The psychological assessment of political leaders
The psychological assessment of political leaders
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Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict Pathways toward terrorism and genocide
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Threats won’t work
Hayden J. Smith
To cite this article: Hayden J. Smith (2018) Threats won’t work, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 11:3, 149-159, DOI: 10.1080/17467586.2018.1432868
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17467586.2018.1432868
Published online: 07 Feb 2018.
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Threats won’t work
Hayden J. Smith
school of Politics, Philosophy, and Public affairs, Washington state University, Pullman, Wa, Usa
ABSTRACT There is significant debate over Iran’s nuclear program and their potential for weaponization. One camp of scholars and policy makers argue that a nuclear Iran would bring stability to the region while others argue that the regime will become a more aggressive threat. To better analyze the situation we must understand Iran’s intentions. To investigate Iran’s intentions I use a multimethod approach, employing operational code and image theory, to examine the worldview of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, in regards to how he perceives the international system broadly, and the United States specifically. Understanding Khamenei’s perceptions and motivations provides a foundation on which to analyze the issue of a nuclear Iran. The results suggest that Khamenei is moderate and seeks to compromise and work with other actors, provided the other actors negotiate without making threats, consistent with prior research positing that nuclear weapons are sought to increase influence on the world stage.
There has been disagreement on the effect and purpose of nuclear weapons since their creation and the debate between nuclear optimists (Gavin, 2010; Waltz, 1982) and nuclear pessimists (Feaver, 1997; Sagan, 1994) has been extended to Iran (Waltz, 2012; Kroenig, 2012; Sagan, Waltz, & Betts, 2007). Kenneth Waltz (2012) posited that a nuclear Iran would bring stability to the region, and others maintain that a nuclear Iran will be a manageable threat (Lindsay & Takeyh, 2010; Posen, 2006). The pessimists, such as Matthew Kroenig (2012, 2014) and Efraim Inbar (2006), are less hopeful, positing that a nuclear Iran will be a dangerous player in the international system and advocate using military force to stop or slow their nuclear program. The United States’ nuclear arsenal creates an asymmetric power dynamic in interactions with Iran, thus Iran’s feeling of vulnerability. Although nuclear weapons may not alter the likelihood of engagement in conflict, the enhanced capabilities, held only by a select few states, bolster the ability to negotiate and exert influence (Jo & Gartzke, 2007; Asal & Beardsley, 2007). For the case of Iran, the key question, is what is the state’s motivations and goals for potentially acquiring nuclear weapons?
The Obama administration successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the “Iran Deal,” in 2015. Donald Trump, as a candidate and now President, has stated
© 2018 informa UK limited, trading as taylor & francis Group
KEYWORDS Belief system; nuclear; iran
ARTICLE HISTORY received 8 august 2017 accepted 22 January 2018
CONTACT Hayden J. smith email@example.com
Dynamics of asymmetric conflict 2018, Vol. 11, No. 3, 149–159
150 H. J. SMITH
his desire to unilaterally leave the agreement. Harrison (2017) argues that such action would be provocative and a signal to Tehran that the United States is preparing for military action. The purpose of this article is to shed light on Iran’s possible motivations and intentions for acquiring nuclear weapons, as well as best strategies for successful negotiation. This task is accomplished by analyzing the regime’s key decision-maker, Ali Khamenei. Policy-making is always a group process and there are many political dynamics that have influence within Iran, but Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, has veto power over all policy and legislation and wields a particularly heavy hand in the area of foreign policy (Buchta, 2000).
Proceeding in three sections, first, I discuss why understanding Khamenei is key to under- standing the motives of Iran. Next, I discuss the utility of operational code and image theory for political forecasting. The final section provides the analysis and a discussion of the impli- cations of the findings for both policy makers and scholars.
Why study Khamenei?
Iranian politics is a complex system of religious leaders and democratically elected officials. The Supreme Leader is a position appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts, a group of elected religious leaders, and comes with great authority (Crane, Lal, & Martini, 2008). The Supreme Leader has influence in nearly all areas of Iranian politics, but has particularly strong influence in issues of security. In specific,
Article 110 of the 1979 constitution firmly establishes the authority and rights of the supreme jurisprudent, giving him responsibility to act as commander in chief of all armed forces, declare war or peace and mobilize the armed forces…. (Buchta, 2000, p. 46).
