The TEDBlog had a very thought-provoking video posted this week. TED (in case you are unfamiliar with it) is a website devoted to sharing videos by experts and intellectuals with an emphasis on bringing people together to discuss new ideas.  These presentations range from the academic, to the artist, to the astounding, to just plain fun.  I once watched a professor explain how to turn a Wii controller into a laser pointer.  This week there is a video featuring Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who has used game theory to make three predictions about the future of Iran.  You can find the video here.

The video is a bit long (~17 minutes), but he spends the first ten minutes or so explaining the basics of game theory.  Personally, as someone who has never been very good at math and has never studied game theory, I am inclined to treat his model with some suspicion.  In his explanation, Bueno de Mesquita stresses the importance of people as rational actors pursuing their self-interests.  It sounds simple, but I still wonder how a mathematical model can possibly account for the very real difference between people’s self-interests and what people perceive to be their own self-interests.  I would also add that there are plenty of situations when actors to decide not to pursue their own interests.  Nevertheless, Bueno de Mesquita claims that his mathematical model has been correct 90% of the times when even intelligence experts had predicted incorrectly, so maybe the proof is in the pudding. Some more discusion of Bueno de Mesquita’s video after the break. 

Bueno de Mesquita has three main predictions.  Firstly he claims that in the coming months the Iranian government will tone down its nuclear ambitions to the point where it will devleop weapons-grade nuclear material only for research purposes.  He notes that this would allow the regime to maintain some pride and regoinal supremeacy but would not be as big of a commitment as an actual weapon.  His model even goes as far as to predict that Iran’s slowing of its nuclear ambitions would happen faster without external pressure from the global community.  That certainly is interesting, but it is not in anybody’s best interests for the global community to look the other way when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.

Bueno de Mesquita’s second predition is, in my opinion, the most interesting.  He used his model to measure the domestic political power and influence of various groups within Iran and he found a surprising result.  His graph clearly shows that real power rests not with the mullahs or even with the Supreme Leader, but with what he calls the “moneyed interests” of Iranian society: “the banker, the oil people, the bazaris”.  Wealth equating influence is a pattern that transcends time and regions and Bueno de Mesquita’s model forces us to consider the power of a group of people who are rarely acknowledged in discussions of Iranian politics. The real question may be, what do these “moneyed interests” hope for the future of Iranian society?

Bueno de Mesquita’s third prediction is not particularly ground-breaking.  He observes the decline in Preseident Mahmood Ahmadinejahd’s influence and he declares him to be “on the way out”.  Many analysts have stated as much, noting popular discontent about Ahmadinejahd’s handling of the economy, the opposition’s critiques of his foreign policy, and an unfortunate incident involving a shoe.

Despite my instinctual reservations about his method, I find Bueno de Mesquita’s predictions to be very interesting.  I would have liked it if he has discussed more of the specifics of his model and if he had hypothesized as to what larger social, political, and economic factors can be credited with creating these trends.  It seems dangerous to me to consider Iran’s actions without also considering its historical and social context- I wonder if Bueno de Mesquita could have predicted something like the Iranian Revolution in 1979?  Given the unpredictability of human behavior, I am curious to see if and how these prognoses will bear themselves out.