Understanding the psychology shaping negotiations with Iran

“The only way for interaction with Iran is dialogue on an equal footing, confidence-building and mutual respect as well as reducing antagonism and aggression,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech after taking the oath of office last August.

“If you want the right response, don’t speak with Iran in the language of sanctions, speak in the language of respect.”

In the following article, Nicholas Wright and Karim Sadjadpour describe how an understanding of neuroscience — or lack of it — may determine the outcome of negotiations with Iran.

The whole piece is worth reading, but keep this in mind: every single insight that gets attributed to neuroscience has been clearly established without the need to conduct a single brain scan. Indeed, everything that is here being attributed to the “exquisite neural machinery” of the brain can be understood by studying the workings of the human mind and how thought shapes behavior.

It is important to draw a sharp distinction between the examination of the mind and observing the workings of the brain because the latter is totally dependent on the output of intermediary electronic scanning devices, whereas minds can study themselves and each other directly and through shared language.

One of the insidious effects of neuroscience is that it promotes a view that understanding the ways brains work has greater intrinsic value than understanding how minds work. What the negotiations with Iran demonstrate, however, is that the exact opposite is true.

To the extent that through the development of trust, negotiations are able to advance, this will have nothing to do with anyone’s confidence about what is happening inside anyone’s brain. On the contrary, it will depend on a meeting of minds and mutual understanding. No one will need to understand what is happening in their own or anyone else’s insula cortex, but what will most likely make or break the talks will be whether the Iranians believe they are being treated fairly. The determination of fairness does not depend on the presence or absence of a particular configuration of neural activity but rather on an assessment of reality.

Treat us as equals, Iran’s president said — and that was almost 15 years ago!

Nicholas Wright and Karim Sadjadpour write: “Imagine being told that you cannot do what everyone else is doing,” appealed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a somber YouTube message defending the country’s nuclear program in November. “Would you back down? Would you relent? Or would you stand your ground?”

While only 14 nations, including Iran, enrich uranium (e.g. “what everyone else is doing”), Zarif’s message raises a question at the heart of ongoing talks to implement a final nuclear settlement with Tehran: Why has the Iranian government subjected its population to the most onerous sanctions regime in contemporary history in order to do this? Indeed, it’s estimated that Iran’s antiquated nuclear program needs one year to enrich as much uranium as Europe’s top facility produces in five hours.

To many, the answer is obvious: Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability (which it has arguably already attained), if not nuclear weapons. Yet the numerous frameworks used to explain Iranian motivations—including geopolitics, ideology, nationalism, domestic politics, and threat perception—lead analysts to different conclusions. Does Iran want nuclear weapons to dominate the Middle East, or does it simply want the option to defend itself from hostile opponents both near and far? While there’s no single explanation for Tehran’s actions, if there is a common thread that connects these frameworks and may help illuminate Iranian thinking, it is the brain.

Although neuroscience can’t be divorced from culture, history, and geography, there is no Orientalism of the brain: The fundamental biology of social motivations is the same in Tokyo, Tehran, and Tennessee. It anticipates, for instance, how the mind’s natural instinct to reject perceived unfairness can impede similarly innate desires for accommodation, and how fairness can lead to tragedy. It tells us that genuinely conciliatory gestures are more likely and natural than many believe, and how to make our own conciliatory gestures more effective.

Distilled to their essence, nations are led by and comprised of humans, and the success of social animals like humans rests on our ability to control the balance between cooperation and self-interest. The following four lessons from neuroscience may help us understand the obstacles that were surmounted to reach an interim nuclear deal with Iran, and the enormous challenges that still must be overcome in order to reach a comprehensive agreement. [Continue reading…]

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5 thoughts on “Understanding the psychology shaping negotiations with Iran

  1. Cyrus

    Why has Iran gone nuclear? For the same reason that the US encouraged Iran to go nuclear back in the 1970s: because it makes economic sense and is Iran’s sovereign right. Why is THAT explanation ignored in favor of this nonsense about brains and nukes?

  2. Paul Woodward

    A few days ago in an op-ed in the New York Times, Siegfried S. Hecker and William J. Perry wrote:

    As Iranian and Western diplomats continue to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program, the details will matter more and more. Obstinacy and obfuscation will return the two sides to deadlock. But there is hope for the long term if Iran and America are willing to break with the past.

    Iran has very little to show for its 50 years of nuclear pursuit. It has only one commercial reactor ready for electricity production at Bushehr that was supplied by Russia without Iran learning much about the technologies needed for the manufacturing and construction of reactors. The country also has an aging 1960s-era American-supplied research reactor on its last legs of medical isotope production.

    The heavy-water reactor Iran is building at Arak, ostensibly for medical isotope production, remains a major hurdle in negotiations. The current reactor design appears much better suited for producing bomb-grade plutonium than for civilian uses — and if producing plutonium were the goal, it would take several years for such production.

    Iran’s pride and joy, its uranium centrifuge program, can enrich in one year as much uranium as the European consortium, Urenco, can produce in about five hours. A ten-fold increase in Iran’s centrifuge capacity would be required to enrich enough uranium fuel for its Bushehr reactor alone. And no matter how many more centrifuges Iran installs, it can never become self-sufficient because it does not possess adequate uranium ore reserves for a large-scale nuclear energy program. It could purchase enrichment services on the global marketplace just as it would have to buy the natural uranium to feed into the centrifuges.

    All Iran has today is the capacity to produce small amounts of reactor fuel or, if it decides to, one or two bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium per year (which it would then need to weaponize).

