TLDR Up Front:
In the week since Soleimani’s death Blue and Red pundits overlooked cultural differences in the performance of Iran’s formal rites of agitation while signaling de-escalation. Instead they focused on trying to force complex foreign events into their own domestic partisan agenda. This led to the biggest predictive miss since the 2016 Presidential election. We review the erroneous mental models contributing to this problem and review select-signals that many missed. Also with the First Act of retaliation over we can make stronger forecasts on what Acts 2 and 3 might bring in the Middle East between Iran, Iraq and the US.
Full Context in the Back:
Let’s start where it ended. Tuesday evening Iran fired 10-20 missiles at Iraqi bases where US troops are concentrated in both Anbar and the Kurdish north. Several missiles failed in-flight, between six to ten hit on or near the Al-Asad air base. Two missiles appear to be aimed at the Erbil International Airport but the only one that hit failed to explode and the other one missed by twenty miles. And according to multiple government sources there are no US or Iraqi casualties.
From a kinetic perspective Ricky Gervais had more impact at the Golden Globes.
Which was precisely the point I believe.
The entire week since Soleimani and al-Mohindes were killed is best described as the Khomeinists in Iran and Iraq performing formal rites of agitation while trying to prevent an actual escalation via their retaliation to the US that it could not win.
What was scary to me is just how badly the punditry analyzing these actions, both as reporters and social media commentators, missed in this regard. Before we get into the missed signals, we need to describe how the mental model of most was in the wrong place to detect those signals. And this consists of two halves. The first half of a missing mental-model is recognizing that cultures differ, especially when it comes to behavior in conflict. In the US we use phrases like a “person of their word” and “staying true to their word” to ascribe high cultural value. And in conflict we admire people who “stand their ground” and “don’t back down.” But we don’t often recognize that’s just one of several cultural paradigms. In other paradigms, braggadocio behavior and bellicose language is not expected to be seriously followed. Especially when it comes to conflict. Where these paradigms exist, they serve as a safety-valve to avoid protracted high lethality conflict. Blowing off emotional steam through rhetorical excess, or counting coup, bears less risk than following through on total war. And shouting “Death to America” is far less risky than actually following through on that.
The need for heated rhetoric in any culture is exacerbated in radical groups where stoics are rare. The processes that lead to radicalization of world view are full of reinforcing behaviors for over the top performance of emotional rhetoric. Within the echo-chamber of a radical network, participants ‘egg-each-other’ on in one-upmanship simultaneously establishing social rank (who is most committed by display) while reinforcing the conspiracy narrative of dehumanizing the ‘other’ who is the source of grievance the radical groups seek to confront. Absent outside voices there’s no credible check on this escalation until a natural plateau is reached when even the metaphorical prick of the finger results in a five-alarm call. And this isn’t limited to overseas actors. You can see similar mechanisms of radicalization and egging-on of more severe behavior and reactions in any immediate responses by the Red to Greta Thunberg or the Blue to Nicholas Sandman. We see it every day on the President’s twitter feed.
This half of the incorrect mental model led to mistaking the formal, and public, rites of agitation used to pacify radical hard-liners for serious intentions. I’m not inclined to feel bad for Khomeinist leaders if they toss in the beds they made. But I imagine many non-violent radical and even activist groups have had to deal with this dynamic. Navigating the formal rites of agitation to keep the power base from revolting in light of a disturbance in the status-quo while also keeping that same base from engaging in a self-destructive instinct.
The second half of the incorrect mental-model arises from the American habit of using partisan rhetoric to define a complex external reality. Care review boards become “death panels.” Ideas which make zero sense become “common sense.” We do this because we are acculturated to a domestic landscape where rhetoric shapes opinions. Opinions shape votes. Votes drive policies. And policies (maybe) drive externalities. The causal connection between having a rhetorical opinion and experiencing the consequence of an externality is far distant.
But external actors in foreign affairs have their own voice and agency. And conflict has a way of shrinking the buffer and causal chain within which externalities are recognized. Red and Blue partisans can often be like two people standing in a house arguing whether the roof will leak while it’s dry. Whether the roof is sound or not, much like whether President Trump committed an impeachable offense, is a debate in abstract most of us understand through a rhetorical framework we’re already positioned within set inside a partisan political environment that decides, absent any objective check, whether the roof is in fact leaky.
