Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding

Opinion Editorials, July 2009


Al-Jazeerah History


Mission & Name  

Conflict Terminology  


Gaza Holocaust  

Gulf War  




News Photos  

Opinion Editorials

US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)




Ahmadinejad and Obama as the modern Scylla and Charybdis

By Paul J. Balles

Redress, July 11, 2009

Paul J. Balles views the “catch twenty-two”, no-win or lose-lose relationship between the USA and Iran. He warns that a US attack on Iran would result in a pyrrhic victory – a military victory so costly that the winning side actually ends up worse off than before it started.

Homer described Scylla in The Odyssey as a supernatural creature having 12 feet with six heads perched on long necks; and each head had a triple row of shark like teeth. Her loins were girt with the heads of baying dogs. From her lair in a cave she devoured whatever ventured within reach, including sailors who passed by her realm.

The other irresistible monster, Charybdis, lurked under a fig tree, a bowshot away on the opposite shore and was fatal to shipping. She had a single gaping mouth that sucked in huge quantities of water and belched them out three times a day, creating whirlpools.

Ulysses had to choose which monster was worse when he passed through the Strait of Messina. He decided on Scylla, incurring the loss of only a few sailors rather than lose his entire ship in the Charybdis whirlpool.

What provoked the recollection of this ancient Greek myth? The recent upswing in East-West antagonism stimulated a mental image of flotillas of naval ships and oil tankers unable to get through the Strait of Hormuz.

Heads of the ships of state get caught between impossible alternatives. They know how opposites have been the bane of leadership at least as long as the time since the legendary Ulysses sailed in Homer's Odyssey.

The concept of impossible alternatives played a part in the romantic poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote: "The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism."

Contemplate the number of states that vacillate between anarchy and despotism. Resistance, revolutions and massive protests reflect anarchy. Public control by presidents or monarchs reveals despotism. These opposites circle the globe. Impossible alternatives.

The stimulus for that scene? A headline in the Gulf Daily News (28 June 2009): “[Ahmadi]Nejad warns US, followed by the story: "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged a 'crushing' response to continued American condemnation of Iran's crackdown on post-election protest."

For three or four years now, the fact that Iran sits athwart the narrow waterway has been the subject of discussion, including threats and counter-threats along with speculation about Iran's capacity to close the strait and hold it.

In Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), 11 August 2008, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps political bureau chief Yadollah Javani wrote: "Iran's supreme leader and supreme commander of the armed forces [Ali Khamenei] has openly declared several times in his addresses ... that if [Iran's] enemies [i.e. the US and Israel] should commit folly and attack Iran, its reaction would be crushing..."

Ahmadinejad used that same language when he recently pledged a “crushing” response to continued American condemnation of Iran's crackdown on post-election protests.

"In the event of [military] action by an enemy," Javani added, "no one should expect Iran to refrain from using every [available] means of self-defence, including closing the Strait of Hormuz with a view to damaging the invaders' interests..."

As Olivia Isil had it: “When a loose cannon flogs a dead horse there's the devil to pay.” Put an idea like “crushing reactions” between those imposing forces and all movement is severely restricted.

Joseph Heller's novel Catch Twenty Two presents a critique of bureaucratic operations and reasoning involved in no-win or lose-lose situations. Everything about the relationship between Iran and the US has been a catch twenty-two situation.

If the West concludes that the only solution is a military one, it will lament a pyrrhic victory – a military victory so costly that the winning side actually ends up worse off than before it started. Beware, presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad, of rocks, hard places, devils and deep blue seas.

Paul J. Balles is a retired American university professor and freelance writer who has lived in the Middle East for many years. For more information, see





Opinions expressed in various sections are the sole responsibility of their authors and they may not represent