Welcome to the second volume of Metaculus Mondays!
In this week's volume, we will be walking you through our approach to two new questions from Metaculus, as well as updating a prediction from last week's inaugural volume.
The first question we tackle is whether or not the United States will lift sanctions imposed on Iran under the original Nuclear Deal.
The second question asks us to forecast the number of "major wars" that will begin between January 1, 2021 and January 1, 2023.
Finally, we update our prediction from last week related to the dominance of mutated COVID-19 variants in the United States.
Q1: US Rejoins Iran Deal?
The first question formally asks us to forecast whether the United States will “rejoin” the Iran Nuclear Deal, or The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), before the end of 2021. However, the full question is more complicated.
The question, as presented on Metaculus.com, elaborates further: The question will resolve positively (meaning it will count as the US rejoining the Iran Deal before 2022) if:
- The United States lifts or waves sanctions previously mandated by the JCPOA before 2022-01-01, 00:00 UTC; or
- The US and Iran negotiate a new deal related to sanctions or nuclear production capacity, if the sanctions lifted by the US are greater or equal to those mandated under the original JCPOA.
Importantly, Iran is not required to reduce its nuclear production capacity, nor for the first qualification does it require Iran to agree to any terms. Moreover, it is necessary that the order to lift or waive sanctions must go into effect before 2022-01-01; “a conditional announcement or promise does not suffice.”
In general, we find the quality of this question to be mixed. On one hand, the framing of this question is confusing since the phrasing does not align perfectly with the resolution criteria.
When we first tackled the question, we believed the question was concerned about a complete re-joining of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Instead, the question is really about (a) Sanctions relief for Iran by the United States or, as outlined by the question’s fine print, (b) Negotiation of a new nuclear deal. This should have been clearer in the upfront portion of the question.
The clarification fundamentally changes the question, while also making it easier to answer. Under this new framing, the focus of the question is primarily on the behavior of the United States, a context which we have ample experience analyzing, with a secondary focus on Iran. The question also differentiates between sanctions under the original JCPOA, and those imposed by former president Trump–allowing us to only focus on the original sanctions, and any lifted post-pullout would be in excess of what’s needed to this question to resolve positively.
On the other hand, we find this question to be strong due to its significant geopolitical implications as well as the clearly defined (albeit not upfront) resolution criteria.
In his book Geopolitical Alpha, forecaster and investment strategist Marko Papic advocates for the use of constraint-based frameworks in forecasting geopolitical events instead of heavily weighting the preferences of individuals. Preferences, Papic argues, are often the product of material constraints, rather than indicators of agency in the geopolitical realm.
As such, we decided to examine the constraints surrounding the two positive resolution scenarios in order to determine their feasibility in the given time window: (a) United States lifts or waives the original JCPOA sanctions on Iran, and (b) United States (or P5+1) negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Before tackling the first point, let us briefly address the latter since it is much simpler to address.
Although the JCPOA was agreed upon in 2015, there were two years of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, + Germany) which were described as both ‘lengthy’ and ‘arduous’. Even when Donald Trump decided to have the United States step away from the JCPOA, it took nearly 18 months from the time he was sworn in to the time that his intentions were actually enacted.
Given the fact there is only 9.5 more months before the end of 2021, the changing geopolitical landscape since 2013-2015, and the current pandemic, we find it highly unlikely (<5%) there is any deal relating to JCPOA sanctions relief before the end of 2021 and nearly uncertain (<1%) that a new multilateral agreement is reached before 2022.
Because of this assessment, the only way to reasonably expect this question to positively resolve by the end of 2021 is for the United States to lift or waive the original (or $ equivalent of the) JCPOA sanctions before the end of 2021. What would it take for the Biden Administration to lift or waive sanctions on Iran?
To determine this, we established the two constraints for the United States lifting or waiving sanctions on Iran which we felt were strong enough to underpin further analysis.
