Iran and the Prisoner’s Dilemma


At this point of the crisis the United States has laid its cards out on the table. Any sort of Iranian retaliation will likely result in air and cruise missile strikes against Iranian targets. The dilemma for Iran is how to retaliate and obtain revenge without it resulting in Tehran becoming the world’s largest parking lot. Pretty neat trick if they can pull it off, but highly improbable. The US killing of Qasem Soliemani must be avenged otherwise Iran will lose a tremendous amount of influence across the region. Saving face is an important aspect of geopolitics in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Iran has placed itself in a corner and has limited options to work with right now.

Many of my colleagues on the academic side of the IR field are using the Prisoner’s Dilemma model for this particular situation. I certainly understand their reasoning. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a standard model of game theory explaining how two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce an optimal outcome in a given situation. It is a clean, logical, straightforward instrument. Unfortunately, logic exists only in a controlled environment such as a lecture hall, or a lab. In the real world, there are hundreds of variables that can produce a desultory effect on a situation, and therefore cannot be effectively modeled ahead of time. There are countless examples of this found in economics, politics, international relations, and military strategy throughout history.

It would be counterproductive for me to lay out some models of strategic interaction, and use them to explain the present crisis, and forecast what might come next. The main purpose of this blog is to discuss current geopolitical developments unfolding around the world, and to do so in a manner less formal than what you’d find at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, or the Kennedy School of Government up at Harvard. In any event, now is not the time for this crisis to be modeled, or analyzed through game theory. That comes in the postgame period when folks will sit down and review the crisis with all of the facts available, and the benefit of hindsight applicable.

The time for this will come, however, that time is not the present. There is still a lot of crisis left to play out and this one will include a number of unanticipated twists and turns. As mentioned above, this is the real world where things are not as neat and clear as they are in a lecture hall or conference room.

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