Category Archives: Preventive War

Let’s Temper Expectations with Iran

US and Iran diplomatic teams negotiating the nuclear deal’s implementation in 2016

Recently, some commentators have suggested that the Biden administration use Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran Deal—as leverage to obtain a better agreement. This logic has a tempting appeal. If the United States appears to be less interested in an agreement, and Iran still wants one, then Iran might have to offer more concessions to coax the United States.

However, setting this as the expectation misses the bigger picture. The United States is in a poor bargaining position for three reasons. Negotiations like these are generally difficult for the opponent of the potential nuclear weapons state. Leaving the deal has caused Iran to become more capable of developing nuclear weapons, not less. And because the United States has shown a willingness to leave agreements, the United States must sweeten the pot to coax moderates in Iran to take a domestic political risk by entering a new deal.

As such, the Biden administration ought to temper expectations heading into the new round of negotiations.

Nuclear Negotiations Favor the Would-Be Proliferator
The first problem is structural. Nonproliferators—the United States in this case—generally have the inferior position.

The deadlock with Iran will end in one of three ways: Iran developing a nuclear weapon, preventive war, or a deal. The United States has a long-standing policy to curb nuclear proliferation worldwide. Iran—a long time adversary—does not get a pass here. So the first option is off the table.

Preventive war is not a good outcome either. Optimists may look at how Israel handled Iraqi and Syrian programs and aspire to replicate those precision strikes. But there are major differences between those programs and Iran’s. Iran is in later stages, with multiple key facilities. Anticipating potential strikes, Iran even built its Fordow facility underground. This would mean that an effective preventive war would require boots on the ground and a more expansive mission. Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq indicate that the United States should think twice here.

The Fordow Plant

The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, most of which is underground

That leaves a deal as the final remaining option. As I write about in Bargaining over the Bomb, if the United States wants long-term Iranian compliance, the deal must be generous. That is because the agreement must be better for Iran than building a weapon. A starting point for negotiations is therefore to treat a potential proliferator as though it already has nuclear weapons. Put bluntly, the United States needs to afford Iran about the same amount of begrudging respect it gives to other nuclear powers, like Pakistan.

Yes, this is a high price to pay. But insufficient concessions will induce Iran to build nuclear weapons. At that point, the United States will have to give that begrudging respect anyway and suffer the systemic instability that comes with another nuclear power born into the world.

Iran’s Increased Nuclear Competency
One benefit of reaching an agreement is that Iran does not spend money and resources on building and maintaining nuclear weapons. As a result, the United States can somewhat tilt the agreement in its favor.

But this reveals the second problem with trying to obtain a better deal than what original Iran Deal provided. The United States withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Iran initially maintained compliance with provisions to freeze its nuclear infrastructure despite the Trump administration’s departure.

However, Iran recently reinitiated work on uranium centrifuges, the critical technology necessary to produce fissile material for nuclear power plants—and nuclear weapons. That means Iran can more easily build nuclear weapons today than it could four years ago.

If you want to stop someone from doing something, you will have to pay them more as doing that thing becomes cheaper and easier. That is Bargaining 101. But that means the United States must be more generous this time around, not less.

Furthermore, if the United States wastes time holding out for a better deal, Iran’s competency will only increase in the interim. That further shrinks the amount that negotiators can extract out of Iran.

The Inconsistency Premium
The final problem is signaling an unwillingness to stick to an agreement is actively harmful, not helpful.

Biden may want to reach an agreement now and stick to it in the long term, but Iran must worry about what will happen in 2024 or 2028. Will a Trump-thinking candidate come into office and tear up the agreement once again?

The fact that the United States did this once suggests that it could easily happen again. If so, why would a moderate in Iran want to expend domestic political capital that will not provide lasting benefits?

Fortunately, the United States can overcome this problem in the short-term. But that means sweetening the pot for moderates in Iran to go along with it and expose themselves to those political risks.

There Is Still Time
Fortunately, there are concrete steps the Biden administration can take to overcome these problems. Iran’s nuclear fate has not been sealed. What the United States does in the upcoming months may very well decide it.

The first step is to revert back to Obama era policies. This means terminating the Trump administration’s latest economic sanctions against Iran. The same goes for the targeted sanctions against Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister and chief negotiator of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, shaking hands with U.S. lead negotiator John Kerry, in 2015

The second step is a change in rhetoric. This is a central policy goal for Iran, and obtaining it would reduce the payoff a nuclear weapon would provide. But right now, the United States is working against that. The two rivals are currently engaged in a stare down, waiting for the other side to blink to restart negotiations. For the reasons described above, Washington’s position gets worse as time progresses. Extending the invitation simultaneously softens the rhetoric and gets the process moving.

