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Iran Deal Breach

Set in January 2017. Israel publicly accuses Iran of violating its agreement not to develop nuclear weapons, but Iran denies the allegations and refuses inspections of its facilities.


This case is set in January 2017.

Iran’s nuclear program, alongside its broader threats to security in the Middle East, has long troubled the United States and its allies. In 2015, the United States, Iran, and five other countries reached a landmark agreement that offers Iran relief from international sanctions in exchange for vigorous inspections and restraints on its nuclear program. Israel has now accused Iran of violating the accord by operating a clandestine nuclear enrichment facility, prompting a diplomatic stalemate over access to the disputed site. National Security Council (NSC) members need to advise the president on how best to respond.

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Iranians working with nuclear material

The Situation

Iran’s nuclear program, alongside its broader threats to security in the Middle East, has long troubled the United States and its allies. In 2015, the United States, Iran, and five other countries reached a landmark agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In exchange for relief from international sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program, the accord places restraints on this program, monitored with vigorous inspections. Israel has now accused Iran of violating the accord by operating a clandestine nuclear enrichment facility. The JCPOA contains a procedure for gaining access to disputed facilities, but a majority of parties must vote to trigger the process, which they are not prepared to do. National Security Council members need to advise the president on how best to respond. Each option—negotiations and consultations, renewed sanctions, and airstrikes against the suspect site—offers benefits and drawbacks. The debate is all the more difficult given the historical animosity between the United States and Iran, and the complex U.S. interests at stake in the Middle East today.





  • U.S.-Iran relations
  • The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal
  • Dynamics of the modern Middle East
  • U.S. interests in the Middle East
  • Nuclear-related agreements and institutions
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such as NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades. 

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices. 

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.
special operations forces:elite U.S. military units, such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Special Forces, grouped under U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They conduct specialized and often sensitive missions that include guerrilla warfare, counterterrorism raids, counterproliferation, and advanced reconnaissance.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Iran Deal Breach cover
Iranians working with nuclear material

“I hope—and indeed believe—that this agreement will lead to greater mutual understanding and cooperation on the many serious security challenges in the Middle East. As such it could serve as a vital contribution to peace and stability, both in the region and beyond.”

—Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, July 14, 2015


2.1 The Issue

The Islamic Republic of Iran has an elaborate nuclear infrastructure that features enrichment plants, centrifuge production facilities, and uranium mines. At the same time, it is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the bedrock agreement governing nuclear technology, and the Additional Protocol, which gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) enhanced authority to inspect nuclear facilities. 

In the past, the IAEA has had concerns about access to Iranian facilities and scientists. During the 1990s, as Iran began to put together a covert nuclear program and to purchase illicit nuclear technologies from the black market, it often withheld information from the IAEA. The IAEA protocols call for member states to disclose plans for building new facilities and to offer a catalog of all their nuclear assets. Iran rarely complied fully with these and other such procedures. 

The United States has long been concerned not only about Iran’s possible violations of the NPT but also about the broader security threats it poses in the Middle East. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement among Iran; China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany (known collectively as the P5+1; the first five being permanent members of the UN Security Council); and the European Union—therefore contains a mechanism for inspecting suspect facilities. The agreement states that if the IAEA is not granted access to a facility, it can appeal to an arbitration committee composed of eight representatives, one each from the P5+1, Iran, and the European Union. At that time, Iran will have twenty-four days to grant access or face potential sanctions at the United Nations. If the arbitration committee does not approve the IAEA’s request, however, Iran will not have to provide access to the agency. 

One complaint from Israel and the Gulf Arab states is that, given the scale of Iran’s nuclear program and its probable expansion, the inspection mechanisms are too lax and cumbersome to function effectively. These countries fear that the world will be too slow to react to an Iranian violation of the agreement and that any meaningful sanctions imposed on Iran will be too little, too late, especially if Iran is racing to build a bomb. 

Iranians working with nuclear material
People marching before the Iranian Revolution

“Negotiation means give and take. We were not seeking charity, expecting someone to give us something free. We were after negotiations, a fair give and take … [The nuclear deal] will mean new hope and a better future for our youth.”

