U.S. Policy Toward Iran is Groupthink

One of the most interesting foreign policy books I ever read is called Victims of Groupthink, by Irving Janis. Written over 40 years ago, the book analyzes the dangerous consequences of foreign policy decisions channeled by top decision makers who were more or less psychologically constrained to view complex issues in a monolithic way. There have been many examples of this, both as outlined in the book itself, and subsequently as well (see: decision to invade Iraq). Perhaps the most dominant and dangerous groupthink-like issue confronting us today is America's policy toward Iran in general, and its policy toward Iran becoming the world's tenth nuclear arms power, in particular.

Three "groupthink assumptions" dominate U.S. policy toward Iran: 1) Iran is an irrational player in the international system and thus there is little or no point in entering into meaningful, unconditional negotiations with its leadership, much less establishing any form of diplomatic relations, 2) as a so-called "terrorist state" Iran would likely either use nuclear weapons (most probably against Israel) or surreptitiously provide them to an organized terrorist force (most likely Hezbollah), and 3) once Iran is truly on the brink of having a nuclear weapons capability the U.S. must — and will — resort to military action against Iran, either alone or in conjunction with Israel, and thus "containment" is not an option. Obviously all of these assumptions are related, though each of them individually and all of them collectively are questionable enough for the policy as a whole to deserve the "groupthink" label. To be fair, there are three or four well known members of the foreign policy elite dedicated to fighting the groupthink consensus on U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, most notably Columbia University professor Robert Jervis, one of the most highly respected international relations experts of the past half century, but they are truly the exceptions that prove the rule.

The first of these assumptions, that it is pointless to have any meaningful dialog with the Iranian leadership, has been a bedrock of the groupthink policy since 1979, when the U.S. embassy in Iran was overrun by zealots of the then new Iranian islamist regime. Over 300 Americans were kept hostage for well over a year. It should be duly noted that not one American was killed during that whole incident. One would think that American policy makers could get over that after 33 years, both in terms of defining the lingering egregiousness of the incident itself, as well the severity of its impact. After all, U.S. policy was able to deal with infinitely more deadly, dramatic, and impactful Soviet transgressions throughout the Cold War period. Yet the U.S. maintained full diplomatic relations and conducted high level summits with the Soviets for the entire length of the Cold War. As far as the irrationality of the Iranian mindset is concerned, perhaps nobody has questioned that assumption more starkly than Fareed Zakaria himself, when he has repeatedly pointed out that while we have seen terrorist suicide bombings from Islamists of practically every Middle Eastern nationality, the ONE nationality that has never produced a known suicide bomber is the Iranian one.

The second assumption, that Iran would likely use its nuclear weapons, either directly or through a terrorist proxy such as Hezbollah, stretches credulity by more than a little. Although seen as a dangerously hostile power, Iran has not engaged in an offensive war during the entire 33 years that the Islamist government has been in power. Yes, Iran did fight a defensive war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and yes, it shamefully supplied IUDs to its Shiite militia allies in Iraq during the recent Iraq War, and Ahmadinejad often sounds like a raving lunatic when rattling his saber against Israel. But let's remember that Soviet premier Kruschev yelled "we will bury you!" at America in most dramatic fashion at the United Nations, and that Soviet weaponry killed countless Americans in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Yet, did the U.S. ever suspend diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union? Were their actions ever deemed to be irrational? Enough said.

The final groupthink assumption of U.S. policy toward Iran, i.e. that "containment" is not an option is the most fanciful one of all, perhaps even approaching "emperor's new clothes" levels. By strengthening its security agreements and/or alliances with Israel, Turkey, and the moderate Arab Gulf nations, the U.S. could readily prevent the much-hyped, but not well thought through, "given" that nuclear proliferation would become endemic throughout the Middle East, as well as the notion that such nuclear weapons would then be supplied to and used by Hezbollah, or perhaps even Hamas.

Those making the latter argument in particular don't seem to have a good grasp of the actual impact of a thermonuclear explosion. While this point probably merits a separate analysis, suffice it to say that ANY nuclear explosion in the geographic region of Israel, Lebanon, or Jordan would wreak catastrophic radioactive effects on the peoples across those countries' borders, not to mention that it would trigger a mutually assured response.

Surely, my questioning of the assumptions underlying U.S. policy toward Iran is open to fair debate, but the fact remains that the existing holes governing that policy are so wide that they can only expose U.S. policy makers for what they are on this issue: victims of groupthink.

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Bennet Goldberg

I have a strong interest in international relations and foreign policy. After earning a BA (George Washington) and a MA (Johns Hopkins-SAIS) in International Relations, I enjoyed a 20 year career in international business, and like thinking about as well as debating foreign policy and geopolitical issues. I live most of the year in the SF Bay Area and part of the year in Montreal, Quebec, and have traveled the world extensively. I am between somewhat conversational (Italian, Spanish, French) and fluent (German) in several languages, and enjoy reading news/political opinion in these languages. My greatest interest is in Central European history and contemporary politics.

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