Reading Iranian Minds

Paul Pillar

Many who offer opinions on policy toward Iran, and particularly on how to handle negotiations over its nuclear program, implicitly claim an unusual ability to read the minds of Iranian decision-makers. Assertions are made with apparent confidence about what the Iranians want, fear or believe, even without any particular evidence in support. Several possible explanations can account for the misplaced confidence.

One is that we are seeing common psychological mechanisms in action. A well-established human tendency is, for example, to interpret cooperative behavior on another person's part as a response to one's own behavior, while ascribing uncooperative conduct to innate orneriness on the part of the other person. Thus there is a failure to understand how firmness in Iran's negotiating position is a response to firmness on the Western side, and there is an accompanying tendency to interpret a lack of Iranian concessions as indicating an Iranian desire to stall and drag out negotiations.

Another explanation is that a particular frame of mind is imputed to the Iranians because it implies a U.S. policy that is politically popular for other reasons. Loading ever more onerous sanctions on Iran is a popular political sport, especially on Capitol Hill, to show toughness or love for Israel. The politicians who play that sport therefore favor a view of the Iranian mindset according to which the Iranians are simply not hurting enough and need to hurt some more, after which they will cry uncle.

A third explanation is that the supposed interpretation of Iranian thinking is a cover for another policy agenda held by the person offering the interpretation. This is especially the case with some of those arguing for more vehement threats of military attack against Iran. Some of those proponents have made no secret of the fact that they believe (for whatever strange reason) that war with Iran would be a good thing. Saber-rattling gives them a better chance of reaching that goal, because if an agreement is not reached with Iran then the advocates of saber-rattling would be among the first to cry that U.S. credibility would be damaged if the military threats were not carried out.

These possibilities come to mind in reading an op ed by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In particular, they are brought to mind by Ross and Makovsky's statement, in explaining lack of progress in the negotiations, that “Iranian leaders seem not to believe that we will use force if diplomatic efforts fail.” What is their basis for that observation? Have the Iranian leaders themselves said anything like that? No, they haven't. Ross and Makovsky seem to be basing such an observation solely on the Iranian negotiating position itself, and in so doing they are implying only a single cause for that position. Whatever Iran does in the way of making or not making concessions is all supposedly a matter of whether the Iranians see the possibility of U.S. military force being employed. Every other carrot, stick, belief or perception evidently does not matter at all.

Actually, those other things matter a lot. There is the little business of sanctions, for example. Ross and Makovsky are to be complimented for stating that if Iran is prepared to make the kind of concessions we are looking for, then “we should be prepared to lift the harsh economic sanctions.” But they do not mention that the United States and its negotiating partners have given the Iranians little or no reason to believe that we are so prepared. Instead, the only sanctions relief that has been incorporated in the Western proposals is stingy in comparison with the panoply of sanctions that Congress keeps piling on. We do not need any magical insight into secret Iranian thoughts to realize how important this dimension is in shaping Iran's negotiating behavior. We only have to look at the demands and proposals that Iran has advanced at the negotiating table, as well as the actual economic damage that the sanctions have inflicted.

Ross and Makovsky get something else right, but for the wrong reason. Their piece is partly an argument in favor of making a comprehensive proposal rather than taking a step-by-step approach; they pooh-pooh the idea of confidence-building that is associated with step-by-step. A comprehensive proposal is a good idea, but precisely because a lack of confidence—which is glaring on both sides—is a major part of the problem. The Iranians lack confidence that the United States and its P5+1 partners ever want to get to an end state in which they fully and formally accept a peaceful nuclear program, with uranium enrichment, in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, rather than indefinitely stringing out negotiations while the sanctions continue to inflict their damage. Again, we do not need to be mind-readers to realize this; the Iranians have been quite explicit in stating that they require a clearer idea of where the negotiations are heading.

So a “going big” comprehensive proposal is a good idea—but not as Ross and Makovsky pitch it, as some kind of ultimatum with a threat of military force functioning as an “or else” clause of the proposal. That kind of clause only stokes Iranian doubts about the West's ultimate intentions and feeds Iranian interest in a possible nuclear weapon as a deterrent.

What is the explanation for Ross and Makovsky's assertions about Iranian thinking? Are they exhibiting one of those psychological heuristics, or covering a hidden agenda, or something else? I don't know; I don't pretend to be able to read their minds.

TopicsPsychologySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

Neoconservatives Mugged by Reality a Second Time

The Buzz

Irving Kristol, the founder of The National Interest, once famously said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” While this may well have been true at the time—in the 1980s—it may be changing.

In fact, Jason Horowitz’s useful assessment of liberals mugged by reality in the Washington Post makes clear that many liberal hawks discouraged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone silent in the debate over Syria. In fairness, as Horowitz points out, the former liberal hawks may be deterred as much by “the clear reluctance of a Democratic president to get mired in the Middle East” as by previous interventions gone awry. Either way, some liberal hawks appear not neo-conservative but just plain conservative, as in “marked by moderation or caution”—a dictionary definition that sometimes seems forgotten.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is what happens when neoconservatives are mugged by reality a second time. Though most neoconservatives don’t appear quite ready to give up on deeper U.S. involvement in Syria in one way or another, more than a few are looking over their shoulders in dark alleys. How else to explain their increasingly frequent denunciations of “isolationism” that virtually no one is advocating? Or their calls for no-fly zones, drone attacks, arms shipments and similar measures to avoid “boots on the ground” in Syria? They may not be concerned by the troubling realities of the Middle East, but neoconservatives can certainly see the shadow of America’s domestic political realities approaching them from behind. Hopefully it will encourage them to become a little more cautiously conservative too.