Foreign affairs, natural disasters, economic calamities are the rainstorm showing up. Their objective realities don’t care for our rhetoric, and it’s hard to argue the roof isn’t leaking when the water drops hit your forehead.
In this context both Red and Blue partisans, in their own ways, wanted there to be an escalation because escalation served their own partisan self-interests. They sought to fit the reality occurring several thousand miles away to fit the rhetoric they needed. Red saw an escalation as finally something was being done and we’re getting ‘serious.’ Blue saw escalation as the sum-of-all-fears since President Trump took office. But Blue and Red partisans in the domestic United States were not the only actors in this scenario, and few of them seemed to be listening or watching for the signals the actual local actors were sending. I saw many social commentaries that didn’t pick up a single foreign signal. Wholly ensconced within the realm of domestic rhetoric. And, if they picked up signaling at all, Red and Blue both over reacted to the formal rites of agitation rather than the signals sent alongside those rites.
Combine these mental-model errors and it can explain how badly a miss the last week of punditry has been. Let’s walk through day-by-day and take some example of transmissions being sent adjacent to the formal rites of agitation, that as time and signals accumulated, made ever clearer Iran was looking for an off ramp.
FRIDAY JANUARY 3RD
yAbout the time I sat down to start writing my post that went viral on Soleimani the morning after the strike, Friday prayers in Iraq were ending. The most powerful religious leader within the Shia community in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani was personally delivering a sermon on how the country was facing difficult times and called for restraint. This isn’t unusual - al-Sistani is not a hot-head and tries to steer Iraq to more moderate, and less severe governance. But he’s not the only player in the Shia religious hierarchy in Iraq, sharing that stage with Muqtar al-Sadr, the son and son-in-law of two Grand Ayatollahs. In my view, al-Sistani holds more religious authority (given his seniority) and soft-power in influence while al-Sadr wields more direct street-power within the country’s Shia population. The west was widely reporting al-Sadr’s provocative calls for activating his al-Mahdi Army...but they were ignoring al-Sistani’s opposing calls for restraint. So even within the first 24hours a division of interests had emerged within Iraq, if not in Iran, signaling that there was not unified support for retaliation to the US action.
Also, on Friday reporting of a US air-strike added fuel to the fire against another PMF convoy, this time in Taij which is north of Baghdad. This attack was framed to be optically worse – killing medical personnel and having no valid military purpose. The problem is there was no strike. Both the Iraqi government and the US denied any strike took place within just a few hours. Phantom aftershocks are common in the first 24-72 hours after a dramatic unexpected event. I see it in the aftermath of many mass-shootings. The new event is presented as similar to what we just experienced – another mass-shooting or in this case another targeted strike against a PMF convoy, and unless we’re on guard it’s easy to jump to ‘it’s happening again.’ I don’t know the source of the erroneous report in this case. But the problem was if you were a pundit looking for confirmation that the conflict was expanding, here it was. And a failure to go back and double check that things we thought were true yesterday are still true today led many analysts I saw incorporating that strike into the framework of how they were understanding the crisis. And this phantom menace was still a major part of the narrative even through Tuesday when Iran’s missile strikes superseded it in importance.
SATURDAY JANUARY 4th
Sometimes the signals we pick up on, because of our incorrect mental model, aren’t even real. But we’ve been primed by cultural misunderstanding to “see them” where they don’t exist. A great example of this was the so-called “raising of the red flag” over a mosque in Qom. Quoting one, ahem, “news” source:
“WATCH Terrifying moment Iran unveils red flag at Mosque warning of severe battle to come!”
Combined with dire warnings that this has ‘never happened in the history of Shia’ it sounds like someone was lighting the Beacons of Gondor for an end-times battle to come.
