Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

31 Responses to “Is Iran a Menace?”

  1. Bruce Hamilton on October 6th, 2009 at 21:09

    I suspect the Iranian leadership ( not all Iranians ) seek the mana associated with nuclear weapon ownership.

    Pakistan’s status in much of the Middle East and developing world was elevated with their first Islamic bomb. Previously they were known more as a cheap source of soldiers and servants for richer Islamic states.

    I’d also question the assertion that India’s ownership was targetted at China, I suspect it was Pakistan, a recognized “enemy” state. It may have changed to China subsequently.

    I regard owning nuclear weapons like carrying personal firearms, rash trivial actions can easily escalate into battles. The more countries owning nuclear weapons, the more likely that impulsive actions will occur – with tragic consequences.

    MAD is a rational outcome to suicide bombers, and perhaps some national leaders. Whether international pressure affects such people is debatable, but perhaps we should try, as it may be the path of least harm to all.

  2. Ag on October 6th, 2009 at 23:54

    Firstly, the holocaust conference was conducted as a means of pointing out Western hypocrisy and succeeded brilliantly. Remember that the majority of Westerners and their governments had supported the publication of the Mohammed cartoons on the grounds that, while being extremely offensive, supporting free speech mattered more. So Ahmadinejad organized the holocaust conference to test that out, and Westerners and their governments were almost unanimous in saying that it was offensive and should never have been allowed to take place. Ahmadinejad didn’t even have to say anything, as Western hypocrisy was immediately apparent to Iranians.

    Secondly, the only reason I think that there is so much kerfuffle is that an Iranian nuclear deterrent will end Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the area, and constrain its freedom of action. The influence that organizations like AIPAC have in the US goes some way to explaining why the latter opposes Iranian nukes.

    Thirdly, an Iranian nuclear deterrent will restrict US freedom of action in the area, as they won’t be able to realistically threaten Iran. Iran also has a geographical advantage with respect to the strategically important gulf, and so they would have a bit more leverage.

    That’s it I think.

    A

  3. Miro on October 7th, 2009 at 01:20

    Perhaps worth pointing out the very small possibility of a purely economic rationale…

    Iran, despite its massive oil reserves, is extremely inefficient with its energy use, everything is geared around oil, and the degraded infrastructure struggles to keep Iran running. Iran is importing a good deal of its petroleum simply because it cannot produce enough, and few other Iranian products are worth as much to the rest of the world.

    Nuclear power means they can produce more electricity for the domestic market, reducing their internal needs, and thus sell more oil and oil-products on the international market.

  4. Neil on October 7th, 2009 at 07:11

    Nuclear power means they can produce more electricity for the domestic market, reducing their internal needs, and thus sell more oil and oil-products on the international market.

    But if nuclear power was the only objective it seens very stupid to incur the wrath of other nations when no-one would stop them from such a thing. Especially the US – they’re quite happy to actually provide North Korea with nuclear reators aslong as there are processes in place to prevent a weapons programme.

    I think it does go back to regional politics. The Sunni vs the Shi’ites. The US is concened that Iran going nuclear would lead to Saudi Arabia and others doing the same. That’s why last year Hillary Clinton suggested that if Iran did get the bomb then the US’s reaction should be to extent a nuclear umbrella over the Sunni countries to try and prevent an arms race as it did with Western Eurpoe duing the Cold War (that was presented as an option in contrast to a millitray strike).

  5. jcuknz on October 7th, 2009 at 07:18

    If they cannot maintain a petroleum infrastructure how much more horrifying the thought of them trying to run a nuclear version? I think tolerance of their desires and even assistance to that end is preferable to a slanging match over a supposed Axis of Evil and sanctions.

  6. Hugh on October 7th, 2009 at 11:13

    If we say Iran should be allowed to have nuclear weapons because it has no significant history of international aggression then we’re effectively saying that all but a handful of states should be allowed to have nuclear weapons (and yes, I realise that that handful would contain almost every state that does have nuclear weapons, but that’s another issue).

  7. Chris on October 7th, 2009 at 11:59

    I saw some game-theory predictions that Iran (rationally) wants to demonstrate that they can produce nuclear weapons – for deterrence; but they won’t – presumably to prevent a regional arms race.

    In other news, Israel has bought German submarines capable of delivering nukes, for second strike capability. Apparently this is crucial because Israel is so small, a few nukes could take out their whole country. With the subs, Iran is assured of payback.

