Iran: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita updates his TED talk

TED asked Bruce Bueno de Mesquita to explain the Iranian negotiations. Do not miss his thoughtful answers at TED Blog – you will definitely not see any of this in big media. I have excerpted two fragments of his commentary, one on the nuance of sanctions, and then on the media frenzy over Ahmadinejad (who Bruce reckons is roughly #17 in the power ranking):

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.

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