Contemporary Conflicts

Does Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Want a Nuclear Deal With the USA?

March 13, 2013


We have certain beleifs about the world around us, but they are not static: when we receive new information we update our beliefs accordingly. This process is reflected in the Bayes’ Theorem that provides a way to calculate how people digest new information. Bayesian methods are becoming increasinly popular in political analysis. And here I apply Bayes’ Theorem to see how my hypothesis about Ayatollah Khamenei’s real position on a deal with the USA changes in the light of new evidence.  The example is simplified, but the point of this is to focus on the logic of the method.


This method assumes that everything in the world is relative.  Especially in politics, where political behavior and events are often ambiguous and are difficult to measure. For example, it is not quite clear whether Iran wants to cooperate with the United States at all. In February Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose  support is considered crucial for any major foreign policy decisions, said that direct talks between Iran and the United States will not solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. So, what does this remark reveal about his real thoughts about a nuclear deal? Does he want a deal at all? Or does he want to reinforce his revolutionary positions? Which is more probable and how much more probable? The Bayes’ Theorem allows to address these probabilities and express qualifiers, such as “very likely”, “possibly” and so on, quantitatively.








To simplify the calculations let’s assume only two hypotheses that Aytollah Khamenei wants a deal with the USA and that he doesn’t . Of course, the reality has more undertones than “wants” or “doesn’t want” but increasing the number of scenarios (hypotheses) only bears more calculations. The logic doesn’t change.


Assigning numerical values


Assigning numerical values to probabilities of events can be based on educated guesses, if no other prior quantitative information is available. This approach draws some criticism, such as that outcomes can be driven by subjective  assumptions. But any approach that involves choosing research design, defining variables  and relations between them is subjective.


Making an educated guess requires some background knowledge of the topic. My estimates are very rough, but anyone who wants to come up with more precise numbers can do that by analyzing the situation in greater detail.


Ayatollah Khamenei has a long tradition of criticizing the United States in his public discourses. In 2008 he even stated that  “the Iranian people's hatred for America is profound”.   Nevertheless, no matter how harsh his words can be, he holds the door open to relations with the USA saying that "we have never said that the relations will remain severed forever. Undoubtedly, the day the relations with America prove beneficial for the Iranian nation I will be the first one to approve of that.”


Iran’s current economic performance shows that sanctions have cut 8 percent from its GDP, led to high inflation and decreased the value of the Iranian rial by half. But if Iranian people are suffering it doesn’t necessarily mean that the supreme leader is and he is the only one who counts. As a rational and reasonable leader he understands that the situation might worsen if Western sanctions are not lifted. But the questions is whether he would act on it.


So far the Iranian leadership continues to blame America for all of its troubles as centrifuges continue to spin without Iran actually having nuclear weapons. And such status quo has not changed for a long time.


Given that probability that Khamenei as a supreme leader wants to have a deal with the United States P(H) = 55% or 0.55


Then probability that Ayatollah doesn’t want to have such a deal P(-H) =  45% or 0.45


New information that can be used to revise probabilities of these hypotheses is the following:

On February, 7 the supreme leader said: “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions.”


So, probability that this would be said if the supreme leader wants to have a deal P(E|H) = 62% or 0.62


Probability that this would be said if he doesn’t want to P(E|-H) = 38% or 0.38





So, the probability that Ali Khamenei wants a deal with the USA taking into account his last month’s remark P(H|E) is greater than the prior probability of him wanting to have a deal (67% vs 55%).  Different prior estimates and different understanding of the situation will lead to different outcomes. I just wanted to share an interesting tool that might help make more sense of the complex reality. As Hans Morgentau noted “the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible. In every political situation contradictory tendencies are at play…which tendency actually will prevail is anybody’s guess”.



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