Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Iran and Threats to U.S. Security
Aug 11 2008

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of Stanford University's Hoover Institution and New York University talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about threats to U.S. security, particularly Iran. Bueno de Mesquita argues that Iran is of little danger to the United States and that Ahmadinejad is an unimportant player in Iran's political system, more of a stalking horse for provocative ideas rather than a wielder of power. Bueno de Mesquita then looks at what Iran has to gain and to lose by appearing to build a nuclear weapons program and actually using a nuclear weapon. He then goes on to examine the nature of other threats to the United States. The closing topic of the conversation is the peculiar incentives facing U.S. Presidents as their terms expire.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Aug 11 2008 at 10:42am

Boy he got my interest with his last comment. I would like to hear what he has to say about fear and Global Warming.

Aug 11 2008 at 11:11am

Shame on you Bruce. You know very well that Iran is quite dangerous. The council that you cite as “rational and pragmatic” is, to a man, Islamists first and pragmatic second. Their design is a global caliphate and worldwide sharia. Even if you don’t believe they are dangerous to the outside world they pose a threat to their own woman, gays, disabled, Christians and the like. Their ferocious suppression of human rights is an affront to all civilized people and their over the top support for Hamas, Hizbollah and other world wide terror organizations will not cease unless someone stops them. They are not, nor have they been, rational actors.

Aug 11 2008 at 11:39am

This guy lacks any substantive understanding of nuclear matters. There’s no such thing as “weapons grade nuclear fuel”. The Low-enriched uranium (LEU) that Iran is making CANNOT be used to make bombs. That requires Hi-enriched uranium (HEU) and Iran has repeatedly offered to place additional, voluntary IAEA-monitored restrictions on its nuclear program to ensure that it does not make HEU.

Secondly, Iran’s nuclear program started under the SHah, with the full support and encouragement of the United States, since it makes economic sense. The program is MASSIVELY supported by the PEOPLE of Iran. Iran’s politicians are simply responding to that.

Finally, it is IRAN which has been “threatened”. It is IRAN that was the victim of WMDS. It is the Israelis and the US which are pointing nuclear weapons at Iran. So who is the real “threat” to whom?

Aug 11 2008 at 7:13pm

This was interesting and informative. The only puzzle for me is if this model of assuming rational actors works when examining WWII, which is the great catastrophe in foreign policy (a bit like the Great Depression for economics). We often hear arguments against appeasing a certain dictatorship invoking the failed attempts to appease Hitler’s Germany. How much are these arguments relevant? and can the failure in 39 be explained away by game theory? I don’t know.

Salaam Yitbarek
Aug 12 2008 at 8:46am

I must say that your podcasts with Bueno de Mesquita are my favourites.

In this podcast, I would have liked a little more exploration on the two assumptions of rationality and the prevailing goal being maintaining political power. Obviously these assumptions have the same problems as similar ones do in economics. A rational Saddam Hussein may have avoided being invaded, for example.

Nevertheless, given what we know and what we can know, I do think that the model as a whole is a good way, perhaps the best way to analyze political power. It certainly provides a certain clarity to any political picture.

However, given the recent errors in U.S. foreign policy (eg. Iraq, even if one thinks the invasion was a good idea, must be classified an error in aggregate), and Bueno de Mesquita’s model being used by some in government, a discussion about the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy would have been nice.

I would submit that most countries’ foreign service are the most inefficient government departments, given the incentives and accountability mechanisms they face. Is this why they make so many glaring mistakes?

Aug 12 2008 at 10:17pm

Thanks for a very interesting podcast. There are few places where one can hear an interpretation of events – in this case the threat posed by Iran – that is so completely at odds with conventional thinking. That is to be appreciated.

Some of the guest’s comments, however, would have benefited from more time for elaboration. First off, he claims that Ahmedinejad is the 18th most powerful leader in Iran (with a std dev of approximately 0.5). That may well be, but I wonder how many other countries have their 18th most powerful leader acting as the face of the nation, not to mention ranting about wiping another country off of the map, and this without any repudiation at all from leaders 1 through 17. It would be interesting to hear in what ways Ahmedinejad’s power is exceeded by the others.

