GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Torgeir E.
Title of Paper:
From the brink of war towards the threshold to peace: The case for a regional cooperation model in the Gulf / Iran region.
Paper Proposal Text :
The regional shockwaves following the Arab Spring have a new epicenter: in the middle of the Gulf, where Iran faces Saudi Arabia, with the smaller Gulf states positioning themselves between the two.

These relations are now at a crossroad: Will the new deal with Iran over the nuclear issues evolve towards a constructive cooperation, or will the opponents, in Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia as well as in Iran, succeed in destroying the agreement, causing escalation of the conflicts and decent into regional chaos?

The further course of events is open. There is no fate; actions decide. The West should therefore shake the paralyzing sense of impotence which has followed the illusions of omnipotence that seduced decision-makers into the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. The choice is not between force and fatalism. Diplomacy remains the best option of action. My purpose is to develop a more effective model for diplomacy.

I see diplomacy as the craft of social engineering by communication. Action is determined by thoughts. Therefore, we should identify the best tools to influence thinking. Changing thoughts requires a twofold understanding: how thoughts are shaped, and how motivation to change is generated.

My main theories employed to develop improved diplomatic cognitive tools are derived from the work of the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2002, on thinking by association, and the model developed by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro at Harvard Program on Negotiation on how five core concerns motivate human behavior.

We forecast the future as an image of the past. Kahneman shows how the mind analyzes new problems by associating with previous perceptions. In other words, selection and interpretation of historical analogies determine perceptions of options. Political options will be along the continuum between confrontation and cooperation. Analogies form points of reference, or, in Kahneman’s terms, anchoring. The best strategy to influence thinking about options is therefore to suggest alternative analogies. Kahneman’s point is that such analogies are relevant to the degree they are thought to be. To work as anchoring, analogies must appear both desirable and feasible. The key to effective diplomacy is therefore to understand how anchoring is shaped and work.

Knowing and coping with the five core concerns identified at Harvard Program on Negotiation, appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status and role, are the tools to motivate for embracing cooperation narratives. These five core concerns are the emotional subtext of all political rhetoric; therefore the key to priming, boosting receptiveness to alternative analogies. The construction process of anchoring begins with priming, proceeds to association, then narrative, condensed to images and emotions.

All ideas of groups and their relationships are constructed by mutual perceptions generated by images and emotions. Therefore, to motivate for cooperation over confrontation, communication must address the core concerns. Such communication will transform relationships by generating new images and emotions. Positive emotions shape the priming phase of association.

In the case of Iran and the Gulf countries, positive priming followed by suggested analogies of cooperation will shift the relationships towards more cooperation.

The rule of thumb is that scared, humiliated and desperate people are much more dangerous than those feeling secure, respected and confident. Your neighbor’s success is not a threat, but your security.

Current conflicts between Iran and the Gulf countries are driven by incompatible narratives. Narratives differ along two basic variables: who belong to in-group, and how does the in-group relate to out–groups? In conflict, especially when aggravated by trauma, in-groups become inflexible and hostile, even violent. On the other hand, when conflicts subside, in-groups become more flexible and overlapping, and relations with out-groups turn more pragmatic and cooperative.

Currently, the political and sectarian conflicts in the Gulf / Iran area are driven by confrontational narratives, while business and trade as well as the embracing Moslem identity of pilgrimage generate narratives of cooperation. Whether you negotiate a business deal, or you move among a huge crowd of pilgrims, you need to compromise and accommodate.

These indigenous narratives of cooperation need an amplifier to prevail over the now predominant confrontational political and sectarian narratives. A political success story of cooperation is such an amplifier.

The most constructive alternative analogy for the Gulf countries and Iran is the evolving European cooperation. Modern Europe is a success at overcoming old conflicts by cooperation and should be emulated as such. At several crossroads of European history the future has looked as bleak and cooperation as unrealistic as it does today in the Middle East.

Changes in Europe can be divided into the following sequence: courageous initiatives in defiance of odds and counterforces, leading to economic and political cooperation, which turns into regional institutions, and, eventually, a path dependence of cooperation. The analogy of European cooperation could latch on to existing narratives of cooperation in the Middle East.

At the inception of the current European Union, the strategy was to prevent war by integrating the basic economic sectors of coal and steel. In the Gulf today, the corresponding economic sector would be gas, which can only be utilized to its full economic potential in a regional integration.

The realization of interdependence induces pragmatic cooperation about incremental change by imperfect solutions, the European model. Pragmatic cooperation organically grows into path dependence.

There are enormous untapped synergies of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the smaller Gulf states. By way of example, only a regional integration of gas supply can solve the Saudi Arabian long-term energy predicament of declining export earnings combined with increasing domestic transfers. By tapping into gas fields that straddle borders, such as the vast South Pars field under the Gulf, extending into Iran and Qatar, Saudi Arabia could release precious oil for export, oil which is currently diverted to domestic power production, desalination and the nascent petrochemical industry. Also Iran would reap enormous benefits from regional energy integration by creating a stable marked for Iranian gas. In addition, certain promising new oil fields in Iran straddle borders. To be commercially feasible, the development of cross-border fields needs a modicum of political stability. Only dialogue and cooperation can induce stability. In the Middle East there are nascent regional institutions for cooperation, such as the GCC and the OIC.

I argue that Western diplomacy should, to cope with the looming sectarian regional conflict in the Middle East, focus on the epicenter, the Gulf region, where the main antagonists, Saudi Arabia and Iran, face each other. The sequence of such diplomatic moves would be as follows:
• priming by addressing more adequately the five core concerns, which constitute the emotional subtext of all political rhetoric,
• suggesting the evolving European cooperation as an alternative analogy for anchoring,
• amplifying the existing narratives of cooperation: business and pilgrimage.

The first reaction to this recommended path of diplomacy is that it is naïve. But what is the alternative? First force failed, and then non-intervention. Diplomacy must get to work. But effective diplomacy requires a communication that overcomes the dual barriers of hostility and fatalism.

Our way is so far the only way to deal with conflicts, crisis and imperfections. There is no other realistic approach for the West to the current escalating, dangerous conflicts in the Gulf region than invoking our own example. But we must know how to do so persuasively.