  8. Pablo on October 7th, 2009 at 13:17

    Ag: I agree that a quest for leverage is involved here, as well as a quest for security. The trouble is that an Iranian quest for a nuclear deterrent creates a classic security dilemma: its move to increase its security (and leverage) via a nuclear deterrent makes rival states insecure, who (given uncertain Iranian intentions and the need to make pessimistic assessments of them as a basis for contingency planning) then reply in kind either individually or via alliances (Neil mentions the US offer of a nuclear umbrella to the Gulf states–a classic instance of such a dilemma that will only fuel Iranian suspicions). That leads to arms races and/or militarisation of the dispute and increases the possibility of war. That is precisely what is happening at the moment.

    Hugh: The need for a nuclear deterrent is–if ever–internally justified by the threat environment surrounding a vulnerable state and its penchant for international aggression. Most states have neither an imminent threat on the horizon or a history of military aggression. Iran has the former, and a history of being attacked. Your “other issue” is actually a most interesting one, and is the basis for efforts by NZ and other states to make the NPT a nuclear disarmament as well as a non-proliferation regime.

    Bruce: The Indians had a massive conventional imbalance (both in terms of men and materiel) in the favour vis a vis Pakistan when they went nuclear. The Indian nuke tests came after a long period of friction with China over common border issues and Chinese assistance to maoist insurgents in India. Thus the Indian nuclear weapons programme was originally designed as a Chinese deterrent first, then as a first strike capability on Pakistan. Needless to say, the Pakistanis could not live with that status quo. The irony is that the Chinese nuclear programme was designed as a deterrent to the US and USSR–another version of the security dilemma at work.

    Miro: If the Iranians merely wanted to use their nuclear programme for civilian energy needs, there would be no need to play coy with the IAEA on inspections etc.

    Chris: My understanding is that Israel already has submarine platforms with a nuclear second strike capability, so this would merely be an upgrade. In fact, I read somewhere that the US may have in fact assisted the Israelis in this regard, and that use of the sub-based nukes are subject to prior US approval.

    Needless to say, from an NPT standpoint the addition of any nuclear weapons state increases the possibility of nuclear war. Although the trend is towards the gradual expansion of the nuclear armed crowd, there are 3 instances (Argentina, Brazil and South Africa) where states voluntarily ended their nuclear weapons programmes or dismantled existing ones. In particular, it might be worth looking at the bilateral security guarantees exchanged between Argentina and Brazil in the late 1980s to see if similar protocols could be adapted to the iranian case. Perhaps not, but worth a look (the SA weapons programme was unilaterally ended by the Botha regime once majority rule became imminent–the Apartheid leaders did not trust an ANC govt with nukes, and all of its weapons scientists were white–some of whom are suspected of being Israeli).

  9. What would Hayek say on October 7th, 2009 at 14:23

    Applying game theory to this (origins of MAD). The concern about Iran from a game theory perspective is less on past behaviour but rather what rational expectations can you derive for the regime (and yes I’m aware rational expectations can be considered an oxymoron).

    Under the bi-polar US/USSR system it was reasonable to infer that politicians in the US and USSR conformed to certain types of behaviour. However with a regime like Iran you may not be able provide a probability that they will do x in response to y. The reason for this is the Iranian governance structure. A regime with multiple centres of power is difficult to negotiate with you need to determine who speaks for what and what authority (real and inferred) they have or influence.

    So going back to MAD. The idea worked as a massive (and scary) game of chicken, but it was reasonable to infer what the behaviour of both parties would be and it was lear who had power/control.

    Outside of the strong state environment (Iran as the example) their is greater risk of unknown behaviour. So instead of two cars facing each othe but never starting (because you can infer each next step of the opponent and its rational to never go there) you may have a participant who has a car, but may have two or three drivers and or someone pushing from behind.

    So from a response perspective you worry about them ever being allowed near a car at all. This is not to discuss rights or wrongs of nuclear weapons etc, but to illustrate the problem of nuclear proliferation outside of strong state environments.

    Additionally as Pablo points out there is potentially multiple trigger points within the Mideast. That heightens the concerns and generates more problems of response.