Next, Mr. Bueno de Mesquita asserts that Shiite Iran is in competition with Sunni Al Qaeda. While the Sunni – Shiite rivalry is clearly intense and deeply rooted, Mr. Bueno de Mesquita either missed or discounts the numerous examples of Shiite – Sunni cooperation. Iran selectively joins forces with Sunnis, as in Iraq, in pursuit of larger goals such as the weakening of American influence in the area. Hezbollah, the Shiite terror group, also partners with Sunnis when it believes such a partnership to be in its interest. It would seem a major threat posed by a nuclear Iran is not just that it might launch a strike, but that it might provide nuclear weapons to a terror group – even a Sunni one. That would allow the achievement of the Iranian goal of obliterating Israel – a goal shared by many others in the Middle East who would be willing to cooperate – while providing at least some cover over the origin of the weapon.

A couple of comments about President Bush and his administration were also puzzling. In discussing the impact of term limits it was claimed that President Bush continued to take risks (referring to Iraq), to do ‘what he thought was a good job,’ but that ‘it didn’t work out.’ Further, President Bush ‘continued to pursue a strategy that he believed in…until his party got devastated in the mid-term election, and then he realized, oh, the voters are not happy.’ I wonder if it’s possible that Mr. Bueno de Mesquita missed the fact that the surge began after the mid-term election. I’m not sure what he thinks ‘didn’t work out,’ but it seems quite clear now that the surge did work and that we are winning in Iraq.

Lastly, I wasn’t clear about the comments regarding whether or not the administration should be credited with deterring attacks on the US after 9/11. In the context of the discussion about foreign threats, which are apparently exaggerated for political purposed (which does not mean there are no foreign threats), it would seem that the lack of attacks is simply a reflection of the reality that the risk was lower than popularly believed. Yet it was also pointed out that we have effectively ‘decapitated’ Al Qaeda. So might we have been attacked in the last seven years if we hadn’t decapitated Al Qaeda?

Thanks again for a provocative discussion.

Mickey Barnhill
Aug 14 2008 at 12:37am

The one true test of a podcast is whether it motivates me to learn more about the guest and his/her area of expertise. In this case it certainly did. A truly outstanding podcast. As others have stated, I too am not sure if I agree with his “rational hypothesis”, though, of course, nothing is ever 100% all the time; yet, it also troubles me that it seemingly is so logical. Thaler & Ariely (see how informed you helped me become: I can now drop names with ease) would probably disagree–and that would lead to an interesting discussion. Thanks Russ and team for another great Monday gift. It has become one of the highlights of the weeks. I appreciate your efforts.

Famous J
Aug 14 2008 at 8:53am

Okay, I’ll bite:

What is it about 1302 that started the decline of the Catholic Church? Was it the Peace of Caltabellotta? Or the backlash from Pope Boniface’s Unam Sanctam?

Also, I’m glad Bueno de Mesquita pointed out that Iran is not actually a democracy. It drives me crazy when people suggest that because they have elections, Iran must be a democracy.

The way I’ve put it, Iran is a democracy the way my high school was a democracy. We had campaigns, elections, and in the end someone was inaugurated as the “President” of the Student Council.

But despite all that, the President doesn’t control anything of importance to the school, like the budget or the curriculum. And if someone is being expelled for bringing a flare gun to school, I don’t think appealing to the Student Council President is going to do much good.

I think the president of Iran has about as much power, which is to say, as much or as little as the mullahs want him to.

Russ Roberts
Aug 18 2008 at 5:36pm

Bruce has asked me to post this group response to the comments so far:

Many of the comments are thoughtful if sometimes a bit off point (likely my fault given the limited time to explain things in detail in a podcast). I didn’t mean to say, for instance, that the Supreme Council wasn’t dangerous for people in Iran. the point was about external affairs, not internal. Likewise, the cooperation between some Sunni and Shia currently in Iraq does not mitigate their international competition for supremacy in exporting Islam. It is true that the Iranian leadership says they will not make weapons grade fuel (which the correspondent notes exists after saying it doesn’t) but talk is cheap. What they do behind closed doors is another matter. They have not been particularly cooperative with IAEA inspectors as the IAEA has, in fact, reported. And yes they have been threatened. Their desire to deter us or the Israelis is surely one of the motivations behind their nuclear program as well as are other factors. President Bush certainly tried harder after the 2004 election as I argued is the case for the earlier part of a term-limited term, and yes the surge has been successful but neither his popularity nor his party’s seems to have improved and that is the sense in which he has not been successful in my view. He has not improved the prospects that his policies will be carried forward by the next president. Even McCain, after all, tries to run as a maverick, independent-minded politician who frequently disagrees with Bush (and he — probably rightly — takes credit for urging the surge long before Bush came around). And as for 1302, I view the aftermath of Unam Sanctum for the papacy as the major factor. After all, Philip the Fair essentially deposed Bomniface VIII in response and then — probably — had him murdered while he was imprisoned by the French. Philip also used his “crusade” against Boniface to promote the idea of French nationalism (he invoked the idea pro patria mori in a nationalist way perhaps for the first time in his conflict with the Church).


Gerry (sans typos)
Aug 23 2008 at 5:09pm

Bueno is fundamentally mistaken.. Nuclear proliferation among radical Islamic groups is not a deterrent but an incentive (rather, an opportunity)! Yes Iran IS run by radical Muslims and their ultimate goal is to destroy Israel and the United States. They are prepared to die for what they believe and would like nothing more (according to their radical beliefs) than to be martyrs of Jihad.

I believe Bueno’s arguments are notably persuasive when it comes to “mainstream” (for lack of a better word) countries. But all reason–as we know it–goes at the window when accounting for radical Islamic regims that hold martyrization on the top of their list. Yes, there is pure Evil! And the policies and beliefs of the Iranian leadership embodies it!

Aug 24 2008 at 8:46pm

Oh so thought provoking! But Bruce’s statement “One could argue that who is elected is relatively unimportant in the sense that their self interest will lead them to similar policy outcomes. McCain on the surface appears to be a hawk, Obama a dove.” I’m dying to ask what the answer would be if referring to the economy!! And wouldn’t that have a great deal to do with US security???

Aug 28 2008 at 12:24am

I wonder if the reason the probabilities of high cost events, such as terrorist strikes in Continental US, are low is because of the effort expended in preventing such occurrences. If so, it seems wrong to argue that we incorrectly attribute high(er) probabilities to high cost events- it is precisely because we are worried about such events and make the effort to prevent them that the probabilities of such occurences fall.

Bob Kearney
Sep 20 2008 at 3:17pm

I wonder what Bruce would say about deterring support for international terrorism. It seems that countries, such as Iran, can support terrorism with impunity. Is there something fundamentally different about using nuclear weapons and supporting international terrorism that makes one deterrable and the other not?

Berel Dov Lerner
Sep 29 2008 at 4:13am

Although I am a great fan of Econtalk, I only got the chance to hear the Iran program today. First of all – a comment on the choice of topic. One of the great advantages of Econtalk over other current affairs programs is that it presents a conversation between equals – one economist interviewing another, which leaves less room for hand waving and bull-sh**ing than you get when journalists interview economists. The problem is, Russ, that while you are a really sharp guy (really!) you do not seem to be particularly expert on Mideast politics and security issues. As a result, you naturally gave Bueno de Mesquita a much easier time than you would if you were talking about economic issues.
A more substantive comment: I agree with gator80: “It would seem a major threat posed by a nuclear Iran is not just that it might launch a strike, but that it might provide nuclear weapons to a terror group – even a Sunni one.” I live in Israel, and I have personally experienced being attacked by Iranian missiles. Of course, those missiles were fired by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. As a result, Iran suffered no direct retaliation from Israel for those attacks. I don’t think that the fact that Iran attacked Israel via a proxy kept it from gaining popularity points in the Moslem world.
Unfortunately, even highly placed people in Israel’s security establishment do not understand this point. A couple of years ago I had a little argument about his with a top Israeli general. He was sure that Iranian nuclear weapons would only be used against Israel in an attack clearly originating from Iranian soil – otherwise it would not improve their national esteem. Here is my scenario for a “rational” Iranian nuclear attack. A nuclear device is delivered to an Israeli target by some clever low-tech method (in a shipping container, rammed into the Tel-Aviv beach by a speed-boat, whatever) and explodes. Nobody takes “credit” for the attack until a week later, when some previously unknown group announces on the Internet that it is responsible for the attack. They don’t say where they got the bomb from (was it Iranian, or North Korean, or did they buy it on the ex-USSR black market?) Iran takes pains (via informal channels) to convince that the Moslem “street” that they were behind the attack, while never officially saying anything that would come near to justifying retaliation against them. That is how a “rational” Iran might behave.
One additional point. Summarizing Bueno de Mesquita responses to readers’ comments, Russ writes: “Their desire to deter us or the Israelis is surely one of the motivations behind their nuclear program as well as are other factors.” Why exactly does Iran have to “deter” the USA or Israel? If it weren’t for Iran’s nuclear program, no one would be threatening Iran to begin with. If Iran is rationally seeking a nuclear deterrent, it must be doing so because it plans to act in the future in ways that seriously threaten US and Israeli interests – actions so damaging that only a nuclear deterrent could protect them from American or Israeli reprisals. It may not be very pleasant a few years down the line when we find out what the Iranians are planning to do once they are protected by a nuclear deterrent.