The first constraint, which has been supported several times in subsequent articles and reports, is the precondition which Iran has set for negotiations over the JCPOA to resume: US lifts all sanctions to re-join the negotiation table. The second is the precondition the Biden Administration set: Iran returns to the terms established in the original JCPOA.
Next, we identified three second-level constraints that could dictate the outcome of this forecast.
The first are political constraints: What can Biden reasonably accomplish with respect to lifting sanctions given the structure of the United States government and his own political responsibilities? What can Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accomplish before the June elections and how might the election’s outcome play a role?
The second are time constraints: How long would it take to lift sanctions and re-join the JCPOA? Given Iran’s demands, and the political constraints mentioned earlier, is there enough time for either side?
Third are geopolitical constraints: The geopolitical landscape, and Iran’s standing within it, has shifted considerably since Iran first entered the JCPOA in 2015. Have Iran’s geopolitical priorities shifted in the intervening period, such that a lifting of sanctions would not be geopolitically feasible?
After synthesizing analysis of the initial constraints, and the three second-level constraints, we came to the conclusion that while leaders in the United States and Iran may have a preference to re-join the JCPOA, the number of hurdles necessary to overcome for this question to resolve positively is immense making it unlikely to happen.
From the vantage point of the United States, there are a few relevant political constraints to consider. Without going into detail, the processes required to enact a revised agreement such as the JCPOA are numerous. Oversight from the UN Security Council, approval from the European Union, review by the United States Congress, and a review period in Iran could all pose roadblocks for a United States re-entrance, further strengthening the time constraints which will be discussed later on.
President Biden also has to consider his own political capital. While he likely has his party’s support to re-enter the deal, there may be pressure to not take actions which would aggravate his Republican colleagues so soon into his first term. As we will discuss in the geopolitical constraints section, Iran is being left behind in the Middle East, with its enemies getting stronger each year. It is possible that Biden does not see re-entering the JCPOA as an urgent priority this year, and will opt to service the demands brought on by Covid-19 and the new variants first.
On the other hand, Biden appointed Robert Malley, the lead on the JCPOA negotiations in 2015, to be the United States’ envoy to Iran. Malley is considered to be sympathetic towards countries such as Iran. His appointment might signal a desire of Biden to quell tensions in the near term while catering to other pressing domestic needs in the short-term, before re-starting negotiations some time in the future. It is possible this could lead to sanctions relief in the meantime, albeit unlikely without some concessions from Iran as well.
From the perspective of Iran, the political constraints are equally, if not more, complex. First, Iran has an election for President this summer which adds a great deal of uncertainty. As The Atlantic Council noted in January 2021, President Rouhani wants to get sanctions relief done before the June election since they would likely boost the moderates’ chances to remain in power due to the economic boom that would be likely to follow.
At the same time, hardliners in Iran want to prevent any return to the nuclear deal before the election, which they are currently trying to halt via legislation. Given these dueling domestic political interests, there is a great deal of uncertainty in terms of question resolution between now and May 11 which is when candidates in Iran are allowed to officially run for President.
We therefore find it is most likely for sanctions relief to occur between now and May. Moreover, examining the timeline of the first JCPOA deal we find that if a moderate candidate were to win the upcoming election there would also be a chance for a deal to be struck between November and December of 2021.
As mentioned earlier, there are stringent time constraints on Biden and if he hopes to re-enter negotiations with Iran this year.
Given the current situation where the geopolitical landscape has shifted and the status of the P5+1 has also changed, it is likely that negotiations would need to be re-started in some respects. Also, given Iran’s recent nuclear (and ballistic missile) transgressions, it is likely that negotiations over new items would also be necessary. Given the growing list of issues which could stand to complicate this negotiation process, and the fact that February is half-way over already, time is a severe bottleneck.
A lot has changed since 2015. In 2015 the Middle East was still reeling from the knock-on effects of the Arab Spring, which left a number of states in the region near failed-status, and generally ailing. In 2021 that picture has changed dramatically.
