What Can Game Theory Tell Us about Iran’s Nuclear Intentions?

What’s the best way to manage a secret project—one whose stakes, whether diplomatic or business, are very high? And what do your actions tell your opponents about your true intentions?

Those are questions that my colleagues and I asked two years ago in our paper “Managing a Secret Project,” which appeared in the journal Operations Research, published by the association INFORMS. They come up again now as Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterates the opposition to these talks that he sounded during a joint session of Congress.

Here’s the way that the game is played. Say you’re a project manager on a major program and you fear that a competitor will react to, steal, or interfere with your project because he wants to make sure that you don’t succeed. If you go full steam ahead and signal that you’re hurrying to complete the project, your opponent will feel compelled to stop you at once. If you don’t proceed quickly, though, your opponent may wait—until it’s too late to respond.

That is the case with Iran and the West, as we pointed out in our 2013 paper. Using game theory, we treat the situation as a leader/follower game, like chess, where opponents take turns moving. The first move goes to the West: to choose a threshold for action. The second move goes to Iran: to choose how to manage its weapons development program, taking into account the West’s threshold for action. What do we mean by threshold for action? Our assumption is that the West knows that Iran would like to have a nuclear weapon but for political reasons is wary of taking any aggressive action unless Iran is extremely close to producing an actual weapon. (Clearly the definition of “extremely close” varies from one country to the next.) Iran is fully aware of the West’s reluctance to act. How does it manage its development program? It makes choices about which steps of the development process to carry out at which time, how fast to carry them out, and how much effort to put into hiding them.

What is Iran’s best strategy, assuming that it wants to develop nuclear weapons? If you’re Ayatollah Khamenei and you want to obtain a destructive nuclear military capability, the fastest way to achieve that goal is to do two things in parallel: enrich uranium and develop military delivery systems. But knowing your opponents, the U.S. and Israel, you know that the fastest way is not the best way. You’re aware that if you clearly demonstrate your military intentions, they will be forced to attack you. Another piece of intelligence: you know that there isn’t very much political support for war in the U.S., especially in the wake of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Your strategy, therefore, is to not cross the threshold that will compel the United States to act forcefully until the last moment possible.

Therefore your best choice is the slower choice: First, you declare that you are enriching uranium solely for peaceful purposes, like generating energy and providing nuclear materials for treating cancer patients. Second, you refrain from weaponizing the uranium until the very last moment possible. Since your enemies have already shown that they are reluctant to attack, if you don’t step across their threshold, you can continue your nuclear program. Once you are ready, you will need to make a mad rush to complete the final steps toward a weapon before the U.S. and Israel react.

There is evidence that Iran’s use of this strategy is working. A 2013 report issued by then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair determined that Iran had halted all military attempts to create nuclear weapons. Despite its repeated public warnings, Israel has not sent its planes to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. And the U.S. and its partners have been involved in extremely lengthy negotiations with Iran—let’s remember that even though we are coming up against a deadline in those negotiations at the end of March, Iran has managed to stretch out the P5+1 negotiations for nearly 10 years.

While it is impossible to know exactly what the Iranian leadership is thinking, our analysis using models from operations research and game theory suggests an explanation for the actions it has taken up to this point. Indeed, if I were an Iranian leader planning to develop nuclear weapons and seeking a strategy to do so, I’d pursue the exact course that Iran has been following for more than a decade. Whatever the results of the U.S.’s negotiations with Iran, I hope that President Obama and Secretary Kerry keep all of Iran’s potential motivations very much in mind.

Photo: AP/Evan Vucci, Pool

Deputy Dean and Professor of Operations Research