Dangerous triangle Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia: Can the relationship change from confrontation to cooperation?

May 30, 2011


Middle East and North Africa seem now at this time of writing to undergo dramatic, perhaps revolutionary change.  The rage in the streets heats the crucible to a point where the social and political structures, domestic as well as regional, seem soon ready to be poured like molten scrap metal into a new cast. Even if we cannot yet know how the revolutionary processes eventually play themselves out, it seems a realistic assumption that the new mood molds perceptions affecting peace or conflict also between the states of the region.

Torgeir E. Fjærtoft - Visiting Research Fellow at The Gulf Research Unit


Read Torgeir Fjærtoft's article Insecure security: How can dialogue prevent deterrence to fail by preemptive strike?

Read Torgeir Fjærtoft's article Deluded triangle Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia: Can their diverging narratives converge?

Read Torgeir Fjærtoft's article Fallible decision-making: How can rationality prevent rationalization?


Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, what now?


Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, locked in their triangular, confrontational relationship with far-reaching implications, are each in their own way affected.  How these three states now chose to deal with profound changes in their environment, yet to be fully realized, will bear significantly on regional stability- and beyond. With the streets of Teheran seething anew with protesters, the domestic Iranian power relations in flux, Iran’s main regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, suddenly find themselves facing uncertainty about whom and what policies they will come to deal with in Teheran. Saudi Arabia in its turn, seen from Israel and Iran, seems so far unaffected, but for how long, given its Shia minorities, Sunni extremists and the inevitable glacial changes by a huge Saudi population of young people in search of a future? And Israel, seen from Iran, its mutually declared enemy, and Saudi Arabia, Israel’s tacit, if ambivalent, ally against Iran, how will the current Israeli government, or its conceivable alternative, refashion its regional approach? This is a new situation where the two main pillars of Israeli foreign policy, military power and refusal of compromise, will be self-defeating against the revolting masses, whose perceptions of Israeli conduct may now hold the key to the future of Israeli relations with its region.


If the ongoing regional revolution would lead to changes also in the relationship within the triangle of Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, it could be good news. The current confrontation entails great risks and huge opportunity costs. Is it conceivable that their relations could change from confrontation to cooperation? This paper makes the argument that such change is not only necessary, but also possible, now more than before.


Improved cognitive toolbox needed!


How can the outside world understand and influence developments to protect vital, but vulnerable energy supplies, contain terrorism, and, if possible, protect human rights and democracy? Are there alternatives to unethical support of violent dictatorships and self-defeating attempts at social engineering? To start out with, better analyses by an improved cognitive toolbox[1] are needed. The concerned observer easily finds the kaleidoscopic image of the Middle East irrational, enigmatic and threatening. In encountering what we fail to understand, the natural pitfall is to mystify rather than analyze. But the political dynamics deciding the stakes of war or peace, conflict or cooperation derive more from the universal nature of human interaction than can be gleaned from the exotic images and menacing messages. In the following I shall suggest a generic, as opposed to context-specific, analytical approach to the triangular adversarial relationship between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, and explore tools for engaging more constructively.


Improved cognitive tool: “narratives”, rather than “systems”.


A traditional way to approach political analyses is to construct “political systems”, like Henry Kissinger does. A political system is a stable pattern of predictable interaction based on a set of shared assumptions. The study of political systems focuses on how the quest for political power, by individuals and groups, is pooled and restrained by political institutions. In this approach, the main issue is the degree to which such political institutions exist in a complementary, competing or confrontational relationship.  A case in point is the balance of power during the Cold War. Kissinger has himself employed the analogy of chess[2] to his ideal international system.

Henry Kissinger’s approach, constructing “political systems” by identifying patterns of interaction, is based on historical analogies. His approach is probably the mainstay of foreign policy analyses still. The weakness is that, since no policy challenge is identical to any previous, the approach will in any given situation fail to identify the full scale of political options on the continuum between confrontation and cooperation.  This is the curse of current policymakers in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The goal of the analytical approach of narratives, as opposed to that of systems, is to understand individual and group motivation, not so much the merits of the outlooks held as why and how they were formed. The purpose is both ethical and practical: Views we strongly reject may have reasons we understand and condone, and confronting convictions without addressing the experiences and concerns driving them, rarely achieves anything but reinforcing the views we feel compelled to change. With insight into individual and group motivations inferred from the narratives, political behavior can be both more accurately predicted and more effectively influenced.

