Category: Temporal Observatory – Iran & Saudi Arabia

Iran and Saudi Arabia

Find all the related articles below.

Through a strategic foresight and warning analysis of the relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia we aim at improving how to handle time (anticipation of onset of events and their duration) in SF&W and risk management.

Our focus question is: “Within which timeframe could we see full cooperation or, on the contrary, war occur between Saudi Arabia and Iran?”

Tempobs – Balance of Power Formation for Iran and Saudi Arabia

At the latest 2 June 2016 OPEC summit, Saudi Arabia and Iran failed to reach an agreement on oil production level (e.g. Terry Macalister, The Guardian, 2 June 2016). Different needs as well as tensions between the two countries are at stake. Yet, a few analysts have also underscored a slight improvement in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran (Liam Halligan,  “Opec is very much alive as Saudis learn to tread softly“, 4 June 2016).  What should we thus expect? Should we trust that a warming of the relationships is indeed underway, or should we expect a potential stiffening of positions considering the current offensive led by Shia governments in Syria and Iraq (e.g. Alex MacDonald, “Sunni fighters say militias, not army, should liberate Fallujah and Mosul“, Middle East Eye, 5 June 2016; Reuters, “Syrian troops reach edge of Raqqa, after Russia-backed offensive“, The Australian, 6 June 2016)?

Even more than previously, our final aim – to be able to foresee and warn about the evolution of the relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including by enhancing our understanding of both onset and duration of dynamics – is not only relevant but crucial for actors, which are impacted by the evolution of the relationships between the two countries, i.e. pretty much everyone if we consider the still crucial importance of oil in our modern type of development and the central position of Saudi Arabia and Iran on the oil production scene, to say nothing of other types of consequences, in terms of war and geopolitics for example.

In the previous article, Dr Fishbein made a broad review of the major factors that could, through their “confluence”, tip the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia towards intensified conflict or, on the contrary, away from it. Meanwhile, those factors also would tell us more about which country would take a likely advantage in terms of relative balance of power. We need to be able to properly incorporate Dr Fishbein’s identified factors in the model we are developing for this foresight and warning case.

We shall here focus on the balance of power and its formation. We shall use the related work by famous international relations scientist Kenneth Waltz in his seminal Theory of International Politics (1979). We shall use Waltz’s understanding of balance of power formation – the assumptions and conditions he identifies – to detail the variables and their linkages we need for our model. First we shall state precisely what is meant by balance of power formation, and look at the goals of states, as the first assumption underlying the theory. Second, we shall move to the way states attempt to reach these goals, which is also the second assumption. Finally we shall look at the conditions necessary to see the possibility for balance of power formation. Continue reading Tempobs – Balance of Power Formation for Iran and Saudi Arabia

Tempobs – Things Come Together: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Early 2016 has witnessed a succession of dramatic developments that have inflamed the already contentious Iran-Saudi relationship, bringing it to the forefront of global governmental and media attention. These have included: Riyadh’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Tehran at the beginning of the year, the accelerated decline of the price of oil deeply affecting both countries’ economies, the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal leading to Iran’s reinsertion into the global economic system, and a reversal of fortune in the Syrian civil war with Iranian and Russian-supported regime forces scoring major advances against the Saudi-backed opposition. We shall survey these developments (deferring, however, discussion of the fast changing situation in Syria to a later post) with the aim of extracting underlying factors that will continue to influence the Iran-Saudi relationship within the broader regional and global context. Our birds-eye view of a very complex, evolving situation will only allow us to make general inferences here, and so we shall hold off on incorporating identified influencing factors into our detailed conceptual map until we can examine them in greater detail in subsequent posts.

 User manual – Interactive graph (Ed.)

The detailed, step by step explanation regarding the use of graphs, their advantage, how we build the interactive graph and how to use it can be found here, in “Mapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations“. Each article of the Tempobs project then build upon the initial graph, step by step, to develop a better, more accurate model, until we shall reach the stage of obtaining a “good enough model”, to use Helen Fein’s (1994: 32) apt criteria, for strategic foresight and warning or risk management.
Here, the map we shall obtain at the end of this article is only an intermediary working map, between the initial “cluster map” (displaying the larger categories of cluster of variables) and the developing detailed and full graph
Click on each image below to access the corresponding graph.

The Saudi-Iran Diplomatic Break: On to the Cold War

Let’s start with the development that did most to focus the world’s attention on the Saudi-Iran relationship: Riyadh’s decision in early January to proceed with the execution of Saudi Shia dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The dominant view among analysts is that Riyadh went ahead with this action in the face of Tehran’s admonitions against doing so in order to incite the Iranians into undertaking a reckless act of retaliation. This, the Saudi leadership hoped, would tarnish Tehran’s re-entry into the global community following the fast-approaching lifting of nuclear-related sanctions and reinforce Sunni sectarian sentiments at home and in the region to Riyadh’s political advantage (Marc Lynch, “Why Saudi Arabia escalated the Middle East’s sectarian conflict,Washington Post, January 4, 2016). Alternatively, some argued that Riyadh wanted to signal Washington that it was prepared to act boldly, and in defiance of Tehran’s wishes, in light of what it viewed as a building U.S.-Iranian rapprochement as well as perceived U.S. reluctance to counter Iranian adventurism (such as its failure through early January to impose sanctions for Iranian ballistic missile tests in apparent defiance of UN resolutions) (Kim Ghattas, “The Saudi-Iran War Is America’s Fault”, Foreign Policy, January 13, 2016).

Whatever its intentions, Riyadh’s move achieved, at best, mixed results. An Iranian mob, of course, subsequently sacked the Saudi embassy possibly, it has been argued, with support from within the country’s security establishment, which closely monitors political protest (Golnaz Esfandiari, “The Mystery Behind The Saudi Embassy Attack In Iran,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 6, 2016). However, Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Khamenei, subsequently condemned the assault and ordered the arrest of a large number of suspected perpetrators. This response, together with Iran’s exchange of some prisoners with the United States in conjunction with the implementation of the nuclear agreement, took the spotlight off the embassy event (Shahir Shahidsaless “Rouhani outsmarts Iran hardliners as well as the Saudis,” Middle East Eye, January 15, 2016). Indeed, Western governments and media mainly criticized the Saudi’s for their provocative decision to execute al-Nimr; there was also increased critical attention paid to the Saudi government’s human rights record (especially its widespread use of capital punishment) and its suppression of the domestic Shia minority. Meanwhile, the al-Nimr execution incited a strong Shia reaction that, in Iraq, led to angry demonstrations aimed at shuttering the newly re-opened Saudi embassy, while in Lebanon, it appeared to have helped scuttle a recently-completed deal between Hezbollah and the Saudi-allied Sunni political faction to elect a Christian candidate to the presidency acceptable to Riyadh (Ali Mamouri, “Widespread Iraqi anger threatens Saudi ties,” Al-Monitor, January 25, 2016; Jean Aziz, “Lebanon feels aftershocks of Saudi-Iran crisis,” Al-Monitor, January 13, 2016). And only a handful of Sunni-majority states—mainly beneficiaries of Saudi largesse in East Africa—chose to follow Riyadh’s lead in fully breaking relations with Tehran, while its Gulf allies (excepting Bahrain) chose, at most, to downgrade relations (Tom Finn, “On Iran-Saudi rift, Gulf Arab states tread with caution,” Reuters, January 11, 2016).

