Foreign Policy Blogs

When will Iran make the Nuclear Bomb?

Apparently never.  The answer comes from applying the “rational actor” game theory to this question.  Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics, often used in the social sciences, to study how people will behave in strategic situations– a situation in which an individual’s success in making decisions depends on the decisions of others (think Nash Equilibrium).

The prediction was made by Bueno de Mesquita, one of the world’s most prominent applied game theorists, in this New York Times’ article: Can Game Theory Predict When Iran Will Get the Bomb? As the article states:

To predict how leaders will behave in a conflict, Bueno de Mesquita starts with a specific prediction he wants to make, then interviews four or five experts who know the situation well. He identifies the stakeholders who will exert pressure on the outcome (typically 20 or 30 players) and gets the experts to assign values to the stakeholders in four categories: What outcome do the players want? How hard will they work to get it? How much clout can they exert on others? How firm is their resolve? Each value is expressed as a number on its own arbitrary scale, like 0 to 200. (Sometimes Bueno de Mesquita skips the experts, simply reads newspaper and journal articles and generates his own list of players and numbers.) For example, in the case of Iran’s bomb, Bueno de Mesquita set Ahmadinejad’s preferred outcome at 180 and, on a scale of 0 to 100, his desire to get it at 90, his power at 5 and his resolve at 90.

So what was the outcome for Iran?  The answer consists of a single number that represents the most likely consensus of all the players.  For Iran, the number starts at 160 – bomb-making territory – but by next year settles at 118, where it does not move much.  What does this mean?

It means that Iran won’t make a nuclear bomb. By early 2010, according to the forecast, Iran will be at the brink of developing one, but then it will stop and go no further. If this computer model is right, all the dire portents we’ve seen in recent months – the brutal crackdown on protesters, the dubious confessions, Khamenei’s accusations of American subterfuge – are masking a tectonic shift. The moderates are winning, even if we cannot see that yet.

C.I.A. has hired Bueno de Mesquita for more than a thousand predictions and a declassified study by the C.IA. found his predictions “hit the bull’s-eye” twice as often as its own analysts did.  Stanley Feder’s C.I.A. study revealed that Bueno de Mesquita had a 90 percent hit rate.  His “startlingly precise predictions” include:

Five years before Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, Bueno de Mesquita predicted in the journal PS that Khomeini would be succeeded by Ali Khamenei (which he was), who himself would be succeeded by a then-less-well-known cleric named Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (which he may well be). Last year, he forecast when President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan would be forced out of office and was accurate to within a month.

Knowing this, may be we can all go to bed feeling safer – unless you happen to dismiss the rational-actor theory and believe that human-beings make decisions irrationally.



Sahar Zubairy

Sahar Zubairy recently graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas- Austin with Masters in Global Policy Studies. She graduated from Texas A&M University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in May 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. In Summer 2008, she was the Southwest Asia/Gulf Intern at the Henry L. Stimson Center, where she researched Iran and the Persian Gulf. She was also a member of a research team that helped develop a website investigating the possible effects of closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by Iran.