    A choice under such an environment maybe to consider, is it better to remove the ability for the weak state to have nuclear capability at x known cost now, to avoid potential y and greater costs later. Alternatively you might accept x level of capability by a weak state so long as some other threshold is not reached. This leads back to pablos quest for security points.

    Not easy choices.

  10. Ag on October 7th, 2009 at 14:35

    Ag: I agree that a quest for leverage is involved here, as well as a quest for security. The trouble is that an Iranian quest for a nuclear deterrent creates a classic security dilemma: its move to increase its security (and leverage) via a nuclear deterrent makes rival states insecure, who (given uncertain Iranian intentions and the need to make pessimistic assessments of them as a basis for contingency planning) then reply in kind either individually or via alliances (Neil mentions the US offer of a nuclear umbrella to the Gulf states–a classic instance of such a dilemma that will only fuel Iranian suspicions). That leads to arms races and/or militarisation of the dispute and increases the possibility of war. That is precisely what is happening at the moment.

    I’m not sure that the existence of an Iranian bomb would necessarily increase the prospect of war. In fact, I think it would decrease it. Nuclear weapons, or at least the sort of crude weapon that Iran might manufacture, are in practice unusable. Iranian nuclear weapons would be so few in number and so crude as to be only usable as a deterrent. The result of having them is, as North Korea has discovered, that it gives you a stronger negotiating position. War between India and Pakistan seems less likely than ever now that nuclear weapons have entered the picture. Whether we like it or not, nuclear weapons do appear to have a suppressive effect on belligerence.

    I think part of US strategy is the doctrine that there be no Middle East state that they cannot in the end bully. Despite all that is said, in the very end Israel will tow the line, because they need US support. A nuclear armed state can’t really be bullied, and Iran is the US worst nightmare, a nuclear armed state that is relatively independent.

    But this all assumes that the Iranians are seeking nuclear weapons. I doubt that is what they are doing. They may well be seeking to create the impression that they have them, or the impression that they could get them in short order, but the Ayatollah Khomeinei, IIRC, declared nuclear weapons to be un-Islamic, and his pronouncements are still taken very seriously in Iran, in a way that westerners find it hard to understand.

  11. Lew on October 7th, 2009 at 15:22

    Fascinating post, and thread. I don’t have time to add much, except to say that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita — whose aggregative prediction model has a fairly impressive record — thinks not.

    Disclaimer: I saw this guy on The Daily Show and I don’t know much about him. But his methods appear sound, and his record is fairly impressive. His book is on my big list o’ books I’m going to read Real Soon Now. And his appearance on EconTalk was pretty good too.

    L

  12. What would Hayek say on October 7th, 2009 at 15:29

    lew – cool addition to the debate and looks like another book for me to add to my collection – thanks.

  13. Quoth the Raven on October 7th, 2009 at 15:41

    In related news:

    President Obama has reaffirmed a 4-decade-old secret understanding that has allowed Israel to keep a nuclear arsenal without opening it to international inspections, three officials familiar with the understanding said.

    The officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were discussing private conversations, said Mr. Obama pledged to maintain the agreement when he first hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in May.

    Under the understanding, the U.S. has not pressured Israel to disclose its nuclear weapons or to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which could require Israel to give up its estimated several hundred nuclear bombs.

  14. Neil on October 7th, 2009 at 18:58

    Fascinating post, and thread. I don’t have time to add much, except to say that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita — whose aggregative prediction model has a fairly impressive record — thinks not.

    That is very interesting and am a big fan of game theory but this worries me –

    “But as the computer model ran forward in time, through 2009 and into 2010, positions shifted. American and Israeli national-security players grudgingly accepted that they could tolerate Iran having some civilian nuclear-energy capacity.”

    The US and Israel currently have no issue with a civilian nuclear energy capacity. It’s odd that the model has this as a future significant change in policy.

  15. Pablo on October 7th, 2009 at 19:59

    Being a political scientist I am familiar and enjoy rational choice and game theoretic analyses (and know Bueno de Mesquita’s work). In fact, I have used some simple versions of both in my own research and writing. But I must hasten to add, from both an academic perspective as well as from my dealings with the US intelligence community, that formal modeling has its limits when predicting things such as actor intentions or motivations (just as technical intelligence gathering has its limits on those lines). Moreover, as social constructivists are wont to point out, subjective assessments of objective phenomena may differ markedly and lead to very different interpretations of intent, to say nothing of different “rationalities” when approaching “objective” issues such as nuclear proliferation. The allegory of the blind men and the elephant fits here, as does the rationale that compels suicide bombings (which are anything but irrational).

