Wanna bet? Calculating a response to Iran
One of the best parts of my education at Columbia was a core three-semester course called Contemporary Civilization. It was an introduction to great Western thought and literature over three millennia.
I believe it was during my freshman year that I made the acquaintance of Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who lived in the mid-1600s. “Pascal’s Wager” is possibly the first example of game theory and decision-making under uncertainty.
Pascal’s Wager had to do with the existence of God. Pascal argued that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved through reason, but because there was much to be gained from wagering that God exists (and little to be gained from wagering that God doesn’t exist), a rational person should simply wager that God exists and live accordingly. If you wager against the existence of God, and God exists, you are doomed to an infinity of misery (hell).
With decision-making under uncertainty, you are dealing with expected values, the heart of Pascal’s Wager. When faced with a number of actions, each of which could give rise to more than one possible outcome, the rational procedure is to identify all possible outcomes, determine their values (positive or negative) and the probabilities that will result from each course of action, and multiply the two to give an expected value. The action to be chosen should be the one that gives rise to the highest total expected value.
It struck me that Pascal’s Wager has applicability to the situation confronting Israel regarding a nuclear Iran. Following Pascal’s model, the following decision tree can be developed:
1. Iran has, or will have, nuclear weapons, or it will not.
2. A Game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up.
3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
4. You must wager; it’s not optional.
5. Weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that Iran will go nuclear and, if it does, that it will use nuclear weapons against Israel. Estimate these two chances.
6. Wager that Iran will have nuclear weapons.
Let’s look at each proposition. There should be no contention with either Proposition One or Two.
Proposition Three is what I would call the “uncertainty factor.” We know about the construction of nuclear facilities inside Iran. Their purpose is either peaceful as Iran claims or for nuclear weapons as Israel claims. Since Iran has blocked international inspection of all its nuclear facilities, neither of the possible outcomes can be known with surety. This is the heart of the international unease with Iran.
Proposition Four is a truism. You must bet on an outcome. Unlike the simulation in War Games, you have no choice but to play the game, which is controlled by Iran (see Proposition Two).
Expected values are calculated in Proposition Five. They will be different for different players. Thus, Israel’s expected values will be different than that of the United States. For Israel, the result of ignoring a nuclear Iran would be the same result as Pascal expected if the existence of God was denied and God existed — condemnation to hell, or in Israel’s case, its annihilation.
This leads to the conclusion: wager that Iran will have nuclear weapons and act accordingly. In support of this conclusion, Israel National News reports that the wife of an assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist said that her husband “sought the annihilation of the Zionist regime wholeheartedly,” according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.
But what about sanctions? Success or failure of sanctions are possible outcomes to which values and probabilities can be assigned and rank-ordered with other expected values. Since this is decision-making under uncertainty, different players can view the value and probability of each outcome differently, which is why Washington and Jerusalem are at odds over strategy, as described by Washington Institute’s David Makovsky, writing for the Foreign Policy website Feb. 22. Makovsky urges the United States and Israel to agree on the particular red lines that, once crossed, might trigger action. This would help align the countries’ expected values.
The future is uncertain.
Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets on the highest expected value.