Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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Simulating Iranian-American nuclear negotiations

PAXsims pleased to present the following guest blog post by Prof. James Devine (Mount Allison University).

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IrannukeThe simulation was intended to model American-Iranian negotiations circa fall 2012. It was conducted in a 3rd year class with approximately forty students. It was not intended for predictive purposes or to actually model the negotiation process. Rather, it was intended as an educational exercise. Its purpose was to highlight the complexities of the issues involved in the dispute and the motivations of the actors involved in the negotiations. It was designed to be carried out over four ninety-minute classes, but a fifth class was eventually required. The first class was for preparation, the next three were for the simulated negotiations and the fifth was for debriefing.


To ensure that each student had an important role, the class was divided into three groups and simulations were run on three parallel tracks. This helped keep the students engaged and made it possible to compare the outcomes of the simulation across groups during the debriefing. Each of the simulation tracks included twelve full time roles. There were four students each in the American and Iranian delegations, two students in the Israeli delegation and one each for Russia and China. The American delegation included the President, which could be played either as a republican or a democrat. It also included the Secretary of State representing a liberal perspective on the negotiations, and the Secretary of Defense who represented a more conservative, hawkish perspective. There was also a chief negotiator who was ideologically neutral but politically beholden to the President. The Iranian delegation included the Supreme Leader, modelled on the current leader, Ali Khamenei. It also included the President, modeled after the hard-line president of the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition, there was the Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament) modeled on the mainstream conservative Ali Larinjani. Finally, there was a chief negotiator loyal directly the Supreme Leader. The Israeli delegation was constructed to represent a national unity government and had one member each from the Kadima and Likud parties. The Russian and Chinese delegations were each played by a single student. Several students had to miss class during the simulation. They were given part time roles as journalists covering the negotiations.

Given the complexity of the real-world negotiations, it would not have been possible to replicate all of the actors and institutions involved. The European Union and the IAEA, for example, were dropped from the exercise. The roles that were included were therefore chosen and defined so as to recreate particular political dynamics between the players. Domestic competition was built into the American, Iranian and Israeli delegations by defining actors with different political ideologies and party/factional affiliations. In addition, the three delegations were instructed that they would be facing domestic elections upon the completion of the negotiations. Domestic politics were further integrated into the simulation through the presence of student journalists who could influence public opinion by writing articles covering each day’s events. The press played a second role in that the delegations could use the media to signal the other players about their preferences and intentions. China, Russia and Israel were included because whatever Iran and the US wanted to do they would need the cooperation. These states could therefore use the negotiations to pursue their own interests and/or extract whatever concessions they could from Washington and Tehran. Finally, to replicate some of the complexity and uncertainty involved in any negotiation process, only the chief negotiators of the Iranian and American negotiations were allowed to meet directly. The rest of their respective teams had to learn the other side’s position second hand. They therefore had to trust that their negotiator was capable and their opponent’s negotiator had the authority to follow through on the promises they made.

The roles were assigned based on student interest. A list of potential roles was circulated prior to the start of the simulation and students asked to rank their choices from one to three. Students who wished to write a simulation review for their final term paper were given priority in their choices. However, because there were three versions of the simulation being run, it was not difficult to give most students their first or second choice.

Logistical Issues

The negotiating process would require students have the ability to move about freely and interact –sometimes in relative privacy. This would not have been possible in a regular class room. Therefore a room had to be booked through the university that would provide enough space. The students also needed to access media reports after each day of negotiating. The course web page was used for this purpose. Mount Allison University uses Moodle, but other systems such, as WebCT, could provide the same functionality. Finally, because there were nearly forty students involved in three parallel sets of negotiations, it was also necessary to make up name tags for the students so they could keep track of who was who and which negotiation track they belonged to.