    What makes Bueno de Mesquitas predictive model worthy is, as the article pointed out, his superb ability to read interviewees and rank their responses on an ordinal scale that, at 1-200, is far more sophisticated than the 0/1 scale that most political science regression analyses have been based upon (and if not him, he uses experts in the field to judge and score the responses to his multivariate scale). So the predictive model is sophisticated, but it is the human input that makes it work.

    From his predictions about Iran (which sound plausible to me as a non-expert), it seems that reaching the nuclear threshold without crossing it may give Iran’s leaders all the diplomatic leverage they need. But its is the dynamic between what they are signaling now, and the interpretation and response to these signals by the US and Israel in particular, that will make or break the prediction, and on that score there are too many internal variables in each country to safely specify an outcome (since the model itself focuses at the state actor level rather than include a wide swathe of domestic factors). Thus, for example, it cannot account for the impact of Fox News warmongering on the disposition of the White House to engage in a preemptive strike in order to help ensure passage of health policy reform. This may seem far-fetched (and I agree it is), but the point is that there is an inter-subjective dimension to political linkages that is not fully addressed by Bueno de Mesquita’s model (although I am sure he is working on it). Hence the model is a good predictive tool but not a perfect one (which I know Lew never claimed it to be).

  16. Lew on October 7th, 2009 at 20:09

    Neil,

    The US and Israel currently have no issue with a civilian nuclear energy capacity. It’s odd that the model has this as a future significant change in policy.

    What they have is a mistrust that it is a civilian nuclear energy capacity (rather than a cover for something more sinister), or more importantly that any legitimate scheme will be put to sinister uses. On that basis they take a zero tolerance approach to all things nuclear. I wonder if it’s a matter of semantics: I can see the US and Israel becoming more confident that the programme we now know exists is benign, or is predominantly used for benign purposes.

    Then again, the model does predict that they get the bomb and don’t use it. So … yeah.

    Sure am gonna read his book.

    L

  17. Neil on October 7th, 2009 at 20:25

    Thus, for example, it cannot account for the impact of Fox News warmongering on the disposition of the White House to engage in a preemptive strike in order to help ensure passage of health policy reform. This may seem far-fetched (and I agree it is)…

    I reckon Obama knows a bit about game theory and most likely plays a mean game of chess and is highly unlikely to be influenced by Fox News. But it is a complex system and “random” events can play an unexpected role – eg 9/11 .

    I wonder if it’s a matter of semantic…

    I thought that too. It could be a journalist paraphrasing and missing the nuance of reassurance.

  18. Lew on October 7th, 2009 at 20:35

    Pablo,

    So the predictive model is sophisticated, but it is the human input that makes it work.

    This is the bit which made me sit up and take notice when I began to grasp what he was doing. So many people rely on some arbitrary set of numbers which, because their origins and provenance aren’t verifiable, are assumed to be valid.

    Thus, for example, it cannot account for the impact of Fox News warmongering on the disposition of the White House to engage in a preemptive strike in order to help ensure passage of health policy reform. This may seem far-fetched (and I agree it is), but the point is that there is an inter-subjective dimension to political linkages that is not fully addressed by Bueno de Mesquita’s model (although I am sure he is working on it).

    This is a good point. Tangentially, I’m particularly interested in Heisenberg uncertainty in his work: especially inasmuch as his predictive model becomes more credible, widely known and used in the open (as opposed to being used for internal purposes as it largely seems to have been). The possibility of Bueno de Mesquita’s predictions informing the diplomatic process is a rabbit hole I’d love to stick my head down, though I’ll likely never have the chance.

    L

  19. Neil on October 7th, 2009 at 20:46

    the human imput is often of the sort – “i know that you know that i know that you know…”

    and if there’s more than two people it’s a real mind f*ck –

    http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=KfIfnBdK5EsC&pg=PA112&lpg=PA112&dq=alice+and+dirty+faces+game+theory&source=bl&ots=3qy5oGfF8Y&sig=7LaBclMnjvvBTbuzwsRm01x_FbM&hl=en&ei=OVLMSvDdOI_OsQPQpfSLAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    is the mother sort of like the UN?

