The United States, Iran and the Enemy

The United States and Iran are caught in a cycle of suspicion and mistrust. Their relationship is poisoned by what political scientists would call a mutual, pathological “enemy image,” or the persistent tendency to assume the worst in rivals. Unless perception on both sides of this divide improves, the chance of war will remain very high.
PictureThe United States, Iran and the Enemy

The United States and Iran are caught in a cycle of suspicion and mistrust. Their relationship is poisoned by what political scientists would call a mutual, pathological “enemy image,” or the persistent tendency to assume the worst in rivals. Unless perception on both sides of this divide improves, the chance of war will remain very high.

Were policymakers on both sides familiar with the images they subconsciously hold, they might be able to improve the accuracy of their perceptions. Fortunately, the enemy image generates a consistent pattern of misperception, which can help leaders recognize when they are under its spell. The risk of unnecessary war in any situation is directly related to the extent to which either side harbors the following beliefs. None is always wrong, of course, but when enough appear together, then there is a high chance that the enemy image is at work, and the hostility of rivals is being overestimated.

INDICATOR ONE: Our differences are fundamental and “existential.”

The most basic indicator of the presence of the enemy image is the belief that the other is different from us in fundamental and profound ways. Since we are good and trustworthy, it follows that those who are different may well be the opposite. The enemy’s nurture – historical memory, ideology, culture and/or religion – outweighs our common human nature, creating mutually incomprehensible worldviews. What we think is basic to rationality, morality and humanity simply might not apply to them. As a result, our differences are existential: Our enemy hates us for who we are, not what we do. Our very existence is a threat to them, and there is very little we can do to change that.

This leads people to believe that there is very little we can do to change anything about our relationship with the enemy. Our differences are fundamental and immutable. Enemies do not evolve, at least not in important ways; theirs is a permanent nature, born in their innate, immutable national characteristics (and flaws). Mutually-agreeable peace, now or in the future, is a utopian fantasy absent significant evolution on their part.

Religious differences make fertile ground for the growth of the enemy image. It is easy for us to accept the notion that their faith (or lack thereof) has conditioned them to be fundamentally different. States with higher levels of religiosity are more likely to identify enemies across the various fault lines of faith. When two exceptionally religious countries find themselves on opposite sides of issues, as have today’s United States and Iran, spirals of misperception are quite likely.

INDICATOR TWO: They do not value human life like we do.

The supposition that they do not value life like we do, which can be supported by a selective reading of evidence in any conflict, helps to convince actors that they are on the side of righteousness. It is common, perhaps universal, and wrong.

The enemy’s cavalier attitude toward human life extends even to extinction. Deterrence cannot be counted on to work against our enemy, because its leaders do not necessarily fear nuclear war, and may even initiate one. During the Cold War, a variety of analysts argued that the Kremlin did not believe in mutually assured destruction, and felt that a nuclear war could have been fought and won. To some U.S. observers, post-Cold War enemies of the West appear equally undeterrable. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was scrapped in 2002 based on the premise that rogue states are inherently unmoved by fear of retaliation, and cannot be expected to act rationally. The enmity that Iranians seem to feel toward the United States and Israel is so great that it may well outweigh their desire to live, which is why the regime might use any nuclear weapons it develops. Leaders in Tehran might prove sufficiently irrational to bring down their civilization in a blaze of suicidal glory, unleashing a religiously inspired doomsday plan that would pit their one or two weapons against states that have hundreds. When we begin to believe that our enemies are unable to recognize the most basic tenets of rationality, misperception is likely at work.

INDICATOR THREE: Their word cannot be trusted. Negotiations are a waste of time.

Leaders lie all the time in international politics. The main difference between our lies and theirs is that we remember theirs, believing that they reflect our rival’s true character. Ours are unfortunate reactions to particular situations, always understandable in context, and certainly not indicative of who we really are. This is essentially what psychologists refer to as the “fundamental attribution error,” or the tendency of people to emphasize dispositional rather than situational factors in interpreting the behavior of others, but the opposite in their own. The error in perception is nearly universal, and deeply pathological.

It goes without saying that there is little reason to negotiate with untrustworthy actors. Diplomatic overtures to enemies are not only pointless but dangerous, since they can lull us into a false sense of security while having little effect on their overall hostility and perfidy. This refrain certainly accompanied the talks that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. One of the consistent themes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015 was that since Iran could not be trusted, any deal would by definition be a bad deal. Forty-seven GOP senators agreed, and followed the speech up with an open letter to the Iranians designed to scuttle the talks. On the other side, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly told his diplomats that “you are fools if you think the Americans will live up to anything they promise.” We bargain in good faith; they do not. Nothing they say can be believed, since their words are unrelated to their intentions.