Modelling Implications

Balance of Power

The diplomatic break is important, above all, because it has intensified and formalized the building—but still somewhat restrained—confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia of the previous year, transforming it into a  “cold war”, as it is now frequently referred to in global media (e.g., Max Fisher, “The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that’s tearing apart the Middle East, explained,” Vox, January 4, 2016).  As a result, it has focused the attention of media and academic analysts, and undoubtedly of regional and global governmental actors as well, on the bilateral balance of power and how this would influence the confrontation were it to go “hot.” (Michael Knights, “What Would a Saudi-Iran War Look Like? Don’t look now, but it is already here,” Foreign Policy, January 11, 2016) We shall incorporate this classic international relations concept into our mapping and modelling effort. The balance of power encompasses a set of measures because power, particularly in a cold war environment, is not limited to military capabilities but also includes “softer” elements, such as political and cultural attractiveness, economic strength, leadership and diplomatic adroitness, and “credibility”—a reputation for following through on commitments that political leaders (if not all political scientists) view as essential to deterring adversaries (Joseph Nye, “Hard and Soft Power in American Foreign Policy,” Paradox of American Power, New York, 2002; Daniel Drezner, “Ten things to read about reputation in international relations,” Foreign Policy, May 2009).

  • The balance of power influences behavior as perceptions of a changing balance can prompt a strengthening party to act exploitatively and a weakening one to act preemptively. The “Thucydides Trap” mentioned in an earlier post, is an example of a changing balance prompting a great power to move against a rival before its advantage is lost. The Saudi decision to up the ante with the provocative al-Nimr execution—said by several commentators to be driven by fears of rising Iranian power, declining Saudi clout due to the oil price plunge, and general instability in the region—may well have reflected this type of thinking (Kenneth M. Pollack, “Fear and Loathing in Saudi Arabia,” Foreign Policy, January 7,2016; John Jenkins, “Behind Saudi Arabia’s Bluster is a Country That Feels Under Great Threat,” New Statesman, January 9, 2016).
  • Changes in a bilateral balance of power can also influence the behavior of third parties (allies and neutrals) by prompting them, alternatively, to join with the weaker party to balance against the stronger, to protect or advance their interests by “bandwagoning” with the latter, or to seek neutrality (Stephen Walt, Alliances: Balancing and Bandwagoning, 1987). The tepid response of most other Sunni states to the Saudi break in relations with Iran may reflect their uncertainties about the future direction of the Saudi-Iranian power balance.
  • Looking at the balance of power from a cooperation theory perspective (as discussed in the previous post in this series), one can argue that a power shift will affect Prof. Robert Axelrod’s “shadow of the future”—the expected durability of rewarding interactions between parties—that, in turn, influences the willingness of parties to cooperate. For instance, the faster/deeper a movement towards a bilateral power imbalance and thus heightened insecurity for at least one party, the more the “shadow” may diminish—and, with it, prospects for cooperation.
System effects

The January diplomatic break also vividly illustrates that in a complex international system such as the Iran-Saudi relationship, outcomes do not always follow in a linear and anticipated way from intentions. This is due to what noted American political scientist Robert Jervis has called “system effects”— the influence on outcomes of interactions with affected parties (including third parties), interconnections among countries, institutions and issues, which can cause unintended side and “knock-on” (second/third order, etc.) effects, negative (dampening) or positive (reinforcing) feedback among the parties in ongoing interaction, and changes of the system’s environment (rules of the game, public expectations, etc.) (“Complexity and the Analysis of Political and Social Life”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 112, No. 4 (Winter, 1997-1998), pp. 569-593). Thus, Riyadh’s desire to achieve diplomatic benefits was undermined by Iran’s refusal to play along (interaction effect), the response of Arab Sunni allies (third-party effect), and the intensification of Shia sectarianism in Lebanon and Iraq, leading to negative “side effects” for Saudi interests. And by raising the salience of the conflict at a time when most countries were focused on improving ties with Iran, the Saudi’s produced the unintended (system environment) effect of bringing critical global media attention upon themselves, undermining their image and thus their “soft power” (as in these examples, systems effects are intimately linked to the balance of power calculus).

  • System effects are easy to spot in retrospect but much harder to foresee, as they can take many forms due to unique situational factors. Indeed, leadership and diplomatic adroitness, an element in the balance of power, often reflects an actor’s ability to correctly anticipate specific effects of interactions and interconnections. Our concept map, to which we shall add systems effects nodes at the bilateral, regional, and global levels, can at least help to direct attention to relationships that might be involved in producing unintended consequences.

The Oil Price Plummet

The implications of the 70 percent plunge in oil prices since mid-2014 came into sharper focus in early 2016, especially as the price fell briefly below $30 a barrel (the lowest level seen in over a decade) partly driven by an anticipated post-sanctions surge in Iranian oil production. Facing a dramatic decline of oil receipts that account for 90 percent of public revenue at a time of rising demands for expenditure — including for the war in Yemen — Riyadh has embarked upon an austerity program that includes cutbacks in capital expenditures, fuel and water subsidies, and the eventual introduction of a Value Added Tax. And while embarking on a major long-term program to diversify the economy, the Saudi’s are covering double-digit public deficits by tapping steadily into their foreign currency reserves, which, while valued at over $600 billion as of January 2016, are down by around a hefty 15 percent from their level at the start of the oil price plunge. (Simeon Kerr, “Saudis unveil radical austerity program,” CNBC, December 29, 2015)

Although much less dependent on oil revenues than Saudi Arabia, Iran too faces major challenges from the oil price collapse. Following the lifting of oil export sanctions, Tehran has worked to quickly ramp up production, with the objective of adding a million barrels per day (a rough 40 percent increase) to its output in coming months. But given the low price for what remains the country’s largest export earner, Iran’s stagnant economy is not expected to experience significant overall growth this year (Steven Mufson, “Oil glut dampens Iran’s hopes for big cash flows as sanctions lift,” Washington Post, January 16, 2016; Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “The Economic Backdrop to Iran’s Elections,” LobeLog, February 24, 2016).

