How to Dismantle Iran: Not Red Lines but Fault Lines

by Michael Collender

Nov 29, 2013 1:44 PM PT

Tensions between Iran and Israel over nuclear power have put Iran back in the news. America is confronted with the question: how should we deal with Iran?

John McCain has his own advice, which he shared with America during his 2007 campaign to the tune of a Beach Boy’s song: “Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! Bomb Iran!” But can American military action against Iran lead to victory? How can America achieve victory with Iran?

Victory. It’s a missing concept in much of contemporary American foreign policy. America has acquired world hegemony, but this puts us in a difficult place militarily, for we must constantly exert ourselves to maintain it. Thus, anyone who would change the international balance of power becomes, in some measure, a threat to our national security. Under this rationale, the continuous global extension of American power is America’s model of victory: the picture that our leaders have in mind that defines whether America is winning or not.

Other nations have their own models of victory, their own pictures of the future they aim to achieve when they enter a conflict. This concept of the model of victory is one of the most important concepts that one must understand in order to understand which opposing force is winning in a conflict. When American leaders don’t understand their opponent’s model of victory, they inevitably make very foolish choices regarding their use of our military assets. 

Israel made this sort of mistake in its 2006 Summer War with Hesbollah, when it foolishly used sustained bombardment of Lebanese infrastructure in order to accomplish goals in the cognitive domain of Lebanon’s leadership. Israel’s strategy completely failed, because Israel’s leadership did not accurately grasp Hesbollah’s model of victory. Therefore, it did not see that its bombardment of Lebanon was actually helping to achieve Hesbollah’s model of victory.

For us to understand what to do with Iran, we must understand Iran’s model of victory: what it wants to achieve. This will help us understand a host of issues, including the strategic significance of Iran’s nuclear program. If we do not understand a nation’s model of victory, then it is possible to set ultimatums, which lead to the escalation of foolish, poorly-timed conflicts, like President Obama’s “Red Line” with Syria, which gain America nothing.

So what is Iran’s model of victory? It actually has four: (1) death to America and Israel, (2) the vindication of Shia Islam, (3) the glory days of the Persian Empire, and (4) patriarchy. Once we understand each of these, it will be clearer what actions America should take in the near term and long term with respect to Iran.

1. Death to America and Israel: Iran’s leadership has been chanting this phrase for half a century.  See the video below:

This clip makes a case for sanctions. The question of sanctions will be addressed below. But for now, notice that even Iran’s supposedly moderate president Hassan Rouhani militantly affirms the “Death to America and Israel” narrative, which functions as a model of victory for Iran as a body politic.

2. The Vindication of Shia Islam: Iran’s population is 90-95% Shia, representing about 40% of the world's total population of Shia Muslims. The Shia Muslims have a different profession of faith. Unlike other Muslims, they say, "There is no god but Allah, Mohammed is his prophet, and Ali is the Wali of Allah" (“wali” means intimate friend or confidant). 

Shia Islam traces its history back to Ali, the fourth caliph, who thought he should have become the successor to Mohammed. Wars were fought against Ali and his successors as they tried to maintain their control over the fledgling religion. 

Because in Islam, humans relate to Allah primarily through submission, this foundational theological presupposition cascades through the cultural anthropology of Islamic society, through the complex emergence of organizational authority structures in politics, business, religious organizations and families. Social organization through submission only, of course, creates fault lines, instead of team-building, between organizations and individuals that should otherwise work together. It’s ironic that the cultural anthropology of Islamic theology both unites and divides its adherents.

This is what lies underneath Iran’s connection to Syria. As Zayn Knaub wisely observes in arecent article published in Small Wars Journal, Hezbollah is an ally of Shia Islam and thus supports the Bashar regime with the aid of Iran. Syria actively supplies weapons to Hesbollah in Lebanon, and for the last decade, it has acted as a conduit through which Iran could move weapons into the hands of Hezbollah. What’s important here is not the tactical or operational maneuverings of Iran in Syria and Lebanon but, rather, that these movements are efforts to attain part of the Iranian model of victory—namely, the vindication of Shia Islam in the world. 

However, these efforts to vindicate Shia Islam also can support the “Death to America and Israel” model of victory, but they don’t necessarily need to, a point that will become more important to our analysis later.

3. The Glory Days of the Persian Empire: This one has little to do with Islam or Shia Islam. The Iranians are strongly culturally aware that they are the Persians, and they once claimed the glory of the Persian Empire. This Empire truly was beautiful and glorious. Even Alexander the Great, who conquered it, respected it. Time has passed since those heady days. The Iranians have a new religion, a new history, but they remember that they once ruled the world. They are like the French, who have repudiated a previous system of ideals, yet they still bask in its glory. Paris glimmers and sparkles with the glory of Louis XIV, though French absolute monarchy has long been repudiated by generation after generation of French revolutionaries. The gods of Persia are dead, but the God King Xerxes still shines in their collective imagination.

The Iranians hated the 2007 film 300. But their hatred of it made sense, given their model of victory. They would like to be that Persia again, and this movie throws at their faces the reality that 300 Spartans, at a real moment in history, actually did stop the might of the Persian Empire and the God King Xerxes. 

