Iran's nuclear program: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita predicts no nuclear weapons will be built

Posted by:

Only on the TED Blog: In The TED Lens, each Sunday a TED speaker offers a new look at the week’s big news stories. This week, political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explains the negotiations currently taking place between the US, the UN and Iran, as Iran’s nuclear program is being called into question.


This week, Iran stated that they refuse to discuss their “nuclear rights” at the UN Security Council. What are the ramifications of making a statement like that? Politically, what does that mean for them and what does that mean for their interactions with the rest of the world?

Good question. Let me put their statement into a bit of context. Let me start with what I said at TED, back in February, which is that they will develop enough weapons-grade fuel so that the world will know that they know how to make a bomb, but they won’t go ahead and make a bomb, and relate that to the New York Times front page Iran story on September 9th — the lead international relations story in the Times that day — the first paragraph of which says that the intelligence community has informed the White House that Iran has made a spring towards the nuclear bomb but has deliberately stopped short of making one. And they explicitly used the word “deliberately.” That is, they didn’t run into a stumbling block or something; they chose to stop, which is exactly the outcome that was predicted at TED.

Let me push that forward to their current statement. I have not actually seen this statement in print, but I’m going to assume that you’ve stated it precisely, because what you said had very important meaning the way you said it. Their rights, under the non-proliferation treaty — and President Obama has acknowledged that this is their right — is to develop nuclear energy for civilian uses. This is a right for all signatories under the NPT. So, if what they said is that they will not be discussing their rights, that’s just the right to make civilian nuclear energy. It does not include, inherently, all discussion with regard to enrichment. Enrichment is beyond what is necessary for nuclear energy and beyond their rights under the treaty they have signed. So, I think they made a very carefully phrased statement. This does not rule out discussing other aspects of their nuclear program. However, there’s a great deal of evidence that they’ve gone beyond civilian nuclear energy. You don’t need to enrich uranium for civilian energy. There are other ways to make civilian nuclear energy — you can do it by enriching, but they seem to have gone beyond that. They do not seem, by this statement, to have precluded discussion of that.

I expect that this dance over how to resolve the issue is not going to be settled in one conversation. But, I’m hearing in that statement that they’ve left the door open and I imagine that the people at the State Department who have looked at this statement and understand exactly what their rights are under the non-proliferation treaty will see just the way I have expressed it. Not to say that they will say that publicly.

Now, I’ll address the terms of public standing within Iran. The civilian nuclear energy aspect of the program is very popular in Iran. But, the aspects of the program that seemingly go beyond civilian nuclear energy are very unpopular because the Iranian people see this as harming their economy and putting them at risk, neither of which they’re keen on. And the Iranian leaders surely understand that, because they went through the wrenching experience in June, when, for the first time since the revolution, the supreme leader was publicly challenged — not only by mass demonstrations, but also by the khoum clerics, and by very prominent politicians such as (Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi) Rafsanjani and (Seyed Mohammad) Khatami and so forth.

I think it’ll take another year or two to play out, but in the next year or two we will see a shift away from a strict theocratic government to something much closer to what (Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi) Khomeini had in mind originally, which was a government where politics and theocrats — the religious leaders — were more separated — a government that basically evolves into a little bit of a petty military dictatorship that is heavily influenced by a group called the Bonyads, who control a lot of the money in Iran, and who, because they are concerned about making money and so forth, are likely to move Iran in a more pragmatic direction. That won’t be a nice government necessarily, but will be a government, at least, that people can live better in.

President Obama has also made reference to sanctions as a possible response to Iran developing their nuclear program further. How effective do you think US sanctions would be in this situation?

I’m going to try to answer this very precisely, because there’s a very important distinction to be made between the threat of sanctions and the enactment of sanctions. The threat of sanctions can be very effective if the Iranian leaders calculate that the cost of the concessions being asked for is smaller for them than the cost that sanctions will impose, and to avoid sanctions they will make concessions in negotiation. And so, threatening sanctions is a very good thing to do at this stage as negotiations get going. On the other hand, if the Iranian leaders calculate that the cost of the threatened sanctions when imposed is smaller than the benefits that they gain when maintaining the policy that we’re trying to change, then they’ll maintain the policy and the sanctions won’t work. And so, generally, except for calculation error, the threat of sanctions can be effective. Once sanctions are implemented, that’s a pretty good indicator that the target of the sanctions has made the calculation that they can bear the cost of the sanctions better than they can bear the consequences of making the concessions, and they won’t work. That’s a subtle distinction, but an important distinction.

It’s also important to distinguish between sanctions that are aimed at the general economy of Iran and sanctions that are leader-specific, that are aimed specifically, for example, at tying up the leadership’s access by the leadership to their money or their funds. Sanctions of the latter type, leader-specific, are more likely to get them to decide up front to make concessions, rather than pay that price. Sanctions of the other type, aimed at the general country, are more likely to either form an opposition to the regime which, if they anticipate, will produce concessions beforehand, or to consolidate support for the regime, sympathy for the regime internally, in which case they would backfire. I’ve not analyzed what the likely consequences are along those lines, but those are the questions from a strategic perspective that one would have to work out. The threat is, in any event, a good thing because the threat forces the Iranians to make these calculations and therefore to reveal, through the negotiations, whether they have concluded that the sanctions really would be costly to them or not.

Sanctions at our end are typically more or less cheap talk because they don’t really cost the United States a lot. It doesn’t cost us a lot not to buy oil from Iran since we currently don’t buy oil from Iran. So, we’re not really giving up much. And tying up their bank accounts doesn’t really cost us much. It costs a little credibility to our banks, but that’s about it. Sanctions are also more effective if they are politically costly to the people imposing the sanctions, because then it’s an announcement that they view the issues as so important that they are willing to pay a price. So far, we have not shown that.

There are also the negotiations around the three Americans who are being held by Iran at the moment …

They’re a bargaining piece on the Iranian side. They’re something that the Iranians can give up to make themselves look nice, thoughtful, considerate. And presumably they are going to try to extract something of value. It’s actually quite funny — Ann Curry of NBC interviewed (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, a week or so ago, and brought up these three alleged hikers, and he indicated that Iran was open to releasing them when the United States released several diplomats that we were holding in Iran and Iraq. She informed him that we had released those diplomats in July. He obviously didn’t know that, so he found himself in this awkward position. So now, he’s got to presumably look for something else to get.

That anecdote has an important element to it. The American media spend much too much time paying attention to Ahmadinejad. He is not a big power in Iran. Khomeini and the Supreme Council and the Guardian Council — these people are important. They’re the ones who run the show. He can’t wander very far form what they want and get away with it. Look at after he was installed, and attempted to appoint a cabinet that Khomeini didn’t like. Khomeini just said, “No.” So Ahmadinejad got a cabinet that he doesn’t like, instead. Ahmadinejad just doesn’t have that big a say.

Watch Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s TEDTalk from February 2009, where he makes predictions about Iran’s nuclear future:

Read more TED Blog Q&As on current events:
+ Jonathan Haidt on the US healthcare debate
+ Clay Shirky on Twitter, social media and the Iran election protests
+ Laurie Garrett on H1N1 swine flu and our preparedness for pandemic
+ Nathan Wolfe on H1N1 swine flu and the “perfect storm” for viruses