Saudi Arabia’s refusal to play its customary “swing producer” role within OPEC—cutting back on production to counteract a supply glut—in the face of insufficient demand is generally seen as the main driver of the oil price slump. Most analysts attribute this policy to Riyadh’s strategy of sustaining high prices over the long run by undermining US shale oil producers; many also see a desire to weaken the economies of Iran and its non-OPEC ally Russia. Tehran has emphasized in its public rhetoric that Riyadh’s oil production policies reflect hostile intentions towards it—an accusation for which Riyadh’s aggressive oil price discounting in traditional Iranian export markets in Asia provides some support (JM Valantin, “Oil Flood (1) The Kingdom is Back“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 15 December 2014; Dalan McEndree “The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy,” OilPrice.Com, February 11, 2016; Jean-Michel Bezat, “Le Petrole, Autre Guerre Entre L’Iran et L’Arabie Saoudite,” Le Monde, January 16, 2016).

In February 2016, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and several other major oil producers agreed to freeze oil production at near-record high levels, contingent upon adherence by other leading producers. Iran initially insisted that it was going to continue to ramp up oil production, then endorsed the agreement only to subsequently refuse to commit to a freeze. Whatever this initiative’s ultimate fate, its launching suggests increased Saudi sensitivity to the potential damage caused by sustained low prices, possibly presaging future attempts by Riyadh to work with other large producers to restrain or reduce output. (Ian Black and Terry Macalister, “Plunging oil price brings Saudi Arabia and Iran together in alliance of enemies,” The Guardian, February 20, 2016;  Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Saudi Arabia dashes hopes of output cut as oil woes deepen,” Daily Telegraph, February 23, 2016)

Modelling Implications

We shall pay close attention to expectations about longer-term movements in oil prices, as these will influence Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s current behavior. For instance, both countries would be under much less pressure to reform their economies if the current widespread expectation that low to moderate prices are here to stay were to be replaced by one holding that—as some analysts argue—prices will rebound strongly in a few years as declining investment in oil infrastructure (driven by today’s low prices) leads to a supply crunch. (Ivana Kottasova, “Oil investment is weakest in 30 years,” CNN, February 22, 2016) And even within a more pessimistic scenario, whether expectations center on prices staying at or near very low recent levels for an extended period or rising to moderate levels ($50 to $70 a barrel) could have significant impacts for both countries’ economic and political choices.

  • For Riyadh, differences within this range would affect the speed at which it depletes its foreign reserves–about five years at the high-end according to the IMF, (International Monetary Fund, Saudi Arabia: Tackling Emerging Economic Issues To Sustain Growth, 2015) to as little as three at the lower end, according to a financial media projection (Nicholas Wells, “Saudi Arabia Struggles With Cheap Oil,” CNBC, February 23, 2016). The faster the rate of depletion, the greater the pressure on Riyadh to implement tough economic austerity and reform measures that could potentially have negative impacts on Saudi internal stability, aid to Sunni allies, and military capabilities.
  • For Tehran, sustained low prices would reduce the government’s ability to satisfy public expectations for rapid post-nuclear deal improvements in sagging living standards. This might affect the pace at which President Rouhani’s proceeds with plans to boost growth by opening the economy up to foreign competition and by reducing consumer subsidies (“The Economic Backdrop…,” LobeLog, op. cit.).

In light of the recent production freeze agreement, Saudi-Russian oil diplomacy bears watching as it demonstrates that the two largest oil-producing nations are open to collaborating despite sharp differences over the Syrian conflict (“Russia: Better Iran-Saudi Arabia ties would help oil prices” RIA, Business Insider, February 15, 2016). One analyst argues that the freeze agreement was primarily a joint Saudi-Russian effort to throttle back Iran’s planned oil production surge to their mutual economic benefit (Nafis Alam, “The Saudi-Russian oil gambit has little to do with prices,” The Conversation, February 23, 2016). Moscow’s receptivity to working with Riyadh could grow if oil prices remain very low for a long period because Russia also faces severe future economic challenges reflecting both diminishing oil receipts and Western economic sanctions related to Ukraine (Alexander J. Motyl, “Lights Out for the Putin Regime: The Coming Russian Collapse,” Foreign Affairs, January 27, 2016).

The Implementation of the Nuclear Deal

Iran has moved swiftly to take advantage of the lifting of most nuclear-related sanctions and the release of frozen assets. Beyond ramping up oil production, Tehran has already negotiated major capital purchase or joint venture deals worth over $55 billion with several European countries (“How Iran Rejoined the World’s Economy in Just 10 Days”, New York Times, January 26, 2016). In addition, it has signed a set of commercial agreements with China estimated to be worth $600 billion over the next decade, and formalized Iran’s participation in Beijing’s “One Road, One Belt” program” to build commercial routes across Eurasia. (JM Valantin, “Iran, China and the New Silk Road“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 4 January 2016; 4 January 2016;  Sara Hsu, “China’s Relations With Iran: A Threat to the West?” The Diplomat, January 26, 2016). Many in the global financial community now view Iran as among the most promising of the emerging markets given its diversified economy and educated labor force (Christian H. Cooper, “Iran is the ‘single greatest growth spot in the world’,” Business Insider, February 5, 2016). Meanwhile, in the security domain, Iran is seeking an agreement with Moscow for large-scale purchases (estimated at $8 billion) of advanced fighter aircraft, helicopters, and coastal defense missiles that, in conjunction with a previously signed agreement for sophisticated Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, would significantly improve its aging conventional forces (“Iran Vows to Continue Military High-Tech Cooperation With Russia,” Sputnik, February 16, 2016).

Modelling Implications

Despite Iran’s dramatic re-entry into the global economy, optimism about Iran’s post-sanctions prospects is not universally shared. Some economic analysts point out that, in addition to the drag imposed by sustained low oil prices, there are numerous structural impediments to rapid economic growth within Iran, including a culture of corruption and red tape, opposition to large-scale foreign participation in the economy, a banking system beset by sanction-era non-performing loans, and the dominance of heavily state-influenced and inefficient institutions in the economy. These impediments are directly tied into internal politics, with many powerful groupings in the “conservative” faction, including the clergy and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), wanting to preserve the closed, regime-dominated, “resistance economy,” from which they benefit financially (Cyrus Amir-Mokri and Hamid Biglari, “A Windfall for Iran?” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2015; Patrick Clawson, “Sanctions Relief Is Not the Key to Iran’s Economy”, Washington Institute, December 23, 2015).