    Underlting all of this is The Theory of Mind – our abulity to imagine what other people might be thinking. Which is a brain process endowed to us by evolution.

  20. Bruce Hamilton on October 7th, 2009 at 21:35

    Bruce: The Indians had a massive conventional imbalance (both in terms of men and materiel) in the favour vis a vis Pakistan when they went nuclear. The Indian nuke tests came after a long period of friction with China over common border issues and Chinese assistance to maoist insurgents in India. Thus the Indian nuclear weapons programme was originally designed as a Chinese deterrent first, then as a first strike capability on Pakistan. …

    I happened to be in India in the 1970s when there was a minor border clash with Pakistan. India eventually mobilised nearly 30% of their standing forces to get sufficient resources to the relatively-small border incident.

    The subsequent media reports of the causes were entertaining. Water had almost escalated a trivial border incursion into a full-scale war.

    The reason, corruption. Diesel fuel was highly prized then, so soldiers were draining fuel from large numbers of contingency fuel tanks, selling it on the ready black market, and replacing it with water, so the thefts went unnoticed.

    As forces were mobilised, transport and armour engines failed, so more forces from further afield were mobilised, many suffered the same fuel problems.

    Pakistan was concerned at the extent of the mobilisation, and started to mobilise more forces. I think an intermediary nation was used to quell the flames.

    My recollection was that India only tested nuclear weapons ( 1974? ), after it became clear that Pakistan’s 1972 nuclear programme was getting very serious. I don’t recall much concern about China till the later round of tests a decade or so later.

    My recollection was that Gandhi said it wasn’t intended as a first strike ( their delivery systems would be rather fragile then ), but a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion, commonly called the “Smiling Buddha” test – not sure why.

    I accept that the above perceptions could be wrong, as it’s not a topic I know much about. It also seems to me that the current concerns about Iran aren’t much different to the concerns about Pakistan’s “Islamic” bomb in the 1970s.

    If nations keep talking about the responsibility of ownership, and work in partnership, then perhaps common sense will delay the arrival of an uncaring nutter.

  21. Phil Sage on October 8th, 2009 at 07:43

    Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime

    So you would not consider Iran supplying rockets to Palestine for them to be fired at Israel as aggression?

    Fascinating post, and thread. I don’t have time to add much, except to say that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita — whose aggregative prediction model has a fairly impressive record — thinks not.

    Think Nicholas Taleb and Black Swans. http://decision-making.moshe-online.com/nostradamus.html

    All I wish to add here is that Prof. Bueno de Mesquita (left) makes his predictions under conditions of “severe uncertainty” which of course render them hugely vulnerable to what Prof. Naseem Taleb (right) dubs the Black Swan phenomenon.

    Hence, the very proposition that such predictions can be made at all, let alone be reliable, is diametrically opposed to Nassim Taleb’s categorical rejection of any such position. For his thesis is that Black Swans are totally outside the purview of mathematical treatment, especially by models that are based on expected utility theory and rational choice theory.

    Interesting, though, this is precisely the stuff that Prof. Bueno de Mesquita’s method is made of: expected utility theory and rational choice theory!

    Even more interesting is the fact that Nassim Taleb (right) and Bueno de Mesquita (left) are staff members of the same academic institution, namely New York University. So, all that’s left to say is: Go figure!

  22. What would Hayek say on October 8th, 2009 at 09:04

    Both Taleb and Bueno de Mesquita are corect. Taleb is right that you can’t predict black swans (Europeans considered all swans to be white until travel to Australia revealed black swans) as they lie outside the realm of what is known. Bueno de Mesquita operates within the realm of what is known and provides a series of what if scenarios (the essence of Monte Carlo analysis) to test what is the most probable scenarios. What this model allows you to do is have a better understanding of what are the major influences/trigger points. This is useful for business/policy analysis as it enables decision makers to have a sense of the go/no go events/decisions and how they are likely to influence others.

    This does not ever say if you do x you’ll get a 100% gain – this is where Taleb comes in with some unknown event that is beyond our knowledge can always happen. But you get a view of whether risks are on the upside (more likely to have a better result) or if risk is on the downside (if it can go wrong it will go wrong).

    Modelling is no about perfection but provides an aggregate tool to show what is probable. You have to always understand what the underlying assumptions are (and it appears Bueno de Mesquita spends a lot of time working on the assumptions) so that you undestanding what the models limitations are and what its advantages are.