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, July 14, 2015


2.2 Background

Starting in the mid-2000s, civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have reshaped the region along sectarian lines. Iran, a leading Shiite power long estranged from the West, and Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power friendly to the West, are pitted against each other on many fronts. As these conflicts endure, they create room for radical nonstate actors such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to take advantage of the breakdown of order and of the rise of sectarian identities to attract supporters. As long as the disorder in the Middle East persists, no state, including Iran, can be confident of its security. This outlook is critical in shaping Iran’s behavior, including its nuclear endeavors.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 displaced the Pahlavi monarchy, which had reigned in Iran since 1925. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last monarch, assumed the throne in 1941. Before the revolution, the Iranian government was one of America’s closest allies. It was the pillar of U.S. Cold War strategy in the Middle East and shared U.S. opposition to the Soviet Union. The shah had also developed close ties with Israel and conservative Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia. The shah, determined to make Iran one of the strongest powers in the Middle East, spent ample sums on military hardware. In fact, the shah had launched the country’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb. 

In 1974, the shah declared that Iran would build a nuclear apparatus designed to generate twenty-three thousand megawatts of power. Iran obtained assistance from France, South Africa, the United States, and West Germany. Most countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons construct both uranium enrichment facilities and plutonium reactors, the two types of radioactive material suitable for use in nuclear weapons. Iran, too, sought to develop both. 

The program was derailed by the 1979 revolution but resumed in the 1990s, although not with great vigor. Domestic mismanagement and international export controls restricted the expansion of the nu-clear program. Meanwhile, Iran sponsored terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, which frequently engaged in conflict with Israel and was active in subverting leaders from Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, many of whom are allied with United States. These acts kept the United States preoccupied for a time. Everything changed, however, with a series of devastating revelations in August 2002.

The first came when Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group advocating the overthrow of the Iranian government, obtained and shared documents revealing that Iran had constructed an elaborate uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, approximately two hundred miles south of Tehran. The group also revealed that Iran was developing capabilities to make nuclear weapons using plutonium. The IAEA subsequently demanded and was granted access to these facilities. It then realized that Iran had installed 160 centrifuges in Natanz and was committed to eventually operating more than fifty thou-sand. (By 2015, it had installed nineteen thousand, with ten thousand operational). At the same time, the United States and the UK discovered the network of the rogue Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, who notoriously operated a black market in nuclear-related equipment. Iran was revealed to be one of his customers. 

The revelations sparked much international activity. In September 2003, the IAEA adopted a resolution calling on Iran to suspend its nuclear program. The IAEA board of governors stated that, by con-ducting its activities in secret and not reporting those to the IAEA’s inspectors, Iran violated its obliga-tions under the NPT. France, Germany, and the UK (known collectively as the EU-3) led international efforts to deal with Iran’s program between 2003 and 2005. The United States at that time refused to participate in direct talks with Iran. Under the moderate presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Iran was eager to come to terms with the West and agreed to suspend its program while participating in talks with the EU-3.

In 2005, Iran elected as president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative, who quickly reversed that suspension, whereupon Iran gradually increased the size of its nuclear program. International powers, now led by the United States under President George W. Bush, pursued a two-track policy. The first involved an offer of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The second involved passing a series of UN Security Council resolutions that imposed economic sanctions. All parties embraced a gradualist policy: Iran incrementally increased its nuclear capacity and the United States and other governments imposed a series of escalating punitive sanctions. 

This strategy remained in place after President Barack Obama took office. The sanctions intensified and enjoyed wider international support. Iran was largely excluded from the global financial network, and the European Union stopped purchasing Iranian oil. Other nations that continued to buy it, such as China and Japan, progressively reduced their purchases under U.S. pressure. On the eve of its June 2013 presidential election, Iran’s economy was on the verge of collapse. 

Pragmatic candidate Hassan Rouhani managed to eke out a victory and then commenced serious and direct dialogue with the United States. (Although Rouhani received twelve million more votes than his closest rival, he secured barely over 50 percent of the total votes cast; a run-off takes place if no candi-date receives at least half of all votes cast.) During the negotiations, the two sides crafted an interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which was finalized in November 2013, setting up a cooling-off period. The United States did not impose additional sanctions and Iran did not expand its nu-clear program. This facilitated the time necessary to draft a final agreement. 

