Hazem Saghieh

‘Absolute Security:’ Iran, Israel, and... the World

There is a myth called "absolute security;" it is a myth because it was not possible in the past and will not be possible in the future. However, we know that, despite this, many myths in history became ideas and intellectual systems that govern nations and peoples, or inspired the establishment of political parties and movements.

"Absolute security" or "maximum security" entails "zero risk," although risk is inherent to every major, or even minor, step in the course of communities and to all individual endeavors.

Moreover, "absolute security" is based on a philosophy that has a pessimistic view of humanity. It mistrusts people and sees them as wolves, or potential wolves, that could pounce at any moment. The otherness of the other is always an absolute- the other brings danger or certain death, even if this threat seems, at a particular moment, latent or pending.

The theory of "absolute security" is accompanied by a conception of politics and our relationship with the world. The American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who many describe as a leading authority on the realist school of thought, could be seen as the world's most prominent living proponent of this view. The way he sees it, our world operates in this grim manner; it is governed by wolves and rapacious competition. Since there is no institution with effective authority over states that monitors and regulates their behavior, absolute power is inevitable, as is the subjugation of all values, no matter how noble and altruistic, to interests. The picture becomes even more bleak once we consider that no state can know the intentions of the others, or contain or find a way around the threats they pose them through friendships, treaties, or guarantees. Mearsheimer’s latest intellectual endeavor, which draws on this theory, is justifying the invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that if Ukraine were to join NATO, it would become a threat to Russia's security.

"Absolute security," in the most hawkish reading, dictates the establishment of "living space" around the state of “absolute security.” Those who attack it would thus strike the belt of fat around it and not its flesh. In other words, they would wreak havoc on the "slaves" of the state without ever reaching its "masters" or "authentic’’ citizens.

Beyond any doubt, however, the notion of "absolute security" necessarily implies mobilization. This notion galvanizes the population and pushes it to seek and demand this security, because it exists to serve them. Indeed, the external threat does not only put their country in danger, but also their lives and the lives of their families, in their streets, homes, and children’s schools. Accordingly, anyone who takes this pursuit lightly recklessly endangers their own life and has no concern for the lives of others, as well as being an objective ally of the enemy, if not a subjective ally as well. This coupling of fear and fanaticism stands in the way of many prospects for life, adventure, and investment in the future and in universal values. Danger is everywhere and beneath every surface; it could be embodied in refugees, immigrants, Romanis, or those who behave differently.

This mythical or conspiratorial propensity inherent to the theory of "absolute security" suggests that a strong sense of weakness and apprehensions about legitimacy hide behind the self-confidence projected by the advocates of this theory. That is why they act like they are freezing history into an image of "absolute security" that is contrasted with "total insecurity," which is all that is available to weaker others.

Looking at the current state of affairs in Iran and Israel, as well as the vast geographical area that separates them, we find that Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are countries of "total insecurity," while the prospective Palestinian state would be "demilitarized" if it emerges. All the security has settled in the center, leaving none left for the peripheries and subjugated regions.

Structural differences can be seen here: the direct war between Iran and Israel is governed by logic, balances, and equations that the wars of those living in total insecurity (or their wars with the Jewish state) lack. In the former, the world and its influential actors intervene, because the belligerents are states, not militant groups, and because the costs incurred by wars between states could undermine the global order built around states.

The Israeli-Iranian war is also brief and swift, and its ambiguous elements far outnumber those that are clear, which has allowed some to call it a "spectacle." On the other hand, the war between Israel and the militias is clear, as are its human and economic costs, in addition to being "long" as we are now hearing. It is not without indication that some have concluded that there is an inverse relationship between these two types of wars, whereby the softness of the war between the mighty could lay the groundwork for a new savage assault, with Rafah the theater this time.

Despite the gains attained by those living in "absolute security," the potency of the contagion or any uncalculated mistake could leave them facing negative repercussions in the long run. Today, the two imperial states are confronting the dilemma of how to address "declining deterrence" and the fact that parts of their territory or airspace have been breached. The "absolute security" of the Middle East's belligerent masters is no longer absolute- for a few years now in the case of Iran and for a few months in Israel.

Naturally, the fact remains that two sides have divergent capability levels: Israel could destroy the Arab Levant to avoid defeat, while Iran continues to destroy the entire Levant before being defeated. In any case, it is no longer far-fetched to argue that the security of both countries, once called absolute, is turning into relative security at an accelerating pace, and for this shift to be explicitly recognized. As for the implications this will have for the region, its image, and its future, and for those within it living in total insecurity, they will probably become prominent themes in the coming days.