Wednesday, November 05, 2008

10. Tips about dealing with Iran for President-elect Obama

My long-term companion turned to me this morning and said, “The regime better watch out now. They can no longer argue that America doesn’t want to talk. With Obama as president, they can’t keep making America their enemy.

He’s right; an Obama presidency means “all options are REALLY on the table.”

Stepping on the flag by Vahid Nikgoo (Thanks to Kamangir for the translation of this cartoon from Vahid Nikgoo's blog)

Of course President-elect Obama will have his Iran experts: people who have studied the country’s politics, society, revolution, history, and language more thoroughly than I would ever dream of doing. There are people who know the rules of taarof better than Iranians themselves and who understand the historical roots of certain forms of behavior better as well. There will be people who have examined the DNA of Iran’s leadership and who know just how many misspellings were in that fake Oxford diploma (It sounds as though it was forged by the same people who sold my friend fake Johnny Walker whiskey featuring a label with 17 misspellings.) I won’t let this stop me from offering my free advice to the next president.

1. Bluster is bad
Do not make threats that will not or cannot be carried out. Ever. There are circuitous ways to threaten Iran, if that is necessary. This means, of course, explaining to Americans that diplomacy is a subtle game and that we cannot always come out and condemn or threaten openly and still expect to be taken seriously. Direct bluster simply makes us look weak.

(related posts: Interview 3: Gary Sick talks about negotiating with Iran
Negotiating with Iranians)

2. Don’t say that you respect the history of the great people of Iran…
…And then revoke visas while people are in flight to the US, detain them without reason, or insult their intelligence.

3. Temper the demands for transparency
Demanding immediate transparency from Iran is like demanding that all Americans learn a second language. Tomorrow.

Have you ever worked with someone from Iran? And by from Iran, I mean someone who has not had the opportunity or need to adapt to the new culture? Many (not all, by any stretch of the imagination) have what my friend calls a “bazaari mentality.” There are secrets, deals, patronage, and negotiations ad nauseum. Decision-making is a very private affair and the reasoning behind a decision is deemed unnecessary. (I know that Iranians are not alone in this... just saying that it comes naturally)

Iranian culture is not, by nature or nurture, a transparent culture. Look, Ahmadinejad can’t even give a straight answer to a question about the ages of his children. The very power structure of Iran’s government is a secret even to those participating in it. It is secret, even though it is openly documented. Even where there are NO secrets, many of my Iranian friends construct secrets and conspiracies. (Earthquake in Bam: underground nuclear testing; fire at mosque: explosion, let's not even get into 9/11, the holocaust, or the moonwalk...)

A friend of mine, who has become Americanized, wondered why his own father would tell people he ate kebab for lunch when instead he ate chicken with rice. “What’s wrong with chicken?” he asked, baffled. “Why did my father feel like he had to tell people he ate kebab?”

There have to be ways to ease into a transparent relationship, rather than demand one. How? Ask the experts.

4. Doubt and challenge your experts
The first thing I learned when I went to Iran is that my expat Iranian friends did not have any idea what Iran was like. They had frozen it in time, at its very nastiest. Once I got past this, I realized that their view was extremely limited by their class and geographical location. Many of the people I spoke with extrapolated the feelings of all Iranians based on the feelings and beliefs of their own family members. I have been guilty of this as well, but not nearly so desperately as many of the people I met inside and outside Iran. Iran is a seriously classist society. Seriously. It's also "placist." Here's one of my favorite examples (one that I heard tens, if not hundreds, of times):

Why do people think we have camels in Iran? There are no camels in Iran. (News flash: I saw a camel on Dibaji Jonubi in Tehran!)

The next thing I learned is that experts can be too, let's say, "expert." Knowing the historical, cultural, and linguistic roots of certain forms of behaviors means attributing meaning where there may be none. Iran, like the US, has a culture that changes. It is a dynamic, modern culture where every single action is not necessarily as self-aware or as historically rooted as the experts think it is. Society is still changing in Iran. Many of the young people we met there have cut all ties with tradition: some consciously, some in a nihilistic manner, and some for no reason at all.