  23. Phil Sage on October 8th, 2009 at 09:50

    Hayek. quite right.

    On the subject of Iran developing a nuclear weapon and the consequence and probabilities of them surreptitiously passing a bomb to terrorists I personally would prefer to take more cognisance of Taleb than de Mesquita.

    captcha – In Gothland

  24. Pablo on October 8th, 2009 at 13:38

    Phil: Two points: 1) I mentioned Iranian use of proxies and surrogates in the post. If we are to measure aggressive intent by weapons sales to rogue regimes and irregular groups, then the US, China and Russia would be at the top of the list. In fairness, Iran is merely doing what others do and your distaste for Hamas/Hezbollah does not alter that fact; 2) the Iranians do not need to go through all of this hullabaloo in order to deliver a suitcase nuke to an irregular group. They have the fissile material already. They have a suitcase (or a truck). That they have not done so is a sign of their rationality and understanding of the logics of nuclear diplomacy.

    WwHs: I have given some thought to your very good MAD discussion above. As I mentioned in a Scoop column some months ago (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0904/S00148.htm), nuclear strategy amongst the big players is now one of flexible response rather than MAD. But I believe that your analysis holds on two levels: 1) smaller nuclear powers still see the issue as MAD, since they will be overwhelmed in a strategic exchange and do not have the technical capability to surgically deliver tactical low-yield nukes as an intermediate step between conventional war and all-out nuclear confrontation; 2) the decision steps taken in the quest for a nuclear weapons capability are, in fact, very much like a chicken game. And as you point out, states with multiple centres of power or multiple decisional veto players of equal weight seriously complicate the calculus of other players, particularly when subjective rationalities are not shared between players within the potential nuclear weapons state (as well as its rivals).

    As for Taleb and Bueno de Mesquita: policy makers need predictive models, whereas academicians can make ex post analyses. Thus I would imagine that most policy-relevant models incorporate “X” and “Y” (unknown variables of negative and positive import) into their calculations along with the other known variables/factors in order to account for black swan uncertainties.

  25. steve lu on October 9th, 2009 at 16:16

    I suspect it has more to do with Jewish arrogance and American greed than anything else.Its just so easy for the western media to suck up to both and the great unwashed are happy to climb on board the demonizing train.

  26. Pablo on October 9th, 2009 at 18:25

    Steve: if only it were that simple…

  27. imperial zeppelin on October 10th, 2009 at 16:43

    Strikes me that the menace is the peddling of known falsehoods about Iran and its nuclear ambitions. eg They have no weapons grade uranium…or at least none has been found. None.

    There are a number of intelligent and informative articles out there on the web calling into question the veracity of the ‘evidence’ the US is relying on with respect to Iran.

    Here is just one http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/KJ08Ak05.html

  28. steve lu on October 11th, 2009 at 07:23

    So why does the NZ media recycle the same old lies and bullsh-t?

  29. imperial zeppelin on October 11th, 2009 at 08:30

    So why does the NZ media recycle the same old lies and bullsh-t?

    Because the msm, being corporatist, is international in nature….and lazy. It receives news…the party line as it were. And that is what it reports. Just like the old Pravda of the USSR.

    You don’t really expect NZ media to report favourably on Iran, or Venezuela, or working class struggles or anything that might actually be naturally close to our hearts?

    Give us gossip, sport, weather and market activity…washed down with a dollop of manufactured anxiety and fear.

  30. Lew on October 11th, 2009 at 17:32

    If you want reportage of a certain kind, provide source material for it as a path of least resistance for the media. No use whining about the limitations; learn to work within them.

    L

  31. SPC on October 12th, 2009 at 21:27

    The irony of the nuclear programme in Iran is that the economic cost will do more to undermine the regime’s security than outsiders ever could – a focus on developing more refineries would have ended Iran dependency on imported refined oil and allowed them to export their oil in a refined form. Similarly they could have invested in the use of gas.

    Iran being economically weaker with a larger and growing young population and its regime becoming dependent on nationalist or Islamist foreign policy posturing to sustain popular support is not a good nuclear capability mix.

    PS I suspect the Russians are aware of the above, want the regime to self-destruct but also want to enjoy the coming Persian Gulf instability as it will push up the global price of Russia’s energy exports.

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