Though 300 tells Herodotus's East-meets-West factual history in Baroque fashion, the core of the story is quite factual. The superiority of Western military prowess was proved again and again by the outcome of the Persian Wars, by Xenophon’s march of the ten-thousands and, finally, in Alexander’s conquest of Persia. 300 is a special slap in the face to Persian pride, because it directly assaults the Iranian model of victory. This model of victory also accounts for a particular kind of cultural envy that Iran feels against America, for we are now the global empire they once were, and which they have no hope of ever recovering at this point. Thus envy provokes them to take from us what we have and to ally with those who aspire to do the same. 

4. Patriarchy. Even the biblical Book of Esther records (Esther 1:16-20) that Persia has long been a patriarchal society, a fact which Islam has only amplified. However, today Iran’s patriarchal society is being undermined by American media. As more of Iran’s women and disadvantaged people become educated, the more Iranian patriarchy begins to crumble. But not all this messaging is good. Some is moral toxic waste. In terms of the power to obliterate the morals of a nation, even Cyrus the Great could not match the wrecking ball of debauched American pop culture. American media is driving a wedge between generations throughout the Muslim world. There is a brewing tension in Muslim society between holding on to patriarchy and embracing the modern world with its scientific advancements and the division of labor necessary to acquire sustained national power in the 21st Century.

Thus, on a logical level, Iran’s model of victory holds within it a number of logical contradictions. The technological society which will enable Iran to bring (1) death to America and Israel and (3) the glory days of the Persian Empire is at odds with (2) the vindication of Shia Islam and (4) patriarchy. However, Islam, and most definitely the Shia version of it, is the cultural narrative motivating (1) death to America and Israel. Also, (3) glory days of the Persian Empire were a wonderful age of religious tolerance which permitted the oppressed Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their society and continue their ancestral customs. The Persian Empire’s policy of religious tolerance throughout the Empire is quite similar to the policy of religious tolerance advocated by Christians in the Roman Empire as documented by the early Church historian Eusebius in his Church History.

Space here limits a full treatment of many varied contradictions between these different models of victory, but a few moments' reflection on each of these models and their associated narratives should make it clear that there are a manifold number of conflicts between these different models. They naturally pull away from one another at certain points, and at other points they pull toward one another. A shrewd master of foreign policy and diplomacy, like France’s Talleyrand of the Napolionic era or Germany’s Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismark, should not make "Red Lines" with Iran. Instead, he or she should exploit the tensions between Iran’s models of victory.

Like any great modern nation state, Iran does not a have a single intention. Rather, it is a giant bureaucracy, made up of many sub-bureaucracies. Each have their own agendas, their own needs to stay in power, to justify their existence, to demonstrate success, to keep out of trouble. Each has its own model of victory and a way that it contributes to the national model of victory.

America would be wise to exploit the Iranian bureaucracy: to set up situations where the payoff for success within the bureaucracy pulls the effectiveness of Iran’s achievement of a national model of victory away from such a victory.

This strategy has been employed very successfully within the bureaucracy of Washington, DC. The American population and the world know that our own federal bureaucracy has become a spy machine/empire, and this perception has harmed the legitimacy of American power throughout the world. The decisions we make are so tremendously bad that our foreign partners don’t fear our wisdom or our power. When we demonstrate a lack of wisdom, even our power is not feared, for power will be lost without wisdom. America got into its present terrible situation because different organizations within the Federal bureaucracy pursued their own ends under the guise of serving America’s national interests (another word for “model of victory”).

However, this terrible situation can actually be turned to our advantage with Iran. America’s vast bureaucracy combined with America’s vast and loud media permits America to send multiple contradictory messages into the Iranian bureaucracy which can internally undermine its effectiveness to operate toward a cohesive model of victory. 

To accomplish this feat, American intelligence would be wise to model the different bureaucracies inside the Iranian bureaucracy and identify their respective models of success. This is a HUMINT (human intelligence) problem. If America wants to enact this strategy HUMINT, assets need to be embedded inside of these bureaucracies, and a model of systemic interaction between the different bureaucracies needs to be developed. Then, a coordinated effort of messaging and incentivizing should be communicated in wise ways that increase bureaucratic friction inside Iran’s government.

This action will create fault lines inside of Iran’s leadership. Over time, it will destroy the effectiveness of Iran as an opposing system. It is true that we must avoid appeasement. However, arms agreements and sanctions alone will not dismantle Iranian power. Our best course is to take a long-term view. Their model of victory will pull them apart. The best we can do is not become the enemy they need to regain their identity. They need an enemy to weaponize their models of victory. Let’s make sure we don’t give them that.  

The opposite policy is grandly foolish. Gross violence bludgeons the minds of Iranian and world decision makers, removing the calmness necessary to live out the contradictions in their models of victory.

Rather than listening to career politicians who advocate simplistic solutions to complex and difficult situations, those responsible to make these decisions should seek wiser counsel, especially from those who understand the relationships between narrative, culture, and victory.

Dr. Michael Collender did his doctoral research in how metaphor and narrative model complex systems in neuroscience and economics. He has been a Visiting Fellow in the Philosophy Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and has researched and lectured at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA. For more resources subscribe and follow@mcollender