A new paradigm for resolving the Iran conflict

Encouraging Tehran to rejoin the community of nations while simultaneously keeping the world safe is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and President Donald Trump tout a US-Iranian summit as they address a joint news conference on August 26 at the end of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER / REUTERS)
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and President Donald Trump tout a US-Iranian summit as they address a joint news conference on August 26 at the end of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France
Encouraging Tehran to rejoin the community of nations while simultaneously keeping the world safe is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.
While Israel’s warnings about Iran helped strengthen Western sanctions, they were insufficient to influence the six powerful nations from using diplomacy-only strategies with Iran, foregoing the threat of military force.
Israel’s differing policies at the time of the deal were used to demonize it as a warmongering state, and create tension with those who chose to use diplomacy-only to bring Iran to heel.
As a result, despite its almost moribund economy and civil unrest, Iran after the deal has surged more powerful, full of money, and with a more determined and open enmity towards the US, Israel and the Gulf states. It has continued to develop missiles for nuclear weapons delivery, has funded and supported terrorist activities all over the world, and tipped the civil war in Syria toward Assad, fueling a war that killed over a half million people.
With total control over the timeline for verifications, Iran has continued in small steps to build its nuclear-enrichment program. It continues to be provocative, unrelenting in its verbal attacks, terrorist-funding activities against Israel and the West, demonstrations against the US, and attacks on the Saudis through proxies. The deal has thereby allowed the flourishing of a regime that menaces many nations and threatens extinction of Israel specifically.
The Trump administration has chosen to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and added new sanctions, putting huge pressure on the Iranian regime while also keeping the path for diplomacy open. In addition, new US policies have allowed for the possibility of the use of force (or at least the threat of the use of force), more in line with Israeli policies.
The responses of the international community have consisted of two trends: recommending aggressive confrontation, or more diplomacy-only tactics.
However, there is a third approach available: effective, respectful diplomacy can take place in a psychologically informed way, understanding and addressing Iran’s underlying needs, inviting it to reintegrate itself into the community of nations, and reverse its destructive impulses, while simultaneously making clear that military force is an option, if necessary.
The new paradigm offers a new perspective on Iran’s destructive aggressive actions through the lens of a neutral psychological standpoint. We call Iran’s aggressions a “collective trauma vortex,” a metaphor describing a whirlpool of fears, humiliation, loss, and hurt pride at the collective level, manifested in dangerous aggression and the inability to resolve conflicts peacefully. Our approach incorporates the present philosophies of diplomatic efforts, but combines them with clear boundaries and consequences of military action to assure that this Iranian vortex will be prevented from harming the threatened parties involved, i.e. Israel, the Gulf States, the West and the Iranian population itself.
Iran’s worldview needs to change from its own historically perceived leadership role as a nation-state that others need to join, to the reality of the current world order that Iran might be able to influence but cannot control.
Currently, Iran’s behavior perfectly fits the description of a collective trauma vortex.
A nation sound, stable and well-adjusted occupies its rightful place as a reasonable member of the community of nations, cooperating with others while competing in healthy ways. When a nation is in a collective trauma vortex like Iran, that nation’s capacity to take care of its needs in positive ways is compromised, resulting in various symptoms. They include one-sided historical narratives generating a perpetual sense of victimization, a polarized worldview, mistrust, paranoia and conspiracy theories, claims of moral superiority with demonization and dehumanization of adversaries, lack of freedom with repression of the population, and human rights abuse. Needs are communicated in aggressive ways, while the needs of “the others” are trampled upon, fueled by inflexibility and extremism. The nation is stuck in a reflexive and patterned fight response, resulting in further instability.
The Iranian leadership’s narrative is one of being a victim of Western aggression and imperialism, and dovetails with several other vortices. Some are ancient, such as the loss of its imperial Persian past and the centuries-old simmering Sunni/Shi’ite conflict; and some, more recent, such as the struggle within Islam between democracy and theocracy, between Pan-Islamism and Pan-Arabism, and the conflict between Israel and the Muslim Ummah.