The final agreement, the JCPOA, reached in July 2015, is complex and involves mutual concessions. Iran obtained sanctions relief and recognition of its right to enrich uranium. (Although highly enriched uranium is used for nuclear weapons, the low-enriched element is used to generate nuclear power and for other benign purposes.) In a concession to the United States and its partners, Iran has agreed to restrain its nuclear program for a decade. During that decade, Iran is to roll back from nine-teen thousand centrifuges to just over five thousand (5,060). It is to ship to Russia much of its stock-pile and any additional uranium it enriches during the duration of the agreement. A new, more vigorous inspection regime has been put in place to ensure that Iran abides by the agreement’s terms, which stipulate an elaborate procedure for reimposing sanctions should Iran be found violating the agreement.

The agreement is subject to a sunset clause of ten to fifteen years. That is, within a decade, all the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will gradually be lifted and by year fifteen, Iran would be under no restrictions. Iran could then, if it so chose, develop an industrial-size nuclear program capable of producing civilian nuclear power on a mass scale. Many officials and observers in the United States and elsewhere continue to fear that Iran could also exploit that capacity to produce nuclear arms. 

The agreement has proved controversial in both Washington and Tehran. After members of the U.S. Congress demanded a chance to weigh in, the House of Representatives voted against the agreement. The Senate could not muster the necessary sixty votes to break a filibuster of a resolution to disapprove the agreement, however. The agreement thus took effect. In Tehran, many hard-liners also disapproved, arguing that Iran had granted too many concessions on the nuclear front. The JCPOA stands as one of the most controversial arms control agreements of the post–Cold War era. 

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Iranians working with nuclear material
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the Iran nuclear deal

“Let’s not mince words: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war—maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.” 

—President Barack Obama, August 5, 2015


2.3 Role of the United States

The JCPOA, while an exercise in multilateralism, was mostly a product of bilateral U.S.-Iran negotia-tions. The United States took the lead in the talks, engaged in secret diplomacy, and crafted the tech-nical proposals. Although initially the EU-3 had led the talks and the UN Security Council had been the venue for deliberations, the Obama administration eventually drove the process that produced the JCPOA. Should the agreement be violated, the United States and its allies have three options.

Diplomacy, including bilateral or multilateral consultations

The United States could seek to resolve its concerns over the suspect Iranian nuclear site through the JCPOA arbitration committee. As noted, the committee is made up of a representative each from Chi-na, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. Under the terms of the agreement, the committee will evaluate the evidence and vote on whether Iran is in violation of the agreement and therefore must open a site to inspection. The United States would need to convince a majority of committee members to vote in the affirmative. Should Iran refuse to al-low access to inspectors, the issue would then be transferred to the UN Security Council for further deliberation. At that time, the United States would need to consider what action, such as censuring and sanctioning Iran, it would like a Security Council resolution to take; it would also need to form a con-sensus supporting the proposed resolution. Such actions would require considerable time and effort as well as consultations with China, Russia, and the European parties to the agreement.

A diplomatic approach offers the prospect of achieving Iranian compliance and getting access to the suspect facility, which could preserve recent improvements in U.S.-Iran relations and would likely keep China and Russia on board. The United States and its allies would be viewed as working in good faith, within the context of the JCPOA, before attempting sanctions or military steps. The risk of rely-ing on this diplomatic track is that it could take a long time before Iran grants access to the site, if at all. Additionally, if talks proved inconclusive and time consuming, Iran’s program might well surge ahead—as it could had even during the talks—its suspect facilities remaining out of reach of inspectors. Under such circumstances, less patient powers with much at stake, such as Israel, could risk a military strike. A diplomatic track would need to be accompanied by considerable alliance management, and Washington would need to continuously convince allies of the effort’s worth and potential success. The case for diplomacy would be difficult to make if it draws out and the outcomes are unsatisfying. 


The U.S. Department of the Treasury could once again impose financial sanctions on Iran, such as by penalizing international banks that conduct transactions with or for Iran. Iran would then find it increasingly difficult to participate in cross-border financial transactions, be paid for oil sales, and benefit from the international financial arrangements that facilitate trade. The United States could get its European allies on board quickly, but in the absence of a UN resolution explicitly noting that Iran was violating its treaty obligations, Washington would find it difficult to mobilize all its partners behind a set of punitive measures. For example, earlier sanctions on Iran took a decade to have notable effects, which came only after the United States and other countries agreed in 2005 to cut ties with Iran’s banking system. 

