Widgets Magazine

Stanford class simulates the Iran nuclear deal

After 20 months of heated negotiations, Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council reached a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Similarly, Stanford students found a deal in professor of political science Scott Sagan’s simulation of the actual deal in History 104D: International Security in a Changing World. However, students quickly learned that coming together to form an agreement that met the desires of so many different countries was no easy task.

“Participating in the process made me much more surprised that they actually achieved the deal in real life,” said Eli Mangiloan ’17, a teaching and research assistant for Sagan. “There are many people who say, ‘Why can’t they just agree on something?’ This year, we achieved an agreement only five minutes before the end, which makes it understandable why deadlines sometimes keep getting pushed back. It really helps you understand the nuances and sticking points involved.”

Sagan teaches the class in the winter, and for two days, groups of students representing different nations around the world take part in mock negotiations that model those that just took place in the real world.

After students attended lectures for the first couple weeks of the quarter, all of the teaching assistants were assigned positions as different countries’ heads of state. Then, students taking the course were divided into groups that made up each participating country’s delegation and wrote memos to the heads of state about what they believed their country’s position should be.

Students collaboratively developed the memos and sent them to each country’s head of state, who would prepare detailed sets of instructions with objectives that the delegation must attempt to abide by during negotiations. After speeches were given, each delegation’s legal adviser worked with other legal advisers to produce a draft document of the resolution outlining the final terms of the agreement.

“The simulation definitely captures the difficulty and frustration of getting countries with different opinions together,” said Benjamin Buch, Ph.D. student and teaching assistant.

Although the course attracts a group of students that have a wide range of opinions regarding the real-world deal, students must put their differences aside in order to fully participate in the simulation.

“One of the most important lessons the students have to learn is that they are not reflecting their own personal opinion in the mock negotiations,” Sagan said. “They are reflecting the opinion of their chosen country as determined by the head of state.”

Buch noticed how this allowed students to gain a broader perspective on international politics.

“Putting students out of their comfort zones and into the minds of different countries forced them to take a look at things from a different angle,” Buch said.

According to Gigi Vardi, a military historian who co-taught the class with Sagan, the reason why the simulation was so surprisingly realistic was the sharpness of the students who participated.

As opposed to the real life negotiations, in which only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iran itself participated, many different countries all over the world were represented in the simulation.

“Part of the pedagogies we have is making sure all students have a chance to participate,” Sagan said. “We can do this by adding more countries. We are willing to sacrifice this degree of accuracy. It creates a more interesting experience.”

The real-world deal was hard fought and was not without its fair share of obstacles. Most analysts and researchers even believed that such a deal was impossible.

“I thought Iran accepted many more constraints than I initially believed they would have,” Sagan said.

The Iran nuclear deal has become one of the most controversial policy items in the United States. However, Sagan did not take a particularly partisan stance on the real-life deal.

He recognized reasons for legitimate disagreement due to the different levels of risk that could be taken. He said that disagreement also stems from counterfactuals like whether or not we could have maintained an increased sanctions regime.

Because a deal has been reached in the real world but has not yet been ratified, Sagan expressed some concern about the continuation of the simulation. Based on what happens in the near future, he plans to change the structure of the simulation for the coming year.

He and his team have also considered focusing on responding to a suspected violation as an international community or focusing on another country instead of Iran, such as North Korea, with the same theme of nonproliferation.

“It all depends on what Iran does or what we think they are doing,” Sagan said.

Buch believes that there are two big issues that still remain to be resolved in the coming future: the difficulties of verification and detection.

“The nightmare scenario is if the deal serves as a shield for slow and gradual cheating,” Buch said. “However, it is most likely the best alternative available today and ultimately a good thing.”


Contact Pranav Jandhyala at pranavjandhyala1 ‘at’ gmail.com.