The idea of “political system” was taken a step further by Henry Kissinger’s contemporary theorist and practitioner of Cold War power politics, Robert McNamara, in the form of “system analyses”.  What he had employed with great acclaim as a management tool in the Ford Motor company, he used for policy analyses as Secretary of Defense. System analyses meant that every decision should be considered in as broad a context as necessary. Complex problems should be reduced to its component parts, which then should be studied by the method most appropriate to it. He saw management as aggressive questioning, suggesting alternatives, proposing objectives and stimulating progress.[3]

The approach by Robert McNamara, “system analyses”, by questioning precisely those assumption that now dictate confrontation, could identify those policy options to which incomplete historical analogies now blind Israelis, Iranians and Saudis. Henry Kissinger himself stated that policymakers can never know all the facts, but they have a duty to ask the right questions.[4]  The purpose of this project is precisely to critically examine the political narratives, the choice of historical analogies underlying them, and suggest alternative, more constructive ones. Rather than power relationships, the traditional focus of political analyses, the focus of examining narratives is  how various individual and group motivations evolve in a dynamic interplay across the various fault lines.

Shared cognitive framework?

The human mind seems poorly equipped to grasp the realities of interdependence, as opposed to independence, and change as opposed to permanence. Political reality is therefore beyond intuitive grasp, but requires rigorous and demanding analyses to understand - and change. The intention of this project is to seek the response to the analytic approach suggested from Israeli, Iranian and Saudi Arabian policymakers and observers.  Is a shared cognitive framework conceivable - and feasible?

Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not monolithic entities.

In political analyses of international relations the most basic misunderstanding is the very idea of the states as cunning, scheming unified personalities. The three countries are no more monolithic entities than other states with whose inner life we are more familiar. Complex personalities with differing perspectives compete over the direction of their nations, especially the fundamental choice of when to confront and when to seek cooperation. The countries are actually interlocking, mutually dependent, dynamic force fields maintained by volatile alliances of individuals and groups with diverse agendas and interests. As a consequence, policies will change, as they have. The national policies of the three countries are no given.


Policies are shaped by mental models.


Policies that change are also malleable. National and other groups are basically driven by the same interpersonal dynamics as individuals. Behaviors towards others are driven by expectations to their behavior. Therefore, a Meta perspective on the communication enables us to engage more effectively. If we go beyond the communication’s content and reflect on its nature, its subtext, we see how vicious circles are created by mutual expectations.  Such expectations are formed by mental models, fundamental assumptions we may not be aware of that steer perceptions of available options.[5] Mental models are based on subjective experience, choice of historical analogies and their inevitable interpretation. In our mind such interpretations of our past are assembled to narratives[6], about our personal lives as well as the group we attach to, be it a nation, an ethnic or a religious group. Our sense of self, our identity, is the narrative of our lives and our group. A narrative, as opposed to reality, which is an interaction of an infinite number of variables, is a choice of events to establish causality. Interpretations of causality are the essence of historical analogies. In relations between countries the choice and interpretation of historical analogies are the only tools to predict the consequences of alternative policy options. Scenarios are narratives about what has not yet happened based on an interpretation of what has.[7] These interpretations are driven by mental models, the fundamental assumptions about the relationships between self and others.


Mental models are driven by emotions.


Mental models are driven by emotions, inevitably part of all human interaction as cause and consequence. The rhetoric between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia reveals strong emotions. Their sense of political reality is driven by narratives of war, violence and humiliation. It is probably not possible to grasp current political reality in Israel and Iran without understanding the traumas[8] of the Holocaust and the war between Iraq and Iran. Trauma causes a sense of victimization, producing identities with very strong barriers between “us” and “them”. The roles of violator and victim are forced on individuals with no personal involvement in the events. New generations may take over the role of victim from previous generations, roles created by persistent narratives about traumas before they were even born. 