The sanctions strategy faces the same dilemma as diplomacy; namely, that it will take time. However, given Iran’s economic interests, a serious new round of sanctions—or even the threat of them—could convince Tehran to open its suspect facility for inspection.

Air strikes

The United States can exercise a military option, with help from Israel: air strikes on Iran’s suspect nu-clear facility. The goal would not be to comprehensively destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure or set back its nuclear development. It would instead be to punish Iran for its defiance over the suspect facility and to damage or disable the facility. The facility is at a mountain site outside Tehran; thus, it is difficult to know how much damage airstrikes would inflict. Multiple strikes would increase the likelihood of significantly damaging or disabling the facility, but any prolonged campaign would appear to be provocative, to both Iran and the other JCPOA parties. The duration and intensity of the strikes could condition the nature of Iran’s response. 

Air strikes could destroy or damage the facility, interrupting potentially nuclear weapons–related work that could endanger U.S. and regional security. Moreover, strikes could signal seriousness by the Unit-ed States and its allies, deterring Iran from trying to violate the JCPOA again (provided Iran is violating the agreement currently). The military option, however, is not without its hazards and difficulties. Policymakers would need to consider the nature of the strike, how much damage it could do to the suspect facility, and what the consequences would be. For instance, U.S. military pilots involved in the air strikes risk death or capture. Iran could seek to retaliate in a variety of ways: attacks on U.S. military personnel in the region, use of proxy forces against Israel or other countries friendly with the United States, attempted manipulation of international oil markets, and so on. U.S. policymakers will also need to consider whether a military strike could cause Iran to leave the NPT and rush to build a bomb, in essence ensuring one. Should it become apparent in the damage from the air strikes that the Iranian facility was not, in fact, pursuing a nuclear, Iran and other countries might accuse the United States of having attacked on false pretenses and retaliate accordingly. Last is the danger to U.S. military pilots involved in the airstrikes, specifically, risk of death or capture.

In principle, either the United States or Israel—or both acting together—could attempt airstrikes in this scenario. Israel’s capacity to significantly damage or destroy a heavily fortified site, though, is less than that of the United States. If Israel were to choose a military option and become entangled with Iran, would the United States need to intervene on Israel’s behalf? If an Israeli bombing campaign were to fail, should the United States intervene and finish the job? These questions would have to be ad-dressed before the military option is exercised. 

Case Notes Glossary


Abdul Qadeer Khan (A.Q. Khan):a Pakistani nuclear physicist and the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. In 2004, Khan was arrested by Pakistani authorities for selling nuclear designs and equipment to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. His later pardon and release by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was widely criticized.
Additional Protocol:a legally binding agreement supplementing the “safeguards agreements” between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and various countries. These safeguards agreements authorize the IAEA to monitor and inspect countries’ nuclear facilities to ensure that they are used for nonmilitary purposes only. The protocol expands the IAEA’s rights of access to nuclear-related information and sites. Its 127 signatories include the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), Iran, Russia, and the United States.
alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
arbitration:a method of dispute resolution in which the parties submit their claims to an agreed-upon and impartial third party, who renders a decision that the parties agree to obey.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.


Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):the primary U.S. federal agency involved in the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence. The CIA also runs the United States’ drone operations, though some, including President Barack Obama, favor transferring this responsibility to the Department of Defense.
centrifuge:a mechanical device used for nuclear enrichment. Nuclear centrifuges contain rotors that spin quickly to separate different forms of the radioactive element uranium. Low-enriched uranium (with a relatively low concentration of a certain form) can be used for nuclear power; highly enriched uranium is needed for nuclear weapons.
Cold War:the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union—and, by extension, capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship—that characterized international politics between the post–World War II years and the early 1990s. Deemed a “cold” war because the rivalry never resulted in direct warfare between the two, the contest nevertheless sparked proxy wars in other countries and many close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


filibuster:a parliamentary procedure, often associated with the U.S. Senate, that attempts to block or delay legislation. Traditionally this involved a lengthy debate, though senators today can effectively filibuster without doing so.