Comments are closed.


About this week's guest:

About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:Articles:

      • "Assessing the Merits of Selective Nuclear Proliferation", by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and William Riker. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1982.

Web Pages:

Podcasts and Blogs:



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. Danger, threats to the United States. Are Iran Ahmadinejad a threat to the U.S.? Threat to our friends. No missiles with sufficient range to reach the U.S. Can it smuggle a bomb into the U.S.? That's more a matter of movies. Ahmadinejad is the President of Iran, but virtually all power there is held by the Supreme Council. Has veto power, can remove people from office; all people elected including Ahmadinejad serve at the pleasure of the Supreme Council. Interviews, Ahmadinejad ranked 18th in terms of power. At odds with most people's public perception. Maybe he's 17th or 19th; but he's not 3rd or 4th. He is a very outspoken man, says many outrageous things, so he gets a lot of news coverage. Came to power by election from being mayor of Teheran by carving out a constituency of not-very-well educated who saw in him someone who would advance Iranian nationalist sentiment. His power has faded and his party keeps losing by elections. Media attention also because American media has poor or no access to Ali Khamenei, head of the Supreme Council, most powerful person in Iran. Putin had audience with Khamenei; Western leaders only get to see Ahmadinejad. Why would Khamenei want Ahmadinejad in power? Good for floating trial balloons, has a salutary effect in terms of foreign policy; has convinced some people that the Iranian leadership is irrational, and in doing so have attained a certain amount of deterrent clout. Very Schellingesque (Thomas Schelling, Nobel Prize winner), soft application of game theory to national security problems, brinksmanship. Strategy that if you convince the other guy that you'll drive off the cliff, the other guy gets pretty nervous about it.
7:43Do the 17 people ranked in front of Ahmadinejad have similar views? Do they want to build a nuclear weapon? Ahmadinejad would like to. Ali Khamenei would probably like the capacity to make weapons' grade fuel, bargaining chip, but a weapon itself could lead to a pre-emptive attack by the Israelis. Others in power much more pragmatic, likely to advocate no more than a fuel cycle at the research level, not to produce enough actually to make a bomb. As a social scientist it makes sense to treat these people as if they are rational. Track record of predictions, last 24 years: 1984 predicted in print who would succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, designed someone; predicted instead shared leadership between Ali Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Khomeini died 5 years later. Based prediction on rationality assumption. Rationality doesn't mean doing good things. It means doing things based on their own best interest. Logic of Political Survival, previous podcast, leaders want to keep their jobs. Data are consistent with Ali Khamenei's wanting to stay in power. What would their motivations be to building a nuclear bomb? If they could get far enough without Israel's attacking, they have a deterrent. India and Pakistan: since they both detonated nuclear weapons they have made an effort to get along. Argument is that deterrence claim is false because Israelis will move beforehand. Iran, Shiite force, is in competition with Al Qaeda, Sunni force to be the dominant leader in the Islamic world. They hate each other. Bomb would be a way of achieving nationalist pride, which keeps the party in power while the economy goes to hell. Rational reasons for wanting to build a nuclear weapon. They say want to develop nuclear power for peaceful energy uses, which is their right.
15:55What would threaten the political survival of the head of the Supreme Power? He'll probably step down in a few years. Several things constrain him. Their economy has done very poorly, popular unrest. Prior to his coming to power, a lot of student demonstrations. Stopped in part because of suppression but also because attention has been turned to Iran's nationalist pride, not being humiliated or pushed around by the outside world. Through this nuclear program they have helped to win over many of the students. U.S. carries the big stick but hasn't used it. Enough headaches in Iraq. European Union sympathetic to economic sanctions and against military involvement. Beneficial for Iranians; and for businesses in Europe who do business in Iran; and to Russia's Putin. Iran's