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Applying Game Theory to the US-Iran Conflict
Interview: Iran Envoy Saeed Seyed Agha Banihashemi
By Ivan Simic
Director of EU Office
Iran Ambassador to Hungary Saeed Seyed Agha Banihashemi

ST: Dr. Saeed, in your paper “Connection of Old and New Mathematics” you refer to the universality of mathematics and quote the influence of Greece and India on the mathematicians of the Islamic Empire. You also note that great mathematicians must be ready to admit mistakes made in the past and that there is always room to learn new things, suggesting that over time there is a linear progression in knowledge.

Perhaps one may apply this principle to international relations and diplomacy. This use of applied mathematics is already happening in business, where automated systems developed by IT researchers are used to negotiate deals on behalf of human agents.

Based on your ideas, we were wondering if you believe that this technology could be used to solve international political disputes.

Dr. Saeed: The answer to your question is in the speech I gave at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs in March 2011. At this presentation representatives of the Embassies of the U.K. and the U.S. expressed great interest in my ideas.

I used the U.S. - Iran relations and spoke about the benefits of game theory for our two nations. I asked the following question: why politicians are not listening to these ideas?

I believe many governments do not listen to scientists, rather business lobbyists. One such example is allegations that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. On the other side, Dr. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, an prominent U.S. expert on game theory who works for the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon has demonstrated, using mathematical modelling, that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon.

However, politicians are persistent and are refusing to listen to the science. They prefer to pursue conflict, since, in my opinion; they are being lobbied by “agents” who wants to sell weapons no matter what are the consequences.

An article I presented in Finland, on the use of mathematics to predict the future, was scheduled to be published by the Library of Congress, however, because of the sanctions imposed on Iran, it was never published.

In this article I pointed out that history teaches us, for instance; if we look at Greece, India, Arabia and Europe…those civilizations become great because they had respect for the mind; their scientists were part of the government. For example, Arabic civilization led the world for centuries; they were in Spain, China, etc, partly because of the scientists. However, when the Arabic civilization began to punish scientists and tried to control them, development stopped and manuscripts and books ceased to be written. The scientists fled to Turkey and Europe, where they continued to write.

My point is that governments must accept scientific opinion, because scientists can make rational judgements. In mathematics, 1 is equal to 1. If you say that 1 is less than 1, maybe through force you can get people to accept that, but it is not reality.

Recently, I spoke to Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, and I think that if he wants to be successful in the United Nations, 1 must be equal to 1. When the U.S. as one country is not equal to but greater than 1, because it has money and power, it is a violation of the law of nature.

Why in the ancient Greece mathematics was like a religion, because everyone accepted the logic, as a base, to make important decisions. All the great mathematicians in India and the Islamic Empire were religious people. All religions teach us not to lie. It is a universal principle and nobody will reject it. If we want to be successful we must learn from the history.

Governments must, and I emphasise “must”, listen to the advice of scientists. Ghyathedin Kashany, who invented the number Pi, was one of the most famous mathematicians of the Islamic Empire. Government officials in the Samarkand brought Ghyathedin Kashany into the administration, and the results were very successful.

In today's world, where there is so much conflict, governments have to learn from the history and listen to scientist’s when it comes to the problems we face, as a result, conflict can be resolved and cooperation achieved. Unfortunately, today, policy is shaped by financial interests.

The supposed threats of a nuclear Iran to the world are used to inflame fear in the Gulf States, who in return spends hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons to protect them from no one knows who. Thousands of years of history show us that no government can rule forever.

Game theory provides tools to predict the future, but the complex mathematics tends to put people off. I believe simple mathematical models can be applied to economics, politics, international relations, social science and law. We can even modelize a family with game theory to maximize benefits for its members. If we teach people to use game theory we can eliminate conflict and increase happiness. The coexistence of Coca-Cola and Pepsi shows that both companies prosper, it is an illustration of game theory applied to business.