This plays on the tendency of Americans to “other” foreigners with different, but not atypical, cultural behaviors than us. The problem with this signal is that a red flag in Shia can mean the death of a martyr, or an unavenged death such as Soleimani’s. But red flags can also be used to signal unavenged death of historical figures such as Ali ibn Abi Talib and his political supporters assassinated during the civil war that broke out in the succession crisis of the early Caliphate. A Shia mosque flying a red flag can either mean it’s the start of an end-times war...or a semi regular religious event marking these past martyrs. Whether this particular flag was flown for a religious rite, for Soleimani directly, it has no greater end-of-times meaning than the US flag flying at half-staff following a significant or tragic loss of life. Misinterpreting it as an apocalyptic sign of war however can fuel misplaced belief that the other has made some grand gesture which, we have no clue what it means, are easily misled to believe it’s going to lead to World War III!
SUNDAY JANUARY 5th
This is when the de-escalation signals began to arrive from Iran and continue to accumulate in Iraq. The first was an announcement on Iranian State TV that Tehran no longer intended to adhere to the Nuclear Deal limits negotiated with President Obama.
That sounds like retaliation, right? The problem, clear to anyone who’s followed my posts in the last year is that Iran hasn’t been abiding by the nuclear deal for six months now. They began abandoning elements in a ratcheted escalation when Trump withdrew the US from the deal and re-instituted sanctions. Retaliating to Soleimani’s death by abandoning adherence to the nuclear deal is like me retaliating against my New Year’s Resolution to eat better when I’m already halfway into the bucket of Xtra Crispy KFC.
On the same day in Iraq an emergency session of Parliament met and voted to ‘expel’ US troops. This was widely reported as a clear signal that President Trump’s plan had backfired, and the US would be removed from Iraq after 17 years of presence. (Which honestly doesn’t like a terrible outcome to me.) The problem with this signal is the reporting missed salient details that framed this exercise as the performative formal rites of agitation safety-valve described above.
It wasn’t a binding resolution. The Arab Sunni and Kurdish blocs boycotted the vote entirely and didn’t even show up. Only 170 out of 329 lawmakers showed up – and yes they passed it by simple majority, but in no way should this have been read as the ‘clear will’ of Iraq. Only Al Jazeera correctly reported this crucial context missed by most US based news outlets:
“Opposition to resolution: While many Iraqis celebrated parliament's move, others were not pleased with the resolution..."US troops have been in Iraq at the request of the government. Even though the US has breached this deal, the issue should be resolved through government negotiations, not through parliament," he [ Sarkawt Shams, Kurdish Future Bloc representative] said. Ali Muqtadad, a 24-year-old university student told Al Jazeera: "We don't want US troops to leave Iraq. That will only leave a security vacuum and will allow Iran to have increased influence in Iraq which is much more dangerous than US presence.” According to Renad Mansour, head of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, the resolution to expel US troops in Iraq was a "politicisation of the response" to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. "Before the strike the Iraqi public wasn't vocally anti-American, but pro-Iranian groups have for years tried to expel US troops. "This attack has revived anti-Americanism among some Iraqis and given those pro-Iran elements a louder voice in trying to pursue something they were trying to do."
That lack of context matters because these missed cues aren’t happening in isolation.
By Sunday Red and Blue pundits were reading largely “Death to America” coverage, seeing headlines that Iran was going to withdraw from the nuclear deal, Iraq was going to kick the troops out and someone’s spreading video of the “raising of a red flag” over a mosque they don’t know the name of in a city they’ve never heard of but the music sure is dramatic and it reminds them of Lord of the Rings!
This is when the partisan rhetoric kicked in. Seeing what looked like the clear pathway emerging – both sides stepped into high gear to define what it all meant. President Trump led the Red reaction threatening sanctions over the non-binding resolution with what may amount to non-binding sanctions against Iraq as we all hope he forgets about them. A variety of talking heads on the Blue side wound up their adherents into a frenzy. People were circulating rumors of a draft, even though there hasn’t been a draft in at least three generations of American youth. Facebook posts were filled with Red and Blue Chicken hawks and Friday Night Posers daring one another to ‘pick up a weapon and stand a post’ like they were Colonel Jessup in a Few Good Men.