internal political power: is it stable? Where does the power come from? Stable for near future. When Khamenei steps down, his successors are likely to be more moderate. Prediction: either Ghalibaf or Shahroudi. The regime is stable. Hard to talk about the institutions of government as being stable or not because they are tools held by the leaders. Theocratic leadership has the final say. Look a lot like the Catholic Church looked in the 1500s. Folks who have a stable situation for themselves. Running the economy into the ground. Resource curse: when they run into trouble they can pump more oil. In their interest to create a fuel cycle capable of generating weapons' grade fuel. Same argument would seem to apply to Israeli fears. Would a strike on Israel help their goals? If they actually struck Israel the United States would reduce them to ashes. Air reach: would have to refuel in Iraq. U.S. is committed to a defense of Israel. Would the strike be nuclear? Not necessarily. Is Israel is going to take out Iran. Bush: No military action against Iran, though statements have been floating since 2003. Statements come from people stimulated by government leaders but who are not themselves government leaders. Game theory: "cheap talk." Leadership doesn't say anything that direct.
25:21Deterrence. Fashionable at the moment for people to think the Israelis will take out the Iranians or that the Iranians are crazy and will attack Israel if they have a chance. Look at world history: very, very large number of international disputes since the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, many of which rose to the level of wars. Divide world into subgroups depending on possession of nuclear weapons or access to them via allies, etc. and plot probability of their becoming violent, see virtually nothing at the nuclear level; you only get war when there is no nuclear deterrence. Unlikely Iran would be different. Iranian leadership has been in power almost 30 years; little evidence of their irrationality. Shah. Muammar Gaddafi, depicted as irrational, rolled tanks to the border of Libya but didn't go over. Know how to stay in power but don't take undue risks. Much of U.S. foreign policy has been focused on making sure that no one else gets a nuclear weapon that doesn't already have one. Should we be so vigilant? 1982, article joint with William Riker, "Assessing the Merits of Selective Nuclear Proliferation", took positive rather than normative position--how does the world work as opposed to how should it work--to explain mutual deterrence. Why is the U.S. opposed to nuclear proliferation? Answer was that either you believe in deterrence or you believe you are willing to sacrifice deterrence to have the U.S. be in a dominant political position. If we have the bomb and they do not, that's an advantage. Usual argument to oppose it is window dressing.
31:40"We"--theme of this show is the danger of saying "we." We do share the interest that we don't want to be wiped out. What do "we" get out of it? Political leaders get benefits out of it: they get to impose their will on others, can extract policy compliance at the margin, carrot and stick. Saddam Hussein overthrown to get someone more aligned with the U.S. When Bush wasn't so happy with initial new leader; Maliki ended up being in charge. Getting the guy we thought we could shape, deliver for the American voter the policies at the margin they would like out of Iraq. Two viewpoints: altruistic, American foreign policy is a force for good or for evil, save world or destroy it; other view is pragmatic view. Bush may have preferred Maliki: unintended consequences. Hard to imagine that there is any hope of fashioning a world order. Had "our guy" in Iran, the Shah, but it didn't work out. Terrible assumption: "we". When you say it didn't turn out so well--it turned out very well for generations of American leaders, short time horizon. To get to that good state of the world, they won't do things that in the short run hurt their chances of being reelected. Shah brought to power. One of the things that makes a nondemocratic leader vulnerable to being overthrown is for people to know that he has a terminal illness. Shah, terminal cancer; Marcos, late stages of lupus; Mobutu, terminal cancer. We got out of the Shah 26 years, a lot of Presidents, none of whom were worried about what will happen on the next guy's watch. Maliki: Bush got reelected. Since then what does he get? He believed Maliki was going to deliver a successful outcome in Iraq which would bolster the Republican party. Is the person principled or do I like the principles? Bush is clearly principled. Purple fingers.