  • We shall monitor factors affecting Iranian economic performance such as structural reform, direct foreign investment initiatives, etc., that may also have internal political and foreign policy implications by, for instance, affecting the country’s openness to the outside world. One early sign that significant change may not come soon is that the vast majority of the first phase post-sanctions relief commercial deals appear to have benefited state-influenced large institutions rather than the privately-owned small business sector (Thomas Erdbrink, “In Iran, State-Backed Companies Win From Lifted Sanctions,” New York Times, February 5, 2016).
  • In the wake of the recent elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts (formally charged with supervising and electing the Supreme Leader), we shall, of course, follow the pragmatist-conservative political balance given its significance for economic reform as well as for foreign and national security policy. President Rouhani’s pragmatic faction appears to have made gains in these elections, while some prominent conservatives have lost their seats. Nevertheless, there is considerable debate among analysts of Iranian politics (to be examined in a future post) about just how much the ideological distribution within the new Parliament has changed given that Rouhani’s alliance itself included many conservatives. Some analysts also question how much clout even a strengthened pragmatic faction could wield given that the conservatives continue to control other important levers of power, such as the IRGC and the judiciary. (Kathy Gilsinan, “Who Really Won Iran’s Elections?” The Atlantic, March 3, 2016; Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iranian election results: cynics’ and reformists’ views from Washington,” The Guardian, March 3, 2016;
    Saeed Ghasseminejad, “Iran’s False Choice: Rebranding Hard-Liners as ‘Moderates’”, The National Interest, March 4, 2016)
  • In the security domain we shall keep an eye on how relaxation of sanctions will  allow Tehran to expand and modernize its military capabilities, thus directly affecting the bilateral balance of power. A recent report indicating that Moscow is resisting Tehran’s demand to buy weapons on credit from Russia—as it has done in the past, may demonstrate the economic constraints imposed on both countries by current low oil prices (Pavel Felgenhauer, “Russia’s S-300 Shipment to Iran Appears Stalled Again,” Jamestown Foundation, February 18, 2016).
  • One additional factor to track is the role that China will play within the Iran-Saudi relationship. Iran would now appear to be on its way to becoming China’s most important Middle Eastern economic partner given the large-scale of the recently completed bilateral commercial deals, although Saudi Arabia remains a major partner as well as China’s second largest oil supplier. Iran’s inclusion in the “One Belt One Road” project may also create major collaborative opportunities for the Gulf states as  well as for neighboring Pakistan, also a partner in the project. This could potentially further complicate the balancing calculus for some of Riyadh’s closest allies (JM Valantin, “Iran, China and the New Silk Road“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 4 January 2016; “Iran, China Embark on “New Silk Road,” Financial Tribune, January 26, 2016; David Gardner, “Iran Poses an Economic Challenge to Saudi Arabia,” Financial Times, January 26, 2016; Sameer Lalwani, “Will Pakistan Draw Closer To Saudi Arabia To Balance Iran?” War on the Rocks, February 24, 2016)

Seeing the Big Picture

Looking simultaneously at these distinct but related developments should help remind us that historic change often takes place due to a coming together—or in social science parlance, a confluence—of trends, events, causal agents, etc., especially when brought to a head by a catalytic event. The American political scientist Richard Lebow has explored the confluence concept in connection with the origins of World War I, arguing that it was the coming together of several political/military factors (Germany’s concerns about Russia’s growing military strength, Austria’s worries about a rising Serbia’s threat to its internal stability, and Russia’s need to compensate for various military and diplomatic humiliations) that—catalyzed by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke—led to the chain of events in the summer of 1914 culminating in war. Lebow goes on to dispute historians’ conventional wisdom that events would have eventually unfolded in much the same way even without Sarajevo because of these “underlying causes.” He maintains that time is a crucial factor in that the 1914 confluence would have dissipated within a few years so that outcomes in a later analogous crisis would have been very different: i.e., the Russian military build-up would have reached a point at which Germany would have been much more leery of launching a two-front offensive war. (Richard Ned Lebow, “Contingency, Catalysts, and Nonlinear Change,” in Explaining War and Peace, Case Studies and Necessary Condition Counterfactuals, 2007)

The confluence of developments discussed in this article, including a “declared” cold war, lower actual and expected oil prices, and post-sanctions Iranian economic growth, could — if sustained — significantly affect the Saudi-Iran balance of power to Tehran’s likely advantage. Other readily identifiable current factors that could contribute to such a confluence include improving fortunes for the Iranian-backed regime in Syria, the increased regional influence of Iran’s ally Russia, and a shrinking footprint the Saudi’s traditional partner in the region, the United States (all to be discussed in later articles). Some analysts, including noted American Middle East specialist Aaron David Miller, argue that the balance of power has already swung significantly in Tehran’s direction. Whether in the short or in the longer timer, such a change could increase prospects for intensified bilateral conflict through “Thucydides Trap” preventive behavior by Riyadh, and/or as a result of a clash arising from a catalytic Sarajevo 1914-type event. (Aaron David Miller, “Hello to the Iranian Spring,” CNN, January 18, 2016; and “America’s awkward Iran dance,” CNN, February 2, 2016).

But even if a power shift has arrived or is underway, there are many uncertainties in the factors we have discussed (e.g., oil price trends, the internal Iranian political balance and its impact on economic reform, potential Russian-Saudi collaboration) as well as in those we do not have yet examined (e.g., a possibly more interventionist US stance in the Middle East under the next Administration) that could dilute or reverse such a trend down the road and/or close the window for assertive action (e.g. if Iran were actually to attain a position of clear military superiority over Saudi Arabia and its allies). As we proceed in this project, we shall incorporate periodic “big picture” observations of how influencing factors may move in combination and in a temporal context to try to sense when, where, and how they might lead to confluences affecting Iran-Saudi interaction.

Featured image: Still from VOA video “Tensions in Middle East Heat Up as Saudi Arabia, Iran Cut Diplomatic Ties”, 4 January 2016. Public Domain.

About the authorDr Warren H. Fishbein is a Washington, D.C.-based independent consultant focused on foresight and warning for global security issues. He retired at senior level after a career in government. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tempobs – Iran, Saudi Arabia and the “Shadow of the Future”

As the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia has recently risen to new heights (e.g. Paul Iddon, “Was Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr calculated or reckless?“, Rudaw, 8 Jan 2016; Jon Schwarz, “One Map That Explains the Dangerous Saudi-Iranian Conflict“, The Intercept, 6 Jan 2016), and has regional if not global repercussions, the focus question of our project, i.e. “Within which timeframe could we see full cooperation or, on the contrary, war occur between Saudi Arabia and Iran?” is even more relevant.

Warren, with the previous article, started addressing the “stances” of Iran and Saudi Arabia towards each other. Here we shall continue mapping out the two possible future outcomes and the two countries’ relations, i.e. war at one end of the spectrum and cooperation at the other end. We focused previously on war and now need to follow on with cooperation.