Like other traumatized groups, Iran ascribes to its enemies the same ill intent it has toward them. It does exactly what it criticizes in others, e.g., accusing others of being imperialistic, arrogant and meddling, while practicing its own expansionist Shi’ite theocracy over a world of infidels; claiming hegemony over the Gulf area; and destabilizing and meddling in the affairs of several other nations.
Iran wants economic, religious and military regional power and respect, and wants a leadership role in the world. It wants recognition and acceptance as a Middle East superpower that will wield power and have hegemony over the Gulf, acceptance of Shi’ite Islam within the Islamic world, and for Islam to be the one true and superior religion around the world.
Iran also fears regime change, and the cultural and religious corruption of its youth by the cultural imperialism of the West. Its fear of secularism has turned it into the “central banker” of terror – it has threatened the closure of the Strait of Hormuz; it supports Hamas; and destabilizes Iraq through its Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Lebanon through Hezbollah, and Yemen through the Houthis. It funds terrorist militias and attacks in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, India, and the Middle East. It is still fueling the Syrian civil war, both directly and through its proxies.
Iran sees its search for nuclear weapons as the answer to both its ambitions and its fears. It attempts to develop military nuclear power to terrify its Middle East neighbors and Europe, albeit the West still believes it can curtail Iran’s violence.
Iran’s ambitions, fears and actions clearly indicate that it is caught in a collective trauma vortex, which distorts the order and fulfillment of its psychological Universal Basic Needs (UBN). This present Iranian collective trauma vortex has the potential to inflame the entire region and the world.
Iran cannot exit this trauma vortex on its own. For Iran to emerge from its vortex and rejoin the community of nations, rules and standards for conflict resolution must be clear, firm and all encompassing. The international community must follow those rules in unison, relay their boundaries and limits in a firm and respectful way, and demand adherence. Most importantly, for Iran’s sake and the region’s safety, failure to adhere to the standards must carry swift consequences.
ALL THE vortices involved or impacting a conflict must be considered simultaneously while implementing the following principles, which can help keep the collective trauma vortex from spinning out of control. These principles help avoid triggering negative reactions, nurture and encourage positive ones, while still being ready to use defensive force when necessary.
Effective diplomacy requires a respectful and firm approach, viable ways to meet Iran’s Universal Basic Needs (UBN), and a deep cross-cultural understanding.
All people have the same basic psychological needs to enable a healthy frame of mind. These UBN include safety; autonomy; positive self-image, identity and self-esteem; competence; trust in others and being trustworthy; validation of their experience and reality; sense of justice; meaning; and contribution.
Nations caught in a collective trauma vortex are unable to fulfill their UBN or prioritize them in healthy ways.
The international community must show Iran that it understands Iran’s unfulfilled UBN, is willing to help fulfill them, and work to bring Iran into the community of nations. It could facilitate the healthy fulfillment of UBN, such as adopting policies and actions that restore the self-esteem and sense of autonomy and competence of a humiliated nation, such as recognizing a Shi’ite majority in the Gulf. And most of all, reassure Iran that it can fulfill its need for religious safety and meaning (whether by limits on the Internet, or legitimacy from Sunni Islam).
At the same time, Iran must be reminded that its attempts to meet these needs at the expense of its other needs, and/or of the needs of other people, have backfired and provoked serious backlash, e.g., its need for religious legitimacy must be allowed but not via religious hegemony.
Simultaneously, other parties must also be very clear about their own spiritual interests, and warn Iran that they will have to use defensive force to protect their nations from physical and psychological harm if Iran does not change its aggressive behavior and its pursuit of hegemony.
Diplomacy must be used first, making sure to address and resolve misunderstandings or affronts without blowing them out of proportion. Within the diplomatic message must also be the message that if diplomacy fails, force will be used. Nations in a collective trauma vortex need very clear and firm boundaries, which the Geneva Agreement failed to deliver.
Already in the trauma vortex, Iran interprets diplomacy-only messages – without the backup of military enforcement – as appeasement and weakness on the part of its adversaries, which strengthens its self-righteousness and aggression.
When dealing with a nation in an advanced trauma vortex such as Iran, it is essential to defend other countries’ safety by stating that the use of defensive force (vs. aggressive force) is an inevitable natural consequence of continued aggression. The threat of use of force could be withdrawn at any time if Iran steps back from aggression.
