BdM or BM? The Iranian Nuclear Deal

Photo by European External Action Service / CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo by EEAS / CC BY-NC 2.0

Last week was a busy one for fans of two-level games.  Not only did we have Germany and Greece wrangling over the Eurozone crisis, but we had a successful multilateral brokerage of the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  While many have debated and discussed the relative virtues and vices of this deal, which faces a fair amount of public skepticism in the US, I want to take some time today to discuss what may seem like a peculiar question…

Was a deal like this inevitable?

Political scientist and self-styled “predictioneerBruce Bueno de Mesquita (BdM) garnered a fair amount of attention back in 2009 for predicting that Iran would not attain the capabilities necessary to build a nuclear weapon.  According to his analysis, Iran would enrich enough nuclear material to convince the international community that its intentions were serious, but ultimately would stop short of actually building a nuclear weapon.  Presumably, Iran would use its level of enrichment as leverage in multilateral negotiations to gain conditions amenable to its domestic coalitions’ interests.

Notice that I did not say “national” interests.  According to BdM, there is no such thing as a national interest.  Interests are something held only by sub-state actors – primarily individuals and their domestic political coalitions.  This claim has two important implications – one theoretical and the other methodological.  First, BdM’s claim can be understood as a rejection of the realist assumption that states are unitary actors, a principle originally attributed to the Greek historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.  While realists would say that states speak with one voice on the international stage, BdM treats states as the pluralist actors that I suppose they actually are in reality.  Second, BdM’s claim is essentially an embrace of methodological individualism, which privileges the motivations and actions of individual agents in efforts to generate causal explanations for social phenomena.

So, according to BdM, states are pluralist actors, and the decisions that states make are ultimately a function of the motivations and actions of individual agents within those states that have influence over state decisions.  In essence, the state does not really exist as an actor beyond its representation on placards at the negotiating table.  When states articulate their positions, they are actually attempting to strike a balance among the constellation of interests held by domestic coalitions.  State positions change when a new balance is struck.  This change could be a function of either a shift in domestic politics and/or a recognized need among state representatives to shifts its position due to strategic interaction – states responding to the anticipated reactions of other states.  In the case of the Iranian nuclear deal, BdM concluded that Iranian domestic politics were shifting away from a hardline position that Iran must build a nuclear weapon and that US representatives were shifting away from hardline position that Iran must completely dismantle its nuclear program.  Based on these properties, BdM’s model reached an equilibrium short of Iran getting the bomb.

Now, a few things should be noted here.  First, BdM’s software is proprietary.  It’s a black box.  So, we don’t know much about his actual mathematical model.  As outlined in this New York Times piece, BdM considers the interests, power, and resolve of major stakeholders to any prediction he makes.  From there, the black box simulates several iterations of interaction until stakeholder positions no longer shift.  This equilibrium represents the predicted policy outcome.  Second, whereas all statistical models are probabilistic, BdM does not couch his claims in the language of probability.  Much to the dismay of Nate Silver (and the entire discipline of inferential statistics), BdM embraces determinism in his claims – either something will happen or it will not happen.  Third and finally, BdM’s determinism makes it really difficult for him to skirt the line between a description and prescription.  When asked after his TED talk whether he was worried that his prediction would be a self-fulfilling prophecy because Iranian and US stakeholders would see his talk and adjust their positions according to his prediction, BdM replied that it would be great if the stakeholders did that because they are going to end up there anyway.  As such, what seems like prediction may just end up as correlation due to very clever marketing.  Through his model BdM may be simply shaping the future rather than predicting it.

Nonetheless, BdM’s answer to the above question would be, “yes.”  According to his model, a deal between the US and Iran was inevitable.  Iran would not get the bomb, and the US would not get a complete dismantling of the Iran nuclear program.  Such an approach is consistent with a very structuralist view of history.  Structural trends throughout history overcome individual incidents and events.  So, try as they may, individuals were not going to prevent this eventuality of a deal.  The broad “engines of history” would eventually produce the predicted outcome.  I should note here that BdM’s structuralism lies in juxtaposition to his methodological individualism – a contrast that seems to represent a logical inconsistency in his overall analytical approach.  While BdM’s model champions the individual, this privilege ends once the model make a prediction, at which point the “engines of history” take over.

Contrast this with a view that credits the Obama Administration and Secretary John Kerry with achieving an historic breakthrough in international diplomacy… or one that blames Obama and Kerry for such a terrible deal.  Neither narrative will be difficult to find in the media, and both reflect an agent-based approach to history.  Individuals make their own history.  Without the Obama Administration, Secretary Kerry, or the groundwork laid by Ambassador Bill Burns this deal could not have happened, and these individuals are either to be credited or blamed, depending on one’s view of the deal.  Oddly enough, Kerry’s narrative seems to reflect a fairly structuralist approach in which there was no alternative to the “prediction” of BdM.  According to Kerry, the international community had no alternative to this deal.

So, while I could discuss whether or not the Iran nuclear deal is a good one or not, I find that debate fairly boring, and ultimately something that could not really be objective in any way.  If the deal is to be judged by arguably the only somewhat objective criterion – its ability to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon in the near future, we won’t know how good of a deal this is for quite some time.

However, whether a deal like this was inevitable.  Now, that’s an interesting question!

So, I will pose the question to my readers.  Do you think this deal – or something like it – was inevitable?  If so, do you think BdM predicted this outcome accurately?

In other words, was BdM’s prediction accurate or was it just a load of BM?


2 thoughts on “BdM or BM? The Iranian Nuclear Deal

  1. It would seem to me that the United States lacks both the means and certainly the commitment to compel a sovereign state actor of the magnitude of Iran from doing essentially what it pleases in most areas. This is to say nothing of WHY they would wish go to the absurdly great lengths necessary (military) to do so (nuclear annihilation will not be a threat from Iran, and as for protecting Israel, well, they have their own atomics, to use a Frank Herbert term). That said, it is not as if Iran enjoys the sanctions placed on it. Both sides had something the other wanted, and there is real value of this deal to both sides. I’d say it was inevitable, just as the unfreezing of US relations with Cuba was inevitable (maybe you should write about THAT event next).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Josh, thanks for your comment. It reminded me of an argument proffered by my old national security prof Robert Farley at UK that Iranian nukes did not really matter and that this deal was more about defusing hawkish domestic political coalitions in the US and Israel. I find it a really compelling argument in light of what you have said about a nuclear Iran really not being a threat – an claim with which I wholeheartedly agree. Once again, this suggests that international diplomacy is more about domestic politics than international relations. Certainly Iran’s nuclear program was more about domestic politics than anything else. And Bibi has been saying Iran would get the bomb within a year for the past 15 years now.

      Here is Farley’s blog post:

      I am trying to do one post per week. I have written about China-Africa relations this week, but US-Cuba could be a viable option for next week. Always looking for ideas, so thanks!


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