What to do about Iran.

My research primarily focuses on preventive war. Perhaps I am a product of my time–Iraq was sold to the American public as a preventive war, and much of the international community wonders if we (or Israel, or whoever) will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

I’ve been thinking about this Iran problem for a while now. Naturally, I drew up a model for the interaction. My first manuscript showed that modeling power shifts exogenously is misguided–it is like saying “guns grow on trees.” But there is another problematic assumption that my last model and all other models on the subject use. We model shifting power as though it is free–as though, once again, guns grew on trees.

This could not be further from the truth. Since the Iran issue involves nuclear weapons, let’s start there. Try guessing how much the United States has spent on its program. Statistics like these are hard to come by, but I found one study that took a comprehensive look at America’s expenditures. And you are going to have to think big. Really, really big. Like $7+ trillion in 1996 dollars big.

So if states have to pay that much money to shift power, why the heck are they doing it at all? Well, the obvious answer is that they can get the cost back at the bargaining table by coercing the opponent to make concessions. Put differently, weapons are an extortionate investment in the future.

My model shows that this is not the full story. There are four notable parameter spaces. When the power shift is too great, the rising state refuses to build out of fear of preventive war–this is the same finding I had in my last paper. When the cost of building is too great, the rising state refuses to shift power because it won’t be able to recoup its costs.

Between those two, things get interesting. If the declining state is really impatient, it can leverage the rising state’s future power against it. In other words, the declining state offers the rising state a minimal amount today, and the rising state accepts anyway, knowing it will make up for the lowball offer later, when the rising state will have to make great concessions. But as I explain in the paper, I feel it is unrealistic to believe that a declining state would have such a great discount factor.

In the last equilibrium, the declining state makes a small amount of concessions to the rising state immediately. The rising state could build anyway, but the additional concessions it would earn are not worth the cost of building. Meanwhile, the declining state benefits because it keeps all of the extra concessions it would have made had it forced the rising state to build. Essentially, I show that the two sides can divide the surplus that comes from not building weapons in a credible manner over the course of time.

There is a big implication here with Iran. Many claim we will not be able to deter Iran from building a nuclear arsenal no matter what we do. Perhaps this is the case. Feel free to continue thinking that; just know that you are really claiming that Iran is irrational. But if they are rational, if we offer them enough, we will appease them, and we’ll come out of the deal in better position than had we forced them to build.

3 responses to “What to do about Iran.

  1. William,

    Big fan of the youtube videos, in particular the pol sci lectures.
    However, i’m struggling to apply what i’ve learnt to the war in Afghanistan. Can the conventional models of war apply here? It seems too complicated. Not least due to the asymmetry and the fact it’s main aim is to safeguard western values, which is tricky to put a price on.

    • Depends on how you interpret things. I don’t think the war has much to do with safeguarding Western values so much as it has (had?) to do with security, control, and influence in the region. And that is scalable.

  2. William,
    I came across your page researching the UofR Poli Sci PHD program. I’d like to get your thoughts and impressions of the program thus far. If you have a minute, shoot me an email.

    Interesting theory here. What if we offer them enough for us to believe we should have appeased them (our models tell us we should have accomplished this) and they pretend to be appeased (deception) and continue to build (or pretend to continue to build for additional concessions)? Say, like North Korea. Is that irrational?


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