That is not to say that any of this will be politically easy. The original Iran Deal faced a fair degree of skepticism in Congress in 2015. More recently, some Republicans pushed Trump to send the Iran Deal to the Senate—precisely so that it can meet a public defeat.

In general, though, Americans should temper expectations. They currently have a bad hand and can only play the cards they currently have. It would be a mistake to let the misplaced hope of a perfect deal get in the way of a good deal.

Understanding the Iran Deal: A Model of Nuclear Reversal

Most of the discussion surrounding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the “Iran Deal”) has focused on mechanisms that monitor Iranian compliance. How can we be sure Iran is using this facility for scientific research? When can weapons inspectors show up? Who gets to take the soil samples? These kinds of questions seem to be the focus.

Fewer people have noted Iran’s nuclear divestment built into the deal. Yet Iran is doing a lot here. To wit, here are some of the features of the JCPOA:

  • At the Arak facility, the reactor under construction will be filled with concrete, and the redesigned reactor will not be suitable for weapons-grade plutonium. Excess heavy water supplies will be shipped out of the country. Existing centrifuges will be removed and stored under round-the-clock IAEA supervision at Natanz.
  • The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will be converted to a nuclear, physics, and technology center. Many of its centrifuges will be removed and sent to Natanz under IAEA supervision. Existing cascades will be modified to produce stable isotopes instead of uranium hexafluoride. The associated pipework for the enrichment will also be sent Natanz.
  • All enriched uranium hexafluoride in excess of 300 kilograms will be downblended to 3.67% or sold on the international market.

Though such features are fairly common in arms agreements, they are nevertheless puzzling. None of this makes proliferation impossible, so the terms cannot be for that purpose. But they clearly make proliferating more expensive, which seems like a bad move for Iran if it truly wants to build a weapon. On the other hand, if Iran only wants to use the proliferation threat to coerce concessions out of the United States, this still seems like a bad move. After all, in bargaining, the deals you receive are commensurate with your outside options; make your outside options worse, and the amount of stuff you get goes down as well.

The JCPOA, perhaps the worst formatted treaty ever.

The JCPOA, perhaps the most poorly formatted treaty ever.

What gives? In a new working paper, I argue that undergoing such a reversal works to the benefit of potential proliferators. Indeed, potential proliferators can extract the entire surplus by divesting in this manner.

In short, the logic is as follows. Opponents (like the United States versus Iran) can deal with the proliferation problem in one of two ways. First, they can give “carrots” by striking a deal with the nuclearizing state. These types of deals provide enough benefits to potential proliferators that building weapons is no longer profitable. Consequently, and perhaps surprisingly, they are credible even in the absence of effective monitoring institutions.

Second, opponents can leverage the “stick” in the form of preventive war. The monitoring problem makes this difficult, though. Sometimes following through on the preventive war threat shuts down a real project. Sometimes preventive war just a bluff. Sometimes opponents end up fighting a target that was not even investing in proliferation. Sometimes the potential proliferator can successfully and secretly obtain a nuclear weapon. No matter what, though, this is a mess of inefficiency, both from the cost of war and the cost of proliferation.

Naturally, the opponent chooses the option that is cheaper for it. So if the cost of preventive war is sufficiently low, it goes in that direction. In contrast, if the price of concessions is relatively lower, carrots are preferable.

Note that one determinant of the opponent’s choice is the cost of proliferating. When building weapons is cheap, the concessions necessary to convince the potential proliferator not to build are very high. But if proliferation is very expensive, then making the deal looks very attractive to the opponent.

This is where nuclear reversals like those built into the JCPOA come into play. Think about the exact proliferation cost that flips the opponent’s preference from sticks to carrots. Below that line, the inefficiency weighs down everyone’s payoff. Right above that line, efficiency reigns supreme. But the opponent is right at indifference at this point. Thus, the entire surplus shifts to the potential proliferator!

The following payoff graph drives home this point. A is the potential proliferator; B is the opponent; k* is the exact value that flips the opponent from the stick strategy to the carrot strategy:

Making proliferation more difficult can work in your favor.

Making proliferation more difficult can work in your favor.

If you are below k*, the opponent opts for the preventive war threat, weighing down everyone’s payoff. But jump above k*, and suddenly the opponent wants to make a deal. Note that everyone’s payoff is greater under these circumstances because there is no deadweight loss built into the system.

Thus, imagine that you are a potential proliferator living in a world below k*. If you do nothing, your opponent is going to credibly threaten preventive war against you. However, if you increase the cost of proliferating—say, by agreeing to measures like those in the JCPOA—suddenly you make out like a bandit. As such, you obviously divest your program.

