One of the more fruitful ways of understanding the dilemma of dealing with Iran is a cognitive warfare analysis. Cognitive warfare is the main theater of war for “weak” insurgencies in an asymmetric conflict. Unable to win on the kinetic battlefield, insurgencies must pursue means to prevent the stronger side from using their strength to prevent them from gaining strength. In the case of non-democratic insurgencies against superior democratic foes – the majority of such conflicts in the modern period – the “weak” side must deploy both their own deceptions and exploit the vulnerabilities of their foes in order to proceed. When the enemies are democracies who, in principle, consider the use of force a last resort, this means insurgencies must use the pacific (pacifist) tendencies of their foes to paralyze them.
In the case of Iranian nuclear ambitions this involves clearly high stakes: not only is Iran a Shi’i theocracy with an apocalyptic worldview, whose leaders have made clear since the inception of the regime in 1979 (1400 AH), that their resort to war is neither inhibited by modern norms, nor defensive, but also that Iran’s acquisition would trigger a much larger nuclear push on the part of their foes in the Sunni Muslim world. Thus, from any angle, whether from the huge increase in a nuclear Iran’s hegemonic influence among her immediate neighbors, or from the metastasis of nuclear weapons in other, pre-modern polities in so unstable a region, it seems an imperative that the West should prevent Iran from acquiring these weapons. Indeed, one might argue that with this cognitive-war victory (acquiring the nuclear bomb without opposition), Iran could dramatically alter the kinetic battlefield, and with this power to threaten and intimidate, to immeasurably increase their cognitive position of demanding concessions.
So the agenda for the West is clear: prevent a nuclear Iran. This is so much the accepted wisdom, that even as his administration prepares Americans (and the world) for a nuclear containment of Iran, President Obama continues to pay it lip service. And the means to do it are equally clear. In any previous age, the military hegemon would not hesitate to intervene. Democracies renounce such means and tolerate far higher levels of enemy armament (Israel’s tolerance of Hamas and Hizbullah on their borders). Thus democracies prefer non-violent blockades and sanctions to substitute for violent intervention in an effort to coerce compliance. With the unity of purpose of sound-minded nations in negotiation with the Iranians, this could effectively deal with the problem. But for a variety of reasons, which range from sheer venality (cheating the sanctions) to moral equivalence (if we have them, why not they?) to deranged ideology (siding with the subaltern “other”), such unity of purpose has proven elusive, despite the stakes. With such a wide range of policy arguments, the argument that dismisses the alarmists as myth-makers and that we really don’t need to worry seems centrist.
Iran’s cogwar aims are to exploit our weakness, and impose on us passive behavior in this regard, to exploit every instinct we have to reach an amicable settlement, in order hinder our efforts to stop their bomb. In doing so they have been especially successful, although it’s not clear how much is due to their brilliance and how much to our own stupidity. The following enumerates and illustrates some of the key Western vulnerabilities to Iran’s cognitive war attack.
- The threat of terror attacks. In cognitive warfare, the use of terror tactics (kinetic warfare) aim primarily at intimidating the foe into concessions; terror is not the main issue, but an adjunct to cogwar. When democracies place the prevention of terror attacks as a high priority, they often miss the larger context, and make concessions that reduce immediate attacks even as they set the stage for more extensive attacks later on. In this case, given the global reach of Jihadi terror, the fear that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would lead to a widespread terror campaign has effectively paralyzed the West’s willingness to use force, even in Syria. And yet, the terror campaigns and their threats should tell us about the enemy’s intentions: mass slaughter of enemy civilian populations (us) does not pose the moral conflict for them that it does for us. On the contrary, their religious ideology justifies it: Allah wills it, everything is permitted. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will not work with Iranian (and other Jihadi) nuclear ambitions. No fear of short-term terror should keep us from preventing Iran’s ability to use nuclear weapons in their apocalyptic war with the West.
- Western preference for positive-sum negotiations over zero-sum violence: Modern democracies are founded on notions of the Enlightenment principle of substituting reason for passion. Thus, in principle, democracies prefer arriving at voluntary (good faith) win-win solutions rather than resorting to coerced (bad faith) win-lose solutions. If such coercion is necessary, democracies look for the least violent means. While this shift from zero- to positive-sum interactions has had immensely advantageous effects, especially in the world of both freedom and productivity, both domestically (demotic polities), and in some cases, internationally (UN, EU), it can also prove dangerously counter-productive when pursued with bad faith players who exploit their foe’s presumption of good faith to gain positional advantage (i.e. a pre-modern political culture in which bad faith and zero-sum are default assumptions about the other – what an older generation of political scientists called realism).
- Western fear of Questioning the Good Faith of Foes: It is not wrong to bring our new, empathic, embracing views to the table with other cultures, but when we cannot tell whether they meet us in good faith or merely use our (principled) naivete about their motivations, we’re in trouble. And yet, for a variety of reasons that deserve reexamination, the West finds it supremely difficult to question the good faith of their foes. This stems in part from a widespread principle of contemporary civil society, to assume the good faith of the “other,” part from intimidation from both the Jihadis and the politically correct intelligentsia. Indeed those who wish to discuss evidence of bad faith on the “other side” almost immediately find themselves facing accusations of racism and xenophobia. To suspect the other side of lying is itself an inexcusable act of bad faith. With this principled insistence on being duped in order to prove our good faith, we have created among our foes a generation of professional demopaths who use the rhetoric of democracy to destroy democracy. Demopaths are skilled at manipulating human rights discourse to maneuver democrats into still more vulnerable positions. When successful, they can paralyze us with their bad-faith exploitation of our “good faith” language. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark about sanctions (our only leverage at the moment) illustrates this bind perfectly: “Our hope is that no new sanctions would be put in place for the simple reason that, if they are, it could be viewed as bad faith by the people we are negotiating with.” Our inability to identify demopaths and neutralize their claims on our moral commitments, is probably the single greatest failure of the 21st century intelligentsia.
- The dominance in the West of a pacifist outlook. It is one thing to make violence a last resort, and quite another to rule out the use of violence entirely. And yet, with the dominance in post-modern, progressive, culture of memes like war is not the answer and violence never solved anything, Western elites have tended to slide from prudence into paralysis. And yet, even as this paralysis sets in when dealing with the enemy, it produces an aggressive assault on anyone who questions the wisdom of the passivists. The widespread use of accusations of “hysteria” and “war-mongering” against anyone who has suggested that it was time to exercise (or even credibly threaten) Iran with a military strike, exemplifies this shift. Indeed, Kerry’s recent campaign accuses those in favor of sanctions (the alternative to violence) of promoting war. Eventually, one moves from constant passive procrastination to accepting containment, i.e., learning to live with a nuclear endowed Iran. Thus, the unthinkable imperceptibly becomes the inevitable. And so, formerly “realistic” political scientists publish articles insisting that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose no threat, so why go to war?
Despite the enormous damage that will result, those who enable Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the name of “peace” will probably, even when the damage occurs, avoid self-criticism. Therein lies an even greater tragedy. Despite the millions more who will die as a result of this folly (most, probably, other Muslims), were the West at least to learn the lessons of this diplomatic disaster (as they learned those of Munich), one could hope that, at long last, those who support democratic freedoms and a global civil society, will begin to turn around these staggering losses in the cognitive theater of war.