39:17Seems like lame duck president should be a risk taker, but not the case. Legacy; plums that come later. If principles matter at all, you'd think it would be a chance to indulge your principles. Term limits have two consequences. In the last term, up until the time at which the political cost of impeaching and removing a president exceed the cost of waiting him out, the president has to try particularly hard to do a good job. Bush, risks, continued to pursue a strategy in Iraq. After that point the president is pretty free within the constraints of power. Bush might for example want to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, consistent with his view of the world; motivates some people to say that will happen now. Who cares is the Democratic House and Senate who constrain his resources via their votes. Constrained by checks and balances. Carter tried to act on the cheap; didn't work out. What is he free to do? Appointments to government office not so high that it requires government approval; John Adams, long lame duck period through March of 1801, man of integrity, packed the government with friends and relatives. Led to important Supreme Court case. Bill Clinton apparently sold pardons. Bush took some pretty huge risks. Torture is a big risk; blanket ex ante pardons, facing war crimes.
44:45Fear, threat, and danger. Economic news, threat of foreign nations to economic competition used by pundits; used more dramatically in political circumstances, threat of foreign invasion. Why is it so successful? In the example of such fear it's frequently said that an Al Qaeda attack against the U.S. is inevitable. It's now been 7 years; don't hear people crediting the current administration, we've been very secure within our homes. Level orange threat every day, second highest level, politically handy level. Never a day when it's a little safer today, always scary. After a while it's not scary at all. many Americans are afraid of another 9/11 as if it were imminent, taking off shoes at airports, etc. We have done an effective job of decapitating Al Qaeda, cut off their ability to communicate. Not a monolithic global terrorist movement. Mostly a movement of regional terrorist bodies. Bin Laden coordinated those bodies. Mostly interested in taking over local governments. Would like to do harm to the U.S. but do not want to dissipate their resources. Global piece: much less able to coordinate with the regionals. Most Americans don't seem to have noticed that change. We know that people tend to look at things that have very high costs and attribute to them high probabilities. EPA Superfund spends more than a billion dollars per life saved. We think of the threat of toxic waste as so dangerous though in reality it's low probability. We inflate the threat because if it happened the cost would be high. We attribute to Al Qaeda greater insight and knowledge much greater than they likely have. Ohio State colleague: More American children die each year drowning in toilet bowls than from terrorist attacks with the one exception of 9/11; but we don't spend a lot of money on toilet bowl security. We don't spend a lot of money keeping people from falling out of windows. Bomb shelters. U.S. helped sell the idea that nuclear weapons are unlike everything else; Hirohito could justify surrendering. We facilitated that, built fears. Worse in politics than in economics; worse in foreign policy than in economic policy. Recession versus losing New York. Continually hearing that we are on the verge of a depression, value of the deficit is worst in history. Economic demagoguery has been relatively unsuccessful in the U.S.
55:19Facing an election soon. One could argue that who is elected is relatively unimportant in the sense that their self interest will lead them to similar policy outcomes. McCain on the surface appears to be a hawk, Obama a dove. Will they both do something similar in practice? McCain: 16 months is about the right time for withdrawing troops from Iraq; Obama about the same. Each face checks and balances; Obama would be less constrained than McCain would be because there will be a Democratic House and Senate. Not much original thinking, old school balance of power, realism combined with hope. Would be some differences. Obama would make an effort to meet with the Iranians, interesting to see whether it will be Ali Khamenei or Ahmadinejad. John Kennedy, first inaugural address famously said "We will never fear to negotiate and we will never negotiate out of fear;" but went unprepared to meet with Kruschev in Vienna which led to the Cuban missile crisis. Cass Sunstein podcast, Nassim Taleb podcast: underestimate black swans, improbable disastrous event.