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IRAN and System 2 Thinking

I’ve been putting together my Limmud talk on “The Science of Identity and the Jewish Enigma” (whatever all that means?) but keeping more-or-less up with Iran – and a myriad other things at the same time. The talk is proving fiendishly difficult but interesting and challenging at the same time and the whole Iran saga slots in quite nicely with some of the themes.

I would like to take up one or two of the themes in this post. The one is that the system of international relations would be considered a complex adaptive system (or CAS) in the jargon of modern theorists. This means it manifests a degree of disorder and unpredictability combined with the emergence of greater order when viewed on a longer time scale and wider lens. Unlike complicated engineered systems some degree of unpredictability is inherent in CAS no matter how carefully studied and understood.

Such unpredictability can be considered both good and bad. The bad is obvious, or would seem to be obvious. The better control we have over outcomes the safer and more predicable the world we inhabit. But since we can’t seem to agree on the kind of outcomes we are looking for it may be a good thing that total predictability is not possible. In short, we are all rather glad Mr Hitler miscalculated.

Even more importantly, the unpredictability also allows for the emergence of unexpected developments – or novelty in the jargon. This provides new opportunities for resolution of intractable problems, especially for those agents which are more flexible, open and analytical. So what smart agents do is to attempt to understand and thus control CAS within the limits of current possibility always acknowledging the role of chance. That is where Iran comes in.

In a recent study reported in the Algemeiner it was found that the support of Americans for the Iran deal is inversely correlated with the amount of information they have about the deal. In short the better informed are the most sceptical. It would seem to the better informed that Obama camp is relying on chance, change in Iranian behaviour and USA relative security to justify the deal.

Chance is never a very good basis for a call of this dimension. There seems precious little evidence of prospects for a significant change in Iranian thinking in the realistic future. The hardliners have the population by the scruff of the neck and it is hard to see that being reversed by conciliatory efforts from the USA. My own opinion is that Obama and his supporters are driven by the following:

A dislike of the exercise of American power except in its most muted forms combined with the vision of a globalised world moving towards greater stability and convergence of moral and political expression. This view seriously constrains the use of overt power since that smacks of more primitive and destructive forms of international politics; the politics of amoral great powers and elites. In this view both Israel and Iran are regarded as anachronisms.

A belief that power, size and distance enables America to ride out and deal with miscalculations of Iranian responses and behaviour. That is possibly true but clearly does not apply to Israel.

A view that the USA will be strengthened in its dealings with Western allies and others like Russia and China by an Iranian settlement. That can be set against perceptions of weakness and deception by Middle East allies and opponents alike.

And finally, perhaps, that Obama and friends will be out of office when the chickens come home to roost (or the sh* hits the fan if you prefer) and can spin it as the fault of Israel the Republicans or whatever.

Of course, Israel has a very different perspective based on history, proximity and familiarity. They do not have the luxury of gambles, distance, size and power and cannot ride out a Iranian tsunami to calmer water. And maybe the Americans can’t either for the Iranian question cannot be divorced from the global appearance of apocalyptic Islamic movements. If Iran continues with its current behaviour reinforced by a stronger economy and USA weakness, it could create a large enough surge to threaten the West as well as its neighbours.

All this is premised on the perception that the provisions of the deal are troublesome to the Iranians but can be circumvented; that they won’t be implemented as promised; and that in the meantime Iran will be strengthened economically without at any stage mitigating its genocidal attitude towards Israel, adopting democratic reforms internally or refraining from external adventurism. On those points there is fairly broad agreement even from within the ranks of deal supporters.

Well agree with me or not, but this is an attempt at System 2 thinking: that is, an attempt at rationality divorced from ideological, identity and other emotional-driven cognition. Knowing what we do about the serious intertwining of emotion and what can be called “rational” cognition, I’m sure it is not entirely free of bias.

So go for it. What have I got wrong and what have I omitted or underemphasized. Let me know please. OH yes, I mustn’t forget: see you at my talk on Sunday 9 July, 12.30 pm at Limmud.

Mike Berger


2 responses to “IRAN and System 2 Thinking

  1. Mike Berger August 17, 2015 at 10:00 am

    I don’t think we should underestimate the Muslim (or rather the Islamist) threat but I would prefer to avoid the generalisations about Muslims in general that are often made about Jews. It will do us no good and is not the way the world needs to go. Let’s keep it real.


  2. Harold Zuckerman August 17, 2015 at 1:23 am

    Unfortunately it will never go away, and those Jews who have returned to Germany, do themselves and the rest of us no good at all. There should be no Jews at all in Germany, so that when future generations ask why, they will be told the truth. The tragedy is that half a kilometre square of Berlin, should have been left in its state of destruction, as a reminder of what the Germans did, and that they have not done enough to make sure it cannot happen again. As a survivor who went to live in New Zealand said…………..”To get as far as possible away from Mad Europe.”
    The Christian Religion has not done enough either, and now we have the strongest most powerful nation this world has ever known, trying to appease the Muslims, while they slaughter and kill endlessly, and the world stands by while the Muslims try every possible way to invade other countries, and spread their hatred every where.


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