self-interest as a form of breach that requires secrecy.

3) Here is revealed another assumption made by the game, that Iran, without question, seeks to have nuclear weapons. The nature of Iran’s nuclear program is not questioned, it is presented as a weapons program. Within this assumption is inscribed the message that the program is an act of aggression against the US, meaning that it is contrary to US interest. Here is assumed that the US has a right, perhaps it would be worded as a responsibility in some journals, to exert its political, economic, and military power within the Asian continent, far from its shores and that local actors must not have the power to threaten US monopoly on violence. This relates very much to the symbolic reduction of US wars of aggression within the region, such as in the case of Iraq, to police action in which the police/US has the right to violence while other states must be presented as subjects — international citizens — in a necessarily undefined global system in which their actions could well be regarded as criminal if it falls outside US interest. Such a schema is perhaps best articulated in a paper written for the US military, Joint Vision 2020, in which the idea of American full spectrum dominance is explained as:

The label full spectrum dominance implies that US forces are able to conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronized operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations and with access to and freedom to operate in all domains – space, sea, land, air, and information.  Additionally, given the global nature of our interests and obligations, the United States must maintain its overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance.

Next, White discusses the highlights of a related war game that was conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. This game investigates US-Israel relation along with potential for Israeli responses to Iran’s nuclear program. White outlines the following highlights from the Tel Aviv war game:

1) The game assumes a clear objective for Iran: “obtaining nuclear weapons.”

2) Israel and the US did not have clear strategies nor clear goals in confronting Iran.

3) Iran ‘wins’, and continues its nuclear program.

My responses:

1) This war game also assumes that Iran seeks to have nuclear weapons, generating a scenario on the very basis of an intractable conflict. There is no deviation from weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program and therefore diplomatic negotiations could not possibly succeed. In order to have Iran refrain from building nuclear bombs, you must force it to do so, through economic, political, or military threats or actions. Beyond the assumption that Iran must want nuclear weapons is the treatment of the nuclear program in isolation from the very state actors who are here presented as the side (though a fractured side) facing a common foe in Iran. Israel and US, it is assumed, have a right to nuclear weapons. The impact of Israeli nuclear weapons on politics, and military programs within the region are entirely ignored in this particular scenario. To explore it would mean questioning it. Anyway, Israel does not publicly acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons. To do so, or to discuss this topic might result in the question of how it developed them in the first place, which of course included European and US aid. Israel has not signed on to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US and all nuclear capable European countries have. Under the NPT, it is not allowed that signatories help non-signatories develop a nuclear program, let alone a weaponized one. So, the NATO countries involved in this affair are in breach of what is supposed to be a binding international treaty that they helped create. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is meant to help police the accountability of signatories that may be implicated in a breach of the NPT, which permits the development of a civilian nuclear program but limits weaponization. The IAEA is thus involved in the case of Iran yet it is not involved in the case of the open secret of Israel nor of Western involvement in Israel’s nuclear development. This might bring into question the objectivity of the NPT, or rather of its application. It suggests, then, that it is OK for some countries to have nuclear programs, even nuclear weapons, but not OK for others to have them. If the application of the NPT is not universal, and in fact we witness a clear miss on its application in the case of the only nuclear weapons holder in the Middle East, then we must conclude that the NPT is at the very least flawed. Whether by flaw or purpose, it has in this case served to help maintain a power dynamic and problematic articulation of international law in which one side — Iran — is investigated because of accusation by the US, while another side — Israel — who happens to be an integrated ally of the US does not have to even worry about investigation. So, here we see that the application of an international treaty moves according to the existing dynamic of global power which favours the dominant player and its close allies.

2) The lack of clarity in terms of goals and strategies does not immediately seem clear to me when reading White’s review of the Tel Aviv war game. In reading further sections of the short report, I wonder if it simply means that they did not have common goals, or that goals and strategies were not clear enough because the US did not come forward with preconditions and ultimatums then seek these out through any means possible including military aggression.

3) That Iran wins the war game fits into the binary world we are presented throughout the report, with Iran on one side and US-Israel on the other. One is bad, the other is good, implicitly. Therefore, there is no need to critically examine the impact of each state action within the context of a multitude of national and sub-national needs or interests; it is assumed here that good and bad are inherent to each party. Perhaps the confusion lies in that the dimension of national interest embedded in power politics is taken as the judge of good and bad. In this case, if a situation or action contrasts with Israeli or US national interest reduced to a game of power politics then the need to examine its effect on the many peoples of the world is diminished. Inversely, what is good for the interested parties must be good for everyone, or is for the good of everyone.

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