MONDAY JANUARY 6th
By Monday cooler heads in the US military were starting to signal back to the Iraqi’s. In what was either a brilliant move of statesmanship or the world’s worst accidental “reply-all” a letter written by US Commander General Seeley implied the US would completely withdraw its forces from Iraq. Although the letter was disavowed by both Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, it served to call-the-bluff of the Iraqi parliament which quickly began backtracking on the non-binding resolution.
The US military was also moving to muzzle the President and his own public rites of agitation. Now I don’t follow Trump’s twitter feed, because if I do arrive in Purgatory I want it to be a novel experience, but I understand sometime late Sunday night/Monday morning he indicated the US would strike at a variety of Iranian sites, including cultural sites.
Where I allow plenty of room for earnest disagreement on the legality of the strike against General Soleimani (disclosure: I tend to assess it as legal) I don’t see such room on the question of striking cultural sites. The US itself, in response to ISIS and Taliban previous acts of iconoclasm in destroying culturally and historically significant locations sponsored a UN Security Council Resolution in 2017 making attacks against UNESCO Heritage site a war crime. This is in line with longstanding previous tradition of treaties and practices. It’s been reported that the President may have been reacting to the prepositioning of Iranian missile launchers maneuvering for Tuesday’s attack. Which justifies the tweet, but not the part where he threatens to attack cultural sites. This erodes an, admittedly, already low US credibility by threatening acts we have condemned illegal non-state actors for doing for decades now.
In response Secretary of Defense Esper stated clearly that the US forces would not violate international law. For all the hand-wringing that has occurred on whether or not the military would obey a clearly illegal order that has occurred under this administration, this instance of just that thing happening seemed to go unnoticed by the Red and Blue commentators. But the signal, along with the Seely letter, was received by foreign actors that there were limits to US retaliation, and patience with the public rites of agitation.
TUESDAY JANUARY 7th
All this led to the day of the retaliatory strike itself and as go-time approached so did the signaling in frequency and directness. As reported by the New York Times,
“ Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at a meeting of the government’s National Security Council to lay down the parameters for any retaliation. It must be a direct and proportional attack on American interests, he said, openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves.”
Three crucial signals stood out to me. By stating that retaliation was to be ‘direct’ and ‘openly carried out by Iranian forces’ the Ayatollah signaled, to both non-state actors and the United States, the this would come in the form of a conventional strike. And anyone with a recent copy of Jane’s will tell you, conventional warfare is where the disparity between Iran and the US is strongest. If Iran wanted to do the most damage, the attack would come from an asymmetric approach delivered by a non-state actor. But the third signal, “proportionate” indicated the level at which Iran was going to attempt to seek to do damage in that attack.
Reading this my interpretation, even the midst of formal rites of agitation around the funeral and stampede is Iran might try to kill an American General, as that would be “proportionate” to the death of General Soleimani. That would have a good chance of success depending on where the attack took place, in the US or abroad. And that would be on top of local PMF commanders deciding to retaliate against non-Khomeinist ethnographic groups in Iraq in my view. But by Monday there had been no PMF action to strike out locally, though that may just be a pause during the mourning period.
THE RETALIATION STRIKE
This is what led to my comment on the night of the strike:
“I can say that everything I've seen so far signals Iran deescalating rather than escalating. And this feels like that as well. That may seem counter-intuitive with missiles in the air, and I could be wrong.”
I was increasingly experiencing a dissonance between what I was seeing as signals and what I was hearing from the Red and Blue commentators, making me question, alternatively, my sanity and theirs. Everyone was arguing the state of the roof, I was looking to see what happened when it rained. The missiles struck, the rain began.
The confirmation that the roof wasn’t going to leak, that the hypothesis of formal rites of agitation combined with navigating an off ramp of de-escalation came very quickly after the strike concluded. Initial reports of zero to minimal casualties were accompanied by the Iranian Foreign Minister tweeting: “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.”
The diplomatic coding in this is not subtle: “took & concluded.” The public rite of agitation has been performed, it’s over, we’re done.
The closure was marred only by the as-of-yet unexplained crash of a Ukrainian international flight shortly after leaving the international airport in Tehran. I know there is speculation going on around that, but I’m following the Razor on that event and not going to join in the speculation until we know more. Simply not going to touch it other than recognizing the loss of all 176 passengers.