After a brief reminder/user manual on how to use the corresponding interactive graph and its development, we shall first review Axelrod’s seminal work on cooperation to identify how it can help us understanding and mapping cooperation. Second, we shall notably emphasise his findings regarding the “shadow of the future”, which not only allow us to move forward to understand choices of cooperation or war and give us first findings in terms of anticipating onset of events but also emphasise the importance of time and time perception in triggering cooperation or war, which makes our project twice important. Finally, we shall use the new current developments between Iran and Saudi Arabia to test the validity of the way we handle war and cooperation in the model being developed. We shall revise our interactive graph accordingly.

 User manual – Interactive graph

The detailed, step by step explanation regarding the use of graphs, their advantage, how we build the interactive graph and how to use it can be found here, inMapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations“. Each article of the Tempobs project then build upon the initial graph, step by step, to develop a better, more accurate model, until we shall reach the stage of obtaining a “good enough model”, to use Helen Fein’s (1994: 32) apt criteria, for strategic foresight and warning or risk management. With this article, as the graph grows, we shall first use labels as reduced as possible, the full name being displayed in the information panel. Then, we shall introduce a novelty, to ease understanding for readers, and adaptation to a new way to handle analysis: we shall keep as reference the graph we have used so far and that may be seen as the cluster-graph or “category” graph, while also developing a detailed graph, where each cluster node of the cluster-graph is detailed through corresponding sub-graphs, the main sub-graph created with this article being also displayed as an interactive graph. Click on each image below to access corresponding graph.

Axelrod and Cooperation

Axelrod, in his seminal international relations work on cooperation, The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), sets to identify conditions under which cooperation rather than competition may thrive in the situation of anarchy that characterises the international system. He notably wonders about overcoming the security dilemma: “nations often seek their own security through means which challenge the security of others” (p.2). He stresses how this problem often occurs in situation of escalations. This is definitely the case for Iran and Saudi Arabia, and thus Axelrod’s work appears to be suited for our purpose. Note that, for Axelrod, the opposite of cooperation is not directly war but “a pattern of mutual hostility”, which involves “counter-retaliation”, very much what we have seen happening lately, war being the acme of this escalating process. As a reminder, using Clausewitz, we expressed war as two mirror nodes, two (mirror) nodes: “SA starts forcefully to try compelling Iran to fulfil its will” and “Iran starts forcefully to try compelling SA to fulfil its will

Axelrod finds out, first, that “the potential for cooperation arises when each player can help the other”, with a need for a small cluster of individuals interacting, and whose strategies include to be the first to cooperate, and to discriminate against defectors. Then, the choice of “mutually rewarding strategies” between two actors is sensitive not so much to trust between actors but to reciprocity and to the expected durability of the relationship, i.e. when actors expect “mutually rewarding transactions in the future” (Ibid: 191, 174, 182). Thus, he deduces that, assuming first the strategies of the actors include the possibility for cooperation, if cooperation implies reciprocity and if we enlarge “the shadow of the future” between actors, making not only interactions but also expectations of relations more frequent and durable, then major conditions to see cooperation actually happen, become stable and even strengthen over time, are met (Ibid: 12-15, 173-175, 181-182, 191).

At this stage, we may wonder, in which way this may apply to Iran and Saudi Arabia, or to most actors on the world stage that are already in tense relationships. This is all the more so that we may tend to believe that interactions on the world stage are such that all actors always have expectations of future relations with other actors. Axelrod’s theory may sound very good to justify a continuous cooperation, but, if hatred and distrust have settled in, if we are at a high level of tension, can Axelrod’s theory be truly applicable, beyond the hope given by the existence of a small cluster of cooperating individuals, which, by the way, needs to be monitored? In other words, for our purpose, should we use Axelrod’s theory or discard it?

The “shadow of the future” is key

The key to Axelrod’s theory is his understanding of the meaning of what he calls “the shadow of the future”. Using the example of the United States’ economic sanctions against Japan prior to World War II, he underlines that, when a country feels aggressed to the utmost by deeds – policies – as well as by “conditions”, to such a point that it could go bankrupt, then the time perception changes, as for the threatened actor the future of the interactions are “very much in doubt” (Ibid: 181-182). As a result, without any “shadow of the future” left, the odds to see Japan attacking the U.S., and thus war starting, were extremely high. Other instances of such dynamics at work come to mind. For example, we may see a similar phenomenon at work after World War I with the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany, although the complexity of the interwar period should not be oversimplified (e.g., among others, Nye, 1993: 77-83).

Closer to us, if we take the Greek case in the latest round of harsh negotiations against the European Union (e.g. The Guardian, Eurozone Crisis Live among a flurry of articles, notes, studies and reports), do we see similar dynamics taking place? Greece is promised doom by some economists if ever it gets out of the Eurozone and defaults. On the contrary, if it cooperates, the shadow of its future is said to be enlarged. Note that here, interestingly, the very idea of “cooperation” has become a stake. Meanwhile, there is also a reciprocal threat going on: the neo-liberal Eurozone and more particularly the German model (e.g. Brigitte Unger, ed. The German Model seen by its neighbours, Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), 2015) are threatened if Greece defaults and has its way. Despite rhetoric, we are not at all under cooperative interactions anymore, but in a risky war where the two sides attack, the loser finally being Greece. Thus, Axelrod’s theory also apply to the Greek case.

With this understanding of “the shadow of the future”, Axelrod’s theory becomes fully relevant for our purpose. The examples above also underline that perceptions are crucial if we want to be able to use Axelrod’s work.

Interestingly, considering the importance of the “shadow of the future” as identified by Axelrod, time, and its perception by actors, is now not only an element of strategic foresight and warning we are trying to handle better, but also part and parcel of what influences cooperation or war. A first finding regarding time emerges here: the shorter the shadow of the future, which means a shrank perception of time – or everything being perceived as happening at very close range on a very short timescale – the closer we are, time-wise, to an uncooperative behaviour and to war. If we single out causes for a shrank perception of time, this translate, for instance, as: the higher the perception of threat to survival for an actor, the smaller the shadow of the future for this actor, thus the closer we are, time-wise, to war and the further away from cooperation.

On the contrary, the longer the shadow of the future, the further away we are from war and the closer to cooperation, while the likelihood to see cooperation happening is also enhanced.

As a result, understanding and handling time is twice important, because it will allow for better strategic foresight and warning – our initial aim – but also because acting on it or on the perception actors may have of it may become part and parcel of strategy.