Hassan Rouhani:the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 2013. Rouhani is widely regarded as a moderate politician and has worked to improve Iran’s relationships with the United States and other countries, for example, with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Hezbollah:a Shiite militant group and major political party in Lebanon. In addition to competing in Lebanese elections, it is known for providing social services to local Shiite populations and carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States and Israel. It has close ties to the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and in 1997 the United States designated it a foreign terrorist organization.


intelligence:information collected and analyzed by specialists for use by decision-makers. This includes data, photographs, and communications, among other materials, and is collected, often secretly, by individuals and technological methods.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):an international organization seeking to promote peaceful use of nuclear technology. Created in 1957, the IAEA assists its 168 member states in developing such technology, delineates nuclear safety standards, and monitors and inspects countries’ nuclear facilities. IAEA inspections of North Korean facilities in the summer of 1992 revealed discrepancies between the country’s declaration of its nuclear activities and the evidence collected by inspectors. The discrepancies resulted in a standoff between the IAEA, the United States, and other powers on one hand, and North Korea on the other.
Iranian Revolution:a 1978–1979 uprising that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. It transformed Iran’s government from a generally pro-Western monarchy to a theocracy deeply hostile to the United States. The revolution is a seminal event in Iran’s history.
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:a terrorist organization that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and seeks to impose a caliphate, a form of Islamic government promoted by Islamist fundamentalist reformers. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the land under the group’s control in Iraq and Syria the Islamic State on June 29, 2014. The group has gained notoriety for barbaric decapitations, immolations, and draconian social laws. It has drawn recruits worldwide with jihadist propaganda disseminated through social media.


Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):an international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear activities, with procedures to verify compliance, in return for the lifting of sanctions that the United States and other countries had imposed on Iran. The agreement seeks to prevent Iran from accumulating the technology and materials necessary to produce a nuclear weapon in the near future. Reached by the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) in July 2015, the agreement has been controversial. Skeptics, including Israel, a close U.S. ally, argue that the deal grants too many concessions to Iran, including the eventual expiration of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


nuclear enrichment:a process using centrifuges by which natural uranium is processed into uranium suitable for nuclear reactions. Low-enriched uranium can be used for nuclear power; highly enriched uranium is needed for nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) attempts to monitor this process as part of its efforts to ensure that nuclear technology is limited to peaceful uses.
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT):a binding international agreement that seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technologies, further the goal of nuclear disarmament, and promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Entered into force in 1970, the NPT prohibits countries that did not have nuclear weapons at the time from ever developing them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tasked with verifying compliance by the treaty’s 190 state signatories. Although North Korea ratified the NPT in 1985, it withdrew from the treaty in 2003 after the IAEA accused the country of illicit nuclear activities.
nuclear reactor:a device used to initiate and control the splitting of certain atoms in a nuclear chain reaction. Nuclear reactors are most commonly used in power plants; in this case, the reaction generally causes water in the reactor to turn to steam, which drives a turbine that generates electricity. However, other reactors are used to make radioactive material for medical use or nuclear weapons, or for research.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
sectarian:characterized by differences among religious or political subgroups or sects, such as Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
shah:a title given to the monarch of Iran. Persian for “king,” the title was adopted by the Pahlavi dynasty monarchs in the twentieth century. The last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
sovereignty:supreme or absolute authority over a territory.
Sunni Islam:one of the major sects of Islam, comprising more than 80 percent of all Muslims. Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni, even though Sunnis are a minority within the country. Countries with Sunni majorities include Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt.


United Nations:an international organization composed of 193 independent member states that aims to promote international peace and stability, human rights, and economic development. The United Nations was established in 1945 and remains the only organization with practically universal membership among the world’s countries. It includes the Security Council, General Assembly, and a range of other bodies; a secretary-general, currently Ban Ki-moon, serves as its leader. The United Nations also has an array of affiliated programs and agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
United Nations Security Council:the principal UN body charged with maintaining international peace and security. The UN Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to pass resolutions that are binding on the 193 UN member states. It includes five permanent member states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten rotating members elected to two-year terms. The five permanent members have veto power over resolutions, making their agreement necessary for a resolution’s approval. This structure provides strong international legitimacy to Security Council resolutions but also stymies action when the major powers disagree.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4).  Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.  
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo

  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.) 
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines 

Total length: approximately one thousand words 

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo. 

Presidential Directive

The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions. 

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign. 
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here to see a sample presidential directive. 

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.