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.
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