What does this say about Iran? Well, it indicates that a lot of the policy discussion is misplaced for a few of reasons:

  1. These sorts of agreements work even in the absence of effective monitoring institutions. So while monitoring might be nice, it is definitely not necessary to avoid a nuclear Iran. (The paper clarifies exactly why this works, which could be the subject of its own blog post.)
  2. Iranian refusal to agree to further restrictions is not proof positive of some secret plan to proliferate. Looking back at the graph, note that while some reversal works to Iran’s benefit, anything past k* decreases its payoff. As such, by standing firm, Iran may be playing a delicate balancing game to get exactly to k* and no further.
  3. These deals primarily benefit potential proliferators. This might come as a surprise. After all, potential proliferators do not have nuclear weapons at the start of the interaction, have to pay costs to acquire those weapons, and can have their efforts erased if the opponent decides to initiate a preventive war. Yet the potential proliferators can extract all of the surplus from a deal if they are careful.
  4. In light of (3), it is not surprising that a majority of Americans believe that Iran got the better end of the deal. But that’s not inherently because Washington bungled the negotiations. Rather, despite all the military power the United States has, these types of interactions inherently deal us a losing hand.

The paper works through the logic of the above argument and discusses the empirical implications in greater depth. Please take a look at it; I’d love to hear you comments.

New Version of “War Exhaustion and the Credibility of Arms Treaties”

I just updated the manuscript as a standalone paper. Here’s the abstract:

Why do some states agree to arms treaties while others fail to come to terms? I argue that the changing credibility of preventive war is an important determinant of arms treaty stability. If preventive war is never an option, states can reach settlements that both prefer to costly arms construction. However, if preventive war is incredible today but will be credible in the future, a commitment problem results: the state considering investment faces a “window of opportunity” and must build the arms or it will not receive concessions later on. Thus, arms treaties fail under these conditions. I then apply the theoretical findings to the Soviet Union’s decision to build nuclear weapons in 1949. War exhaustion made preventive war incredible for the United States immediately following World War II, but lingering concerns about future preventive action caused Moscow to proliferate.

Download the full paper here.

ISA 2014 Presentation: War Exhaustion and the Stability of Arms Treaties

If you are interested in nuclear weapons and negotiations with Iran, consider my panel at ISA. The panel title is “TD09: Solving Puzzles with Formal Models: A Panel in Honor of Dina Zinnes” and will be on Thursday at 4 pm. (The lineup is impressive: Dina Zinnes, Kelly Kadera, Mark Crescenzi, Songying Fang, Anne Sartori, and T. Clifton Morgan.) Here’s the abstract:

Why are some arms treaties broken while others remain stable over the long term? This chapter argues that the changing credibility of launching preventive war is an important determinant of arms treaty stability. If preventive war is never an option, states can reach settlements that both prefer to costly arms construction. However, if preventive war is incredible today but will be credible in the future, a commitment problem results: the state considering investment must build the arms or it will not receive concessions later on. Thus, arms treaties fail under these conditions. The chapter then applies the theoretical findings to the Soviet Union’s decision to build nuclear weapons in 1949 and Iran’s ongoing nuclear program today. In both instances, war exhaustion made preventive war incredible for the United States, but lingering concerns about future preventive war caused both states to pursue proliferation.

You can download the full paper here.

Misconceptions about the Syrian Civil War

If I had to guess what the three most common explanations are for the Syrian Civil War, I would go with:

  1. Ethnic fractionalization
  2. Economic inequality
  3. The Arab Spring

The problem is, none of these are good explanations. This post explains why.

First, some background. “Rationalist Explanations for War” is one of IR’s most-cited articles from the past twenty years, and for good reason. In it, James Fearon shows that the costs of war ensure that a range of settlements mutually preferable to war always exists. The takeaway point is very simple: you can have massive grievances against a rival, but those grievances do not explain why you go to war. Many countries have internal strife of this nature. Very few of them actually resolve their problems on the battlefield. After all, the parties could implement whatever the expected end result of the fighting would be before the war starts. No one has incentive to fight at that point, since they would receive an identical outcome in expectation but suffer the costs of war (not to mention risk death).

So what does this have to say about the standard explanations for the Syrian Civil War?

Ethnic Fractionalization
Syria’s population is 60% Sunni and 12% Alawite. The Alawites (i.e., Bashar al-Assad) are in power. War allegedly started because of this massive disparity.

This is a bad explanation for two reasons. First, ethnic fractionalization in Syria has existed all along. So if it caused the war in 2011, why did it not cause the war in 2010, 2009, 2008, or 2007? You can’t explain variation (peace/war) with a constant (fractionalization), yet this is exactly what this argument attempts to do.