The Nash Equilibrium shows how players with opposite strategies can achieve satisfactory outcomes. A judge who applies game theory can make a just decision that will be best for two opposing parties. The key is learning to assign digits to events. A person can be measured as good on a scale that would include honesty, helpfulness, not disturbing others, hard work and so on. On the negative side it would measure lying, aggression, and punctuality for example.

ST: The same measurements could be applied to nation-states.

Dr. Saeed: In my classes students learn how to strategize by selecting numbers. In daily life people strategize when they make purchasing decisions or decide about relationships. Good strategies lead to optimal outcomes and bad strategies produce conflict.

Game theory teaches people how to optimize their welfare by selecting the best strategy and it is the same for business or international relations. I have applied this method myself since I came to Hungary and bilateral trade has increased from around 5 million to over one hundred million dollars annually.

ST: On the issue of sanctions, is it useful for Iran to continue to act in a way they know will provoke a negative reaction from the U.S., for example, inspection of nuclear sites? What will Iran lose by allowing those inspections, if it leads to the lifting of sanctions?

Dr. Saeed: We can look at this question as follows. Firstly, the world is too big to apply sanctions. Iran was so dependent on the U.S. before the 1979 revolution, that everything we knew was in the hands of the U.S. We didn't produce anything in Iran, everything was imported from the U.S.

After the revolution, the "crime" of Iran was to be independent. The U.S., which had used to have Arab countries under its control, was not too happy. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran was already the object of sanctions and was obliged to produce its own military and medical goods, although not by high standards.

The U.S. lost the cooperation from Iran, but Iran gained the cooperation with China, Turkey and other countries. By my opinion the U.S. lost here. In the U.S. - Iran conflict, Iran is the smaller party while the U.S. is a superpower. Iran just wants to be independent, so by opposing this, the image of the U.S. in the world suffers.

According to game theory analysis Iran will emerge as the winner. For example, they put sanctions on petrol; Iran changed its system of production of petrol and is now exporting petrol. The nuclear sanctions are very expensive for Iran, however, we value independence.

In Europe, I see U.S. dominance and they get whatever they want. But we must remember that people are not all the same, and we must respect each other. If we can come closer to each other, respect each other, we will benefit from it. But if one want to force other to think in a certain way, it will create resistance. For example, when the Islamic armies invaded Europe, they could turn people they conquered to Islam. In Islam there is no prejudice against non-Muslims, and science comes before religion. In Iran there is no difference between men and women, they have equal rights in education and work. If you come to Iran you will see that 70% of students are women. It is a competitive system.

ST: Do you see game theory as a branch of philosophy as well as mathematics?

Dr. Saeed: Game theory can help combat prejudice because it enables people to think. In the Greek Empire, the first subject taught was mathematics (for better thinking), then music (for the soul) and third came sport. In the Indian manuscripts I studied that mathematics also came first, then sport and music and this is also the case in Islam.

A well rounded person must be a good thinker, be healthy and have a pure soul. We can learn from history that we must respect mathematics. One thing I told to my government was that twenty years ago the teaching of mathematics was held in high esteem, but since then it has declined. This has created problems in the economy and other fields. I told them that things are going in the opposite direction, and to learn from the history, which reminds us that mathematics has a key place in society.

ST: Can we say that the same thing happened to the U.S., where the study of mathematics is also declining. Young people find it too difficult, it requires discipline and rigour. Now, one third of IT engineers working in Silicon Valley are from Asia and India.

Dr. Saeed: The ancient manuscripts, that I personally studied, show to the students how to add and multiply large numbers without using a calculator. Such operations can make students to be better thinkers. A computer is useful for checking the answer.

ST: Technology tends to make students lazy.

Dr. Saeed: In Iran we do not have powerful brains in economics and other similar areas, because they have lost the mathematics.

