Perception and Misperception in the Iran Conflict ‎

When Professor Robert L. Jervis published his landmark study in 1976 he did not expect that in 1990 his theory and conclusions would someday meet a real case study. In fact, the 1990 Gulf war exemplified the Jervis theory, as both Presidents Bush and Saddam Hussein operated under cognitive biases.

Jervis had researched political psychology and his studies serve as an important tool in international relations, conflict resolution, and intelligence research, especially in dealing with conflicts between dissimilar and uneven cultures and regimes. This was the case of the roaring fiasco of the American intelligence that failed to foresee the fall of the Shah and the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the spring of 1979, Professor Jervis and historian John F. Devlin were hired by the CIA to inquire how the US Intelligence failed to predict these dramatic developments, based on information already available to the US at the time; indeed Jervis and his team found sufficient warning signs, foretelling the coming collapse of this important American ally. However, due to prevailing misperception, this information was overlooked and not taken into serious consideration in the process of forming the relevant intelligence picture. (

In view of the current escalation between Israel and Iran and the fact that almost the entire political system in Israel now views Iran as a major, if not the sole threat to the very existence of the Jewish state, it is time to try and evaluate the situation in terms of perception and misperception. A case in point in this context is whether Israel’s alleged practice of targeting Iranian objects in Syria and elsewhere as well as connected individuals promotes deterrence or merely escalates an already difficult situation.

The Israeli perception of the Iranian threat is well known; besides the implied military preparations to attack nuclear facilities in Iran, Israel acts seriously and continuously in various channels. Israel works in social media networks and is active diplomatically vis-à-vis like-minded countries; Israel is also active within the framework of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and in ongoing dialogues with her allies. However, it remains to be seen to what extent this attitude corrected the situation. The Iranians’ perception of their Israel conflict is not entirely known but supposedly, the perception held by the Iranian leadership is that Israel, in spite of its tiny size, has an enormous influence over the mighty USA. This is a reincarnation of the traditional antisemitic image of the mythological power of the Jews, going back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and beyond.

This distorted image of Israel may have been substantiated by PM Netanyahu’s speech to the US congress in March 2015. In his speech, Netanyahu related not only to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the threat it posed to Israel and to other Middle East countries but also to Iran’s cooperation with and activation of terror organizations like ISIS and the threat it poses to the whole world. He urged the representatives not to repeat “historical mistakes” referring to the one made by Great Britain in Munich in 1938, which enabled the Nazi onslaught on European countries, and in fact, opened the gates of hell to the Holocaust. Correct as he may have been, in his speech he affronted President Barack Obama, alienated the democrats, and created a gap between Israel and important segments of the American Jewish community. Moreover, when consequently President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal – [JCPOA – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] a few years later, the Iranians’ reaction was a stronger determination to carry on with their nuclear programs, without IAEA inspections and any international mechanism or a real US hindrance.

The following years were marked by increasing and more open Israeli statements relating to Iran as a continuous threat. These statements refer more and more to the strengthening of an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which is armed by Iran with sophisticated weapons in massive quantities. Hezbollah takes its marching orders directly from Tehran and it could supposedly cover the entire territory of Israel, including its most sensitive assets, such as IAF air bases as well as water and power installations.

Israel has always held a clever policy of ambiguity regarding its strategic military capabilities. It was an effective policy as it helped deter potential rivals while Israel’s allies could look the other way.  Nevertheless, in recent years, Israeli political leaders and senior officials state more openly that Israel will not tolerate Iranian nuclear-weapon capabilities or continuous Iranian-sponsored militias on its borders. The flowery show by Netanyahu, exposing a clandestine and daring intelligence operation of whisking away to Israel almost a complete Iranian nuclear archive was an amplification of this new approach. However, it was a brazen breach of the decades-old ambiguity policy; it was not really needed as the Iranians knew full well who had his hand inside their cookie jar. Later on, there were ample indications that it must have been Israel’s long arm that sent Iranian officials and scientists to meet their creator earlier than expected. The impact of these revelations, and in particular the elimination of Iranian scientists (attributed to Israel by International media), portrays Israel as a threat to Iranian civilians (even if they were civilian physicists) within Iranian borders. Sometimes a country needs to do what a country needs to do, but why gloat and boast over it? Will it lead Iran’s leaders to abandon their nuclear policy?

Recent history may suggest a few examples of non-democratic countries that were determined to develop nuclear programs, ostensibly for “peaceful purposes” but in fact for military purposes as well. We know today that after the bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981, Saddam Hussein was even more doggedly determined to restart his nuclear project and acquire or produce military-grade materials. North Korea, India, and Pakistan were not wealthy countries but they would sacrifice the welfare of their people for expensive nuclear programs. A. Q. Khan, largely considered “the father of the Pakistani nuclear program”, was regarded as a national hero who brought “scientific progress” to impoverished Pakistan.  Likewise, Iran’s leadership defines the Iranian program as a project of national pride.

One should not forget that Iran is a great nation of some 83 million people and that it stretches over 1.75 million square kilometers. Its rich history and culture, spreading over a few thousand years do not suggest a quick bending over in response to external pressure. Furthermore, Iran’s strict religious dictatorship (since 1979) does not tolerate any opposition or secular appearance; yet they do have a good educational system that encourages women to apply to universities and promotes technological literacy. Iran is thriving with cultural activity, as each year there are magnificent new films, as well as various artistic projects. Iranians, even those who do not approve of the regime, appear patriotic and proud. Iran will never be a ripe fruit to pluck, and it seems that we may not see a regime change soon.

Bellicose statements and acts by Israel may not necessarily serve Israel’s future interest to appeal someday to the Iranian public. It does not deter the current Islamic leadership from investing in the military and nuclear offensive weapons, while in the meantime they keep arming their proxy militia in Lebanon. Surely, Israel should take necessary measures of self-defense, be it on the strategic or tactical level, but these defensive measures should better be taken responsibly and without too much fanfare. A misperception of a gung-ho approach will not serve Israel’s justified goals.

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after a full career in analysis and evaluation. She lives in Israel.
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