Economic sanctions can be considered as a nonviolent initial form of defensive force. However, when economic sanctions are ineffectual and a collective trauma vortex escalates into violence, it can only be stopped with military force. In the face of violence, failure to demand adherence to boundaries only triggers or amplifies a collective trauma vortex, enabling more violence.
Firm, believable, and dispassionate diplomacy that includes the threat of force should never be presented as punitive/retaliatory/humiliating force, because such language only hardens an aggressive and irrational vortex, where people are blindly ready to risk their own safety.
This will require that all participants of the Geneva Interim Agreement – China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany, and the US – transcend their different economic and political interests to approach Iran as a unified front: no one will benefit if an aggressive Iran provokes a generalized war.
Right now, the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China are holding the diplomatic carrot, the Israeli government is holding the stick, and the US is holding both, with emphasis on the stick. These pieces must be coordinated. Germany, the UK and France’s economic interests, and Russia and China’s strategic concerns are more likely to be upheld if Iran engages in a reasonable dialogue with the international community than if it continues provoking other nation states into eventual war. They must not ignore Iran’s threats against other nations, who will respond through force. A clear message must be given that no current or future American leaders will be able to accept Iran’s dangerously aggressive behavior. Israel and the Gulf states can also add the language of diplomacy to their responses. It is in no one’s interest that there be war in the Middle East.
The focus must be on how to stop Iran without making its regime feel they are compromising their essential need for safety and its pride, and without feeling the need to develop nuclear weapons and threaten other stakeholders.
All stakeholders, including the US, Israel and their Arab allies, must challenge the Iranians’ narrative and worldview, while also acknowledging the suffering they have experienced, and offering a list of the benefits to be gained by Iran entering in a real peace process.
Too often we fail to validate suffering because the ways of expressing it are destructive; or conversely, we validate/condone destructive actions because we are aware of the suffering. Painful events must be acknowledged and processed, apologies given when necessary, compassion shown, and cross-cultural differences acknowledged. We also need to point to destructive expression of suffering – naming the trauma-driven distorted needs, and helping people heal enough to seek justice instead of revenge.
A cross-cultural misunderstanding has made Iran perceive the Geneva Interim Agreement as a sign of weakness of will, and mistake its adversaries’ reluctance for war as cowardice and/or fear of war. To resolve trauma vortices, it is important to have moral clarity regarding the rights of all involved, including the safety of other parties not included in the deal but threatened by it. Solutions based
on specific interests and prejudices will not work, as we saw. Resolution cannot come at the expense of any one party. Objectivity, moral clarity and the interest of the whole international community, and not only of the parties involved in the deal, are crucial.
Groups that insist on remaining in the trauma vortex and continue to do damage must bear the consequences, including judiciary or military action. Resolution comes when we understand:
• What fuels the trauma vortex of each party involved in conflict. We must recognize the trauma caused by unmet needs, and its impact on all parties involved.
• The potential for the healing vortex of all involved. People caught in the trauma vortex cannot exit it on their own. Outsiders need to help them see the potential healing in themselves and in their adversaries, and offer economic or diplomatic assistance while outlining the benefits of the peace and reminding them of the harm of the trauma vortex.
• Creative solutions can only emerge from healing. It is possible to use the arts and social and political measures to fulfill healthy needs in healthy ways. An informed media, which highlights the positive and gently confronts the negative, can also help with this process.
Our model clearly identifies the symptoms of dysfunctional collective behavior. Strategies to control aggressive behavior must be developed and implemented immediately. In this case, addressing Iranian threats and dysfunctional behavior must be part of any dialogue and agreement with Iran, and followed by use of force consequences if they continue. 
Gina Ross, MFCT, is founder/president of the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the US (ITI-US) and its Israeli branch (ITI-Israel). Born in Aleppo, Syria, Gina has lived in eight different countries on four continents. Her latest book, Breaking News! The Media and the Trauma Vortex: Understanding News Reporting, Journalists and Audiences, was launched at the Jerusalem Press Club in October 2018