INDICATOR FOUR: Their regime is simultaneously dangerous and essentially fragile.

Leaders misinformed by pathological enemy images are predisposed to believe that the people in rival states do not really support their evil government. Our disagreement is with the enemy regime, not its people, whom we know are basically good and more-or-less like us. Their government, therefore, is much weaker than it appears. U.S. policymakers were convinced, for example, that their troops would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, and that the Iranian people would welcome the overthrow of their government.

At the heart of the inherent-bad-faith image, therefore, lies a paradox: Evil regimes are simultaneously terrifyingly powerful and essentially fragile. No matter how evil they may be, with the right amount of effort on our part, they can certainly be overcome. Indeed it probably would not take much to topple the enemy regime, since its legitimacy is built on sand. The two parts of the paradox are directly related: The greater the evil, the stronger its inherent vulnerability. In part due to its internal weaknesses, the enemy is also thought to be particularly responsive to forceful measures. Many hawkish U.S. analysts were sure that if only the Obama administration had supported the 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran – even verbally – it might well have succeeded. A few years later, opponents of nuclear diplomacy argued that compromise was unnecessary, since with more pressure the regime would have no choice but to comply with all the demands of the West. A “better deal” was possible because of the weakness in Tehran. The enemy regime is always a house of cards on the verge of collapse, which makes it vulnerable to our pressure – but also insecure, desperate and even more dangerous.

INDICATOR FIVE: They are realists. They only understand the language of force.

One of the iron rules about perception in international politics is that the other is a “realist.” While we realize that our side has principles that drive our decisions, we are also pretty sure that they are motivated primarily by the pursuit of their interests. This is particularly true for any state with which we have even a mild rivalry, or any reason to suspect its motives.

Since our rivals are realists, it follows that the main focus of their foreign policy is to increase their power at the expense of ours. Central to the enemy’s eternal nature, therefore, is deep-seated cultural dissatisfaction with the status quo. We are interested in maintaining the world as it is, while they always want to change the balance of power in their favor. The enemy image convinces Washington that Tehran does not take understandable, legitimate interest in the affairs of its neighbors but tries to undermine them as part of its plan to dominate its region.

INDICATOR SIX: Our various enemies work together.

The enemy image blurs distinctions among those we distrust, all of whom appear to work together.There is no meaningful difference between them, since they united by their hatred of us.“There seems to be a curious American tendency,” observed the American diplomat George Kennan toward the end of his life, “to search, at all times, for a single external center of evil, to which all out troubles can be attributed, rather than to recognize that there might be multiple sources of resistance to our purposes and undertakings, and that these sources might be relatively independent of each other.”During the Cold War, the root of the world’s ills was obvious; today it appears equally plain for many observers of international affairs.Iran has become to the twenty-first century what the Soviet Union was for the second half of the twentieth:evil’s epicenter, the origin and supporter of the world’s problems, from terrorism to radicalism to proliferation.The “road to victory” in the war on terror, therefore, goes through Tehran.The perception is mutual:For many Iranian analysts, most of the evil in the world can be traced back to machinations emanating in Washington.Defeating the enemy would not merely remove a rival but essentially remove evil from the world, a goal for which no amount of urgency would be sufficient.

INDICATOR SEVEN: They are superior strategists that take the “long-view.”

People are aware of their own internal deliberations and divisions but see only the outcomes of decisions made elsewhere, which makes other actors seem unified and strategic. In addition, due to their particular cultural predisposition, rivals seem perfectly willing to put off achievement of their goals for generations if necessary. Unlike us, enemies have the gift of patience. And they are superior strategists.

Furthermore, unlike us, enemies control their proxies. While we know that our allies think and act independently, the subordinates of our enemies are merely tools in their kit. During the civil war in Syria, the U.S. leaders could exert little influence on the decisions made by the various anti-government moderate groups, but they were convinced that President Assad essentially took his orders from Moscow and Tehran. Thus it has always been, from Vietnam through El Salvador to the present day: Our allies barely listen to us, but theirs are willing pawns in their overall global designs.

INIDICATOR EIGHT: They understand us better than we understand them. They know that we are reluctant to use force.

