The Science of Iran’s Nuclear Behavior

by Cheng Hang Teo

With no agreement in sight between the international community and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program, and with Israel agitating for military action, time is running out on a peaceful resolution to the issue. Amidst this pressing environment, behavioral science can lend useful insights to better understand the choices made by key decision-makers and to inform the deliberations and responses of policymakers.

Loss aversion, first raised in a 1979 study by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, refers to the phenomenon whereby people prefer avoiding losses to winning gains of similar magnitude. The tendency to avert losses means that convincing Tehran’s policy-makers to disarm after acquiring a nuclear weapon would constitute a more difficult task than preventing them from acquiring a nuclear weapon in the first place. It is instructive that with the sole exception of South Africa, no country has ever given up nuclear weapons after having developed them. This is consistent with the endowment effect, in which one values a good that one owns more than the same good that one does not own; as well as the status quo bias, in which decision makers disproportionately tend to adhere to the status quo alternative.

In the same 1979 study, Kahneman and Tversky also discussed how we are psychologically predisposed to risk aversion in the domain of gains and risk seeking in the domain of losses. Through this lens, does the international community want to induce in Iran’s leaders a risk averse or a risk seeking mentality? It follows that the various punitive sanctions that have been imposed on Iran may well have the undesired effect of making them more risk seeking. After the February talks in Kazakhstan, a group of lawmakers in Washington announced new legislation to tighten U.S. sanctions on Iran.  The United States and the international community should exercise caution in imposing sanctions to avoid increasing the risk seeking behavior that this is likely to generate in Tehran.

The same psychological disposition of risk aversion may also inform the way the international community’s policymakers frame the tradeoffs for Iran’s decision makers.  With a greater aversion to a loss than a propensity for the same magnitude of gains, it might be more effective for future concessions to be framed as “it’s yours, but you lose it if you violate the terms of the agreement” rather than “it’s yours, if you follow the terms.”

How does behavioral science explain Iran’s desire for a nuclear program in the first place? The ultimatum game shows the lengths that actors go, even to the detriment of their own wellbeing, to enforce a sense of fairness. Fairness is one of the justifications Iran uses in support of its nuclear program—it has consistently claimed its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for civilian purposes. And if it were seeking nuclear weapons, fairness would certainly be a key rationale, given that Israel is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

The notion of fairness has further implications. There is little doubt that if Iran does acquire nuclear capabilities, its adversaries in the region would clamor for the same, in the name of their own security and nuclear parity. Like the price-taker in the ultimatum game, other actors in the region might act punitively—perhaps even against their own self-interest—in the name of fairness. In considering its own nuclear program, Tehran would do well to take note of the volatility it would bring about in its neighborhood. It cannot discount the possibility of its own acquisition causing the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the region or other dangerous retaliatory responses on the part of other regional players.

Political commentators such as Kenneth Waltz have suggested that nuclear weapons foster stability, and that “more may be better.” Not so when behavioral science finds that decision makers committed to a course of action tend to continue this commitment beyond the bounds of rationality. More nuclear weapons just means that more cool heads—those that recognize and are able to act against this natural tendency to escalate—are needed to limit nuclear escalation. Unfortunately, it also means a lower threshold for strategic nuclear over-escalation.

In 2006, Kahneman, a psychologist by vocation, made a rare venture into international politics when he explained in Foreign Policy from a behavioral science perspective why hawks tend to dominate the doves in decision-making. Even if this will not put an end to the world’s crises, he expressed hope that understanding the biases in decision-making would at least level the playing field between the hawks and the doves. On the Iran nuclear issue, I echo an analogous hope that behavioral science can at least nudge policy makers to greater understanding of Iran’s decision-making, and ultimately to better-informed responses and policies.

About the Author

Cheng Hang Teo is an Edward S. Mason Fellow in Public Policy and Management completing the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also holds degrees in International Relations from the Auburn University Montgomery, as well as in Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles. Cheng Hang was previously Assistant Director (Special Projects) in the Ministry of Defence of Singapore and Lieutenant-Colonel in the Republic of Singapore Air Force with 11 years of command and staff experience.

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