5. All Iranians hate the regime…
NOT. Even those who tell me quite openly and vehemently that they hate the regime don’t really hate them. I know that so many people I know and love would love to believe that what they really long for is freedom and democracy, but what I saw in Iran were strong familial efforts to control the behavior of their children. Some use the regime as an excuse, albeit a valid one. Allowing their children the social freedom that nearly all adolescents and young adults long for could bring them into dangerous conflict with the religious police. Ok, I’ll give them that. Despite that, I sincerely believe that despite social changes in some social classes in Iran and some cosmopolitan areas, most families in Iran want to control their families.

6. Do not fall for the argument that Western culture is decadent…
If you cannot argue in favor of Western culture, then do not negotiate with the regime in Iran. If you cannot argue in favor of our family values and our society, just surrender now. If you cannot argue in favor the rights of women and minorities, give up hope. If you cannot champion free speech with all of its messiness, all is lost. If you cannot be proud of our open debates and disagreements, don't even go to Iran.

7. Walk a mile in their shoes…
Attempting to empathize with our foes has been demonized, yet there can be no meaningful peace until we start to do that. Empathy does not require capitulation, but it can lead to real discussions and more productive negotiations. Americans cannot continue to view the world only in terms of our own self-interest. We have to at least be able to imagine the interests of others.

Here are some places to start:
Sardasht: Iran's rallying cry, root of nuclear ambitions, by Borzou Daragahi

About the Iran Coup, 1953 and in the NYT

If you're really ambitious, read My Dear Uncle Napoleon.

And don't forget to visit the blogs in my blogroll and keep up with Global Voices.

8. Remember, Iranians still educate some of the best engineers in the world at Tehran University, their best political analysts are realistic and sharp, and many get their news from a variety of sources.

It does not make sense to speak to Iranians as though they are a nation of children.

9. The next revolution will not be televised…

When I tell my Iranian friends that I believe the current regime has infiltrated society to such an extent that it cannot be easily or happily removed, they tell me that Iran is full of surprises. It even surprises itself. I know that it surprised me.

10. Absolutely gotta repudiate torture, close Guantanamo, and observe the Geneva Convention.

And here is one tip for Iran's regime:

Do not make the mistake of thinking that an Obama presidency means that you can pull a Khrushchev. You have no choice now but to negotiate in good faith.


Eric Asp said...

Great post! Very insightful and informative. I especially appreciated points 3 and 7.

edge of the world said...

Do not believe that all that glitters is gold. We all share your optimism that the USA has been reborn a citezen of teh world an not the xenophobic creature that it has become - but what has changed?
Is it it foreign policy - is it a gennuine ethical shoft or is it self interest - is it economic.

Obama is just a man - he may very well represent the best in America - the freedom the liberty ya ya ya - but he is not the country - why did they elect him - we share the pray for peace but we wit silent and sceptical - we see only what we ae shown

Tori said...

@Edge, I hope that Obama's supporters share your view that he is just a man. That's exactly right. My response is a bit off the topic of the post, but here goes:
Many men and women worked for his campaign, making sure that their voices were heard and that many Americans participated in the process. No one looking at this campaign would say that this is the work of 1 man: it was the work of many people. Anyone who believes that Obama can magically make the world better or that there won't be disappointments, set-backs, compromises, and mistakes is living in a dream world. I think that what the election of Obama has shown is that we're all going to have to work our butts off to improve our democracy and our relationship with the rest of the world. We cannot put all of our faith in one man.

I also find it interesting that after 9/11 many (if not, most) Americans were willing to make major sacrifices, but we were simply asked to resume our shopping. Now, we have a president-elect who is likely going to ask us for help. He's already announced support for volunteering.

Tori said...

@Eric, Thanks.