Political narratives that structure a sense of reality based on the roles of violator and victim bloc empathy and breed violence. In the dark recesses of our minds lurk sinister beasts. The wrong circumstances may awake them.[9] The ensuing rage can be easily be exploited by leaders, and often is, to rally support against an external enemy. The “enemy” can be useful to steal focus from internal problems and abuse of power, but sustaining the emotion of victimhood can turn the victims into new violators. [10]

How policies change?

But disagreements and changes over time within all three countries reveal tensions between differing mental models. Even if persistent, driven by strong emotions, no narrative will be without competition. In fact, expressing strong rejection of alternative interpretations could actually be the defense mechanism of growing doubt. In the individual mind, as well as within groups and countries, there will almost always be a tug-of-war between the competing interpretations that shape the assumptions steering the fundamental choice of confrontation versus cooperation. Such differences also come down to variations between individual personalities; some are more flexible, creative and open to change than others.[11] In a stalemate between to opposing options, a third, not yet known, may enable cooperation.


Constructive historical analogies show change to cooperation is possible.


Although the confrontation between Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia currently appears so inflexible and entrenched that the idea of cooperation seems entirely unrealistic, indeed naive, suggesting alternative historical analogies could alert the more flexible and creative policy makers in all three countries to the possibility that cooperation would be in the mutual interest and also possible. As a case in point, modern Europe is the result of two dramatic paradigm changes when first Germany and then Eastern Europe became integrated in European and Atlantic cooperation.[12] In 1939 the enmity between Germany, France and the UK, and in 1979 between the West and the Soviet Union, seemed hardly less insurmountable[13] than currently between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the idea of modern European cooperation would seem as unrealistic and naive then as suggesting the same change in the Middle East today. Historical analogies should be a constructive, reflected choice, not left to fester in the traumatized, victimized and enraged mind unopposed by critical questioning.


Business and trade reap benefits of compromise, showing the way.


Change from confrontation to cooperation requires mental models attuned to the option of compromise in joint interest. Compromise means accepting imperfect solutions, to be perfected by incremental change. In Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia such mental models exist in business and trade: without compromise, about price, achieving a solution in mutual interest, profit, would not be possible. As a consequence, business and trade create narratives about compromise and cooperation, narratives that compete with the political narratives. While in the political sphere Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to seek confrontation over incompatible views on a new order, demanding grand, dramatic change, business in the economic sphere literally seeks “business as usual”, a stable framework of incremental change.


Incremental change along a continuum.


In the minds of most people, also in Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the narratives of confrontation versus cooperation will coexist and compete, steering perceptions of and decisions about options along a continuum. Dramatic change is probably only possible towards confrontation, while cooperation will be contingent upon building trust incrementally. When cooperation produces positive emotions of dignity, security and goal achievement, narratives are created that gradually could prevail over the traumas.


Harvard’s Program on Negotiation trains negotiators in core emotional concerns.


Since narratives are sustained by strong emotions, engaging in negotiations to achieve compromise about imperfect solutions requires an understanding of the nature of these emotions, and the skill to cope constructively with them.  Most current communication between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia seems highly destructive and self-defeating, but there are ways out of the self-perpetuating vicious circle of provocations.  The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School has identified the five core emotional concerns that during negotiations drive behavior and response, and train negotiators in handling these emotions constructively[14]:


  1. Appreciation:The desire to feel understood and honestly valued.
  2. Affiliation: Recognizing shared identity traits.
  3. Autonomy:  Making decisions without imposition.
  4. Status: Positive emotions grow when status increases self-esteem; negative emotions fester in competition for status.
  5. Role: A role should fulfillemotional needs. Temporary roles may facilitate communication and compromise.


Core emotional concerns key to understanding revolt in the Middle East and potential of democracy.