In 2015 Saudi Arabia, one of Iran’s largest adversaries in the region, had a GDP of $654.27 billion. That number grew to $792.97 billion by 2019, yielding a compounded annual growth rate of 3.27%. The United States has also made a point of underwriting much of Saudi Arabia’s military might, including the notable 2017 arms agreement between the two countries which saw the United States agree to $110 billion in immediate weapons sales, and $350 billion in weapons sales over the next 10 years.
Additionally, the introduction of the Abraham Accords in August, 2020, under former President Trump has changed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have all normalized relations with Israel in the past six months, putting even greater pressure on Iran.
On top of this, Iran’s former allies in Hezbollah and North Korea have both weakened considerably over that aforementioned time period. Hezbollah has been hit by the global anti-terrorism movement of the last half-decade, nullifying its terrorist activity. It’s political support has also waned making them of little use to Iran. North Korea has also been hit hard by United States sanctions, and are still very much under the thumb of nearby China.
All in all, Iran’s enemies are getting stronger and it’s allies weaker, pushing the country to potentially consider nuclear weapons as it’s only relatively credible means of defense. In support of this, Iran’s parliament passed legislation in late 2020 mandating an increase in nuclear activity, leading to stories of Iran enriching uranium to 20% in early January.
Given the geopolitical constraints facing Iran in the region, they may not be willing to budge on Biden’s requests regarding nuclear proliferation, making any negotiations incredibly difficult if Iran maintains its stance on all sanctions being lifted as a prerequisite for talks. Nuclear disarmament may be a non-starter for Iran in this new Middle East, as the circumstances surrounding a deal are much different than they were in 2015.
We forecast a 20% chance that the United States either lifts or waives sanctions on Iran ‘greater or equal to those mandated under the original JCPOA’ or negotiates a new deal with Iran containing sanctions relief, making the outcome unlikely.
We reached this probability given the constraints we identified and numerous headwinds preventing a JCPOA re-entry this year.
The main factors working in favor of sanctions relief are the stated goals of the Biden Administration, the appointment of Robert Malley, the economic pressure and incentives for Iran, and the upcoming presidential election. These factors indicate the possibility of either country capitulating before 2022, but also indicate that the possibility is low.
While we think it’s possible that one country budges and succumbs to the others’ requests in order to get a deal done, we believe that Biden’s other political priorities in tandem with the geopolitical landscape shifting away from Iran’s favor will be a strong enough force to prevent a deal from being made before 2022.
These above realities led us to the 20% number. We feel that a 1-in-5 chance covers the uncertainty and chance for an unexpected outcome between now and December 31, 2021, while also accurately depicting the immense constraints that would prevent this question from resolving in the next 9.5 months.
Of note, this 20% forecast is much lower than the current community prediction of 55% on 76 predictions. We believe that this is due, in large part, to forecasters focusing on the preferences of political leaders rather than the constraints which will ultimately dictate their actions. Biden may very well want to engage with Iran regarding the JCPOA, and he may end up succeeding, but if there is not enough time to get a deal over the line, or if there are too many obstacles obstructing negotiations, it won’t happen before 2022.
We will be revisiting this prediction, and the aforementioned constraints, somewhat regularly between now and when the question resolves on September 1st, 2021. As this resolution date is far into the future, it is likely that many of the considerations made above will have changed. With that being said, we believe 20% is a strong estimate at the current time. The United States is unlikely to re-enter the JCPOA this year.
Q2: Number of Major Wars in 2020s
This question asks us to forecast how many armed conflicts will begin between January 1st, 2021 and January 1st, 2031 that will lead to at least 25,000 fatalities before December 31st, 2031.
For context, the question also mentioned that in the period between 2010 and 2019, there were 4 armed conflicts that fit the aforementioned criteria: ‘the Syrian Civil War (~550,000+), the South Sudanese Civil War (~383,000), the Iraqi Civil War of 2014-2017 (~160,000) and the Yemeni Civil War (112,000+)’.
