How To Talk The Talk With Iran


Face-to-face talks between Iran and the United States have a good chance of success if the Bush administration knows how to handle their part of the exchange.

Some denizens of Washington are under the mistaken impression that the Americans can dictate the terms of the conversation and the Iranians will fall in line. They will not.

Opinion: How to talk the talk with Iran

The first rule in Iranian negotiations is that both sides must exhibit mutual respect, even if they harbor virulent hatred for each other. Iran is a hierarchical society, and negotiations are stabilized by balanced reciprocity in terms of respect. Each party elevates the other party in status and humbles him or herself in turn. In this way hierarchy is preserved, but mutuality is maintained. 

Politeness is an exquisite art in Iran; it is especially appreciated in difficult negotiations. One can see this demonstrated in public encounters between Iranian officials themselves. Many of Iran’s political leaders and clerics hate each other with a vengeance. Their intense rivalry is always hidden behind a veil of outward respect. This system of encounter, replete with bowing, complimentary language and deference, is called “ta’arof”. It is an essential political and social skill.

Second, Iranians will not tolerate accusations or accept blame except from those with whom they have a personal relationship that embodies respect because of their superior social or political position, morality or accomplishments. Even the most exalted individual will tolerate criticism from his or her parent, teacher, spiritual leader or acknowledged patron. The same person will bristle and remonstrate when faced with accusations from some unrelated party, or someone considered to be of equal or inferior status. The Revolution of 1978-79 hinged on this principle. When the Shah’s army began firing on unarmed women and youths in public, his superior status vis-a-vis the public – anchored in his implicit pledge to protect his people – evaporated, and he fell like a rock in a matter of weeks.

Third, a resumption of relations after estrangement is especially difficult. Estrangement in Iran is institutionalized. It is called “qahr” and involves a period of ritual non-interaction. The resumption of relations usually requires a neutral mediator and even then, reconciliation can be fraught with pitfalls. Either party can quickly test the sincerity of the other party with unreasonable or difficult demands. The only way forward in this situation is to continually demonstrate good will, and present scenarios that show the mutual benefit of the resumption of relations.

Finally, Iranians make a very clear distinction between “inside” and “outside” communication. An appeal to the “inside” values of spirituality, virtue and human feeling is always likely to win the Iranian heart; but such an appeal must be sincere. “Inside” expressions recall the mysticism of Sufi orders, and are redolent with spiritual meaning. Practiced Iranians are quick to detect insincerity, cynicism and overt flattery, all of which are definitely “outside” in nature. Cynical overtures are immediately rejected as a sign of bad faith, and can destroy any delicate negotiation. And no wonder, since the “inside” communication mode is so powerful, and its misuse so despised.

These principles can easily be implemented by the United States for any mutually useful purpose in talking with Iran.

If the talks are to be about stability in Iraq, the United States must not bias them by making pre-conditions about other issues – such as Iran’s nuclear program. It must acknowledge that Iran has an equal and respected position in creating stability in the region. Language must be unfailingly polite and humble.

The United States must avoid making accusations against Iran. Frankly, from Iran’s perspective, the United States has no standing to make such accusations. It is neither respected as a social or cultural superior, nor has it acted as an acknowledged patron of Iran or its people. If talks are productive, the accusatory matters can be handled once relations are on a more even keel.

In dealing with Iran, the United States must be prepared for the fits and starts that accompany the 28-year estrangement between the two nations. Iran will feint, pull back, charge forward with seemingly helpful suggestions, only to withdraw them. This is normal, expected and part of the process of reconciliation.

Finally, the United States must speak with sincerity about mutual desires to cooperate with the Iranian government on matters of mutual interest. Nothing could be more essential to both nations than stability in Iraq. There can be ho holding back here. The message must be from the heart, and unqualified.

Only then will the long chill between Iran and the United States begin to abate.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota and President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He is author of “Language, Status and Power in Iran” and “The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. This article is reprinted here with his permission.