 With these concepts of core emotional concerns shared by all human-beings, the driving forces of the current revolt in the streets of the Middle East become easily understandable. People empower themselves by discovering their invincibility in large numbers. The demonstrators bestow mutually a new sense of understanding and value on each other, bonding in the shared identity of reclaiming their countries’ future as their own. In the streets they have discovered their autonomy, as individuals, part of new collective created by them, claiming their right to accept only those decisions they have truly shared.  Conversely, perpetual oppression and violence creates chronic mental stress. Feeling trapped at the receiving end of a pecking order causes a relentless infusion of stress hormones. Permanent hormonal imbalance could even result in neurological damage. The main source of stress, the “fight or flight” alarm, is unsound thoughts about where you stand with other people. [15] Therefore, the core emotional concerns explain how democracy can create stable, productive societies despite imperfections. This is why the revolts in the streets hold such promise for the future.

Could the revolt change the understanding of the nature of relations between states in the region?

Maybe one effect of the current revolts could be changes in how the people of the region understand the very nature of interstate relations? In the modern globalized world foreign policies are less and less about protecting independence and win conflicts, but more and more about managing interdependence to promote common goals. Almost all national interests of a modern state can only be achieved in cooperation with other countries as willing and self-motivated partners. Independence hardly exists and victory becomes just another form of defeat. Success and progress in one country multiply and benefit their neighbours, region and even the world. Conversely, one country’s failure, stagnation or defeat create huge costs, at least opportunity costs, also for the perceived successful or victor. In such a perspective, relations in the triangle Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia hurt all three almost equally, and most policies they pursue towards each other are self-defeating. They need to engage in dialogue to change their relationship from confrontation to cooperation.


Dialogue, yes! But what is it?


Exclusivelyby dialogue, the only constructive form of communication, can core emotional concerns be understood and harnessed in an effort to agree on compromise.  A dialogue needs to start out by asking open questions of how, what, why. Such questions, by reaching the core emotional concerns, can be transformative[16] and create the necessary common ground to negotiate compromise.


But such questions are not in themselves enough to create an effective dialogue. An open mind, exploring the other party’s view, must be balanced by assertiveness, advocacy of own position. [17]When the goal is to reach compromise, the dialogue needs to make the other party listen as well.   


The critical skill needed to conduct dialogue successfully is judging how to balance exploration and advocacy at any given time. If advocacy is underplayed in a political process with a high level of animosity and tension, an initiative to initiate dialogue may be misread as a weakness, and a prelude to giving in, thus inadvertently encouraging stalwart, may be even aggressive behaviour rather than the intended flexibility and conciliation. Another consequence of insufficient advocacy is reinforcing the very counterproductive assumptions that the discourse sets out to challenge, since dialogue must, when initiated, necessarily start on the opponents terms. On the other hand, if advocacy is overplayed at the expense of exploration, or active listening, then any constructive communication will break down.


Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia need to engage.


By engaging in dialogue based on core emotional concerns Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia may change their relationship from confrontation to cooperation by incremental changes, building trust gradually. The immediate challenge is to identify issues where such progress is realistic and arenas for engaging.



This paper will be followed by the following:


Insecure security: How can dialogue prevent deterrence to fail by pre-emptive strike?


Applying insights into near fatal failures of deterrence, by technical malfunction and human misjudgment, during the Cold War to the current looming military and even nuclear arms race in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the paper argues that pressure to preempt attack is the main security risk, and that only dialogue about security concerns can prevent war by misjudgment.


Deluded triangle Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia: Can their diverging narratives converge?


Exploring the assumptions underlying the diverging narratives driving the confrontation between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the paper argues that there are basically two competing themes, defining an in-group and out-group by conjuring up enemies, as opposed to an image of transcending, inclusive community.


Fallible decision-making: How can rationality prevent rationalization?


The paper argues that actual political decision-making deviates dramatically from the ideal of rationality. Instead of weighing options by critically questioning their underlying assumptions before making decisions, decision-makers instead engage in a transactional process where personal and group agendas and interests bear more strongly on the outcome than the merits of the pros and cons of the issue at hand. What pass for rational arguments in support of a decision are more often than not attached after it has been made, which is rationalization.  By diverse historical examples the paper shows that the critical decision to resist or yield to the pressure of the moment may have long-term consequences, consequences that could only have been divined in their full by understanding the primordial human fallacy to define in-group and out-group, “us” versus “them”. Only independent critical research can effectively induce rationality into decision-making processes because of the limitations individuals labor under in the hierarchicalbureaucracies that prepare and implement decisions.  Drawing an analogy between foreign policy and medical research the paper demonstrates by historical example that knowledge and communication skills are equally  important to achieve rationality in critical (in both senses of the word)  decision-making.







