The United States is about to enter into another round of negotiations with Iran. Previous attempts have been limited and unproductive. One major difficulty is that Iranians and Americans after 40 years of estrangement have forgotten how to talk to each other.
Americans often miss subtleties of communication in dealing with other nations for two important reasons. First, we do not appreciate the importance of status differences. Second, we believe that contrition is honorable and a precondition of improving personal relations.
Americans despise status differences, and repress overt expression of status even when it is clearly present in interpersonal communication. The boss tells his or her employees, "Call me Chris," and the employees obey, though they know that the boss has the real power in the organization.
Iranians are dramatically different. Status is of enormous importance in Iranian life, and individuals spend their careers in an elaborate dance balancing status differences, sometimes emphasizing their low relative status, sometimes their higher relative status in order to advance their interests.
"Getting something off your chest" is a well-advised strategy in American interpersonal relations, and we require signs of contrition in court cases in order to obtain mercy in meting out punishment or in obtaining parole or pardon. If anything, such expressions of regret for past deeds raise individuals in the opinion of others.
Iranians may admit guilt or become contrite but only as a conscious decision to accept a decisive lower-status position vis-a-vis another person or group. This can be advantageous as a way of escaping responsibility, but it is unseemly for a leader, or group of leaders.
Iranians have told the United States in no uncertain terms that they will not enter into communication with the American government or its European partners as a lower-status partner. The Iranian perception of the relationship between the two nations before the revolution of 1978-79 is one of patron (U.S.) to client (Iran), all engineered by the Shah without any Iranian public input. This status relationship is vehemently rejected by the current regime, and President Ahmadinejad, and Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei must defend this position to retain their own power.
This means that Iran will not respond to accusations of perceived wrongdoing from the United States with anything but denial and counter-accusations, because to accept the American accusations, even as a topic for discussion, places the United States in the higher-status position. The United States missed a great opportunity during the Clinton Administration when President Khatami was in power. Khatami, an erudite and savvy politician, provided a way to talk about things of mutual concern without invoking the hot-button of status difference.
In talking about the past, he was able to provide analogies in U.S. history for all of the bad behavior of which the Iranians have been accused. In effect, he was saying: "We can discuss our mutual pasts in a common framework without needing to determine who was the wrong-doer." With regard to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, President Khatami provided statements that indicated that Iran found these to be general problems that faced the region, and indeed the world.
These problems, he claimed, required broad dialogue for progress to be made. His call for people-to-people contacts was similarly a way of opening discussion between Americans and Iranians without confronting the status-guilt problems that loom in the government-to-government contacts favored by Washington officials.
Thus, eschewing the need to make Iran admit guilt and place it in a lower-status position is what President Khatami desired for renewed dialogue with the United States.
Under President Ahmadinejad things have not changed, except for his provocative rhetoric. If one can overlook his more extreme statements, it is still the case that Iran is telling us that they will not negotiate from a position of humiliation.
Americans are not without precedent for this kind of dialogue. The business world provides continual examples where companies sued for liability quietly fix the problems they have with consumers "out of court" without admitting guilt. Lawyers are often effective mediators in such situations.
This model clearly shows the way to make progress with Iran. A mediated dialogue (Turkey has wisely volunteered to serve as mediator), no requirements for admission of guilt, and a commitment to fix global problems of mutual interest will establish the two nations on the road to healthy communication.
Since people-to-people communications cannot actually be controlled by either government, the United States would be wise to graciously endorse a plan to widen them. We can only hope that U.S. national leaders have the sensitivity and wisdom to transcend narrow U.S. cultural models to carry the dialogue forward.
Written by William O. Beeman
William O. Beeman is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is the 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. He has lived and worked in Iran for over 40 years.