Largely due to their superior strategic capability, our enemies understand us far better than we understand them. Actors routinely overestimate how benevolently they are perceived by others. As a result, our enemies know that our intentions are essentially benign, and that we are not going to attack. In effect, the enemy image convinces its host to believe that the normal, natural distrust that states feel toward one another is not present in its rivals, because they know we are rational and trustworthy. Since they have nothing to fear from us, enemies commonly exhibit a mismatch between stated policy ends and means: They always appear to be overspending, devoting far more resources toward their military than their minimal defense concerns would warrant, since they know our intentions are peaceful. It is not possible for those harboring an enemy image of Iran to believe that their nuclear program might not be inherently offensive in nature, since Tehran must know that the United States is not going to attack. Iranian leaders had to know that the United States had no stomach for another war in the Middle East, which strengthened their negotiating position.

INDICATOR NINE: Our foreign-policy “experts” understand their true, malevolent nature

Experience and expertise ought to provide foreign policy elites the tools to form better, more accurate perceptions than those of the masses. Often this is the case: regional experts in particular are usually better at empathizing with those in the areas they study, and are less likely to form unduly negative impressions. But in general the foreign policy expert class tends to be more susceptible to the effects of the enemy image than the average person, which is a counterintuitive point in need of some explanation.

First of all, so-called experts are under social pressure to identify enemies. In the U.S. system – and probably elsewhere – hawkishness and suspicion of others is nearly a prerequisite for being taken seriously in elite foreign policy circles. Little professional credibility is gained from being the outlier, at least in the direction of cooperation. Elites formed negative images of Iran much faster than did the general public in 1979, for example.

Second, those with more knowledge about foreign affairs are less likely to change their opinions of others, especially when those opinions are negative. New information has a tough time altering the long-held beliefs of the expert, while the shallow views of neophytes tend to be more malleable. This is particularly true for negative perceptions, which have even greater staying power. Experts have pressure to be consistent in their theories and judgments, and rarely change in fundamental ways. The elite class is more likely to develop enemy images, in other words, and less likely to change them in the face of new information.

Not all members of the elite foreign policy class are equally susceptible to pathological perceptions. Certain characteristics within the “marketplace of ideas” increase the likelihood that their hosts will harbor distorted enemy images. Around the world, for example, political ideology is strongly linked to risk perceptions: People who hold right-of-center views have a greater predisposition to believe that the world is a dangerous place than do those on the left. Conservative parties everywhere tend to identify enemies more quickly than their competitors. Suspicion of outsiders and paranoid politics is so central to right-wing populism, from the National Front in France to the Danish People’s Party, that it can be considered one of the defining features of the movement. In American politics, neoconservatives consistently detect greater numbers of enemies, and therefore higher levels of threat, than other analysts.

Expertise creates fertile ground for the enemy image, as does conservative politics. Conservative experts, therefore, run the highest risk of misperceiving the hostility of other states. When such people are decisive in opposing capitals, the corresponding risk of mutual misperception, spiral dynamics and war is at its highest.

INDICATOR TEN: They are Nazis.

Finally, if there is one iron-clad indicator of the presence of a pathological enemy image, it is this: The comparison of rivals to Nazis. The enemy is not just evil but the modern moral equivalent of Hitler; it is always 1938, and we are perpetually at Munich. Often both sides of a dispute are convinced that they face the modern incarnation of Hitler. It is never hard to find someone in a position of influence equating Iran with the Nazis in the United States, and the Iranian press commonly makes the same comparison. The intellectual and moral sloppiness of comparing rivals to Hitler is well known, but the pace of analogy continues unabated. Accommodation with others is still commonly labeled as appeasement, as the current U.S. debate over the Iranian nuclear program makes clear. Beliefs are slow to change, even when faced with overwhelming logic and evidence to the contrary. When Nazis haunt decision-makers, folly follows. Nazi references are the clearest indicator of implacable hostility on our part, whether merited or not, and a warning that the enemy image is at work.

Sometimes there is inherent bad faith on part of other actors. Sometimes they really are plotting against us, probing for weaknesses and biding their time to strike. Sometimes they do have a secret, nefarious, long-term master plan. It is certainly not the case that all enemy images are misperceived. But policymakers should be aware of the indicators of pathological beliefs, which in the past have inspired unnecessary belligerence, counterproductive policies and, at times, national ruin. The enemy image keeps Iran and the United States on the road to war, and only improved perception can get them off.

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