Drawing on the iconic imagery of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney’s Iran War Clock has placed the odds of war in the Middle East at essentially the flip of a coin, or approximately 48%. The clock was launched on March 8 as a feature on TheAtlantic.com, set at 10 minutes to midnight. The clock’s main purpose is to combat public misconceptions about the likelihood of war with Iran.
The clock is periodically set based on the odds that the US or Israel will strike Iran within the next year, with increasing risk of war pushing the minute hand closer to midnight. For example, a zero percent chance of war would put the clock at 20 minutes to midnight, with every increasing five percent chance of war moving the hand one minute closer to midnight. The clock will to be reset every four weeks, although the shifting nature of US/Israeli-Iran relations may alter the frequency of its update.
The project was described in The Atlantic as neither pro nor anti-war; rather, it was created with the intention of generating an informed debate on the issue of potential conflict with Iran by estimating the chances of conflict.
Tierney described the methodology behind the clock at its debut in The Atlantic. “We’ve assembled a high-profile panel of experts from the policy world, academia and journalism to periodically predict the odds of conflict,” Tierney said. “Each panelist makes an individual estimate about the percentage chance of war and we report the average score. Based on this number, we adjust the Iran War Clock so that the hand moves closer to, or further away from, midnight.”
The 22 panelists involved with the Iran War Clock include professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Stephen Walt, military correspondent for Haaretz Amos Harel, Deputy Head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv Ephraim Kam, and Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations James Lindsay.
Several Swarthmore Honors Political Science students, Jon Emont ’12, Lorand Laskai ’13 and James Mao ’12, provided research in the process of launching this project. Tierney elaborated on their contributions; “First, they helped identify potential candidates for the panel based on expertise about the Iranian crisis, and dug up contact info, etc. Second, they produced a list of key recent events in the crisis to help me provide a summary in the article.”
Tierney noted that the Iran War Clock’s prediction is consistent with the 40 percent chance of a US/Israeli strike estimated by betting market Intrade.com, stating that “when two different modes of prediction produce a similar result, it increases our confidence that the estimate is fairly accurate.”
Key factors affecting the panel’s prediction included Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, heightened Israeli rhetoric in favor of destroying Iran’s nuclear program through direct strike, President Obama’s support of an Israeli strike and an increasingly hawkish Republican stance towards Iran.
The limitations on the accuracy of the project’s predictions have been acknowledged, although its potential value remains unquestioned. The clock’s accessibility in communicating the average prediction of war and its ability to convey change over time have been cited as its main benefits. “We’re humble about the accuracy of this prediction, which is really a collective “gut-check” feeling. But it may be closer to the truth than the alternative forecasts available,” Tierney said, before pointedly summarizing the project’s purpose; “When you approach the cliff edge, you need to know how far away the precipice is.”