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What if They Don't Want Carrots?

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On Sunday, President-elect Barack Obama once again waded into the treacherous waters of U.S.-Iran relations without the benefit of some understanding of who Iranians are, and how they might respond to a certain kind of language (employed in public). Language that may seem perfectly reasonable to us, but when heard on the other side of the world, provokes, as the Iranians have put it in the past, an "allergic" reaction.

Obama suggested on Meet the Press that U.S. policy towards Iran would involve "carrots and sticks," albeit better carrots and much bigger sticks, to get Iran to change its behavior. Indeed, "carrots and sticks," as Secretary Baker once told Ali G, may be tools of diplomacy, particularly in the arsenal of a superpower, but the language is insulting to a nation that simply does not consider itself inferior to the U.S., and, perhaps more importantly, and whether we like it or not, is not afraid of the U.S.

Iran's response to Obama's statement was to be expected by anyone who knows Iranians, and although the they wouldn't go as far as to suggest that they were insulted (as a matter of politesse), the gist of the foreign ministry's response was that the very concept of "carrot and sticks" will no longer work with country like Iran. That concept, as Iranians see it, implies that Iran is a naughty child that requires discipline if it does not do as it is told, and rewards if it does. Whether the actual diplomatic initiatives with respect to Iran do or do not involve reward and punishment, expressing them publicly as such will only make the Iranians immediately reject almost any diplomatic initiative put forward by the new U.S. administration.

And it would be a pity if diplomacy were to fail because of, of all things, undiplomatic language.