Demonstrative of his unilateral power, in 2013 Khamenei halted President Ahmadinejad’s attempt to begin talks with the USA (Karimi and Murphy, 2013). This suggests that the regime’s acceptance of and compliance with the nuclear deal is dependent upon Khamenei. Thus, it is crucial to understand his motivations for going nuclear and his preferred methods of conflict resolution.
As is the case with the study of nearly all political leaders, researchers have little direct access to Khamenei. Overcoming this barrier to the study of leaders, political psychologists have developed at-a-distance methodologies, which “allows us to infer psychological character- istics based upon the subject’s verbal behavior: what an individual says and how he or she says it can tell us important things about his or her ‘state of mind’” (Schafer & Walker, 2006, p. 26). A collective of 27 speeches and long excerpts from 2005 to 2008, located on the Office of the Supreme Leader’s website (Office of the Supreme Leader, n.d.), were coded for this analysis, exceeding the minimum recommendation of ten by Schafer and Walker (2006, p. 44). A comprehensive list of statements is not necessary because an individual’s broad worldview is stable (Walker, 1990; Renshon, 2008, 2009). This timeframe is useful, because using data prior to the nuclear deal prevents tautological analysis (Cottam, 1994). Although not a random sample, the amount of material coded will normalize any intentional messag- ing from Khamenei. As stated by Walker and Schafer (2006):
Intentional deception or impression management may affect a very small number of verbs, but the large number of utterances we code per subject generally swamp these few intentional
deceptions. It may be possible to deceive the public or other actors in intentional politics with a few brief phrases, but it is an entirely different matter to deceive VICS indices calculated from whole speech acts that include large numbers of utterances (47).
Concerns regarding the use of prepared remarks and possible use of speech writers are alleviated for two reasons, one pragmatic and one methodological. Pragmatically, speech writers are unlikely to write something that is contrary to the leaders own policy position on an issue and the content is entirely transparent (Schafer and Walker, 2006, pp. 46–47) and “speech writers…know how to craft words, phrases, and images to fit the style and person- alities of their clients” (Winter, 2005, p. 174). Methodologically, speeches are unproblematic because operational code analyzes elements from transparent cognitive processes, which differs from other profiling techniques that analyze more unconscious personality charac- teristics, such as an individual’s need for power (Schafer & Walker, 2006, p. 47).
OpCode has been used extensively to understand political leaders’ belief system or worldview (see Leites, 1951; O. Holsti, 1970; O. Holsti, 1977; Walker, Schafer, & Young, 1998; Marfleet, 2000; Schafer & Walker, 2006; Walker & Schafer, 2007; Renshon, 2009; O’Reilly, 2015) and was used specifically by O’Reilly (2015) and Hymans (2006) to understand nuclear proliferation. OpCode was created to understand how worldviews influences the decisions of policy elites (Leites, 1951; O. Holsti, 1977).
The study of political leaders has significantly enhanced our knowledge of foreign policy behavior (Preston, 2011; O’Reilly, 2015). Understanding actors’ motivations and intentions leads to better planning and more optimal outcomes, by avoiding misperceptions that lead to failed policy (Carr, 1994). Specific to nuclear policy, O’Reilly (2015, p. 2) states, “…knowledge of a leader’s worldview is crucial for understanding why states do or do not develop nuclear weapons.” Operational code is well suited for this, as it is used in political forecasting. As Stated by Walker and Murphy (1981),
…a concern with forecasting is particularly appropriate for operational code scholars, because operational code analysis includes the premise that decision makers use beliefs about their political universe to appraise the effectiveness of various political actions. These diagnoses, in turn, influence the selection of the individual’s political actions. Consequently, it would appear that a knowledge of the individual’s operational code enhances the analyst’s ability to anticipate the individual’s diagnosis of the situation and the decision to act one way rather than another (pp. 25–26).
Alexander George (1969) operationalized the concepts of Leites to construct the OpCode framework used today (see Table 1 “elements”). This framework analyzes philosophical beliefs, which guide the thought processes in context, and instrumental beliefs, the strategies and tactics used by the leader.
OpCode methodology has become more consistent and reduced coder bias by employing the Verbs in Context System (VICS) through the automated system Profiler Plus (Young, 2001, Young & Schafer, 1998). VICS analyzes each “utterance,” the combination of each subject and verb, coding words and deeds.
