Considering the beginning of Russian airstrikes in Syria, and, notably, the increased risk to see it perceived as fanning an already difficult situation in terms of sectarian, Shi’a versus Sunni, tension (Helene Lavoix, “Russia at War with the Islamic State in Syria – Perceptions of Strikes“, RTAS, 12 Oct 2015), understanding and foreseeing the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has become crucially important. Indeed, it could very well be that, fundamentally, without appeasing completely this sectarian tension it will be impossible to end the war spreading in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.
It is within this framework that is now located our new project to enhance strategic foresight and warning, risk, or more broadly anticipatory analysis’ handling of time-related issues. As explained previously, we need to improve how we foresee the onset of events, dynamics and phenomena – when may this or that event, dynamics or process start – and their duration – how long may this or that event, dynamic or process last.
We shall treat our case study as a practical experiment in anticipatory analysis, with a particular emphasis on the time-component, wondering at each step in which way our thinking, our methodology could influence or determine the way we handle or mishandle time. Meanwhile, we shall also, of course, develop a proper strategic foresight and warning analysis for our issue, the future evolution of tensions, or absence thereof, between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Practically, members of the team working on the project will publish in a free way their reflections, as well as step-by-step progresses in their analysis of the case study. One post will thus present results but also outline questions, which will be then addressed and built upon with the next one, in the manner of a dialogue. Interested readers are welcome to join the discussion through comments. Meanwhile, we shall also experiment with new graphic and technological tools to enhance the analytical process.
Strategic and not tactical level
We must emphasise, here, that we are not working at the tactical level, and that we are not seeking to predict discrete events such as “on day d at hour h, event e will take place”.
First, we shall remain at the strategic level. As explained by strategists, the difference between the strategic and tactical levels is not one that is defined in terms of timeframe. Identifying the strategic level is more complex.
We shall here follow guidelines we previously identified to help define what is strategic or not (H. Lavoix, “Assessing the “Strategic” in Surprise“, RTAS, 15 Oct 2012). We shall thus look at dynamics, events or more broadly phenomena, which could impact the strategy – “the logic driving a plan… [which] furthers one’s advance towards goals by suggesting ways to accommodate and/or orchestrate a variety of variables”, to use Heindenrich’s helpful definition – of the actors involved, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Iran (Heidenrich, John G., “The State of Strategic Intelligence: The Intelligence Community’s Neglect of Strategic Intelligence,” Studies in Intelligence, vol51 no2, 2007).
We shall therefore “consider all possible relevant factors as well as the very logic and art of orchestrating them” (Lavoix, Ibid.). As we are not working for a specific actor, we shall try to envision various strategies and points of view.
Foresight and not prediction
Second, as stated, we shall not try to predict that “on day d at hour h, event e will take place”. We shall be more humble in our objectives, only trying to foresee when this or that dynamic is more or less likely to start taking speed, thus when its onset has become strong enough to justify being considered as truly starting.
Interestingly, trying to define better our aim, and moving from a very specific prediction to a fuzzier, yet still useful foresight, as here, already yields some insights. The onset – as well as the duration – of a dynamic for our purpose, i.e. in terms of SF&W or risk analysis, is not only about “time”; it includes reference to likelihood and strength of impact. In other words and taking an example to make things clearer, if a protest takes place, it will be considered as the start of a rebellion or revolution with hindsight, only if the protest is followed by others, if an escalation takes place that lasts long enough to threaten the current political authorities. If one protest occurs and is followed by nothing, for a host of reasons, including proper actions taken as a result of a warning about the likely onset of a rebellion, then we do not have the onset of an event or dynamic.
Let us rephrase this with a more neutral position in terms of time, i.e. a sentence that would be valid not only for hindsight, thus after an end result, but also for foresight, thus before the end result. When an event takes place, it will be the onset, the starting point, of potential dynamics and processes (for example the onset of a revolution) that will be actualised in real life (the revolution taking place in the future) only if some specific conditions or prerequisites are fulfilled, if some factors take a specific value and follow a specific course. We find here back not only the virtue but also the crucial necessity to think in terms of sequences of events, which lead to the “timeline indicators methodology” we outlined in the previous post.
We shall thus build upon this initial finding and start our work with mapping out the various “conditions”, i.e. drivers, factors or more exactly variables, that underlie the existence and evolution of cooperation or tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Once we shall have achieved this result, then we shall be able to move forward with defining and including time-elements more precisely .
Asking the right question
As all SF&W, risk or anticipatory analysts know, the first step for any anticipatory exercise is to define a question, which will then guide and frame the analysis (see Methodological steps).
When we started this project, we wanted to be able to test our results against reality, because the latter is finally the only valid measurement regarding success or failure of anticipation. We also wanted to test our methodology relatively rapidly. As a result, we decided that our question could be “what is the likelihood to see cooperation (or on the contrary war) between Saudi Arabia and Iran within one year”.
However, as we progressed in our work, it became increasingly obvious that the question was not well framed for our project. Indeed, what we were testing was not the time component, even if it was included in the question. Our very question had fixed the variable “time”, and what was allowed to vary was the likelihood. Thus, we were actually working on a methodology to assess likelihood and not on one that would enhance our handling of time.
As pointed out previously, likelihood, impact, end result and components leading to a specific state, on the one hand, and timeline, on the other, are all linked. Thus, our work was not lost, yet the question was not well framed. We thus have to redefine better the question, allowing for time to vary. Tentatively, our question is, for now, “Within which timeframe could we see full cooperation or, on the contrary, war occur between Saudi Arabia and Iran?“
With the next post, we shall start developing the model of interacting drivers, factors and actors having bearing on our question.
Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.