GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Torgeir E.
Title of Paper:
Article 3. Insecure security. Perceptions and risks: military power between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Paper Proposal Text :
Insecure security. Perceptions and risks: military power between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Currently, security is the overriding concern for the state system formed by Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. They form a system in the sense that they are locked in mutual perceptions of threats that generate responses, which, in their turn, are perceived as aggravated threats.

These mutual perceptions of threats have generated policies that are self-defeating. Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia have up until now failed to see that the worst threat to their security is their disintegrating region with its extremists, terrorists and looming chaos, and that, as a consequence, their security is, in actuality, mainly shared and interdependent.

Could the recent nascent Iranian and Saudi Arabian collusion over Iraq evolve into a regional security process, along the lines of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe? How could a more effective diplomacy induce such an evolution?

Security as cognitive social constructs

Security is the equation of capabilities, intentions and determination. The latter two variables are cognitive social constructs.

Daniel Kahneman shows how we relate to social reality by associating with analogies. Social reality is therefore a cognitive construct. The analogies work as frames of reference, or anchoring. Perceptions of the security equation shape military roles and risks. Anatol Rapoport, on Clausewitz, states that the nature of war itself is to a large extent determined by how man conceives of it.

Kahneman further shows that our associations are simplifications, heuristics. In the security equation these heuristics follow two templates: deterrence or crisis management.

The Cuban Missile Crisis shows this. Those that pressed for offensive military action against Cuba had as their anchor the failure to deter Hitler prior to World War II, the 1939 template. Kennedy, however, was influenced by the bestseller of that year, Barbara Tuchman’s book Guns of August, on how World War I was caused by inadvertence, failure of crisis management, the 1914 template. During the crisis Kennedy changed his anchor from the 1939 to the 1914 template. The imperative in the deterrence template is resolve; in the crisis management template it is restraint. Kahneman shows that heuristics are inevitable in decision-making. Therefore, they need to be as constructive as possible. The 1939 versus the 1914 templates are constructive heuristics since they capture the basic dilemma of deterrence versus crisis management

Kahneman has also shown that the security equation generates heuristics distorted by cognitive biases in favor of the 1939 template. These cognitive biases are quite evident in the perceptions of the security equation in the triangle. The 1939 template is most prevalent, but the 1914 template is most relevant.

Current security perceptions

The current perceptions of the security equation in the triangle are shaped by the following anchors:


Israel’s security thinking is driven by the collective, existential trauma of the Holocaust and is probably strongly shaped by the diverging experiences of three wars: The feeling of abandonment by the US in the Suez crisis of 1956 gave impetus to the development of nuclear arms, at the time considered the panacea of security. The Soviet nuclear threats during the Suez Crisis, by Soviet leaders thought to have been decisive, probably reinforced this impetus. In 1967, the preemption of an impending attack brought victory. In 1973, the decision not to preempt the impending attack caused a near-defeat and probably brought Israel close to using tactical nuclear arms. On balance, Israel’s historical experiences will probably make decision-makers prone to preemptive attack. However, the legacy of the preemptive attack in 1967, conquest and occupation, should caution that even successful preemptive attacks may have long-term consequences that undermine security. This caution would apply to an Israeli preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites. Even if immediately successful, the long-term consequence may exceed the short-term gains.


Iran’s security thinking is driven by a narrative of resistance combined with a revolutionary mission and strongly shaped by the trauma left by the war with Iraq from 1980 – 88. They see Western and Saudi collusion behind Saddam Hussein. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have caused an Iranian fear of forced regime change, a repetition of the coup in 1953. Those in Iran that want to acquire the option of nuclear arms, probably seek the ultimate deterrence against such intervention. This view is most likely reinforced by the Western intervention against Gadhafi despite his compliance by renouncing on his nuclear program. North Korea, by contrast, continues to pursue nuclear arms with impunity, seemingly safe from intervention. In an escalating crisis, threatening rhetoric combined with the use of Hezbollah as proxy in Lebanon and now Syria, and aggravated by the nuclear program, would fuse into the main security threat to Iran: Fear may generate the danger of Israeli preemption from vastly superior forces.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s security thinking is driven by the need to protect their way of life and their oil fields from regional aggression, and strongly shaped by the first Gulf War when Western troops were called upon to protect Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi invasion. The vast Saudi arms procurements are probably meant to serve two purposes: 1) build alliances with supplying countries; 2) intended as prepositioned equipment for US troops in the event they need to be called in again, this time against Iran. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia has also prepared for the eventuality of nuclear arms by an agreement with Pakistan to provide nuclear war heads. Chinese missiles were procured in 1987 and have now reportedly been modernized. Saudi nuclear arms would in an escalating crisis invite pre-emption, especially from Israel.


