Tit for Tat in Iran

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2013-11-27 – Israel doesn’t like that the United States is dealing with Iran. This, of course, make Iran enjoy dealing with the United States all the more. Pissing off Bibi Netanyahu is the gravy on the main course.

There is a construct in game theory called the prisoner’s dilemma that models some important aspects of human relations. Without getting into details, one round of the prisoner’s dilemma calls for nasty behavior against the opposing player (called “defecting” in game theory lingo). But when opponents play multiple rounds, the most effective strategy is called “tit for tat.” If your opponent defects, you defect. If your opponent cooperates, you cooperate.

The mutual cooperation scenario seems obviously successful. The mutual defection scenario is less obvious, but the worst thing that can happen in this game is for you to cooperate and your opponent to defect. So if you’re opponent is defecting, you better defect too, and vice versa.

This strategy leads to two stable outcomes in repeated play. Mutual cooperation leads to a stable exchange of cooperative moves. On the international stage, we see nations happily trading with one another for decades, with only minor problems. Mutual defection leads to stable nastiness and war. Think of the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The way out, is to vary from the automatic tit for tat once in a while. Yes, follow tit for tat almost always. But I’m saying “almost.” Once in a while you forgive. Once in a while you do something cooperative, in an effort to break the cycle.

If you were wondering what was going on with US nuclear negotiations with Iran, breaking the cycle seems to be the most logical explanation.

No, there’s no breakthrough, just a temporary agreement. But the alternative was an ever worsening downward spiral. We needed some positive moves, and we got them.

It will be a breakthrough if the parties continue with this apparent change of heart. It’s happened before. The change is fragile. Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t like it, but could he say otherwise without sabotaging the effort? Same goes for the ayatollahs. Some people like the negative cycle. Some people don’t trust that positive moves by the other side are real. That is what has to happen next.

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