Prior to the simulated negotiations, students were provided with background material covering the nuclear issue and the interests and preferences of all of the parties, and a full class was also devoted to preparation. To appreciate the constraints each actor faced during the negotiation process, it was important that students were restricted to realistic choices. To this end, the American and Iranian delegations were also given a ‘menu’ of choices and concessions that they could potentially make. This menu was based on earlier real world attempts to settle the dispute. In addition to including the key demands made by both the US and Iran, the menu used the uranium-swap formula proposed in both the Russian and the Brazilian-Turkish plans as a framework. The challenge for the students was therefore to construct a uranium-swap based on the options available in the menu that would satisfy all of the parties. The negotiations could end with the two sides reaching a formal agreement, it could end with both sides trying to maintain the status quo without a formal agreement, or the US and/or Israeli could engage in a military strike.

The negotiations were conducted over three classes. During the first class, the Iranian and American delegations were instructed to negotiate amongst themselves to establish their bargaining positions. The Iranian and American delegations were not allowed to meet on this first day. They could, however, talk to the Russians, the Chinese and the press. The Americans could also speak to the Israelis. The Iranians, of course, could not. All of the parties could, of course, use the press to signal the others. At the end of the class, each delegation had to write a press release on the status of the talks and the student journalists had to submit their articles. All reports were posted on the course Moodle page so they could be read before the next session. During the second day, the Americans and Iranians held direct talks through their chief negotiators while the other delegates continued to interact with the third party states and the press. Again, at the end of the day, press releases were submitted. On the last day the original plan was for the negotiations to be concluded by half-way point of the class. However, I allowed the delegates to negotiate for the full class. The delegates therefore announced their final decisions at the beginning of the fifth day and explained all of the deals they had made.

The simulation did not end at this point, however. Once the announcements were made, each group rolled dice to determine the final results of their actions, similar to the way wars are fought in the game ‘Risk’. For example, if a negotiated deal was reached, the dice determined if it would hold up over time, or if one side or the other would defect. The dice also determined the effectiveness of any military strikes and who won the upcoming elections. The rational for the dice was that it would make the students understand that there would be consequences to whatever they did and/or said during the negotiation process and that those consequences could not be determined beforehand with absolute certainty. It was hoped that operating within the shadow of uncertain outcomes would make the students act more judiciously. The dice were weighted on the bases of how I judged the outcome of the negotiations and the way the process was presented to the public in press releases and by journalists.

In addition to weighting the dice, my task during the simulation was to oversee the proceedings and answer technical questions. After each session, I provided feedback for the students by posting fake BBC reports on Moodle, which were based on the day’s press reports and statements. The BBC reports were meant to give the actors a sense of how the public was reacting to events and to provide a check when students acted unrealistically.

Student Assessment

Student assessment involved several instruments. Student participation was worth 5% of each student’s final course grade. The grade was based on individual participation (observed during the simulation and the debriefing session) and group work (based on each delegation’s press releases). In addition, students were given the option of writing a ‘simulation review’ in lieu of a research paper. Reviews were worth 20% of the student’s final course grade and involved an analysis of the simulation based the student’s research into the ‘real-world’ crisis. Finally, students were responsible for the simulations’ background material on the final exam. Overall, student participation during the simulation was very good, the press releases were particularly well done. Many of the simulation reviews were well done as well. However, there was a tendency for some students to describe what they did during the simulation rather than analyze and explain their actions as instructed.

Student Response

All of the students who commented on the simulation in their course evaluations said it was a positive experience. Several students remarked that the “hands-on” aspect of the simulation helped them gain a better understanding of the course material. Nevertheless, several wished there had been more preparation time and several others suggested that not all of their classmates were behaving realistically. A few students thought the reading load associated with the simulation was too heavy. Informally, the student response was positive as well. Most students remarked that the exercise helped them with the course material and that they learned from the experience. A few said rolling the dice was fun, though not realistic.

