Negotiating with Iran: Credible Commitment Problems?

The United States, the rest of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and Iran are in Kazakhstan this week, negotiating over the Iranian nuclear program. The West wants it to stop, fearing it will eventually yield a nuclear weapon. Iran continues to claim that its program is purely for scientific and energy purposes. No one believes that. The United States’ focus has therefore been figuring out how to convince Iran to let it go.

Unfortunately, the dialogue in the U.S. has been hopelessly misguided. In this post, I will make two claims: (1) the United States can always offer sufficient concessions to induce Iran to end its program; (2) Iran does not believe the United States can credibly commit to these concessions over the long term, thus explaining Iran’s obstinate behavior. The policy implication is obvious: if we want Iran to stop proliferating, we need to stop pretending that it is difficult to buy Iranian compliance and start seriously questioning our own commitment to giving Iran a good deal.

I discuss claim (1) in the main theoretical chapter of my dissertation. Many years ago, I saw President Obama making a speech about getting Iran to join “the community of nations” and give up its nuclear program. From my knowledge of the existing political science literature, I figured it would be easy to show that no such agreement would work. After all, if you were Iran, why would accept concessions and not build when you could accept concessions and build anyway? The temptation to shift power seemingly destroys the possibility of negotiated settlements.

However, I was unequivocally wrong. The conversation about Iranian duplicity (and my own initial intuition) fails to properly analyze Iranian incentives. Nuclear weapons are costly. If Iran is offered most of the concessions it expects to receive if it were to proliferate, it has no further incentive to develop a bomb. Sure, Iran could continue proliferating, but it ultimately will not receive any more than the United States is already giving it. However, it will have to pay the cost of the weapons, which is a complete waste at that point.

Meanwhile, the United States has incentive to make this sort of “butter-for-bombs” offer. Although the U.S. would like to offer no concessions, such a strategy is naive, since this would induce Iran proliferate. On the other hand, offering the butter-for-bombs deal ensures that Iran will not build nuclear weapons. Moreover, since Iran is not paying the cost of proliferation, there is extra pie to go around. The United States can extract it.

The paper linked above gives the details. Surprisingly, these agreements work under very loose conditions. They work in an infinitely repeated interaction; they work when Iran could freely renege on the deal without any recourse from the United States; and they work even when the United States is completely incapable of observing Iranian nuclear progress. Butter-for-bombs is all about getting the incentives right. Offer Iran enough, and you do not have to worry about the deal falling through under any circumstance.

One important assumption of the above model is that the United States’ ability to launch preventive war remains constant through time. What happens if we relax this assumption? Another chapter from my dissertation asks this exact question. I show that if the United States goes from being unable to credibly threaten preventive war one day to being able to credibly threaten preventive war the next day, bargaining breaks down, and Iran develops nuclear weapons. But the blame goes squarely on the United States.

To understand why, suppose we reach the future time when the United States can credibly threaten preventive war. At this point, Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. If it were to, the United States would respond by launching preventive war. Iran would not receive the benefits of nuclear proliferation but still waste the cost it paid to develop nuclear technology. Internalizing this, Iran will not proliferate. But because Iran will not proliferate, the United States has no reason to make those butter-for-bombs offers from before. Instead, it can offer no concessions and still induce Iranian compliance, as Iran does not have any better options.

Now think about how this endgame affects bargaining today. The United States would like Iran to accept a butter-for-bombs agreement and avoid proliferation. But consider the problem from the Iranian perspective. If Iran accepts those concessions today, then it advances to that future world where the United States can effectively leverage preventive war. At that point, the concessions stop. Alternatively, Iran could pay a cost upfront, proliferate today, and leverage the additional power to force the United States to continue giving concessions into the future. Needless to say, the second option looks a lot more attractive. Thus, bargaining breaks down, and Iran proliferates.

The problem here is not Iran’s stubbornness. Rather, it is the United States’ inability to credibly commit to continue providing concessions in the future. If the U.S. could, then Iran would have no reason to proliferate. (This was shown in claim 1.) However, Iran expects the United States to renege on the concessions, which in turn causes the proliferation behavior.

One might object that the United States would never take advantage of its strength in that manner. To anyone who doubts that, I point to May of 2003. This was the perhaps the height of American power. Things were going well in Afghanistan, we had just run over Saddam Hussein’s army, and the Iraqi insurgency had not yet begun. Iran felt enclosed. Rather than panicking, Iran extended an olive branch. Tehran sent the Swedish ambassador (who takes care of American interests in Iran) over Washington with a sweeping offer. Iran essentially waved a white flag and put everything on the table. Their demands in return were minimal: they wanted a prison swap and normalized relations. If this type of proposal arrived today, it would be magical Christmas land in DC.

I’d like to say that the Bush administration gleefully accepted the offer and sent a warm reply. But they didn’t. In fact, they sent no reply at all. They simply ignored it and chastised the Swedish ambassador for bringing it to their attention.


The domestic political consequences in Iran were bad. Moderates held the presidency at that point and pushed for the deal with the Ayatollah’s blessing. After their failure, they were pushed out of government. Mahmound Ahmadinejad’s administration replaced them.

As we all know, America’s position of strength evaporated, leading to the drawn-out insurgency. Iran knows that the decade-plus of war has left us exhausted from conflict. Preventive war is unlikely today. But given enough time, our war-weariness will fade away. Iran is concerned that the United States will immediately switch back to the firm fist of the Bush administration’s years. They see our temporary weakness as now-or-never opportunity to proliferate. And they are going for it.

How do we get out of this mess? It’s possible that we cannot, and we just have to suffer the consequences of another poor foreign policy decision from the Bush years. But if there is any hope of reaching an agreement with Iran, it must come through the United States demonstrating its commitment to ongoing concessions that will not instantly disappear at some later date. Unfortunately, the domestic political dialogue in the U.S. focuses entirely on the credibility Iranian commitments while treating our own as the word of God. This is misguided. And until we can have a serious conversation about our own credibility, we will not make any progress with Iran.

2 responses to “Negotiating with Iran: Credible Commitment Problems?

  1. Excellent discussion. I enjoyed reading this piece.

  2. Very interesting, beautiful use of game theory.

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