The risks for crisis management failures in triangle are threefold:
1) Analogy anchoring is not constructive in the sense that unintended effects are dangerous. In fact, the record of fateful foreign policy decisions based on fallacious analogies shows that nothing fails like success. The coup in Iran in 1953, considered successful at the time, became an anchor for the joint British, French and Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956. Subsequently, the Soviet leaders’ perception that their nuclear threats, not US pressure, was decisive in aborting the attempt and forcing retreat, became an anchor in their decision to station nuclear missiles on Cuba, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Currently in the triangle, security policies have counterproductive effects. Examples of non-constructive anchoring is Israel's success at conquest in 1967 that undermines its character as a democratic and Jewish state; Iran's analogies of coup in 1953 and war with Iraq leading to self-defeating proxy wars and nuclear program; in the case of Saudi Arabia, memories of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait that led to proxy wars in Syria to contain Iran, and vast procurement of arms in preparation of foreign troops that may again provoke a destabilizing domestic opposition.

2) Misreading of intentions may induce preemption, cf. close call of 1983 (described below). Decentralized and redundant Iranian command and control procedures enhance the risk. A nuclear arms race is looming in the triangle, making a 1983 type scenario an inherent risk. The Israeli propensity for preemption would most likely be infinitely reinforced in the event that Iran and Saudi Arabia would acquire nuclear arms.

3) Transfer of power or regime change could cause weapons of mass destruction to end up in the wrong hands, cf. the Syrian and Ukrainian example. What if the Ukraine had retained its nuclear arms?

For these three reasons the risk of crisis management failure exceeds the risk of aggression.

Alterative anchor: Cold War

Anchoring is a narrative. Non- constructive anchoring can be changed by questioning the assumptions underlying the narrative, in other words by analyses. Constructive anchoring evokes interdependence. Gianodemico Picco talks about shared vulnerability.
The Cold War can serve as a constructive analogy and new anchoring point. There are three reasons: The fault lines seemed as unbridgeable as today in the triangle, the confrontation as hard, but then it changed.

The Cold War had two phases, with a third now looming. The dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis led to a degree of cooperation about preventing nuclear war. This cooperation proved unsustainable because both parties continued their rivalry by proxy wars, starting with the US war in Vietnam, continuing with Soviet involvement in Angola and on the Horn of Africa, and ending with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Western boycott and isolation of the Soviets started the second phase of the Cold War. The result was the Soviet War scare of 1983 that brought the World close to nuclear war, comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then the Cold War ended in 1989 and confrontation was replaced by cooperation. Now, a Third Cold War is looming over the Ukraine.

The Cold War as analogy provides three constructive anchoring points for the security thinking in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia:

1. The fallacy after the first phase of the Cold War was to misjudge how proxy wars undermined the assumed stability between the competing systems. Both parties in the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union, believed in proxy wars as a means for competition. In triangle today, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have conducted a proxy war in Syria while wanting to avoid war between them.

The lesson of the second phase of the Cold War is that this combination has proved unsustainable before, with extremely dangerous consequences.

2. The assumption of a stable nuclear balance of terror during the Cold War now, on the basis of new evidence, proves much more tenuous. In fact, the nuclear strategy was contradictory and risky. The evolving strategies during the Cold War tried to cope with the contradictions to make deterrence more effective while reducing risks. There were also attempts to make failure of deterrence more manageable. All these efforts failed to prevent the 1983 crisis, the most dangerous phase of the Second Cold War following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The lesson of the Cold War is that a nuclear arms race between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia would be extremely dangerous and must be prevented at all costs.

3. Only six years after the potentially catastrophic Soviet War Scare of 1983 the Second Cold War was over in 1989. The looming resumption over the Ukraine will hopefully pass. There are strong forces working for a diplomatic solution. The lesson for the triangle is that the current dangerous confrontation can end, but may resume.

Political leadership is decisive, as demonstrated by Willy Brandt at the end of the First Cold War in the early 1960’s (“Wandel durch Annährung”) and Mikhail Gorbatsjov at the End of the Second Cold War in 1989.

The Cold War analogy is therefore constructive as alternative anchoring in the security thinking of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Diplomacy: how more effective?

In Europe, the thinking about security has evolved from confrontation and is now seen as interdependent. Also in the state system formed by the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia security is interdependent and can also come to be seen as such. By applying Kahneman’s insights into our cognitive processes we can induce such change by influencing the anchoring point by proposing alternative, more constructive analogies.

Diplomats may induce constructive changes in the security thinking by Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia by invoking the Cold War as alternative anchor. The discourse must promote a three-fold message:

1. With looming chaos, extremists and terrorists, security is shared and interdependent.

2. The Cold War experience shows that failure of crisis management is a more serious risk than failure of deterrence.

3. The record of the Cold War shows that political leadership is decisive. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is a model for Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.