How Obama Solved U.S.-Iran Relations’ “Trolley Problem”

| July 2015
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The "trolley problem." Courtesy John Holbo (Creative Commons).

The “trolley problem.” Courtesy John Holbo.

The announcement of a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a significant achievement of international diplomacy. It commits Iranian leaders to a set of verifiable commitments in exchange for immediate relief from a robust regime of sanctions. More importantly, the deal offers Iran the opportunity to reestablish ties with Western economies and institutions, unlocking its potential across a range of sectors and industries.

In the aftermath of the deal, many commentators have rightfully credited the patience and prudence of the negotiators for the nearly two-year diplomatic process (the historic results of the negotiations even has some analysts already awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to diplomats representing the P5+1 and Iran). They have weathered charges of treason at home, dexterously managed the expectations of their publics, and bargained in good faith throughout.

But skillful diplomacy without a plausible strategic vision is weak and insubstantial, as previous attemps at resolving the nuclear crisis amply demonstrated. The key difference this time around was the recognition early on – and primarily by President Obama – that not only was the nuclear issue a symptom of a deeper moral conflict between the United States and Iran, but that its resolution could only come about by setting aside tested and tried methods that increasingly strain reason.

The predicament faced – and perhaps just resolved – by Obama is akin to a famous thought exercise in moral philosophy called the “trolley problem.”

In its original iteration by the late British philosopher, Philippa Foot, the trolley problem envisioned a scenario in which a trolley is rounding through a steep bend toward five workmen repairing the track. The trolley’s brakes fail to work, but there appears to be a sidetrack to the right with only one workman on it. It just so happens that you, the unfortunate witness to this impending calamity, are standing next to the hand lever that could switch the tracks and hence limit the ensuing carnage to one human fatality instead of five. Hence the quandary: is it morally permissible to pull the lever? (Over the years, there have been different, more refined versions of the problem. A commonly cited version envisions a heavyset man who could be thrown on the tracks to halt the trolley’s progress.)

The trolley problem is often used to distinguish two broad philosophical positions on the morality of certain actions. The first, consequentialism (also known as utilitarianism), argues that the morality of any action should be judged by its results; the more an action promotes happiness and wellbeing, the more morally permissible it is. Switching the tracks clearly saves more lives than otherwise would be the case, and so consequentialist morality not only permits but in fact obligates one to pull the lever.

Deontologists, on the other hand, argue that moral actions should be guided by certain rules such as the categorical respect for human dignity, irrespective of utilitarian considerations for the maximization of consequences. From this perspective, what matters is that individuals are not treated as means to an end – that human dignity is recognized as an end in itself. The decision to pull the lever, therefore, cannot be regarded as morally right, even if it is permitted under certain circumstances.

Prior to the nuclear agreement, the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in the last decade had been widely characterized by Western leaders as akin to a runaway train hurdling toward nuclear disaster. A nuclear-armed Iran, it was argued, would dramatically alter the regional balance of power, threaten the security of Israel, and jeopardize Western interests in the Middle East. Advocates and opponents of a nuclear deal, regardless of their political affiliation, shared this characterization. What separated them, however, was the most optimal way to avert a nuclear-armed Iran.

To utilitarians, the most effective way to stop a nuclear-armed Iran was through a comprehensive and verifiable diplomatic agreement. Indeed, the cost of such agreement was allowing Iran to maintain its nuclear infrastructure and civilian program; but this would be a manageable burden compared to the real risk of a costly and unpredictable war against Iran. Deontologists, however, argued that such an agreement would merely provide the necessary legal cover for the Islamic Republic to acquire the bomb. An agreement that would allow Iran to retain any nuclear capacity – however limited or benign – would simply be unacceptable from the deontological perspective.

The strength and persistence of the deontological position rests entirely on arguments about the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran. A toxic combination of proven past duplicity on the hidden military dimensions of its nuclear program and lack of domestic accountability, deontologists caution, casts a long shadow over any agreement with the Islamic Republic.

So how did the Obama administration go about reconciling such divergent views?

Solving this particular trolley problem required sensitivity to the underlying merits of each perspective – especially in light of the long history of enmity and mistrust between Iran and the United States. This is perhaps why, almost from the beginning of the diplomatic talks, Obama was careful not to be viewed as either too unsympathetic to the genuine worries of his opponents about the nature of the Islamic regime in Tehran or too eager a champion of a purely utilitarian approach. As he insisted in a recent interview with NPR, “[T]his is a good deal if you think Iran’s open to change; it’s also a good deal if you think that Iran is implacably opposed to the United States and the West and our values.”

By conceding that there are serious dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear program but also clearly laying out the costs and benefits associated with possible courses of action, the Obama administration in effect shifted the burden of proof to opponents of a negotiated settlement. This strategy also had the crucial effect of exposing Iranian decision makers to the formidable bipartisan opposition to any deal with the Islamic Republic if the opportunity to reach a deal with the Obama administration is passed up.

The results of this strategy speak for themselves. As part of the comprehensive agreement, Iran’s nuclear program is subjected to the most extensive and intrusive regime of inspections to date; Iran is obligated to dismantle or convert possible military dimensions of its nuclear facilities; Iran’s enrichment capacity is reduced to benign levels; and the so called break out capacity of the Islamic regime will be kept to one year for at least the next ten years. Critics would be loath to admit it, but on each of these points Iran has in fact significantly compromised on the red lines set out by its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

In the end, it appears that the solution to U.S.-Iran relations’ trolley problem was none other than the Obama doctrine itself. Asked by Tom Friedman about his persistent diplomatic approach toward Iran, President Obama summed up his reasoning thusly: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand…. You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

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