‘Sacred values’ and the development of nuclear weapons

For some Iranians, the development of nuke energy is a sacred value just as the land of Jerusalem is for many Israelis.

The West should consider acknowledging that Iran has the right to develop its own nuclear energy [GALLO/GETTY]

Beneath the intensifying crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme is a startling disconnect between what the two sides perceive to be the target of the West’s sanctions. To the US and its allies, the sanctions aim to cripple the Iranian economy to the point that Iran’s government will realise the error of developing nuclear weapons.  

To Iranians, however, the sanctions represent an encroachment on their country’s sovereignty over an issue – nuclear energy – they believe goes to the core of national identity. This view has deep historical resonance because of previous foreign efforts to undermine the nation’s sovereignty – the Western-sponsored coup of a democratically elected government in 1953 – and to interrupt scientific advancement – Iran’s quest for nuclear technology dates to the shah. For these Iranians, the country’s nuclear programme has become a “sacred value”. 

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What is a “sacred value”? We all intuitively feel that there are certain things and values in our lives – the right to vote, the graves of our ancestors – that we would never give up or compromise no matter how tempting the reward or menacing the threat. What’s more, to even be asked to consider a tradeoff on such matters would be an outrage.

‘Sacred values’

Sacred values play significant roles in many socio-cultural conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian divide is a prominent example. The problem is that sacred values are beyond the reach of traditional diplomacy, which assumes rational actors weighing the costs and benefits of taking a position. Who would bargain away the sacred? But in the case of Iran’s nuclear programme, diplomacy has a chance of succeeding in upcoming talks because Iranians may consider the programme sacred only up to a point. 

In 2010, we surveyed Iranian attitudes toward their country’s nuclear programme. The 2,000 participants were young (average age 30), college graduates and mostly male, a sample highly representative of the population as a whole except for the predominance of males.

We presented one group (about 1,400 Iranians) with three different tradeoff scenarios: Would they give up the nuclear energy programme in exchange for material compensation from the United Nations, under the threat of sanctions or in the absence of external pressure?  

For about 14 per cent of these Iranians, offering material incentives and imposing sanctions backfired: their resistance to ending Iran’s nuclear programme strengthened and they expressed anger at the mere offer of a tradeoff.

For these Iranians, the development of nuclear energy is a sacred value just as the land of Jerusalem is for many Israelis and the right of return for many Palestinians. They tended to come from the country’s rural provinces, where access to Western media is limited and the government’s sacred rhetoric holds sway.

While relatively small, the group’s size may significantly understate its influence in Iran because its members were more politically active, nationalistic, religious and closer to the regime than the other Iranians surveyed.

Using the same proposed tradeoffs mentioned above, we next asked the remaining group of Iranians if they were willing to bargain away Iran’s reputed quest for nuclear weaponry. To our surprise, they were willing to make the tradeoff, whether the incentive was sanctions or money. And, as significant, they did not express anger at the idea of a tradeoff. In short, this group did not consider the pursuit of nuclear weaponry to be a sacred value. 

Building nuclear energy

Our survey results may help explain why the West’s use of sanctions may have strengthened Tehran’s determination to develop nuclear energy. The sanctions policy does not distinguish between Iran’s nuclear energy programme, which the Iranian government has defended using sacred political rhetoric, and its purported goal of building nuclear bombs, which Tehran has consistently denied. Untangling the two issues could open the door to a diplomatic solution.  

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Previous research suggests that in conflicts involving sacred values, symbolic gestures are key to resolution. The resumption of talks in mid-April between the so-called P5+1 group – the US, Russia, China, Germany, the UK and France – and Iran offers an opportunity to explore this possibility.

The West should consider acknowledging that Iran has the right to develop its own nuclear energy, an outcome that many in Europe and the US already accept as happening sooner or later. In encouraging Iran to pursue a peaceful programme, the West might even offer technical aid in achieving this goal in exchange for greater access to its nuclear facilities.  

Such a change, of course, would turn current policy on its head and require enormous political courage on both sides. But it could have the benefit of focusing negotiations and sanctions on the proper target – the development of nuclear weaponry.

After the assassination of another top Iranian nuclear scientist in January, ABC News reported that some 1,300 Iranian students applied to switch their majors to the nuclear sciences. The action testified to the sacred nature of the Iranian nuclear programme for these students.

In such a charged atmosphere, more sanctions or the threat of military action will likely backfire. Indeed, the Iran government’s response to the escalating sanctions has been to build more nuclear facilities and accelerate the uranium enrichment process.

As one columnist put it, “You don’t bring down a quasi-holy symbol – nuclear power – by cutting off gasoline sales.” Nor can you block Iranians’ aspiration for sovereignty, which the government has successfully entwined with the achievement of a nuclear capacity.

Morteza Dehghani is Research Assistant Professor at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California.

Sonya Sachdeva is a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Northwestern University.