Deeds indicate the exercise of power in the form of positive and negative actions. Words represent the exercise of power in the form of making threats and promises or in the form of invoking author to support or oppose actions between states or other agents…(Schafer & Walker, 2006, p. 31).
DYNAMICS OF ASYMMETRIC CONFLICT 151
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Specifying the coding Schafer and Walker (2006) state, Cooperative and conflict deeds are the most intense sanctions (rewards and punishments) at the opposite ends of a continuum separated by words of lower intensity that communicate as threats, promises, or expressions of authority by the potential or symbolic use of sanctions. These distinctions produce a scale with six values ranging from −3 to+3, which are marked by the following verb signifiers as the exercise of different forms of power: Punish (−3), Threaten)−2), Oppose (−1), Support+1), Promise (+2), and Reward (+3) (pp. 32).
Words are scored from −2 to+2 and deeds carry a score of either −3 or+3 The scores are then used to calculate the indices, which are then interpreted based on the ratios of positive and negative and conflictual and cooperative indicators (see Table 1) (Walker & Schafer, 2006).
As an example, from Khamenei’s statements, referring to Israel’s occupation of Palestine: “Encouraged by US and European support, it launches military attacks on Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and invades their territories with the intent of permanent occupation.” This statement contains two transitive verbs “launches” and “invades.” Each transitive verb results in a coded utterance, a subject and transitive verb, so here we have two coded exercises of power with the subject “It” (Israel). “Launches” and “invades” are deeds (rather than words) and each coded as −3.
Image Theory (IT)
Where OpCode provides us with a generalized worldview, based on the general psycholog- ical concepts of belief and motivation, IT analyzes more nuanced, actor-specific perceptions, using cognitive psychology to examine foreign policy decision-making by developing a framework based on cognitive categories used to organize the political environment, func- tioning like stereotypes (R. Cottam, 1977; Shimko, 1991; M. Cottam, 1994; Cottam, Huseby and with the assistance of Bataldando B, 2016). Succinctly stating the importance of images, Baltodano (1969) says,
We must recognize that the people whose decisions determine the policies and actions of nations do not respond to the “objective” facts of the situation, whatever they may mean, but to their “image” of the situation. It is what we think the world is like, not what it is really like, that determines our behavior (423).
IT provides context from which to interpret an individual’s OpCode. Operative images of individuals are best determined by examining their oral statements
as well as their actions. As Cottam (1994, p. 188) states, Images are composed of (1) perceptions of a country’s capability, culture, and intentions; (2) event scripts, reflecting lessons from history that policy makers use to understand the behavior of a country or to predict its behavior; and (3) response alternatives that were consistently con- sidered appropriate for use vis-à-vis a country. The attributes of capability, culture, and intention could not be operationalized at those levels of abstraction and were therefore broken down into smaller components.
These indicators are analyzed in verbal data from individuals qualitatively (Cottam, 1994). The images are depicted in the Table 2 below. These images are used as a guideline, but the image of an actor can fall between these ideal typical images. This is a framework useful in analysis of foreign policy-making in all countries, but the images known and used by leaders may vary depending upon historical experience and context. For example, Americans do not know of an imperialist. Understanding the actor-specific image is useful for providing additional context, while interpreting VICS indices.
DYNAMICS OF ASYMMETRIC CONFLICT 153
The indices for Khamenei’s OpCode are provided in Table 3. The results suggest that he is much more moderate and less confident than he is portrayed in western media.
In specific, his worldview leans toward Friendly (P-1) and views cooperation as the best strategy (I-1). The implication for this finding is that he does not believe the world is inher- ently hostile and is not predisposed to act aggressively without warning. Therefore, he is more likely to favor exhausting peaceful resolutions to conflict before turning to other options.
He is somewhat optimistic in realizing his political goals (P-2) and cooperation is the preferred tactic to achieve those goals (I-2). The implication is that Khamenei may not in fact expect to accomplish his stated goals in their entirety. These combined scores suggest that he is willing to compromise in order to achieve the most important parts of his goals.
As far as taking risks (I-3), Khamenei is fairly averse and he is moderately flexible in his tactics (I-4). Further, he does not feel a strong sense of control over historical development (P-4) and does not believe that future events are predictable (P-3), all consistent with his belief that the role of chance (P-5) is very high. The interpretation is that he does not believe
Table 2. ideal image categories.
