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).

To 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 humiliation.

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.

Its 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 horrors.

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 Holocaust.

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.

Another 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 nuclearization.

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 posttraumatic worldview.

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 appreciated.

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.

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