ST: Paradoxically, mathematics can produce awkward outcomes, such as in the financial sector, where the investment banks hired mathematicians who developed complex financial products. They let mathematics take over without the intelligent mind there to regulate what was happening.

Dr. Saeed: There are many examples in the financial sector where people want to get rich quickly. Many business people refuse to accept game theory because the predictions do not suit their interests.

ST: Do you think game theory can be used in international relations to prevent diplomats and governments making bad decisions?

Dr. Saeed: Exactly! Because all the conflict we have now are the results of bad decisions. The condition is for the politicians to believe in the game theory. If you point out to a politician that a proposed decision will have negative consequences, he will not believe it. For example, in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I said, you go in your direction, we will go with the game theory, and we will compare the decisions and see which one is better.

ST: Can you imagine a time in the future when international problems will be solved by computers using artificial intelligence?

Dr. Saeed: Yes, because the Gambit software can advise the President about the optimal policy decision to make, with respect to a given country.

ST: To return to the U.S. - Iran conflict, what do you see as the other variables apart from the sanctions? For example, Americans talk a lot about human rights, although they seem to be selective if one looks at what is happening in Bahrain.

Dr. Saeed: President Obama cannot have all the information’s, so he relies on his advisers who deliberately are giving him the wrong advices. What is happening now in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere happened 32 years ago in Iran. We had a presidential election, a parliamentary election and the people voted. When we talk about democracy we must accept the result of an election.

The U.S. did not accept the election of the President Ahmadinejad. People in the U.S. believe that all nations in the world must think like Americans. I went to all the Ambassadors here in Hungary, one by one, and told them that if you push the Iranians, they will only become stronger. I told them to go to Iran, open cultural centres, and seek to have their cultures and ideas accepted.

In Islam we have selection, not force. People listen and select the best way. But unfortunately the international community will probably do something else. President Obama's advisers need to use more psychology, they clearly don't understand Iranians. We were at war for 8 years and did not yield one metre of land to Iraq. Europe and the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein, later he was ousted by the same people who supported him. We Iranians, we do not seek war, rather friendship. There are 5 million Iranians in the U.S. and I think they will influence the outcomes in the future.

ST: Among the variables in the game theory to solve this conflict, one of the biggest is Israel. The more negative statements President Ahmadinejad makes about Israel, the more it will reinforce American opposition. Do you think a policy change is required there?

Dr. Saeed: This involves the U.S. advisers; they must understand the situation, and not to prod Iran. As for Israel, they should let Palestine be an independent country. If the U.S. advisers start making right reports about Iranian people and start giving the right advices, there will be no conflict. A day after Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish aid ship sailing towards the Gaza strip, I was in class and my students asked me to analyse the benefits for both parties using the game theory model. I told them the attack was a mistake and that Israel had adopted the wrong strategy because they will lose Turkey as an ally. This analysis was borne out in the subsequent condemnation of Israel by the international community. If somebody had advised Israeli government using the mathematical model to predict the outcome of the attack, I am sure they would have refrained from carrying it out.

ST: It is an extremely useful methodology. Game theory could be applied to the current crisis in the European Union. Maybe Germany's should adopt the strategy it its policy for Greece, Ireland and Portugal?

Dr. Saeed: That is an interesting example.

ST: Is an initiative being taken to spread the message of the utility of game theory throughout the world diplomatic community and institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and so on?

Dr. Saeed: My personal strategy is to give lectures in Hungarian universities, where they know the game theory, but not this particular method. When I spoke to Ban Ki-Moon there was a lady from the Budapest Business School. When I explained about the elective, she invited me to come and talk with them. When you come across a new idea you must implement it progressively.

We can build a bridge between ESCP Europe and Sharif University. I am ready to provide my experience to build cooperation on the subject of game theory for use in economics, law and international relations.

ST: Your Excellency, thank you very much, we deeply appreciate your invitation and the opportunity to meet you today. We have learned a lot, it has been a very instructive conversation.

Dr. Saeed: Thank You.

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