So far, the lower bound of predictions by the Metaculus community, in the aggregate, is three armed conflicts resulting in 25,000 or more fatalities. The median prediction is 3.9 and the upper bound of predictions is 4.9. Additionally, 1% of forecasters put their prediction at over 10 armed conflicts in the next 10 years the will result in at least 25,000 deaths. Of note, however, is that there have only been 54 predictions made on this forecast, which may affect the range of answers observed.
It is important to note that this question asks about new conflicts rather than existing ones.
Like the first question, we find this one to be mixed in quality but for different reasons. On one hand, this question has clearly worded and has well-defined resolution criteria which is great. On the other hand, low-probability events can be notoriously difficult to accurately prediction due to high variance in short-term outcomes. This is particularly true for wars which might follow a Poisson-Process (meaning timing of outbreaks is random), and a Power Law Distribution (meaning the likelihood of a conflict going from 1,000 -> 10,000 deaths is the same as from 10,000 -> 100,000).
We began this prediction by calculating the base-rate or the number of armed conflicts that meet the desired criteria from the last 10 years, which is 4. (This number is slightly above the community median prediction.)
Next, we expanded our base-rate out a few extra decades and examined (i) the average number of battle deaths per conflict over time and (ii) the trajectory of war.
We then tried to identify the relevant factors that would either increase that value over the next 10 years or decrease it. To do this we considered the catalyzing events that lead to the four armed conflicts from the previous decade as well as the general factors that lead to war.
We found that the catalyzing events, which included the Arab Spring, South Sudan’s war for independence, and tragic civil strife in Iraq and Yemen, were all potentially replicable in the next 10 years. With respect to the Arab Spring, we are currently approaching its 10-year anniversary. It is possible that nearing or around the anniversary, citizens in the Middle East realize that not enough has changed since that historic movement in the early 2010s, and desire to rekindle that energy in the next decade to affect real chance. It is also possible that we see more civil strife (more likely than in the past even) over the next 10 years. While an independence movement the likes of that witnessed in South Sudan may not be likely to happen again over the next decade, it remains possible.
With respect to systemic factors, short-term shocks to economic growth and poverty reduction, as well as the divergent trends of global liberalism (many of which are factors that Pinker's Better Angels found to decrease the likelihood and severity of war) and the risks posed by climate-change indicates a slightly greater risk and higher volatility for the outbreak of new conflicts.
While we believe that both 0 and 7+ armed conflicts that claim more than 25,000 lives is imaginable within the next decade, we find the base rate to be around the mostly likely correct range.
We decided to frame our answer as straddling the base-rate answer, forecasting that 2, 3, 5, and 6 major conflicts with 25,000+ battle deaths is most likely in the coming decade, with the base-rate of 4 as our break-even point.
This prediction is fairly in line with that of the Metaculus community, and given the extremely long time horizon of the question, this result isn’t entirely surprising.
Similar to the first forecast, we will be revisiting this prediction to make updates and new, relevant information is released pertaining to conflicts. The question on Metaculus does not close until January 1st, 2024, so there will be plenty of time to update this forecast before then. By then, we should have a better idea where this decade will align with the base-rate.
COVID Prediction Update
Finally, we wanted to conclude this volume with an update to our COVID-19 variant prediction since it closes later today. Last week, gave the following prediction a median answer of 81% with a 25-75% range of [76-89].
Based on the current trends of B.1.1.7, the identification of a possible new COVID variant in California, the growth rate of other S:N501 variants, and GISAID data we believe our initial prediction is generally correct, albeit a bit bullish on the high-end.
As a result, we decided to lower our upper-end probabilities while also increasing our exposure to lower-prevalence outcomes. We wanted to capture the possibility that GISAID S:N501 samples will make a lower percentage of virus sequences at the end of March due to the possibility of lower total cases which would increase the variance of possible outcomes.
About the Series
Metaculus Mondays is a weekly series on Global Guessing. For now, we are only forecasting other people's questions. However, as we answer, review, and critique more questions we hope to start asking some of our own!
With this series, we are hoping to improve our forecasting skills, learn how to ask better, clearer questions, and get involved in the growing Metaculus community.
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