Thursday, December 6, 2007

Rationality in Iran

One of the most widely recognized tools of rational analysis is the cost-benefit comparison in which a decision-maker balances the advantages and disadvantages of alternative choices before pursuing a course of action. Rationality implies that decision-makers make choices that they believe are in their net best interest. A corollary of this is that decision-makers respond in relatively predictable ways to incentives and penalties.

Earlier this week, the National Intelligence Council released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear intentions and programs. NIEs are reports that summarize the judgements of the nation's different intelligence agencies. The most recent NIE made headlines because it reversed a previous intelligence conclusion that Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program--the new NIE concludes that the country halted that effort in 2003 (key differences in the earlier and most recent NIEs are summarized on the last page of the report).

What's the connection to rationality, you ask. Well, tucked away inside the report is a reassessment of Iran's decision-making process. Specifically, the report states
Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.

The report indicates that Iran's decisions going forward might be influenced by appropriate carrots and sticks, though it cautions that the precise inducements are hard to determine.

As the NIE points out, a problem for U.S. and international policymakers is that Iran's decision to halt its pursuit of nuclear weapons "is inherently reversible." So the country's future behavior is critical. Oddly, though, the NIE applies rationality only to the country's past behavior. In describing Iran's future actions, the report states that
convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons.

In essence, the government responded to international pressure before but likely won't again. Moreover, the report justifies its assessment in terms of Iran's past behavior--behavior that the NIE also concluded supported rational decision-making.

There are few issues that are more serious than the spread of nuclear weapons, especially among countries like Iran with clear links to terrorism. While the NIE is loaded with caveats and is contradictory in its assessment of Iran's past versus future motivations, the report nevertheless suggests an additional set of instruments that could help rein in Iran's behavior. So far, there is no indication that the Bush administration's policy has budged one inch in response to the new analysis. A rational response would be to consider these additional tools.