Game of Chicken with Iran

In lock-step with Israeli hardliners, U.S. neocons continue their campaign to block a nuclear deal with Iran even if the tight restrictions would serve broad American interests and avert another Mideast war. That has left Secretary of State Kerry in a dangerous game of chicken, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

With the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in its final days (and seven days of overtime having just been announced), a broken leg is not the most serious impairment to Secretary of State John Kerry’s ability to conclude an agreement that will ensure Iran remains a non-nuclear-weapons state and advances U.S. interests in other respects.

The most serious impairment is the incessant urging by domestic critics that the U.S. administration should not show any of the flexibility that may be necessary to close the last few inches of the remaining gap between the parties and to avoid having the whole negotiating enterprise suffer a crashing failure.

Secretary of State John Kerry (third from right) with other diplomats who negotiated an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. (Photo credit: State Department)

Secretary of State John Kerry (third from right) with other diplomats who negotiated an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. (Photo credit: State Department)

The negotiations taking place in Vienna right now may be viewed as what game theorists call a game of chicken, named originally after the street competition in which daredevil hot-rodders speed toward each other to see who would swerve first.

The logical structure of the game theorists’ chicken game is one in which a player who does not cooperate scores some sort of points over a player who does (i.e., who swerves, or concedes), but in which non-cooperation by both players results in the worst possible outcome for both (a crash, or a lack of agreement).

The vast majority of the distance that needed to be traveled to reach an agreement ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon has already been traveled. Most of that distance had been traveled by November 2013 with completion of the preliminary agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action, in which the United States and its negotiating partners attained the most important restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program. Most of the remaining distance was traveled by this April with the Lausanne framework agreement. What remains to be traveled is a very small part of the trip.

But what has already been accomplished will be lost if that last small gap is not closed. Indefinitely extending the Joint Plan of Action would be dandy for our side, but there is no reason to expect the Iranians to go along with that idea, given that they received only minimal sanctions relief in the JPOA in return for giving up most of what there was to give up regarding their nuclear program.

The JPOA has value to them as a way station toward a comprehensive agreement. And what was agreed to at Lausanne is formally only an outline that has no force until and unless the rest of the words get filled in.

The decision analysis that should be applied to the current negotiations involves weighing whatever advantage is to be had from getting our preference rather than the Iranians’ preference on the remaining few points where brackets have to be removed and words still have to be written, against the risk of losing the whole arrangement, which would mean no enhanced inspections even of Iran’s declared nuclear sites, no restrictions on the amount or level of uranium enrichment, no restrictions on plutonium-producing reactors, and all the rest.

Given what has already been accomplished in the negotiations, the possible reward from inflexibility is small, and the risk quite large. If a game theorist were to draw the customary matrix, with numbers representing the utility functions of each player, to describe today’s bargaining situation, the box that represents “no agreement” would have large negative numbers while the numbers in the other boxes would show relatively little difference from one another.

And don’t believe that failure to conclude the current negotiations would leave us some way of getting out of the “no agreement” box. The notion of being able to get a “better deal” by ripping up what already has been negotiated is just as much of a fantasy as it always has been, all the more so given that the Iranian foreign minister has his own recalcitrants and red-line-drawers to deal with.

Those urging the Obama administration to be inflexible continue their urging notwithstanding these realities. For example, Gary Samore, president of the anti-agreement pressure group United Against a Nuclear Iran, says “Don’t make any more concessions to get a deal in early July. They need a deal more than we do.”

That advice approaches the U.S. diplomatic task as if we were in some kind of contest to see who blinks first, rather than formulating a negotiating position based on a prudent weighing of risks and rewards.

And Senator Bob Corker tells the President he should consider “walking away” from a deal, as if such a decision would be as innocuous as a walk. Instead it would be a costly crash, as with the reckless street-racers playing chicken.

Because many of those who have talked loudest about not making more concessions really don’t want any agreement with Iran, their personal utility functions look a lot different. For them, the “no agreement” box has positive rather than negative numbers.

But we should not let their agendas distort the nature of the risks and rewards at stake for the United States and for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. We should hope they do not succeed in pressuring the administration into making the United States and nonproliferation big losers in the final stages of the game being played out in Vienna.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Game of Chicken with Iran

  1. Mark
    July 2, 2015 at 22:45

    Where are the voices saying Israel does not have undue influence on US policy?

    Anyone can see that it’s Israel’s policy not to make a deal with Iran — and it’s Israel’s policy to have US politicians see to it that Israel’s “no deal” plan becomes a reality.

    Anyyone who understands the truth about Israel’s plan for Iran, may be able to understand the 2003 Iraq invasion was Israel’s pre-planned war as laid out in the Yinon Plan and the PNAC ‘New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ plan as Syria and Iran are also part of those same plans

    The US has spent trillions to date propping up what are a series of Israeli war crimes since 1948 — we were attacked on 9/11 largely due to our blind support for Israel (the major Arab complaint against the US).

