If someone had a terminal illness, would he go for a drug that has a "50% chance" of saving him? Naturally, this is a question that has no "yes" or "no" answer. It all depends on the alternatives. If the "50% chance" drug is the best one can get– then the drug would be of great value to the patient. If there's an 80% chance drug available, no patient would opt to take the 50% chance drug.
But this description does not capture all the complexities of making such a decision. Because at times the doctor doesn't prescribe the best-value drug – either because it is more expensive for him or because he doesn't truly think the illness is terminal. Thinking about Obama's remarks on Iran yesterday (the Saban forum interview) we should keep this doctor analogy in mind.
"I wouldn't say" that the chance for a satisfactory final deal with Iran is more than 50-50" the President said. Yet he opted for exactly that remedy. Meaning: A. he doesn't see any better treatment available, B. he thinks other treatments are too costly, or C. he doesn't believe that the illness – Iran rushing to having a nuclear bomb – is potentially terminal (and of course we have to also ask: terminal for whom? But let's leave that question aside for now, and assume that Obama means well for everybody). In fact, these three possibilities are really one: The good old cost-benefit question of measuring the potential damage against the effort to prevent it.
But for the sake of having a detailed discussion of the President's remarks, we'll stay with the three potential answers to our question. Which is it? It's not easy to determine. Let's see what Obama had to say yesterday.
A. He doesn't see any better treatment available:
Obama wants to take credit for the achievements of the sanctions policy. That's why he made sure to remind his audience "where we were when I first came into office". As president, Obama took action, and "it is precisely because of the international sanctions… that the Iranian people responded by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime… that’s what brought President Rouhani to power ".
This might lead us to think that the path of sanctions is truly the best available path to changing Iran's behavior – so why suddenly opt for an agreement? Obama gives his answer by using nuanced language: the Iranians want to go in a new direction when it comes to two things: interaction with the west and dealing with the sanctions. But Obama doesn't say that the Iranians want a new direction when it comes to the nuclear program itself. Why? Because had that been the case, there would be no need for an agreement. The sanctions would have been enough. So the president hints that the sanctions were good, but could only get us so far- only to the point in which Iran concludes that it needs to change how it "interact[s] with the international community" and that it needs a new president.
This still doesn't tell us if Obama believes that the agreement is the best available treatment. Well, he does. Even if "precisely because of the international sanctions" many things were achieved up until now, "what we can achieve through a diplomatic resolution of this situation is, frankly, greater than what we could achieve with the other options that are available to us".
B. He thinks other treatments are too costly:
If the goal can be achieved through negotiations that makes other options a lot more costly. The question, though, is more complicated: would Obama even consider other options if this one fails, or does he think that the other options are just too costly, and would not resort to using them?
Answering this question is complicated. Obama paid his dues by explaining that if after six months negotiations fail, "we have greater leverage with the international community to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them". But his commitments are made in vague language. Note this sentence, seemingly referring to the military option: "if we cannot get the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies us and the world community and the P5-plus-1, then the pressure that we’ve been applying on them and the options that I’ve made clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is one that we would consider and prepare for".
'Considering' and 'preparing for' doesn't entail action. Obama would not say that options other than an agreement are too costly. But reading his words carefully it is hard not to get the sense that he has – to be cautious – mixed feelings about avenues other than negotiations.
C. He doesn't believe the illness it potentially terminal:
Obama said early on that "it is in America’s national security interests, not just Israel’s national interests or the region’s national security interests, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon". So we know what Obama wants: an Iran with no nuclear weapons. But we still don't know how important it is for him to reach this goal. We still don't know if Obama believes that a nuclear Iran would mean great calamity. We still don't know if not succeeding in the prevention effort would be considered by the president a failure of a magnitude he could not tolerate, or just a minor disappointment.
On the one hand then, one can already see the president making the excuses for failure: "I think it’s important for everybody to understand this is hard. Because the technology of the nuclear cycle, you can get off the Internet; the knowledge of creating a nuclear weapons is already out there. And Iran is a large country and it is a relatively wealthy country, and so we have to take seriously the possibility that they are going to try to get a nuclear weapon".
On the other hand, he puts himself on the line by giving a positive answer ("Absolutely. That is more than fair.") to the question "and Iran will not have nuclear weapons. Fair to say?"
So did we get the full answer to the original question: why try a "50-50 chance" solution instead of looking for one which has an 80-20 chance, or a 100-0 chance of succeedng? I'm not sure that we did. We do know that the president says he believes that this is the best available option, but this doesn't tell us much. He'd have to be a fool to say that he chose negotiations over better options. The President didn't tell us whether this is the best available option because there are no other potentially useful options, because the other options are too costly, or because a nuclear Iran is not such a grave threat.