Image Capability Culture Intentions Decision Makers Threat or Oppor-
tunity enemy equal equal Harmful small elite threat Barbarian superior inferior Harmful small elite threat imperialist superior inferior exploitative a few groups threat Dependent inferior inferior Benign small elite opportunity Degenerate superior or equal Weak-willed Harmful confused, Differenti-
rogue inferior inferior Harmful small elite threat ally equal equal Good many Groups threat
Table 3. operational code indices for ali Khamenei.
Belief Result P-1 nature of Political Universe 0.31 (somewhat friendly) P-2 realization of Political Values 0.16 (somewhat optimistic) P-3 Predictability of Political future 0.09 (Very low) P-4 control over Historical Development 0.13 (low control) P-5 role of chance 0.98 (Very High)
choice & shift Propensities i-1 strategic approach to Goals 0.55 (Definitely cooperative) i-2 tactical Pursuit of Goals 0.2 (somewhat cooperative) i-3 risk orientation 0.37 (low/medium) i-4 flexibility of tactics
a. cooperation/conflict 0.45 (medium) b. Words/Deeds 0.37 (low/medium)
i-5 Utility of means a. reward 0.11 (medium) b. Promise 0.01 (Very low) c. appeal/support 0.66 (Very High) d. oppose/resist 0.13 (medium) e. threaten 0.01 (Very low) f. Punish 0.08 (low)
154 H. J. SMITH
his actions alone have a strong impact on event outcomes, but rather are dependent upon external circumstances and other actors.
Knowing that Khamenei prefers cooperation and is willing to compromise, the I-5 indices provide a significant finding for negotiating with Khamenei. They suggest that Khamenei believes the utility of threats, punishments, or promises, to achieve goals, is low. Alternatively, he believes that appeal and support are useful tactics. This suggests that when dealing with Khamenei, foreign leaders should show that they will enhance his goals and their goal is to support, not threaten. Interpreted in the context of his tendency toward cooperation, this suggests that anyone attempting to coerce or deter Khamenei with the use of threats or punishment will not be successful.
While OpCode analysis provides a valuable insight into the generalized worldview of Khamenei and has implications for expected behavior, context for specific foreign policy behavior. The addition of image theory analysis provides actor or case-specific context for interpreting the belief system and generating a more complete profile.
Khamenei’s words reveal a consistent set of self-images of Iran and images of other nations (see Table 4). Frequently, he states the increasing capabilities of Iran. He discusses how the military has been strengthened and how the nation is progressing in science and academics. In particular, he posits the nuclear energy program will increase the capability of Iran to be self-sufficient and not oil dependent. Perhaps more importantly, he argues that the West and the United States in particular do not want Iran to gain nuclear energy capability, because they want Iran to remain dependent on oil sales. Thus, not only is strengthening capability revealed here, but Khamenei also hints that the USA has a Dependent image of Iran and wants to keep it there. Interestingly, he also reveals an image change regarding USA. He acknowledges that Iran was once dependent upon the USA and Britain, but since the revo- lution had broken away and is now self-sufficient.
He also discusses strengthening capabilities, as well as culture, through an elected gov- ernment and input from many individuals as well as continuing the expansion of knowledge and ideas through academia and the arts. Moreover, he consistently pleads for the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam to be more unified to create a stronger Islamic culture and thus increase its capability to have influence in the world and repel influence from the West.
Another consistent image put forth by Khamenei is that of Palestine as Dependent on Iran and the other Islamic nations. At times, he points to Palestinian capabilities as having increased since the 1940s, but mostly in regards to culture and becoming more strong-willed in achieving their goals. The more consistent image is that the preservation of Palestine is
Table 4. image theory indices for ali Khamenei.
Capability Culture Intentions Decision Makers Threat or
Opportunity image of West equal/superior Weak-willed Harmful small elite threat image of Palestine strengthening/
inferior equal Good confused/
image of iran strengthening stronger than pre-revolution
Unifying islamic culture
many Groups n/a
DYNAMICS OF ASYMMETRIC CONFLICT 155
dependent upon aid from other nations and that Palestine achieving their goals will be a victory for all Islamic nations because it would push out the influence of the Zionists and their supporters in the West. Furthermore, the idea that Khamenei is cooperative, as sug- gested by the OpCode analysis, comes with a significant caveat: he will not compromise on Islamic law or supporting other Islamic peoples, mainly the Palestinians.