Second, fractionalization is only a problem because of political repression. The United States is 63% White and 13% African American with an African American in power but is no where near war because of the lack of oppression. (Technically Obama is half-half, but he identifies as African American.) So if ethnic fractionalization leading to oppression caused the war, you are still left trying to explain why Assad simply didn’t relax the extent of oppression. The majority Sunni population would be pacified, and Assad wouldn’t be risking his life fighting a war. Both sides would appear better off.

Economic Inequality
Economic inequality in Syria is bad. For the latest data I could find, Syria’s Gini coefficient is .358 (2004, World Bank). War allegedly started because the impoverished had grievance.

This is a bad explanation for the same two reasons as above. First, this inequality has persisted for a long time. It’s hard to explain why war did not start in 2010, 2009, 2008, or 2007 but did in 2011. Second, if inequality was such a big deal, why didn’t Assad simply throw money at the impoverished groups? After all, those suffering are fighting (in theory) for better economic opportunities. Assad could just give them those opportunities, avoid the bloody mess, and not be risking his life. Again, all sides would appear better off.

Also, it’s worth noting that the United States’ Gini coefficient is .45 (2007, World Bank), making the U.S. more unequal than Syria.

The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring provides a better explanation than the first two because it didn’t exist in 2007, 2008, 2009 or the first eleven months of 2010 but did have effect after that point. Consequently, variation of the presence of the Arab Spring can explain variation in the peace/war outcome.

On the other hand, there is still a question of why the Assad regime couldn’t appease the protesters’ demands peacefully for the same reasons as above. In fact, Qatar did something to that effect, giving raises to key groups (including 120% increases to military officers) to preempt the need to protest.

The Simplest Explanation
The simple explanation of the Syrian Civil War is as follows. The Arab Spring acted as a coordination mechanism and/or allowed disenfranchised groups to overcome their collective action problem. This gave the protesters a sudden spike in military power. For Assad to resolve the tensions, he would have to credibly commit to giving up concessions in the long term. However, once the protesters all went home and Arab Spring coordination effect died, he would no longer have reason to continue giving those concessions. So the protesters became rebels, knowing that war and regime change were the only way to secure concessions.

The Syrian Civil War is, in effect, a preventive war.

This post is based on a lecture I produced for my Civil Wars MOOC, seen below:

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.

Explaining Iranian Nuclear Intransigence

Iran is almost certainly trying to build a nuclear bomb right now. For the past four years, President Obama has been trying to get Iran to back down with a combination of rewards for nonproliferation and sanctions in the meantime. Why has Iran ignored us thus far?

A lot of people believe that you simply cannot appease rising states in this manner–they need weapons to secure concessions, so bargaining is fruitless. A few years ago, I was one such person. But in my effort to verify what I thought, I discovered I was wrong, and turned my results into an interesting paper. Settlements almost always leave both sides better off, even if the rising state can freely take the concessions and proliferate anyway.

So, again, why is Iran trying to proliferate?

I have a working paper that I think provides a reasonable explanation. (It is still preliminary, so I am not posting it here. Please email me and I will gladly send you a copy, though.) Conventional wisdom portrays Iran as the villain and us as the good guys. But if you think about the situation from their perspective, Iran’s motivation will be obvious.

The United States has always had a bad relationship with Iran since the revolution. There was a glimmer of hope on September 11, 2001 when Iran (quietly) assisted us with the invasion of Afghanistan. But that cooperation tanked when Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil” a few months later. This infuriated Iran, and things went cold for a couple of years.

Nevertheless, Iran again extended an olive branch in May 2003 in a remarkable effort that has amazingly escaped our collective memory. Iran put everything on the table–full diplomatic relations, dropping the nuclear program, recognition of Israel, ending support of Hezbollah, help with al-Qaeda–and asked for shockingly little in return. It is the type of deal we would jump at today, so much so that it is difficult to believe it was within our grasp just nine years ago.

How did Bush respond? He didn’t.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Bush administration completely ignored the offer.

So consider how Iran views Obama’s overtures. Iran knows the United States is weak right now–yet another war in the region would be difficult at the moment. So Iran has two choices. Option one is to proliferate now while it is still an option and force the United States to play ball in the future. Option 2 is accept Obama’s concessions now and hope the United States will continue them into the future without the threat of nukes in the background. Given the experience from 2003, which would you choose?

The unfortunate part is how inefficient the result is. Both sides would be better off if the United States could credibly commit to continued concessions into the future. But because the U.S. cannot, we are stuck with Iran attempting to go nuclear.

Of course, this does not mean proliferation will certainly be the ultimate outcome. Trade sanctions could lead to some domestic shock which changes Iranian priorities entirely. The proliferation process itself is uncertain as well; it is possible that Iran will find that proliferation will take too long and ultimately give up. But until we reach that point, don’t expect U.S.-Iranian relations to suddenly thaw.