    Why again are we not keeping church and state seperate by allowing Israel to dictate our ME policies to our own detriment?

    Can any Christian tell me how Israel’s deceptions along with committing massacres and expulsion(s), to take the Arab lands, fits in with the teachings of Christ?

    I don’t believe any of this can be justified through Christ’s teachings — that idea came about with the Scofield Bible that had Zionist backing and promotion in order to manipulate the sentiment of American Christians so they would support Israel regardless of their human rights and international law violations.

  2. Peter Loeb
    July 2, 2015 at 06:29


    1. I have consistently maintained in this space that there will be
    no deal with Iran. The US has never agreed to eliminating
    sanctions. There has instead been talk about increasing them.

    2. Blaming Israel certainly makes sense.They always opposed
    any deal as they always do unless the “deal” is won by
    Israel & the US, They never intended conceding anything
    at all.

    3. Once can blame other political interests.


    In brief, it makes little sense for many states to
    continue the fiction of supporting the US and
    its “allies. ” (This has also been the case with
    other nations for a variety of reasons.) Such support
    simply results in continued bondage to the US and
    its economic power.

    Henry Kissinger when asked years ago by a reporter
    why he supported nuclear development for Iran in
    the past and opposed it now replied: “They were
    our allies then. Now they are our enemies.”

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Aarky
    July 1, 2015 at 17:43

    We need to ask, “What are the motives of the men who are trying to sabotage any rapprochement with Iran”. We know that Senator Cotton received over a million dollars from the Israeli agents to finance his Senate campaign. We know that for Netanyahu, it is merely a test of how influential their propaganda campaign is in the US and Europe. All the intelligence agencies, including the Israeli Mossad, know that Iran has never worked on nuclear weapons. The Israelis have been receiving $3.5 billion in military aid and also another $500 million for rocket defense. The biggest scandal is how many times they have manipulated the commodities markets to enrich their hedge fund collaborators. The only way to stop part of this Israeli influence is to have a broad purge of the Israeli Agents
    at the State department and the National Security Council.

  4. July 1, 2015 at 16:28

    Israel is still the prime instigator and director of the play and the ploys, and the primary cause behind the antagonism in US Foreign Policy affairs,in the meanwhile the world keeps spinning:

  5. Zachary Smith
    July 1, 2015 at 11:19

    I suppose we’re about to learn how much Israel presently controls US foreign policy. Have the extended negotiations been a dog-and-pony show to develop a “talking point” that the US went to the wall to be reasonable with the horrible towelheads? In other words, a prelude to a military attack on Iran so as to follow up on the tradition of Iraq, Libya, and Syria?

    Or will we discover that the US power elites are tired of being used as a floor mat by the shitty little apartheid state of Israel?

    The answer ought to come sooner rather than later, so stay tuned.

  6. Abe
    June 30, 2015 at 19:58

    we live in a global affairs world where we speak about peace but expect war; where we declare good intentions but anticipate subterfuge; where we extend the hand of friendship while making sure the other hand is behind our backs with fingers crossed, just in case. Most say this is just cautious statesmanship, a necessary but healthy skepticism so as to not be overwhelmed if things go poorly. Sometimes, however, that cautious statesmanship seems to doom those best intentions to the trash heap of chaos. In this case, that chaos might be triggered by the barely contained secret that the United States will not only renew its defense aid agreement with Israel when it expires in 2017, but that it will likely be INCREASED significantly beyond its current three billion USD. The posturing and denial swirling around this poorly concealed secret is almost fodder for a tragic comedy: no one is willing to admit this is meant to be a ‘kiss and make-up’ defense deal to put Israel more at ease with the Americans engaging Iran. Netanyahu himself staunchly declares that even if a new deal is reached and for significantly more money that it will still not change Israel’s overall opposition to American engagement with Iran. In other words, the U.S. is going to give more money and weapons to an irritated Israel in order to keep it ‘calm’ about allowing Iran the chance to dabble with nuclear energy. Iran, of course, is not going to be blind to this development. From its side it will no doubt see its own international agreement as trying to constrain its ‘national defense sovereignty’ while then watching the Americans follow it with another with Israel that will subsequently arm it to the teeth, with an anticipation and expectation of Iranian misbehavior. Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly clamor onto Israel’s coattails to also gain new advantages and ‘cooperation.’ Keep in mind this current situation emerges from the ‘positive’ diplomacy of engaging Iran

    Hammer and Nail: Spinning War from Peace in Iran’s Nuke Deal
    By Matthew Crosston

    Dr. Crosston is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University. He is the author of Fostering Fundamentalism: Terrorism, Democracy and American Engagement in Central Asia and Shadow Separatism: Implications for Democratic Consolidation (Post-Soviet Politics).

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