[1]I am heavily indebted to my wife, Joy Buikema Fjærtoft, an organizational psychologist, for opening my mind to the important analytical tool box of cognitive psychology in understanding the dysfunctions of international relations, also introducing me to the methods of the   Program on Negotiations at Harvard Law School.

[2]About president Obama’s foreign policy.Interview,  Der Spiegel, July6, 2009


[4]Henry Kissinger Years of Upheaval, Weidenfeld and Nicholson and Michael Joseph 1982, p. 467.Unfortunately, Kissinger made this observation in a rather narrow context, the failure to divine Soviet foreknowledge of the surprise Egyptian attack on Israel in 1973 from the evacuation of Soviet families from Egypt. The observation has, however, universal validity in all policy analyses and decision-making.

[5]There are several concepts used to describe the inevitable process of constructing a sense of political reality by selecting and rejecting perceptions. See i.a. Sandra Kaufman, Michael Elliot, Deborah SchmueliFrames, Framing  and Reframing”, 2003, downloaded from beyondintractability.org.

[6]I’m heavily indebted to Professor John Tirman of MIT for his feedback and sharing with me his article Diplomacy, terrorism, and national narratives in the United States-Iran relationship, Centre for International Studies, MIT, 2009.

[7]Richard J. Heuer Psychology of Intelligence Analyses,Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1999, Chapter 12: Biases in Assessing Probabilities. Janice Gross Stern Foreign policy decision making: rational, psychological, and neurological models. In Steve Smith et. al. (ed.) Foreign Policy. Theories, Actors, Cases. Oxford University Press, 2007.

[8]I’m indebted to Dr. Jacqueline Schmid and her European network of fellow trauma experts for sharing their insights and thoughts on the phenomenon of national traumatization

[9]This the famous “Stanford Prison experiment” brought to light.

[10]This seems to be the main thesis of Ian Kershaw to explain the enigma of the rise of Adolf Hitler Ian Kershaw “Hitler. A Biography”, Norton & Company Ltd, London, 2008. For a discussion of the role of trauma and victimhood in the Middle East Yuval Neira,Margarita Bravova, Jessica M. Halper“Trauma and PTSD among Civilians in the Middle East”, PTSD Research Quaterly, Vol. 21/NO.4, Fall 2010,Daniel Bar-Tal, Lilly Chernyak-Hai, Noa Schori and Ayelet Gundar“A sense of self-perceived victimhood in intractable conflicts”, International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 91, Number 874, June 2009

[11][11] Guy Ziv Cognitive Structure and Foreign Policy Change: Israel’s Decision to Negotiate with the PLO Paper for the International Studies Association (ISA) Convention, San Francisco, 29 March 2008

[12]In addition the previous dictatorships of Greece, Spain, Portugal were also integrated.

[13]A case in point is the Frech intectual Raymond Aron who as late as shortly before his death in 1983 reiterated his assessment of the Cold War from 1947 that peace is impossible, war unlikely. Only six years later the Cold War was over – peacefully! RaymondAronLes dernières années du siècle, Paris: Julliard, 1984.

[14]Fisher, Roger and Daniel Shapiro. Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, Viking Penguin, 2005.


[15]David Berreby  Us &Them. The Science of Identity, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 259

[16]I’m heavily indebted to Professor Daniel L. Shapiro of the Harvard Program on Negotiation for this point in his feedback to me for this project.

[17]Again I’m heavily indebted to my wife, Joy Buikema Fjærtoft, who as an organizational psychologist and business consultant explores this concept of dialogue both with businesses, health care and public agencies, and shares he insights with me.

By Torgeir E. Fjærtoft
Published Aug. 3, 2010 3:49 PM - Last modified June 1, 2011 11:48 AM