In the most recent issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley argues that Iran’s nuclear program has become an issue of national pride akin to Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. According to Begley, for many Iranians the nuclear program now constitutes a “sacred value” and trumps rational cost-benefit analysis, creating a barrier to further diplomatic engagement.
Begley’s argument is based on a new experiment by Morteza Dehghani, Douglas Medin and colleagues in the December issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making. The study asked 72 young (average age, 28), Iranian, college graduates if Iran should give 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.” Good news, right? Not according to Begley.
Begley focuses on the 11 percent who chose “this shouldn’t be done no matter how great the benefits are.” This is the group for whom, according to the study, the nuclear program seems to constitute a sacred value.
Though the percentage seems small, Begley argues that “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.”
Assuming this hypothesis is correct; it suggests a bleak outlook for current nuclear negotiations. But do they draw the rights conclusions from their experiment? Or are they overplaying the views of a fringe population that often exists at the margins of survery experiments?
Leaders of Iran’s Green Movement (which is arguably more engaged than the 11 percent of Iranians Begley speaks of and is made up of, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of Iranians) have repeatedly articulated their opposition to nuclear weapons, though they seem to favor a peaceful nuclear program for Iran.
Unfortunately, Dehghani et. al.’s experiment did not seek to ascertain whether Iranians also view nuclear weapons as a sacred value. For the purposes of negotiation, which is Begley’s main focus, this is a crucial distinction. All material incentives are not off the table, as Begley would have us believe, if 11 percent of Iranians view only peaceful nuclear enrichment – not nuclear weapons – as a sacred value.
Moreover, let’s not forget that twenty-two percent of those surveyed believe that Iran should “definitely” give up its nuclear program. Although “even a minority, if it is committed enough, can carry the day” it looks as if Begley’s minority is outnumbered in almost every way.