Monday, May 30, 2005

Learning to Talk to Iran--Beeman

Agence Global - Article: "Learning to Talk to Iran
by William O. BeemanReleased: 26 May 2005

Learning to Talk to Iran
by William O. Beeman Released: 26 May 2005

American officials can't get their substantive concerns through to Iranian ears because they don't know how to talk to Iran.

Yet another example of this dysfunctional communication was seen when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on May 19 entitled "Iran: Weapons Proliferation, Terrorism and Democracy," which featured a group of individuals who are largely hostile to Iran. These hearings were predominantly an orgy of Iran bashing that will get the United States no closer to entente with the Islamic Republic.

When viewing counter-productive events such as this hearing, it becomes clear that all branches of American government need a different strategy if they are at all serious in their intention of changing minds in Tehran about anything. This requires some schooling in Iranian communication dynamics, going beyond the particular substantive merits of either side's arguments.

It is a general principle of communication dynamics in Iran that only parties who are in an active pre-existing relationship have the ability to make demands on each other. To enter a relationship, there needs to be a clear understanding about roles -- how the parties are to be mutually supportive. In interpersonal interaction, an individual who tries to make demands on another from a "superior" position without having this understanding is practicing "power mongering" (ghodrat-talabi). This is one of the most despised actions in all of Iranian conduct, and is resisted with every fiber of one's being. Even if a party is forced into acquiescence, there are consequences down the road, since the party forced to their knees, so to speak, will harbor eternal resentment, and will look for a way to strike back at some time in the future.

The United States and Iran currently have no active relationship. Therefore American demands on Iran will be met with greater and greater resistance the more they are promulgated, either directly through shouting and invective, or through trying to use the European negotiating team to do Washington's work. The Europeans, who do have a functioning relationship with Iran, have a chance to succeed in their negotiations, if only they are not perceived as American tools. The only way for the United States to press its interests successfully with Iran is to bite the bullet and get back into direct communication with the Islamic Republic. As distasteful as this might be to some parties in the current administration -- and indeed to many in Iran -- it can be done with sufficient political will.

Given American ineptitude in this communication quagmire, it may be up to some intrepid Iranians to step up and seize the day. The presidential election next month will be an important watershed. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, now running for president again, is no longer a novice in dealing with the United States. He was involved in the Iran-Contra affair, and has emerged from that encounter with his political powers intact. He has stated his confidence that he can deal with the U.S. and not pay a political price at home -- a rare and precious claim. He is not well liked, and his ethics are regularly questioned in private, but pragmatists in Iran feel that he might be able to be the key to rapprochement with the United States -- something that they recognize must happen eventually. Washington will be hard pressed to identify another such actor among Iranian political elites. However, Rafsanjani is a man of formidable political skills. Karl Rove couldn't hold a candle to him -- though they are cut from the same cloth.

Mr. Rafsanjani s election is by no means a foregone conclusion. Moreover, if he wins, dealing with him will still be a delicate challenge. Nevertheless, as he has hinted, his election could be an opening to better relations. Mr. Rafsanjani would definitely be his own person; he could probably not survive anything that would make him seem to be an American puppet. Washington, however, should be prepared to respond quickly and positively to any overtures he makes. This might occasion the diplomatic breakthrough that Madeline Albright, among others, pursued unsuccessfully in the past.

The United States and Iran now need someone like Mr. Rafsanjani. Without some serious face-to-face work, Iran and the United States are doomed to a death-spiral of deteriorating communication, and the American public may once again be treated to a disastrous violent international action framed by those fateful, sad and ultimately disingenuous words: "We did all we could."

William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His books include Language, Status and Power in Iran, and the forthcoming The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

Copyright 2005 William O. Beeman