When Nukes Become Sacred

The psychology behind Iranian support for the country's nuclear program.

As America and Europe wrestle with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, some policymakers have warned that imposing crippling sanctions on the mullahs’ regime would backfire, in that sanctions would cause Iranians to rally around their government in a show of solidarity against outside meddling. That isn't the half of it. According to a new analysis, offering Iran carrots rather than sticks—fuller diplomatic engagement, for instance, or help developing civilian nuclear power—to cease uranium enrichment and other proliferation activities may also be doomed.

The reason is that Iran's nuclear program has, for many Iranians, become a "sacred value." That term has a specific meaning in social psychology. Sacred values are those that trump rational cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, the more someone is offered in return for giving up a sacred value, the less he is willing to do so. That's the opposite of how people treat other values, where the more we are offered for our old car, our house, an article of clothing, our place in a line, or any other "secular" holding, the more willing we are to give it up.

With sacred values, this cost-benefit calculus is turned on its head, explains anthropologist Scott Atran of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who has studied Islamic terrorist groups. When Atran asked Palestinians if they would be willing to give up their claims to Jerusalem (a sacred value) in return for their own state, most said no, and—here is where the topsy-turvy thinking caused by sacred values came in—when he then asked if they would give up Jerusalem if the U.S. and Europe also gave every Palestinian family substantial financial assistance for a year, even fewer said yes. That is in sharp contrast to the rational-actor perspective that has long dominated diplomacy (and economics).

The reason, as I wrote in a 2006 column, is that sacred values "are ideals so transcendent they have no equivalent in anything material," and insinuating that a sacred value such as sovereignty over Jerusalem can be denominated in anything so crass as money is deeply offensive. How offensive? More Palestinians say they would resort to violence to retain their claim to Jerusalem with the monetary sweetener than would do so without it, as he and colleagues reported in a 2007 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When sacred values are in play, Atran told me then, "standard political and economic proposals for resolving long-standing conflicts, such as just material compensation for suffering, may not be optimal." Indeed, people will respond with greater outrage to deals with added material sweeteners.

In a new experiment, Morteza Dehghani and Douglas Medin of Northwestern University, Atran, and colleagues asked 72 young (average age, 28), educated (college grads) Iranians about Iran giving up its nuclear program. Twenty-two percent chose "I think this definitely needs to happen," while 15 percent chose "I do not object to this," and 52 percent chose "this is acceptable only if the benefits of stopping the program are great enough." But 11 percent chose "this is shouldn't be done no matter how great the benefits are." This is the group that, the scientists report in a paper in the December issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, for whom the nuclear program seems to constitute a sacred value.

That has interesting implications. The scientists then asked this group if Iranians would support a deal in which Iran gives up its nuclear program in return for the U.S. drastically reducing its military aid to Israel, or if they would support such a deal with the added sweetener that the European Union would pay Iran $40 billion. Just as one would expect with a sacred value, the young Iranians said there would be less support for a deal with the EU sweetener—what the scientists call "the backfire effect of offering material incentives to induce compromise over sacred values."

Is 11 percent too few Iranians to matter? Probably not. For one thing, once you get beyond the young and the educated, more Iranians likely view the nuclear program as sacred. And even a minority, if it is committed enough, can carry the day. "A minority, if it is associated with a power structure that is willing to do most anything to stay in power, is surely enough," Atran tells me. "Look at the Alawites in Syria. They are somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population yet have ruled for decades. (The Assads are Alawites.) For another, it is likely that more ordinary Iranians than educated, English-speaking Iranians—those surveyed for the study—view the nukes as a sacred value, suggesting that the 11 percent is an underestimate.

The scientists are re-running the experiment with more participants, looking at the effects of religiosity on Iranians' views of their country's nuclear program. There are hints that Iranians who hold the nuclear capability as a sacred value also tend to be especially religious. Just hours before he flew out of Tehran last week, Dehghani went to the Ashura demonstrations. He sent this account to Atran, who forwarded it to me:

"These Basijis [a volunteer militia of Iran's Revolutionary Guards] really see Khameini as their religious father and Ahmadinejad as a person who has been faithful to the poor.… For them, the nuclear issue is a religious matter, a duty. So maybe we can speculate that many more of them hold the issue to be a sacred value." If so, then getting Iran to give up its nuclear program will be an even greater challenge than many in the West understand."