    Meanwhile, the direct costs of its nuclear pursuit have been enormous. And the indirect costs to the nation of keeping the nuclear weapons option open, in terms of political and scientific isolation plus economic sanctions, are staggering. If Iran’s endgame really is a civilian nuclear power program, it will require a fundamentally different approach.

    The best economic option for Tehran would simply be to get out of the nuclear fuel-cycle business altogether, but this is unlikely given Iran’s insistence on its sovereign right to nuclear energy.

    A second option would be to settle for a modest nuclear electricity program relying on the Bushehr reactor and construction of one or two more Russian-built reactors. Iran could maintain the current arrangement with Russia — that is, have Moscow supply the nuclear fuel and take back the spent fuel. Iran could then simply forgo all indigenous nuclear power development, including enrichment and the final disposal of spent fuel. It would not be doing so under pressure, but rather acting in its own best interest.

    If Iran insists on a large and mostly indigenous nuclear electricity program, it can succeed only through international cooperation, not isolation. Like South Korea and Japan, Iran can never become fully independent because it lacks large indigenous uranium resources. It takes decades for countries without an established industrial and regulatory nuclear infrastructure to produce large amounts of nuclear electricity and requires close cooperation with established nuclear suppliers.

    The lesson for Iran, based on other nations’ experiences, is that it should concentrate on developing the capability to fabricate reactor fuel elements and reactor components, and learning how to build nuclear power plants. Japan and South Korea became leading global reactor vendors by doing so. This could constitute a pragmatic and honorable choice. Domestic enrichment would be abandoned because it isn’t economical. And Iran would forgo the reprocessing of spent fuel because it isn’t cost effective.

    Such a solution offers the best opportunities for technical and industrial development with greatest economic gain and least danger of proliferation.

    For the Arak reactor, Iran can still make technical changes that would reduce the proliferation risk and agree to send spent fuel out of the country to eliminate concerns about plutonium production.

    A radical but even better solution would be to cooperate with other countries that sell and build reactors and tailor the design for medical and research applications in order to limit fears of proliferation. Such reactors are typically operated as international facilities. One is being constructed by South Korea in Jordan and an Argentine-built reactor has operated in Australia for the past six years. Such an arrangement would bring Iran into a cooperative relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency instead of a confrontational one and integrate, rather than isolate, its nuclear program.

    Sixty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the Atoms for Peace program, one lesson is clear: Civilian nuclear programs flourish only through cooperation and openness. Secrecy and isolation are typically signs of a nuclear weapons program.

    If Iran accepts these pragmatic approaches to nuclear energy, it can resolve the nuclear stalemate in a manner that serves its people well and is acceptable to the international community.

    Appropriately timed sanctions relief could then convince Tehran to implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would provide the unprecedented transparency required to demonstrate the peaceful nature of its program.

    A successful nuclear deal would also provide an enormous boost for beleaguered global nonproliferation efforts and possibly lead to a productive American-Iranian relationship that could deal with the many complex security problems impeding stability in the Middle East.

    I’m sure Hecker and Perry believe that their proposals make eminently good sense and their implementation would meet everyone’s best interests. The problem is, they are ignoring the psychological dimension of the issue. Since Iran has already asserted enrichment as a non-negotiable right, it can’t reverse that position without appearing to have capitulated to Western pressure.

    The underlying issue has next to nothing to do with nuclear power. It’s really about the West asserting its “right” to impose its authority on the rest of the world. Since this is the psychological subtext, it’s not something whose terms can be explicitly negotiated. But understanding how people deal with issues of fairness, is not a peripheral matter that would only interest casual observers. It’s something about which that the negotiators themselves need to think with the greatest possible clarity.

  3. hquain

    “Indeed, everything that is here being attributed to the “exquisite neural machinery” of the brain can be understood by studying the workings of the human mind and how thought shapes behavior.”

    You’re 100% right on this. Most cognitive scientists would take exactly the same line. Unfortunately, the prefix “neuro” has a lot of pop cred, and, as in any discipline, there are charlatans and quasi-charlatans (as well as people who simply can’t reason outside the very narrow paradigms they were trained in) who are eager to make some kind of public splash, often in aid of selling a book. My most recent favorite in this literature is the OpEd piece in the NYT by the publicity-seeking professor who claimed that neuroscience validated her decision to lie elaborately to her kids about Santa.

  4. Paul Woodward

    In my comments, I’m not attempting to debunk neuroscience altogether. There are lots of ways in which greater understanding of brain functioning can shed new light on human experience, but what I’m arguing against is the reduction of human experience to its neurological correlates.

    For instance, a recent study that the brain contains two internal clocks is interesting and, I think, an example of the kind of thing that couldn’t be understood without the use of brain imaging techniques.

    But when it comes to issues that matter hugely to human beings individually and collectively — questions such as what causes happiness or makes people selfish or what it means to be authentic — I can think of no inquiring mind throughout history whose insights into these issues would have been more profound had they had access to an fMRI.

    Would Shakespeare have been a better playwright if he’d been able to read all the latest studies in the neuroscience journals? Obviously not.

    We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on

    To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

    No amount of brain studying will yield truths such as these.

  5. hquain

    Yes, but behind this lies the very interesting fact that the mind can be, has been, is being, studied scientifically, with the usual effect that good science discloses unimaginably ‘more than is dreamt of in your philosophy’. The same, by the way, is true in animal cognition.

    We have to distinguish between real neuroscience, which has many deep & complicated questions to ask at the most fundamental level about how the apparatus works, and the pop variety, which is absurdly reductive and broad-brush — almost a form of attention-seeking.

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