His image of the USA and “the West” in general are essentially interchangeable. In his view, Western culture is very different from his own, but there is no indication that he views it negatively; he simply does not want it to alter Iranian culture. Equally important, he does not give any indication of desire to influence Western culture with Islamic culture. He does, however, feel that the USA and other Western nations have the goal of altering the culture of Iran and other Islamic nations to match their own. From this, he is very suspicious of the intentions of the USA and has taken a defensive posture when dealing with Western nations. Thus, his image of the West is Imperialist.
Concerning capabilities, Khamenei points to failures in the Middle East by the USA, par- ticularly Iraq. He argues that US military capabilities have been weakened. Further, he points to the weakening willpower of the USA because, while the government supports the war effort, the general population quickly became dissatisfied with the war and opposed the actions. Moreover, he emphasizes that the USA has historically failed in the Middle East because they were pushed out of Iran and have not succeeded in aiding the Zionists in quelling the Palestinians. Based upon the perceived capabilities and number of influential decision makers of the USA, Khamenei has put them into a Degenerate image.
To summarize, Khamenei’s image of the USA and the West, is a Degenerate/Imperialist. While he argues that the capabilities of Iran are growing, he acknowledges that the U.SA is a nuclear power that has had great influence in the region in recent history. However, he consistently suggests that the USA has failed in achieving its recent goals in the Middle East, because of their weak-willed political leadership and culture. Moreover, he posits that the USA has attempted to push its cultural ideology, as well as exploit the resources of Iran and other Middle Eastern states.
It should be noted that this represents an image shift from pre-revolution. Within the speeches, Khamenei often refers to before the revolution and acknowledges that the USA and Britain both had extensive influence on the politics and culture of Iran. At that time, they were achieving their goals, had superior capability, exploitative/harmful intentions, a small elite decision-making group and posed a threat. Thus, the pre-revolution image of the USA was that of an Imperialist, but has since added a Degenerate component with the weak- ening will of the USA and the strengthening capabilities of Iran.
Western politicians and the media often portray Iran and Khamenei as uncooperative and threatening, by interpreting his rhetoric and actions from the black boxed perspective of offensive realism (Mearsheimer, 2001), with the fundamental assumption that Khamenei’s intentions are inherently aggressive. Rather than analyzing Iran from one perspective and set of assumptions, I have assessed what motivates Iran’s key decision-maker. Foreign policy is more nuanced and may be characterized as offensive realism or defensive realism (Rose, 1998). Through at-a-distance profiling, I find that Khamenei generally has a positive world- view and prefers cooperation to conflict, but will not cooperate in the face of threats, whether
156 H. J. SMITH
they be directed at hard resources, culture, or morality, and believes in a strong Iran that can defend itself. This suggests he will behave more as a defensive realist and is not inherently aggressive and expansionistic, providing more concrete evidence and support for Waltz’s (2012) assertion that the Iranian regime is not a belligerent rogue actor.
Cooperation was demonstrated by the regime aiding the USA with intelligence in the war in Afghanistan, as well as offering assistance with the 2003 invasion of Iraq (BBC, 2009). Instead of accepting the assistance with Iraq, George W. Bush added Iran to the “axis of evil.” Hymans (2006) asserts that fear leads to increased defensive aggression and national pride encourages a unilateral bolstering of power, and can lead to the desire to “go nuclear,” par- ticularly when combined with nationalism. Khamenei is clearly nationalistic and threats, particularly from the West, conjure the image of western imperialism. Both appear to be in play at this time. The implication for policy is simple. If you want cooperation from Iran, don’t make threats. Rather, encourage positive relations and mutual cooperation.
If not threatened, and fear is reduced, Khamenei may be less likely to desire the comple- tion of a bomb. If he does acquire a bomb, it is likely to bolster leverage in negotiations with world leaders, thus defensive in nature. This is supported by his Degenerate/Imperialist Image of USA, in which he perceives more of a cultural than physical threat. If this analysis is correct, it may be beneficial to all nations, for Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb and enhance mutual cooperation between the West and the Middle East.
I would like thank Tom Preston, Martha Cottam, Julie Loggins, Niall Michelsen, Stephen Walker for their comments and assistance at various stages of this project, as well as the anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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Why study Khamenei?
Image Theory (IT)