Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why Iran's Perspective Is Essential

In two recent interviews, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government of Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. That's not a controversial claim. But the prime minister also said that if Iran develops nuclear weapons it will use them. That claim is controversial. In fact, it's about the most serious charge one government can level at another. Why it hasn't received far more attention and scrutiny is beyond me.

And while I'm admitting my limitations, let me state that I am not an expert on Iran. Nor do I believe that I can read the minds of Iran's leadership, unlike the prime minister, who is apparently quite sure that he can.

But I do know a little about psychology. And when I hear a leader confidently make such a bold and hostile statement, I am reminded of a concept familiar to all serious practitioners of international relations.

It is the "fundamental attribution error."

Imagine you're a student in a university classroom. The instructor asks you and the others to write a short essay about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iranian regime. But you aren't free to write what you wish. The instructor randomly selects half the students to write a pro-Ahmadinejad statement and half to take the anti-Ahmadinejad position.

You get the pro-Ahmadinejad assignment. So you write the essay and hand it in.

The essays are given to reviewers who are told that the students were randomly assigned to write either a pro-or anti-essay. The reviewers are then asked to read the essays.

And judge how the students actually feel about the Ahmadinejad government.

The reviewers read your essay. And they conclude you are clearly pro-Ahmadinejad. Which makes no sense.

Blame the "fundamental attribution error."

We know that our actions are often influenced by external circumstances - like being directed to take a certain position in an essay regardless of how we really feel. And we expect others to recognize those external factors and take them into account when they judge our actions. But they routinely do not. Instead, people typically attribute our actions to internal factors - to our feelings, beliefs, personality, or character.

The illustration I used above is based on a real experiment. Other experiments found that even when test subjects selected statements and directed respondents to read the statements out loud, they still tended to assume that the content of the statements reflected the true feelings and character of the person speaking. Which is bizarre. But this is an incredibly strong bias.

And a very dangerous one. "A policy-maker or diplomat involved in a tense exchange with a foreign government is likely to observe a great deal of hostile behaviour by that country's representatives," noted psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon in a 2006 Foreign Policy article.

"Some of that behaviour may indeed be the result of deep hostility. But some of it is simply a response to the current situation as it is perceived by the other side. What is ironic is that individuals who attribute others' behaviour to deep hostility are quite likely to explain away their own as a result of being "pushed into a corner" by an adversary. The tendency of both sides to view themselves as reacting to the other's provocative behaviour is a familiar feature of marital quarrels, and it is found as well in international conflicts. During the runup to World War One, the leaders of every one of the nations that would soon be at war perceived themselves as significantly less hostile than their adversaries."

World War Three very nearly started the same way.

A Soviet military buildup in the 1970s convinced many Americans that the U.S.S.R. was preparing a first strike nuclear attack. The Americans followed with a military buildup of their own - which convinced many Soviets that the Americans were preparing a first strike nuclear attack.

In reality, neither side seriously contemplated a first strike. But both were convinced that the other was doing just that. And so they felt compelled to take certain actions - which the other side took to be further proof of their evil intentions.

This cycle of misunderstanding steadily worsened relations and elevated the danger.

In 1983, the KGB concluded that NATO's "ABLE ARCHER 83" exercises were actually a subterfuge for a sneak attack and Soviet forces were placed on alert. At that critical moment, any accident, any mistake, could have brought civilization tumbling down. "The United States and the Soviet Union," Richard Rhodes concluded in Arsenals of Folly, "inadvertently blundered close to nuclear war in November, 1983."

Now, as I said, I'm no expert on Iran. I know that Iran has a history of supporting terrorism. And I know that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has often said vile and frightening things, particularly about Israel.

But I also know that if I look at Iran's situation from Iran's perspective, there's reason to suspect the "fundamental attribution error" is at work in the thinking of those who see nothing but implacable hostility in Iran's actions.

Iran is squared off against the United States, the world's sole superpower, which possesses the mightiest military in history. The United States easily defeated the biggest army in the region. Twice. And no matter what direction it looks, Iran sees American and allied forces arrayed against it. In the Persian Gulf. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. In Kuwait, Pakistan, and Turkey. In Israel.

An American president famously declared Iraq, North Korea, and Iran to be an "axis of evil." Shortly afterward, the United States invaded Iraq. But the U.S. made no move against North Korea and it likely never will because North Korea has nuclear weapons. What should Iran conclude?

Now, add Stuxnet computer virus attacks. Assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. The bellicose statements of American allies like Stephen Harper. And it's not hard to imagine that Iran feels compelled by external circumstances to produce nuclear weapons.

Of course I can't be sure that's true. I can't read minds. Unlike the prime minister.