Israel and Iran: A Lesson from a “Dispute-Resolution-Game”

Recent news out of Israel prompts me to write briefly about a recent experience.

Three weeks ago I was asked to serve as an adviser to the participants in a dispute-resolution exercise at a British academy. The focus of the exercise was Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. The participants were divided into four teams: Iran, Gulf Arab states, Israel, and the West.

After various alarums and excursions that took the participants to the brink of a war in the Gulf, the Israelis decided that they should talk to the Iranians. A “high-level Norwegian diplomat” was conjured up to convey a request for talks to Tehran. The Iranian team was unready to engage directly but was content for the Norwegian to shuttle back and forth as an intermediary.

When time ran out, Iran and Israel were on the verge of agreeing to cease demonising each other; to refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs; to desist from covert operations against each other; and to accept each other’s nuclear and missile assets in return for some kind of no-first-use assurance. In short, they were heading towards a mutually acceptable modus vivendi. This seemed likely to lower tensions in the region and reduce the likelihood of a war that might end up costing many lives and affecting the living standards of billions.

The Western team was relieved by this development and hastened to settle the enrichment dispute by concluding an NPT deal with Iran. The Arab group had decided early on that their over-riding interest was to avoid the outbreak of conflict in the Gulf. They had set out to strengthen their relations with Iran and to build bridges between Iran and the West—even at one early point between Iran and Israel, albeit unsuccessfully. So they had no difficulty with an NPT deal, recognising that the most likely alternative to a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute is conflict, sooner or later.

I am not pretending this scenario can be transposed to the real world. All the participants in this exercise were British. Their understanding of relevant historical and cultural factors was limited. Their emotions were hardly in play, not enough, at any rate, to impact on their reasoning. And yet….

Israel’s defence and intelligence professionals seem to have come to the same position as their US counterparts. They not only believe it would be hard to destroy all Iran’s nuclear assets from the air; they also doubt whether this is necessary in the absence of evidence that Iran is bent on making nuclear weapons. (In the absence of such evidence there is no chance the UN Security Council would authorise an attack; so the use of force would also be a violation of international law.)

These professional assessments make it logical to cease threatening Iran with damage and destruction unless it abandons an activity, uranium enrichment, which is permissible under the NPT. They make it logical, instead, to focus on minimising the risk that Iran’s leaders will decide to use enrichment capability for military purposes.  Hyping the Iranian “threat”, conducting covert operations that include the assassination of innocent scientists, imposing pressure on the West to wage economic war against Iran, and repeated threats to use force are not risk-minimising policies. Arriving at some sort of mutual non-aggression understanding is.

Risk-minimisation would of course be a momentous inflection for Israel’s politicians. Since 1992 they have been playing up Iran as a threat to Western states, as well as the survival and security of Israel, and they have been pressing the West to hurt Iran economically. It is a clever policy that has brought significant political advantages.

Perhaps, though, a point has been reached at which the risks are starting to outweigh the gains. By dint of threatening to attack Iran unless the West tightens its grip on the Iranian economy, Israel is starting to affect global living standards through higher oil prices, and Israel is pushing the world towards a war that could cripple the global economy through energy shortages. North Americans may be ready to forgive Israel for hiking the price of gas and reducing their living standards; Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans may be more resentful.

So the moral courage and integrity of Israel’s defence and intelligence professionals deserve a cheer. The professionals are implying that there is no justification, whether from a realistic threat perspective or under international law, for attacking Iran economically or militarily. Can one hope that Israel’s politicians can now summon the vision to recognise two things?

First, that Israel’s long-term interest as a member of a global community lie in abandoning a twenty-year policy that is starting to have unintended consequences, modest at this point but potentially grave: damage to the global economy and living standards everywhere.

Second, that Israel can hope to trade both the abandonment of that policy and acquiescence in an NPT deal between Iran and the West for a non-aggression understanding with Iran, enhancing the security of Israeli citizens.

In short, it’s time Israeli politicians went looking for a “high-level Norwegian diplomat”.

Peter Jenkins was the UK’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA for 2001-06 and is now a partner in ADRg Ambassadors.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.