Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lecturer Beeman dicusses U.S.-Iranian relations (Wheaton Wire)

Lecturer Beeman dicusses U.S.-Iranian relations

By: Elspeth Lodge '10

Posted: 4/29/09
The United States and Iran have been 'ghahr' with each other for approximately 30 years now: while the two countries do not diplomatically talk to each other, they have not exactly broken off their relationship. "We keep sticking needles in each other from afar," confides William Beeman, Middle East Studies Specialist and Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

There is a need for "someone to force the relationship back together," due to the U.S. not understanding Iranian's cultural differences from the United States.

Beeman gave his lecture titled "Learning to Live with Iran: How Cultural Awareness Can Improve U.S.-Iranian Relations" to a full crowd. He meant to impart an understanding of Iran's cultural mechanisms, which are very foreign to the American sensibility.

"The people who want to create change in Iran have got to deal with this," says Beeman. "It is true that the United States and Iran have cultural conceptions of each other that sometimes get in the way of understanding each other. As an anthropologist I am especially aware of cultural differences."

"Iranians, like all humans have the same basic wants and desires in life. There is no 'Iranian mind' any more than there is an 'Arab mind' to site the egregious and misleading title of Raphael Patai's thoroughly discredited book of three decades ago."

Beeman uses a PowerPoint presentation to discuss a myriad of culture oriented topics including. but not limited to, patterns of interaction, complexity in Iranian interaction, independent symbiosis in Iranian hierarchy, and dimensions of different social status. And, of course, he discusses Iranian linguistics. "I'm a linguist, I can't resist," he says.

One example of a cultural misunderstanding of Iran is how political structures function and the basic schema of Iranian government, which according to Beeman, is "a very complex structure." It is designed to keep one group of people in power for a very long period of time; terms of political office are staggered. In effect no group is completely out of power at one time.

An example of one misunderstanding of government is something so simple as how the Iranian president functions. While in the U.S. the executive branch has a great deal of power, in Iran the president has very little power in any arena. He has no control over military, foreign affairs, or the infamous Iranian nuclear program.

Beeman also covers political strategies and factions and the emerging factors, such as media, which are effecting the government. He imparts that the Internet is alive and well in Iran, saying "every candidate has a blog." Beeman also cites that women are becoming more involved, as evident by the fact that more woman than ever are attending universities and literacy rates have increased. There is also an emerging youth population which will soon have a major impact on the balance of the political system.

There are many polarities between the U.S. and Iranian culture. While Iran recognizes hierarchy, the U.S. suppresses hierarchy. While Iran makes distinctions between the private and public political spheres, people in the U.S. try to conflate the private and public spheres of politics. Iranian culture values personalism in public business -- family and personal ties are essential. Contrastingly the U.S. culture denies personalism.

"It is only with the Obama administration that we are starting to see a thaw. I am hoping that with the Obama administration [Iran and the U.S.] will have a greater understanding of each other," says Beeman. © Copyright 2009 Wheaton Wire