TopicsIdeology RegionsSyria

Trapping Hezbollah

Paul Pillar

As Iraq after the U.S. invasion became a violent cauldron that featured, among other forms of bloodletting, a surge of Sunni terrorism, American apologists for the war and other supporters of the invasion who were trying to cope with their cognitive dissonance put the violence in a favorable light that even got additional mileage out of the pre-war fiction about how invading Iraq would be a way of dealing with al-Qaeda. The new concept was the flypaper theory of counterterrorism: the idea that the war was serving to attract terrorists to a place where U.S. forces could more easily gun them down. Better to fight them and kill them in Iraq, went the idea, than to fight them later after they got to the United States.

The fundamental flaw in the flypaper theory as applied to what was happening in Iraq is that it assumed there was a fixed number of jihadi terrorists, some subset of whom were cooperatively coming to Iraq to be martyred. Far from there being a fixed number, the war significantly boosted the number. The great majority of those who committed terrorist violence in Iraq were not, prior to the war, previously established terrorists who had been hiding and plotting in some unreachable place in South Asia or elsewhere. Instead, they were perpetrating such violence for the first time, having been stimulated to do so by the U.S. invasion and occupation and subsequent Iraqi civil war.

In different circumstances, however, there might be something valid in a version of the flypaper theory. The key required difference would be that a specific organization is involved whose membership is closer to being fixed than is that of an inchoate movement that expands every time an angry individual decides to resort to violence. As far as U.S. interests in particular are concerned, another difference is that the United States not become what it became in Iraq: a principal stimulant and target of the violence.

Conditions something like this exist today in Syria. Not among the radical Sunni jihadists on the rebel side, whose numbers have been expanding just as they did in Iraq, but instead on the pro-regime side with regard to Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah has made a major commitment on behalf of the Assad regime, and it is paying a heavy price. The price comes in the form of substantial losses in men and materiel, as well as politically in the form of alienation from the larger Sunni Arab world, most of which favors the Syrian rebels. Former Lebanese prime minister (and thus a Sunni) Saad Hariri said that Hezbollah's decision to fight in Syria was “political and military suicide.” That's an overstatement, but the costs for Hezbollah certainly have been high.

Meanwhile, the Syrian war has indirectly raised new challenges to Hezbollah back in Lebanon. Lebanese Sunnis have gained experience fighting in Syria. Rebels from Syria have even infiltrated parts of Hezbollah's stronghold in the Bekaa Valley. These processes can be expected to continue as long as the Syrian war continues.

Such developments get overlooked by many people who profess concern about Hezbollah and its influence and who say that if Hezbollah is on one side of a war, we ought to back the other side. For anyone who really is concerned about Hezbollah and would like to see it weakened, it would be better to stand back and let the status quo continue.

It would serve Hezbollah's interests for the United States and the West to do anything that would help the group do what it has often successfully done in the past, which is to pose as champion of causes with which most Sunni Arabs and not just Shia identify. In a speech last weekend, Hezbollah's leader Hasan Nasrallah said his group is fighting in Syria to keep the country out of the hands of “America, Israel and the takfiris.” Rather than giving Hezbollah the propaganda gift of making that description seem true, it would be better to let Hezbollah get stuck more inextricably in the Syrian trap.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/FunkMonk

TopicsCounterinsurgencyTerrorism RegionsIraqLebanonSyria

An Excellent Statement on Terrorism

Paul Pillar

In his speech at the National Defense University on Thursday, President Obama made one of the most sensible, realistic, thorough and truthful statements about terrorism and counterterrorism from any senior official, let alone a president. The speech was not a piece of oratorical artwork, and it probably will not have the popular resonance of many of his other utterances. But in the sheer quality of its substance, the speech was one of his best.

The welcome and needed main message was that the United States must and should get off the track of waging a “boundless 'global war on terror.'” Accompanying that message was an accurate description of the terrorist threats that do and do not endanger U.S. interests. The president explained how the main problem is not what is left of the core al-Qaeda group but instead some parts of an assortment of foreign offshoots as well as radicalized individuals in the United States. Many of the foreign groups, including some that have adopted the al-Qaeda brand name, are primarily focused on local matters and do not pose any significant threat to U.S. interests.

Mr. Obama was candid in what can and cannot be done in countering terrorism. We “cannot erase” violent extremism. He talked of some of the vulnerabilities that are unavoidable, including the dangers faced by U.S. diplomats serving in trouble-prone places such as Libya.