Saudi’s perception of a shrinking shadow of the future

Let us see if Axelrod’s theory applies to the recent heightening of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

If we look briefly at the Saudi situation, we see that the very low prices of oil, even if decided upon by Saudi Arabia, most probably in the context of its competition with other oil suppliers, the U.S. fracking industry chief among them (JM Valantin, “Oil Flood (1): The Kingdom is Back“, RTAS, 15 Dec 2014), leads to public budget deficit and thus questions the ability of Saudi Arabia to sustain its model of development and the way it buys social peace (e.g. JM Valantin, “Oil Flood (2): Oil and Politics in a (real) multipolar world“, RTAS, 12 Jan 2015; Luay Al-Khatteeb, “Saudi Arabia’s economic time bomb“, Brookings, 30 Dec 2015; Julia Glum, Saudi Arabia’s 2016 Budget Creates ‘New Normal,’ But Is Only Part Of Solution To Economic Crisis: Experts“, IBTimes, 1 Jan 2016).

The re-entrance of Iran on the oil market, with the end of the sanctions, only heightens the current trend, while increasing competition (Al-Khatteeb, ibid.). One may argue that Saudi Arabia knew all along that Iran would come back on the oil market, one day or another. Indeed, but we may hypothesise that we are here facing a problem of timing: Saudi Arabia may have hoped to see its strategy of low oil prices succeed before the arrival of Iranian oil. In that case, part of the competition would have been destroyed before Iranian oil would have arrived fully on the market, thus avoiding an oil glut. Prices might have been lowered by Iranian oil, but as they would have increased before thanks to the destruction of other competitors, the new price would have been sustainable. The resilience of the U.S. fracking industry derailed these plans, and Saudi Arabia – and other oil producers – may be facing the very situation it sought to avoid, with severe impact on the legitimacy of the ruling family and worse on the efficiency of the whole system.

Note that if our timing hypothesis is right, then again, the time component we are exploring through this project is highlighted as crucial. It would be here a failure to properly anticipate time, in its duration aspect that would lead to the woes of Saudi Arabia. Once more this pleads for a better handling of time in strategic anticipation in general.

The global economic uncertainty – including regarding China – only intensifies the overall situation (e.g. Chris Giles, “IMF warns on worst global growth since financial crisis“, Financial Times, 6 Oct 2015).

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia must also face the challenge related to the creation and continuing existence of the Islamic State and its Khilafah, notably considering the latter’s rhetoric against Shi’a Islam and related declarations of apostasy (e.g. H Lavoix, “At War against a Global Islamic State – from the Philippines to Bangladesh“, RTAS, 11 Jan 2016). Again, it is the very legitimacy of the Saudi system, this time in its belief-based component, that is threatened. Competition for regional influence, in a context where the U.S. is perceived as weakening and thus leaves a power vacuum heightens tensions, intensifies the other dynamics, and increases uncertainty.

As a result, both for Saudi Arabia and its rulers, the “shadow of the future” may be perceived as being very short and disappearing indeed. The result is aggressiveness and attacks.

The convergence of the various factors leading to the perception that survival is threatened, as it is actually what we are talking about, determine who is the subject of the attack or aggressiveness, in our case Iran.

Then, escalation in “a pattern of mutual hostility” takes place, as Iran is also subjected to a shortened shadow of the future, even though it tries to lengthen it, stemming from uncertainty, regional heightening tensions, and other challenges, we shall further detail with forthcoming posts.

This brief summary is enough for our current purpose, a first test of Axelrod’s theory, which now appears as applicable to our focus question.

We can thus add the nodes or variables stemming from Axelrod’s understanding to our overall model, replacing meanwhile related cluster nodes by the corresponding sub-graph. The new detailed graph will give us the frame for the interactions between the two countries – indeed between two countries in general, as shown on the graph below.

subgraph coop war
Click to access interactive subgraph

What we mainly replaced were the node “SA stance vs Iran” with the sub-graph containing the nodes “SA’s perception of the shadow of the future”,”Conditions influencing SA’s perceptions of threat to survival”, “Deeds influencing SA’s perceptions of threat to survival”, “SA moves towards cooperative behaviour”, “SA takes aggressive action vs Iran”, “SA moves towards cooperative behaviour vs Iran”, “SA takes aggressive action”, and “SA & Iran increasingly interact within a pattern of mutual hostility”. Note that cooperation and aggression have become here a general behaviour for an actor, that may then be declined against various targets (if we were dealing with North Korea, for example, this would be particularly obvious).

These changes were mirrored to consider the Iranian side and replaced the node “Iran stance vs SA“.

Before to be ready to detail further the two sides, i.e. notably the nodes “Conditions influencing SA’s perceptions of threat to survival“, “Deeds influencing SA’s perceptions of threat to survival” and the mirror nodes for Iran (“Conditions” and “Deeds“), we have one more general task to carry out, which must always be done each time a sub-graph is added: we must check if some nodes or variables are redundant, and add edges between the previously identified variables and the new ones, if need be. For example, obviously, we shall remove the node “Iran and SA start working towards the same end” we had added as a reminder to work on cooperation; we shall add an edge from “SA’s perception of the shadow of the future” to “SA intentions“. Then, “intention” will influence which actor is the object of the aggressive or cooperative behaviour. “Ethno-sectarian tensions“, as “systemic level changes“, will now inform the “conditions influencing perceptions of threats”, while “bilateral dynamics“, as they are the very dynamics described by the new sub-graph, disappears. “Ethno-sectarian tensions” will be influenced by the general cooperative or aggressive behaviour of each country (links are for the sake of example to Saudi Arabia), as well as by “pattern of mutual hostility” between the two countries.

For now, and waiting to develop further the corresponding cluster nodes, the “strategy/diplomacy” nodes will influence the specific aggressive or cooperative behaviour; “Iran economics” and “Iran security” will impact the “conditions influencing Iran’s perception of threat to survival” .

The way to include the “detente probes” identified previously (mauve nodes on the bottom right hand side) will need to be reevaluated according to the new dynamics exemplified by the sub-graphs.

This work done, we must complete the integration of Axelrod’s findings. In the case cooperation has taken place, which could happen in the future, Axelrod identifies that answers to attempt to behave uncooperatively should be detected very quickly and challenged, to show that defection is not an option – so as to enhance the shadow of the future – while the answer must be limited, so as not to fall back into an escalating pattern – which implicitly shortens the shadow of the future. We shall add the corresponding nodes for each side, which gives the following subgraph (click to access overall subgraph):


Finally, we shall not forget one initial point made by Axelrod related to the presence of a small cluster of individuals to promote cooperation in the first place, and add the corresponding node “Cluster of pro coop individuals in Iran and SA“:

pro coop indiv

We are here, however, left with unanswered questions: by which process could these individuals achieve cooperation and how long would it take them to push two countries towards cooperation? Could this happen only after war or before war take place? If we want to have a fully complete model, we shall have here to supplement Axelrod’s findings about cooperation with other theories, and until then, know humbly that a measure of uncertainty, as always, remain.

Now, with the forthcoming articles, we shall easily be able to develop further in detail the model for Iran and for Saudi Arabia as we have a general framework for interactions, with outcome ranging from cooperation to war.


Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Helen Fein, “Tools and Alarms: Uses of Models for Explanation and Anticipation,” Journal of Ethno-Development (July 1994); 31-35

Joseph Nye, Understanding International Conflicts. New York: HaperCollins, 1993.

Featured image: Sundial of Salvatore Franco by Archeo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

About the author: 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.

Tempobs – State(s) of Mutual Hostility: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Let’s get started on mapping the Iran-Saudi relationship. To recapitulate our method, we shall build upon the intuitive model introduced in the previous two posts (“Mindfully Mapping a Middle Eastern Morass – Saudi Arabia and Iran” & “Mapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations“) that conceptualizes the two countries’ behaviors as outcomes of the interplay of various influencing forces (e.g. political, economic, security-focused) at the domestic, bilateral, regional, and international levels. Drawing upon analytic commentary and event reporting in the news and academic media, we will identify the most significant forces relevant to our focal question—movement toward war or cooperation—and the direction in which these forces are driving behavior. The map will serve as a framework for continued media scanning that will support periodic updating of assessments on the likely nature and (down the road in this effort) timing of events within the Iran-Saudi relationship.

The mapping process will unfold in stages so that we can address topics in at least modest detail. This initial effort will focus on the broadest measure of the current relationship–the “stances” of the two protagonists towards each other, which is a summary of their mutual attitudes, policies, and intentions. We will then look at the various influencing factors starting with Iranian national security and diplomatic strategies at both the regional and global levels. This is truly a first pass at boiling down what are enormously complicated issues into a set of graphically-represented variables. And so the baseline judgments offered here (and in future postings) should be considered provisional and very much open to discussion.

full graph, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iran Saudi Arabia tensions
The updated graph (16 December 2015) including new nodes as explained in this article. Click to access interactive graph.

Continue reading Tempobs – State(s) of Mutual Hostility: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Tempobs – Mapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations

This post is the fourth of our temporal observatory project (Tempobs) and related series focused on the future of the relationships between Saudi Arabia and Iran and aiming at improving the handling of time-related issues in strategic foresight and warning, risk, or more broadly anticipatory analysis. It answers and builds upon Dr Warren Fishbein’s (hereinafter Warren) previous article (Mindfully Mapping a Middle Eastern Morass – Saudi Arabia and Iran), as we designed the series as a dialogue where we progressively build the understanding related to the foresight issue by mapping the corresponding conceptual network, continuously scan the relevant literature and news, which will allow us, finally, to assess the future, to use Warren’s apt presentation of the work involved.

Here we shall present the new tool (best on desktops and tablets, but not on cell phones*) we are developing and using, which will provide readers, analysts and decision-makers with an interactive experience of the model or conceptual map for our question: “Within which timeframe could we see full cooperation or, on the contrary, war occur between Saudi Arabia and Iran?”, as shown in the screenshot below, on which you can click to access the full-page interactive network. We shall progressively explain the features of the interactive network and how to use them, while continuing building upon the initial map Warren started previously. We shall notably add three new cluster nodes for “categories” that were not yet considered, and then further develop the nodes (representing the factors) related to the central question to make sure dynamics and underlying processes can fully be considered.

screenshot graph whole 13 11 15 2
Click on image to access the interactive graph. Warning – it is difficult to use the graph on cell phones as the screen is too small.

Continue reading Tempobs – Mapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations

Tempobs – Mindfully Mapping a Middle Eastern Morass – Saudi Arabia and Iran

To summarize Helene’s introductory post, this project aims to develop a time-sensitive approach to strategic anticipation and warning, using the evolving relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia as its substantive framework. But how does one undertake strategic anticipation within the context of the complex, chaotic, fast changing politics of the contemporary Middle East? Just over the past few months, we have witnessed an extraordinary series of surprises in or strongly affecting the region, such as the plummeting price of oil, the Saudi intervention in Yemen, the deployment of Russian forces in Syria, and, most recently, the emergence of fears of widespread sectarian warfare. Referring to the last development, but offering a judgment of more general applicability, the Middle East politics analyst Rami Khouri has said that “this is unprecedented, and we don’t have a road map.” (“As Conflicts Flare Up, Leaders Fan Sectarian Flames in Middle East,” New York Times, October 17, 2015).

The proposal here is, in fact, to build a map—a conceptual rather than a cartographic one—of political/security dynamics of the Middle East with a focus on the Iran-Saudi relationship. The aim will be to highlight and to make sense of the key influencing variables and their inter-relationships, and then to flag changes in these factors through continued horizon scanning and evaluative reassessment. The evolving map should be useful even in the near term by promoting analytic “mindfulness”—continuing focus on the broad range of driving forces and possible outcomes—that can help to avert analytic misjudgments resulting from inattention and rigid mindsets. (W. Fishbein and G. Treverton, “Making Sense of Transnational Threats“, Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, 2004). But this effort can also lay a firmer foundation for strategic anticipation by progressively building understanding of both the influencing relationships and the observed trends that will shape future developments and their timing.

The map will, in effect, be a model of the Iran-Saudi relationship, but one intended to promote reflection and discussion rather than to calculate firm judgments based on hard data. To reiterate Helene’s comments, our goal is to produce broad foresight on plausible directions and outcomes rather than to engage in prediction. To this end, we will keep the end-state variables fairly general and wide-ranging—Iran-Saudi conflict or cooperation—leaving room for refining them and for considering intermediate or alternative states as we proceed. In a situation as fluid as the one we are addressing, it is better, as Keynes is said to have remarked, to aim to be “roughly right than precisely wrong” (see footnote * below for the proper attribution).

Let me briefly describe three major of components of the project: the map itself, follow-on scanning, and a “Bayesian-influenced” (to be explained below) rolling assessment of implications for foresight. As this is a very much a work-in-progress for a rapidly evolving situation, modifications of “the plan,” such as it is, are likely. We welcome reader comments and suggestions on any aspect of the project.

The Map

The map will be constructed in stages building upon the skeletal framework shown below. At its center will be a node containing the project’s focal question(s): Is the Iran-Saudi relationship heading for conflict or cooperation? (and, sooner or later, adding the temporal dimension: “within what time frame”?). The other nodes depicted here broadly capture the key political, economic, and security-related variables in several domains—domestic, regional, and global—that will influence Iranian and Saudi government decisions. These nodes will be progressively converted into clusters that will more finely capture the key actors, driving forces, and constraints in each of these domains. The nodes will be connected by arcs (included here only for basic Iran and Saudi influencing factors) indicating direction of influence and, where the evidence warrants, assessed strength. In the increasingly interconnected global security environment, many arcs will depict boundary-crossing linkages that often carry great potential for generating surprise.