AFTERMATH (January 8th)
And what was a result of this parallel messaging approach, one to Khomeinists and the other to the United States?
First President Khamenei and Grand Ayatollah, as well as President Trump, were able to claim face-saving de-escalation outcomes on Wednesday morning from the crisis President Trump had started last week with the Soleimani strike. When the Tehran Times reported that the missile-strikes killed 80 and wounded 200 US personnel, conditions were already set to believe this.
It doesn’t matter that every other government with personnel on the bases attacked, including Iraqi, US, Canadian, Norwegian, Australian, British, Danish and Polish governments said there were no casualties. It doesn’t matter that I, and many others, will write what has happened here. The safety-valve releases of heated rhetoric and some clever disinformation did its job. And President Trump finished his own public agitation rites this morning when he, relative to his usual behavior, calmly accepted the de-escalation by Iran.
The extremists, living within a hermetically sealed echo chamber, simply aren’t exposed to the countering voices and have convinced themselves that’s water dripping on their head from a roof that isn’t leaking because the rain storm was a passing shower. When one is sufficiently radicalized in belief the external reality can take a distant second to the vital lie of preserving the radicalization itself, Red and Blue partisans take heed.
WHAT COMES NEXT
None of this should be taken to say it’s all jelly going forward. If we can think of the outcome of Soleimani’s death as being a play in three Acts, this is only the first Act. In this Act we learned whether President Trump’s kinetic strike would be met by kinetic conventional retaliation by Iran, leading to an escalation that pushes both countries into broader conflict. I think that Act ended with the tweet by Zaraf on Tuesday night.
And let’s pause to celebrate that.
But this still leaves two Acts. The second Act Iran’s strong-card, is action through asymmetric means and/or non-state actor delivery throughout the region and even within the domestic United States. This Second Act is a return to low-intensity conflict through proxies similar to the last year. Afterall it was working for Khomeinists right up until they began shooting rockets at US bases in October. Retaliation within this low-intensity space includes targeting oil shipping, infrastructure and attacks-through-proxies like the Houthis against US allies such as Saudi Arabia. There is some worry in the US about cyberattacks from Iran, but I think this is being overstated in the heat of the moment.
The biggest risk in the Second Act is sectarian conflict in Iraq, but even on that I’m guardedly optimistic in the next few months. A commander of the PMF, Qais al-Khazali on Wednesday said the PMF “response will be no less than the size of the Iranian response. That is a promise.” To me that’s another combined message containing both heated-rhetoric meant to appease his base and signaling de-escalation. Even though the President and Prime Minister are resigning unless the Parliament collapses, their replacement will be of similar shape and form. Also, it’s not like there wasn’t sectarian conflict before this strike, just that many in the west weren’t aware of it. If anything I see violence reducing though not going to zero of course.
The plot of this Second Act, in my mind, is less about retaliation and more a plot of recovery. The foreign adventures of Iran, much like the foreign adventures of the US, have created regional instability, ruined the Iranian economy (when combined with US sanctions) and pinned its resources throughout the region. That was all Soleimani’s brain child and required his constant movement and efforts to keep all the balls in the air. Even before Soleimani’s death in one of the 2020AMA Forecasts I discussed the weakness of Iran’s position.
Chief architect of that recovery will be General Esmail Qaani who replaced Soleimani as the new commander of the Quds. He is protégé of the Shadow Commander, and a competent bureaucrat and staff officer. But his duties up to now have focused on Quds activities in its eastern theater: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Reports also indicate he lacks the charisma, risk-taking nature, that Soleimani did.
Organizing Iran’s recovery will be harder because the strike against Soleimani and al-Mohindes was less like Osama bin Laden being killed in his safe-house or al-Baghdadi killed in his cave and more like if von Stauffenberg’s bomb had been closer to Hitler in the Wolf’s Lair. Not only were the top commanders of the Quds and PMF in Iraq killed, but a host of their key leaders and staff. As reported by the LWJ Major General Hossein Pourjafari and Colonel Shahroud Mozaffari Nia, both of the Revolutionary Guard intelligence wing died. As Quds was stretched thing by deaths due to combat, it was Revolutionary Guard officers who backfilled those positions. Two Lieutenants in the Revolutionary Guard described as being in Soleimani’s ‘inner circle’ were also killed, Hadi Taremi and Vahid Zamanian. Because Soleimani’s personal-style was very hands on in the region, recovery means renewing those relationships. And the key dynamics of those relationships can’t be reduced to paperwork back at HQ. It would’ve been the closest people around Soleimani who’d have the most face time and interactions with principals and staffers in the counter-party, and with many of them dead there’s a huge hole. This problem is familiar to American military commanders facing frequent rotations in and out of Afghanistan – without continuity or successful transfer of information the “conflict” gets set back to Day Zero.