The president, in multiple ways, made clear the inherent trade-offs involved in many aspects of counterterrorist policy. This included his discussion of the pros and cons of establishing either a special court or an oversight board to pass judgment on proposed drone strikes against terrorist suspects, while evidently remaining open-minded himself about the different options. It also included his reference to the need to strike a balance between security and “preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” This aspect of the speech was a needed antidote to the tendency to think about counterterrorism in absolute terms and doing whatever is necessary to provide security.

A needed antidote to the tendency to think of a “war” on terrorism involving military force as a first-choice tool was Mr. Obama's reference to the many different instruments of statecraft that contribute to counterterrorism even if they are not labeled expressly as such. Especially welcome was his forthright discussion of the need to address “underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” He included under this category the promotion of democracy, foreign assistance, and—of particular note—the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

What the president said about the detention facility at Guantanamo was admirably blunt and indicated a welcome use of what executive authorities he has to get closer to the goal of closure. He discussed how the original purpose of the facility was to keep detainees beyond the reach of any law and how this ignoble objective has hurt U.S. foreign relations by fostering a perception of U.S. disregard for law. He also correctly said that the Congressional restrictions on movement from detainees out of Guantanamo “make no sense.”

The speech serves also as another refutation of the myth that Mr. Obama claims to have dealt a fatal blow to international terrorism. The myth seems to have been born during last year's election campaign amid subliminal fears of Mr. Obama's opponents that whatever successes his administration has had against terrorism might win him votes. The myth has underlain the silliness about talking points on the Benghazi incident, allegedly doctored so as not to contradict the mythical claim about having defeated terrorism. It also underlies some more recent silliness about the White House supposedly wanting to “punish” the Associated Press for stories that indicate there is still a terrorist threat out there. What the president actually said near the beginning of this week's speech was, “Make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” When he mentioned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he said nothing about his own decision-making but instead attributed the raid's success to the planning and professionalism of U.S. Special Forces and to “some luck.” Even then, he acknowledged the downside of the raid in the form of a “severe” negative impact on relations with Pakistan.

The speech does implicitly remind the listener of some of the negative aspects of the Obama administration's use of armed drones. One of those aspects is unnecessary opacity and slowness in lifting that opacity. It was only the day before the speech that the administration, in a letter from the attorney general to a Senate committee, finally acknowledged all of the U.S. citizens who had been killed, intentionally or otherwise, by drones.

The White House released, as an accompaniment to the speech, a fact sheet describing criteria and procedures to be used in deciding on additional strikes from armed drones. The release is a positive step toward more transparency and gives us the fullest sense yet about the policy and how it is implemented. But the complete policy guidelines remain classified, the fact sheet is vague on several points, and it raises as well as answers questions. For example, it states that the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. persons. How can a threat that is “continuing” also be “imminent,” except perhaps for a short time before the threat is finally executed? In other places, such as in describing review procedures when a U.S. citizen is involved, the fact sheet essentially says that things will be done legally without specifying the legal principles and standards to be applied. In offering assurances that noncombatants will be protected, a lengthy footnote says that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants” but doesn't really eliminate the possibility that many such males will be so deemed.

The biggest hurdle to full implementation of a sensible and defensible counterterrorist policy is probably not these remaining problems in the administration's use of drones but instead the insistence of others, especially in Congress, that counterterrorism is a “war” in which military force is the preeminent tool, the grievances and conflicts that feed extremism are disregarded, the trade-offs involved in buying security are brushed aside, and the stain of Guantanamo is retained.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsForeign AidThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Balky Syrian Rebels

Paul Pillar

Reasonable people can disagree on what to do about Syria, a problem with no good solutions, and particularly about what to do regarding aid to Syrian rebels. There ought not to be disagreement, however, on not letting the United States, a would-be benefactor, get pushed around or have its diplomacy subverted by the rebels, who are the supplicants. Yet that becomes a possibility when we hear the head of the rebel Syrian National Coalition throw cold water on the peace conference that Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed to arrange and say that his group will withhold agreement to attend until it sees who from the Assad regime might be coming.

In a public statement at this week's “Friends of Syria” meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives. There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.

Amid all the talk about Assad having to go, there is no reason from the standpoint of U.S. interests to consider his departure an end in itself. It is at most a means to achieve other ends, having to do with instability or extremism in Syria. An even more fundamental distinction is between objectives, either ultimate or intermediate, and diplomatic modalities such as who exactly will be sitting at a negotiating table. In general, regardless of the objectives, including parties is better excluding them, which only makes them more likely to be spoilers. This principle goes for outsiders, including Iran.

As for the insiders and specifically the Assad regime, it would be hard to label as peace talks any process in which that regime was not fully at the table in the form of representatives of its own choice. Moreover, think of the incentives—to talk or to fight, to cooperate or to spoil—of the regime's supporters. A wide range of possibilities for a new Syria would share the common feature of not having Bashar Assad in charge. But those possibilities can be very different from each other in terms of the ability of those currently supporting the regime to live useful lives in the new Syria, or to live at all. If they do not believe their interests will be fairly represented in creation of a new order, they are more likely to see the only course as a fight to the death. Anyone who does not acknowledge that reality does not deserve assistance.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyForeign AidHumanitarian Intervention RegionsSyria