March 16, 2010 11:03AM

Does Promising Iran Material Benefits Make a Nuke Deal Less Likely?

I regret not remembering where I found this and therefore not being able to thank the source for the link, but Scientific American writes about research on “sacred values” and negotiations. Describing “sacred values,” SciAm writes that when an object becomes sacred, it “becomes worthy of boundless reverence, commitment, and protection. As diverse as people are in ascribing sacred status to possessions, they are equally varied in which values they consider sacred, a diversity that can breed substantial conflict. The abortion debate, for example, often presents a divide between those who consider woman’s ‘right to choose’ sacred versus those who consider a fetus’ ‘right to life’ sacred.”

But the potentially important part for international politics is that

When people are asked to trade their sacred values for values considered to be secular…they exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost‐​benefit analysis of the exchange. What’s more, when people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money—contrary to classic economic theory’s assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior—but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money. People consider trading sacred values for money so morally reprehensible that they recoil at such proposals.

If right, this is obviously an important challenge to those of us who have proposed offering Iran a grab‐​bag of goodies in exchange for opening its nuclear program to invasive international inspections. I haven’t read the study the article is drawn from very carefully, but I have a few immediate doubts.

  1. The authors’ discussion of the “sacredness” of the Iranian nuclear program is pretty nebulous. They reference how “the nuclear dispute is essentially framed as an ongoing resistance with deep historical context.” They talk about how Iran asserts its “inalienable rights” and how it pledges it “will not retreat one iota.” But lots of disputes are couched in these sorts of terms. Are they all over “sacred values”?
  2. They code respondents as holding Iran’s nuclear program as a sacred value if they select the statement that Iran shouldn’t give up its nuclear program “no matter how great the benefits are.” Isn’t it possible that the respondents see the United States as untrustworthy and fear that their country will get tricked into accepting a deal that can be easily broken? That there are no benefits that are great enough to offset an indigenous, autonomous nuclear capability?
  3. Most importantly, if the authors are right, we’re probably in big trouble. They write that “in conflicts involving sacred values, symbolic compromises which may lack any material benefits, such as apologies for past disrespects, may be key to solving the issue.” My sense is that the Right in America has been winding up American nationalism so high that the Obama people are in no mood to confront it head on. From lapel pins to “apology tours,” to claims that Obama may be an “alien” and therefore an inherently illegitimate president, to claims that he doesn’t recognize that al Qaeda is an Enemy, to the Nobel prize, and on and on, apologizing to Iran probably isn’t something the administration is particularly keen on. So if apologizing to Iran for something or other is the key to solving the nuclear puzzle, get ready for trouble.