The Third Act is the longer time horizon and interaction within the region itself where local actors may create dynamics for new conflicts. Prime Minister Netanyahu may react to Iranian moves in Syria creating another point for provocation. Or as President Saleh and Prime Minister Mahdi resign from their positions in the Iraqi parliament, and the societal tensions laid bare over the last few months of youth-based protests put pressure on their replacements, that gives rise to new pressures. The next Parliamentarian elections in 2022 may be when serious rifts begin to show.
Two new realities of these next Acts have to be considered. Without a strong asymmetric follow-up, the de-escalation clearly establishes that even a powerful regional actor such as Iran, with serious provocation, does not want to risk head-to-head conventional confrontation with even a weak-to-moderate in-region US force while President Trump is in office. Several of my Blue readers may be self-combusting right now, but remember, we don’t get to determine whether it rains or not.
And while you’re on fire, sorry Blue readers, I might as well sneak in that by killing Soleimani, whether President Trump intended it or not, he has shifted the strategic calculus of the region as dramatically as any US President this century. Bush did it by invading Iraq and demolishing the regional status quo in the middle east. President Obama did it by invading Libya demolishing the regional status quo in northern Africa and *not* coming to the aid of Syrian rebels or responding to ISIS. Both of those are clear net-negative results in my book. And it shows that foreign policy is not as easy to predict as “our cause is righteous so we will prevail” (Bush) or “don’t do stupid sh**! “ (Obama.)
But since the ostensible US military withdrawal in Iraq the two biggest contributors to regional instability were ISIS through al-Baghdadi and the Iranian Quds through Soleimani. And President Trump has now taken both those actors off the stage in a matter of months, with significantly less cost in the effort than Bush or Obama managed; though the ultimate cost remains to be seen.
For comparison. The Kent State riots saw the US National Guard kill four student protesters and wound nine more. That event left a traumatic scar on our national psyche that continues to today. But in the last four months alone, security forces and private militias under Soleimani’s influence (if not direct control) in Iraq and Iran have killed 2,000 protesters and wounded over 25,000. And that’s before we consider the grand total cost of Soleimani’s push to encircle the GCC *through* Iraq into Syria and Lebanon, and the role he played in supporting Assad to kill hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.
And before my Blue readers completely immolate or Red readers start high-fiving one another, this is a positive trend at a very narrow point in time.
None of us know yet whether any of this strategic calculus was in mind when President Trump ordered the attack versus a visceral reaction to being Benghazied. And President Trump has proven to be a “hold my beer” guy more than capable to fold abruptly on a good hand (see the unilateral withdrawal from Northern Syria.)
Worse, President Trump may get over-confident because of this result. If it feels like he got a lot for a little, he did, and that’s a dangerous place to put a leader with few checks upon his behavior. The on-the-ground conditions of this strike, the nature of the target, all argue an exception rather than the norm. A little bit of ambiguity in strategic competitors minds about “what he will do next” isn’t a bad thing, but it only goes far. Containing periodic bursts of random behavior is much easier than containing strategic design. And President Trumps random moves can often be just as self-destructive to his own or US interests as they are to foreign actors.
As a Radical Moderate I remain in favor of Congress dramatically limiting the expansive powers of all Presidents, though I don’t seriously see either Red or Blue parties busy arguing over the roof getting to it. Because even if we get lucky in the Second and Third Acts, which remains to be seen, we can’t fall for the hot-hand fallacy that just because it worked this time it will work as well next time.
-Tim Clancy (https://www.facebook.com/tim.clancy.313)