Friday, February 5, 2010

That "Cost-Benefit" Thing: How U.S. Intelligence Assessments Misunderstand Iran and Lots More in the Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

"We continue to judge that Iran's nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Iran." Dennis Blair, chief of U.S. intelligence in his annual threat assessment report for 2010.

Forget about  Nazi analogies or even Stalinist ones. Let's just use some Middle East parallels, formulated fictionally as if they'd come from the Dennis Blair school of thought:

We continue to judge that the Arab world's pursuit of its conflict with Israel is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to bring it to an end in the near future."  Annual threat assessment report for 1950.

We continue to judge that Egypt's foreign policy-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the United States a chane to turn it into an ally." Annual threat assessment report for 1952.

We continue to judge that Syrian and Iraqi decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means these countries will see that friendship with the West has more to offer them than alliance with the USSR, especially given the fact that Communism is in conflict with their religion and way of life." Annual threat assessment report for 1960.

We continue to judge that Egyptian and Syrian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not create a crisis leading to war with Israel." Annual threat assessment report for 1967.

We continue to judge that Egyptian and Syrian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not create a crisis leading to war with Israel." Annual threat assessment report for 1973.

We continue to judge that Arab states' decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will quickly join in to the Camp David process and support the Egypt-Israel peace agreement." Annual threat assessment report for 1979.

We continue to judge that Iranian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not create a crisis leading to a long-term conflict with the United States. Annual threat assessment report for 1979.

We continue to judge that Iraqi decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not go to war with Iran, a country that has a much larger population, and suffer huge damage as a result. Annual threat assessment report for 1980.

We continue to judge that Iraqi decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Iraq into not escalating the conflict by offering it concessions over Kuwait. Annual threat assessment for 1990.

"We continue to judge that Iraq's decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which suggests that Saddam Hussein will cooperate fully with the international order to get the sanctions removed from his country. Annual threat assessment report for 1995.

We continue to judge that Palestinian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence the PLO into making coprehensive peace with Israel. Annual threat assessment report for 1999."

We continue to judge that the decision-making of Iraq's elite and people is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to turn Iraq into a stable democracy once Saddam Hussein is overthrown. Annual threat assessment report for 2003.

We continue to judge that the decision-making of Iran's regime is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which ensures that Iran will become more moderate and not take on the risks and high expenditure of resources required by a drive to get nuclear weapons. Annual threat assessment report for 2006.


Ok, enough examples. Some--actually many--of these kinds of statements were made at the time by mainstream experts including many of those in government. Today, we have lots of equivalents, not only concerning Iran's nuclear program but also including: Syria in maintaining its close alliance with Iran; radical Islamist groups remaining moderate; the Palestinians seeking the quickest deal possible to get a state.

The mistake here is not in thinking that Middle Eastern decisionmakers are rational--that is, use a cost-benefit approach--but in not understanding how they define costs and benefits. Example. Hamas attacks Israel and loses miserably. Did they make a mistake about costs and benefits? No, because they are still in power and--with considerable help from the West--have turned a military disaster into a political success by persuading the world that Israel is the bad guy. Moreover, for them the greatest benefit is to be able to continue the struggle for decades more. From a U.S. standpoint their calculation was irrational and wrong, with the cost seeming to outweigh any conceivable benefit. From their own standpoint the benefits did exceed the cost.

Regarding Iran, Western leaders simply fail to understand that Iran's sole reason for seeking nuclear weapons is not just to fire them at Israel and that if the United States prevents them from doing so that will be a great American victory. On the contrary, the Iranian regime's assessment of costs and benefits is totally different and involves lots of factors that would benefit the country even if it never shoots off any nuclear weapons. Once Iran has nuclear weapons, the rulers know they will:

--Increase domestic support through demagogic appeals to Iran's greatness and Islam's triumph.

--Intimidate Arab states and Europe into giving them lots of things they want, including reducing cooperation with the United States, running away even faster from peace with Israel, accepting Tehran's desires on oil prices, and lots more.

--Shifting the strategic power balance greatly against the United States and its allies, also by exposing them as weak and in retreat.

--Mobilize massive support among Muslims elsewhere both for Iran as leader of the Muslims and for radical Islamism as an ideology that is winning.

So let's consider what Iran's annual threat assessment report for 2010 should look like:

"We continue to judge that the U.S. decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach in which confrontation is feared, the process of decadence continues, and almost anything is preferable to taking leadership and working hard to block our getting nuclear weapons. This offers us tremendous opportunities to seize leadership of the Muslims and of the Middle East. Since the world will do nothing that will materially hurt us the prospects are good for our obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction and thus influencing everyone to retreat as we advance."

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim BrotherhoodTo read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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