Observations and Future Modifications

There are numerous aspects of the simulation that could be improved. This was the first time I conducted the simulation, so there were a number of rough edges that can be smoothed out in the future. Because real-world events were developing as the class took place, I was still putting the background material together as the semester progressed. If I run the simulation again in January, the reading list will be available to the students earlier in the semester and allow them more time to prepare. I was also working on the negotiation menu, and the organization of the dice-rolling during the semester and both went through several revisions before they were finalized. This made things more complicated for the students. Even with some modification, both will be ready well in advance the next time the simulation is run.

Overall, the negotiating menu proved a useful addition to the simulation. Not only did it help ‘keep things real’, explaining the rationale behind the various options enhanced the educational value of the simulation. However, there were still instances of students acting unrealistically. The menu was also complex and explaining it was time consuming. By laying out the possible options, the menu probably also made it easier for some students to get through the simulation without doing much research. The menu may have also acted as a constraint on student creativity. The menu did not appear to predetermine the course of the simulation: The negotiations ended with two military strikes and one formal agreement settlement, and the events within each track were quite unique. However, it is possible that students may have come up with novel solutions to the dispute if they had been free to develop their own options. Given sufficient time, it would have been better if students discovered the options available to their characters through their own research.

Although the simulation was run in the second half of the semester, preparation could have started earlier. The research material and the roles were distributed about a week before the simulation began. This may have not given students enough time to research the issues and their character. In the future, I will try to give students more advance time to begin preparing, and perhaps integrate some type of written assignment into the process. For instance, students could be asked to write a brief on their character prior to the start of the simulation.

The dice rolling segment of the simulation also needs to be streamlined. Originally it was intended that the dice would be rolled right after the negotiations ended. However, they were pushed back to the fifth day debriefing session. This created a disconnect between the decisions made by the delegates and their consequences. Moreover, the process itself was too convoluted. For instance, in the cases where a military strike was launched, dice were rolled for the strike’s effectiveness, the Iranian military response, the possibility of escalation and then whether Iran would reconstitute its nuclear program in the aftermath. In addition there would be dice rolled for the elections in Iran, Israel and the US. The problem was not just that rolling the dice took time, but that with each round, the rationale behind the weighting of the dice needed to be explained. With three simulation tracks, this process took up most of the debriefing period. In the future I will likely restrict the dice to the election results and only one roll for the outcome of the negotiations. It may also be useful to post changes in the odds, ‘Las Vegas’ style, on Moodle after each day’s events. This would simplify the explanations at the end and give the students more precise feedback during the simulation.

Finally, time management could also have been better. The simulation could have been compressed into two classes and the deadline should have been kept strictly. As noted above, preparation could have also begun earlier. Unfortunately though, time will always be in short supply. Even if the whole process is restricted to four classes, that is still a large portion of the semester. It would be nice to add more time for preparation and debriefing, but it would compromise the rest of the course.

I was generally happy with the simulation and plan to use it again in the future. The basic structure of the simulation is flexible enough to be adapted for larger or smaller classes by adding or subtracting actors or simulation tracks. The simulation can also be adapted to take into account changes in the American-Iranian relationship or other political dynamics. For instance, instead of modeling the Iranian president on a hard-liner such Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it would be simple enough to have students prepare to play the role as Iran’s new, more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. Instead of presidential elections, it would also be possible to have the American negotiators face the prospect of a congressional vote on lifting sanctions on Iran. The topic would become dated if the two states do eventually reach an agreement. However, the basic framework of the simulation could be adapted to other examples of international negotiations, whether they were real or imagined.

James Devine

build-your-own nuclear weapons

The Stimson Center has developed fascinating online education game/simulation—Cheater’s Risk—in which you play the role of a country trying to evade nuclear proliferation safeguards and monitoring. The simulation is interspersed with informative videos which examine both the various routes to the covert development of nuclear weapons capability, and the safeguards that might lead to detection.

For what it’s worth, after my play-through Canada now has a small (simulated) arsenal of 1-5 untested nuclear weapons. Watch out, Denmark—we’ll no longer tolerate all that flag-planting on Hans Island!

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