WF post 1 image 1 2

As an illustration of how the map will develop, I have provisionally added several nodes based on thoughtful observations offered by a RTAS reader in response to Helene’s initial post. For instance, this reader notes that falling oil prices are depleting Saudi Arabia’s foreign reserves, probably forcing Riyadh to borrow from international bodies within five year’s time. And he also notes that the difficult and costly intervention in Yemen will increase the strain on Riyadh’s resources. And so we need to include variables for Saudi foreign reserves, Yemen war costs, and, following on logically, Saudi public spending. The connections among these nodes give rise to obvious questions to be addressed in the commentary to accompany the map: Could these combined financial pressures lead to an even earlier financial crisis for Saudi Arabia? Or will they prompt changes in the very Saudi oil production policies that are contributing to low oil prices or, perhaps cutbacks in Saudi internal or external largesse? (And what are the potential knock-on effects for Iran’s economy and regional strategies)?

WF post 1 image 2 2

In building the map, it will be important to seek a balance between two somewhat contradictory requirements for usefulness. One is that the map be robust enough to encompass the range of influencing factors so as not to miss less prominent ones from which surprise might emanate. The other is not to clutter it with so many nodes and arcs that it becomes difficult for even the informed observer to grasp and understand it. We shall experiment with different ways of presenting the map so as to allow us to see both the big picture and fine-grained detail.


The map will guide a continuing scan of press, academic, and think-tank publications searching for signals of potential change. This will include both reporting on events and broader analyses of trends and influencing factors. Selected results of the scan will be used to support updating of assessments of emerging and potential outcomes as well as refining the map itself. RTAS scans will be central to this effort but many other sources will also be consulted. Links to the information collected will be archived on this site in connection with the relevant nodes—searchable by clicking on them—so that a trail of facts and analysis can be easily summoned up by those seeking to dig deeper into particular issues.

As an illustration of how this process will work, let us return to the case of Saudi financial pressures. Our scan would undoubtedly highlight a recent article that, while not rejecting the possibility that Saudi foreign reserves may be stretched in a few years, points to the country’s under-appreciated economic strengths, including a solid banking system, progress on industrial diversification, and the recent introduction of a streamlined economic decision making system. (“The Reports of Saudi Arabia’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” Foreign Policy, October 20, 2015). This analysis might affect judgments on the near term effects of lower oil prices and Yemen, and prompt an increased focus on the potential longer term effects of diversification.


As foresight is the project’s objective, our assessments based on the map and the scans will be largely qualitative in nature: often just raising questions about possible implications or offering rough judgments about the plausibility or likelihood of possible outcomes. Nevertheless, in keeping with our ultimate aim of including the temporal dimension—which will involve increased specificity as we address onset, sequence and duration—and to reduce the risk of well known cognitive errors associated with a purely intuitive approach to judgment (e.g., confirmation bias—looking for what we expect to see), it would be helpful to add some form of structured analytic thinking to the assessment process. In this connection, we should consider employing elements of Bayesian inference, whose value has been recently highlighted by noted specialists on the art and science of prediction, such as Nate Silver (The Signal and the Noise, 2012) and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner (Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, 2015).

Tetlock and Gardner describe Bayesian inference as a process of “gradually getting closer to the truth by constantly updating [probability judgments] in proportion to the weight of the evidence.” I will spare you a feeble attempt on my part to go beyond this description (but am linking here to a relatively straightforward explanation of the Bayesian idea by George Dvorsky, “How Bayes’ Rule Can Make You A Better Thinker”, IO9, April 2013), and will instead provide the type of example that helps me to grasp (I think) the underlying concepts. Taking our Saudi financial pressures case, let’s say that we are pretty confident at the outset that, due to falling oil prices and the costs of the Yemen war, Riyadh will face a foreign reserves crisis within five years. But we then learn that the Saudi government has embarked on a program of economic diversification that aims to strengthen its financial position. The Bayesian approach would direct us to think about how likely it is that such evidence would exist in a scenario in which there is a foreign reserves crisis as opposed to one in which no such crisis takes place. If our estimate of likelihood were significantly lower for the former, then there would be reason to change one’s judgment—although based on this one piece of evidence, we would probably remain fairly confident given our initial positive estimate (reflecting a variety of evidence). If we judged the difference in likelihood between the scenarios to be small (e.g., we believe that the diversification program would face serious obstacles in a traditional society) then we would only change our view modestly at most. However, if there were a stream of reports about the diversification program having a growing impact over time, we would progressively back away from our starting hypothesis.

The Bayesian approach would appear to be an ideal fit with a methodology that combines development of an initial set of stated or implied hypotheses through the mapping process along with regular updating based on new information. I would not advocate using formal Bayesian calculations as this would require developing numerical probabilities for hypotheses and evidence: a complicated task for a large map/model and leading us in the direction of prediction rather than foresight. But it would be quite doable to add a dash of Bayesian thinking to our scanning and assessment process by paying attention, as appropriate, to the “diagnosticity” of new evidence and adjusting rough probability estimates accordingly. Tetlock and Gardner (Ibid.) indeed emphasize that their “superforecasters”—individuals with proven records of short term predictive accuracy—use Bayesian thinking informally rather than crunch numbers to strengthen their prognostic efforts. By proceeding in this way we might be able to reduce errors in assessment, such as those associated with overvaluing vivid developments or undervaluing the impact of the steady accretion of modest changes.

Next Steps

In future postings we will progressively build out the various groupings of variables and connect more of the nodes. Once again, we look forward to you comments and contributions.


*The original quote comes from Carveth Read: “It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.” Carveth Read, Logic, deductive and inductive (1898), p. 351 (ebook).

Dr Warren H. Fishbein is a Washington, D.C.-based independent consultant focused on foresight and warning for global security issues (see bio). He is part of the team developing the RTAS Temporal Observatory project.

Featured image: Middle East in 2002 by National Geophysical Data Center – NOAA.

Tempobs – Saudi Arabia and Iran, towards War or Cooperation?

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 ofpres project Iran saudi0001 sc widget 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.

Enhancing Foresight with the Temporal Dimension

Find out the latest articles of the ongoing series here.

Below is a general explanation of the project itself.

How can we protect ourselves from risks is one of the key questions that so many actors, from citizens and the corporate world to governments are asking themselves and trying to answer. It is the main question with which the latest World Economic Forum (Davos) opens its video launching the 2015 Global Risk Report.

As a whole and generally, our abilities – if not willingness – to identify threats, and the assessment of their likelihood and impact improve. Nonetheless, one component of threat and risk assessment remains unconsidered, unnoticed, and neglected: time.

Time, the crucial orphan dimension

In the collective imaginary, space – as well as the search for specific individuals – attracts much more attention than time. How many films, of anticipation or not, depict war and crises rooms, or situation Continue reading Enhancing Foresight with the Temporal Dimension