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A new paradigm for resolving the Iran conflict




Israel’s warnings about Iran helped to strengthen Western sanctions, but were insufficient to influence the six nations from using more than diplomacy with Iran, foregoing the threat of military force. Israel’s differing policies were used to demonise it as a warmongering state, and created tension with those who supported using diplomacy only.

In spite of its almost moribund economy and civil unrest, Iran surged after the deal, more powerful, rich, determined, and openly aggressive towards the United States, Israel, and the Gulf states. The deal allowed a regime to flourish which menaces many nations and threatens the extinction of Israel specifically.

The Trump administration decided to pull out of the deal and add more sanctions. The international response has consisted of two trends: recommending aggressive confrontation, or more diplomacy-only tactics.

However, there’s a possible third approach. This new paradigm offers a new perspective on Iran’s destructive, aggressive actions through the lens of a neutral psychological standpoint. We call Iran’s aggression a “collective trauma vortex”, a metaphor describing a whirlpool of fear, humiliation, loss, and hurt pride at the collective level, manifested in dangerous aggression and the inability to resolve conflicts peacefully. This approach to dealing with it incorporates the present philosophy of diplomatic efforts but combines it with clear boundaries and military consequences.

Iran’s behaviour fits the description of a collective trauma vortex, namely the capacity to take care of its needs in positive ways is compromised; its one-sided historical narrative generates a perpetual sense of victimisation, a polarised worldview, mistrust, paranoia, and conspiracy theories; there are claims of moral superiority with the demonisation and dehumanisation of adversaries; its population is repressed and human rights are abused. The nation is stuck in a dangerous reflexive and patterned fight response.

Iran’s ambitions, fears, and actions distort the fulfilment of its psychological universal basic needs (UBN). These include safety; autonomy; a positive self-image; identity; competence; trust in others; and being trustworthy; the validation of its experience and reality; a sense of justice; meaning and contribution. Nations caught in a collective trauma vortex need help, as they are unable to fulfil their UBN or prioritise those needs in healthy ways.

Effective diplomacy requires a respectful and firm approach, viable ways to meet Iran’s UBN, and most importantly, a deep cross-cultural understanding to meet these needs appropriately. 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.

The international community must show Iran that it understands its unfulfilled UBN, is willing to help fulfil them, and help it to protect its culture from foreign influence. It must bring Iran into the community of nations, and remind it that attempts to meet these needs at the expense of its other needs, and of the needs of other people, have backfired and provoked a serious backlash.

Firm, believable, dispassionate diplomacy must be used first, making sure to address and resolve misunderstandings or affronts without blowing them out of proportion. It must also include the message that if diplomacy fails, force will be used. When dealing with a nation in an advanced trauma vortex such as Iran, it’s essential to defend other countries’ safety by stating the use of defensive force (versus aggressive force) as an inevitable natural consequence of continued aggression.

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, and the international community must follow them in unison. Failure to adhere to the standards must carry swift consequences. For this, all the nations involved must unite, and understand that war won’t benefit anyone. The threat of the use of force could be withdrawn at any time if Iran steps back from aggression.

Economic sanctions are a non-violent initial form of defensive force. However, when they are ineffectual and a collective trauma vortex escalates into violence, it can be stopped only with military force. Yet, the threat of force must never be presented as punitive, retaliatory, humiliating force because such language only hardens an aggressive and irrational vortex, in which people are blindly ready to risk their own safety.

Right now, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China are holding the diplomatic carrot, the Israeli government and Trump administration are holding both, but are clear about the stick if necessary.

These pieces must be co-ordinated. The focus must be on how to stop Iran without making its regime feel it’s compromising its essential need for safety and pride, and without feeling the need to develop nuclear weapons, and threaten other stakeholders.

All stakeholders, including the US, Israel, and their Arab allies, Europe, Russia, and China 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 if it enters into 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.

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 judicial or military action.

Resolution comes when we understand:

  • What fuels the trauma vortex of each party involved in conflict;
  • The potential for the healing vortex of all involved; and
  • That creative solutions can emerge only from healing

Our model clearly identifies the symptoms of dysfunctional collective behaviour and the need to develop strategies to control aggressive behaviour and implement them immediately. In this case, addressing Iranian threats and dysfunctional behaviour must be part of any dialogue and agreement with Iran with the clarity that the use of force will follow if it continues.

  • Gina Ross is the 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.

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