Iran and Israel are on the verge of war. Leaders portray doomsday scenarios,
generals prepare for war and scientists create weapons for
apocalypse. Indeed, the Iranian-Israeli conflict is likely to be a
“Calamitous... cataclysmic, not just catastrophic” crisis (Saudi Turki bin
Faisal). What are the reasons for this clash and is there a potential pathway
for its de-escalation?
Iran and Israel are set on their doomsday path by a
process of colliding cultural traumas. The Iranian nuclearization effort is an
attempt to escape from a traumatic national humiliation that eventuated from
historical defeats by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Russians and the English. The
Iranians were more recently humiliated by a CIA-led coup against a democratic,
secular government (in 1953); by the American military invasion in 1980; and by
the American support of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88).
ward off any similar attempt, the Iranians seek nuclear capacities. They do so
as a post-traumatic attempt to redeem their quest for Empire, seeking to
reconstitute self-worth and omnipotence. By threatening Israel and its Arab
neighbors and by defying Western economic pressures, the Iranians seek to
restore a glorious past and to protect themselves from further national
The Israeli offensive against Iran is post-traumatic
too. The Israeli threat to engage in a pre-emptive strike reflects deep
fears of annihilation. The Israelis are driven by cultural scenarios of doom.
Repeated wars and promises to erase Israel from the map strengthen the Israeli
existential anxiety while creating a deep sense of impending doom. These
cultural traumas constitute the Israeli perception of Iran; they also direct its
preparation for war.
Repeated calls from Tehran to annihilate Israel
(“Israel must be wiped off the map”) bring up memories of the Nazi regime.
Descriptions of Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that is “a stain over the Middle
East” strengthen the Israeli fear. Tehran’s denial of the Holocaust and its
statement that it is a “great deception” ignite Israeli anger.
statement that Israel was founded upon “a lie and a mythical claim” touches the
innermost cultural nerves of the Israeli habitus, and Ahmadinejad’s statement
that “this germ of corruption will be wiped off” reawakens old
Driven by this traumatic worldview, the Israelis see Ahmadinejad
in the guise of Hitler. They expect that the outcome of the Iranian nuclear
campaign will eventuate in a second Holocaust. Therefore, the ghosts of their
past continue haunting the cultural psyche of the Israelis. In responding to the
assaults from Tehran, the Israelis cling to their Biblical rights and remind the
world of its horrific predicament – and its power.
So herein lays the
catch-22. The Iranian attempt to recreate a potent sense of Empire – responding
to the trauma of repeated humiliation – leads Tehran toward nuclearization.
However, the Israelis perceive the Iranian move as preparation for a second
Consequently, the Israelis act on their trauma with “a never
again shall Masada fall” attitude – promising a preemptive strike. However, the
Iranians perceive the Israeli threat as another occasion of Western
intervention, with warfare and economic sanctions having the same effect, namely
intensifying national humiliation. Hence, the Iranians engage in ever more
secretive and opaque tactics – in an effort to increase their freedom from
external restrictions. They thus also regain their self-worth. The more they
hide their true intentions, however, the more suspicious the Israelis become.
This is a classical catch-22 syndrome.
What then lies ahead? One scenario
is for a preemptive strike by Israeli or American forces against Iran. In that
case, the Iranian trauma of national humiliation will be strengthened, creating
deeper and more urgent motivations for Persian self-determination. The Iranians
would likely seek other means – more secretive and powerful than the current
program – in order to redeem their defeated national identity.
scenario is for the Islamic leadership of Iran to step back from the nuclear
program. However, having invested their identity in nuclearization, such a turn
would be likely interpreted as surrender to colonial powers. The Iranians
would perceive such turnaround as another defeat in the long chain of colonial
conquests. It would likely strengthen their national humiliation. From the
perspective of cultural trauma, therefore, the Iranians seem locked in a
catch-22 paradox. Whatever action they might take, they are likely to remain
humiliated and defeated. Under these conditions, peaceful, rational and
accommodative strategies are unlikely.
The Israelis are caught in their
own double-bind and are likely to maintain their traumatized perspective, too.
If Iran strikes – whether first or second would make little difference – the
Israelis will be reassured that “nothing is new under the sun.” They would
remain convinced that the idea of a “final solution” for the Jewish question is
still popular; that anti-Semitism and the unquenched will to annihilate Israel
or “erase it from the map” are still pulsating.
However, the Israelis are
likely to uphold those beliefs even if Iran would step back from
After two decades of Iranian build-up toward atomic
capacities, the Israelis have identified Iran with Nazism. Consequently,
a simple Iranian turnaround would leave Israelis suspicious of Tehran’s
motivations. Just as the Iranians, then, the Israelis are locked in a
traumatized past, and they would make strategic choices led by their
It seems, therefore, that there is need for
“psychoanalysis” of this catch-22 traumatic impasse. The parties need to
“transcend” simple either/or resolutions to the conflict. Such
transcendence can only proceed by engaging in reflexive analysis of trauma while
acknowledging the pains, humiliation and fear of the other. The parties would
only be able to transcend the military predicament to the extent that they bring
into the open the ghosts which haunt them. By bringing those mythological and
historical specters into the light, it might be possible to imagine peaceful
means for breaking the impasse.
Such unlocking of the trajectory toward
war should take a strong grip on the cultural traumas of both
parties. The Iranians need reassurance concerning their sovereignty; to
feel that their actions are freely taken, without international intervention,
extortion or pressure. They need to feel un-humiliated, even trusted and
The Israelis need to hear Tehran repealing the promises of
annihilation while revoking the challenges to Israel’s legitimacy. They also
need facts to show that there are no hidden, underground programs that create
conditions for the materialization of past promises of annihilation. Current
trajectories and the presence of other agents make such resolutions
unlikely.Gad Yair is professor of sociology at the Department of
Sociology & Anthropology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr.
Bezhad Akbari is an Iranian sociologist.