THE BLOG
03/07/2014 09:30 am ET | Updated May 07, 2014

How to Talk and Listen to Iran

Current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in Geneva have raised hopes that there may be rapprochement between Iran and the West. This recalls an earlier potential 'thaw' in U.S.-Iran relations on January 7, 1998 when some U.S. officials reacted to the then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's call for better relations between the United States and Iran in an interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

But American analysts have apparently not learned from that event. The 'thaw' failed, largely because the Americans at that time focused narrowly on what they mistakenly thought to be the substance of President Khatami's pronouncements, namely that Iran was willing to capitulate to a whole list of American demands for 'better behaviour'.

In so doing, they missed the real message that Khatami wished to send. His was a message outlining how rapprochement could proceed in terms of salutary communication dynamics between the two nations. The United States has largely repeated these misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication in the current negotiations, making them exceptionally difficult.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that the United States is not acting alone in the current negotiations. The other P5+1 nations are also involved, and with so many parties with so many cultural communication dynamics, it is not surprising that these negotiations have been tortured and difficult.

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The multicultural basis for the current negotiations is overshadowed by the insistence on the part of the United States that Washington's representatives take the lead in the talks. This is problematic in and of itself, since, to put it charitably, Americans tend to be tone deaf when dealing with intercultural communication dynamics, a point made bluntly by the late Margaret Mead in assessing American prospects for world leadership following World War II.

Briefly, and particularly with regard to Iran, Americans often miss subtleties of communication in dealing with other nations for two important reasons. First, they do not appreciate the importance of status differences. Second, they believe that contrition is honourable and a precondition of improving personal relations.

Americans despise status differences, and repress the 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 lower relative status, sometimes their higher relative status in order to advance their interests.

'Getting something off your chest' is a well-advised American strategy in interpersonal relations, requiring clear evidence 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 enhance an individual's standing 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. Contrition is only a method that is used when an Iranian accepts a lower status position. It is often insincere, as it provides for an advantage in dealing with a person known to have much more power and authority. This can be advantageous as a way of escaping responsibility and garnering favours, but it is unseemly for a leader, or group of leaders, who need to protect their status - and in Iran's case, by extension, the status of the nation they represent. Consequently, Iran's leaders are never going to show contrition for acts and policies they believe to be justified.

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In the interview with Amanpour in 1998, President Khatami told the United States in no uncertain terms that, although Iran was more than willing to enter into negotiations as an equal partner, Iran would not enter into communication with the American government as a lower-status partner. In 2013 newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif told the United States the same thing - not just once, but over and over. Iranians have a long history of dealing with this perceived status inequality on the part of the United States. The Iranian perception of the relationship between the two nations before the revolution of 1978-79 is one where the United States assumed the status of patron (US) to client (Iran), all engineered by the Shah without any Iranian public input. This status relationship has been vehemently rejected by Iranian leaders since the revolution. President Khatami, his successor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and current President Rouhani had to defend this position to retain their own power.

This means that Iran has not and 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. On the other hand, back in his interview in 1998, President Khatami did provide 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 behaviour 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 wrongdoer'. 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 favoured by Washington officials. Thus, eschewing the need to make Iran admit guilt and place it in a lower status position is what President Khatami desires for renewed dialogue with the United States.

President Ahmadinejad adopted a far more confrontational stance vis-à-vis the United States. His style and rhetoric was irritating to Americans and other nations, but if one focuses solely on his style, one misses the fact that he was essentially sending the same message as President Khatami - that Iran was not going to submit to accepting the humiliating status of subordinate to the United States. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, both Western-educated, have returned to President Khatami's more accommodating approach to communication with the United States, but once again, the message is still the same: Iran will not be subordinated to the United States.

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Americans are not without precedent for non-status marked dialogue. The business world provides continual examples where companies sued for liability quietly fix the problems 'out of court' without admitting guilt. This has been the standing model for dealing with banking and financial violations over the past decade. Lawyers are often effective mediators in such situations. This model clearly shows the way to make progress with Iran. A mediated dialogue as equal status partners, without any 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. Tentatively the current Geneva negotiations may be inching toward this model. We cannot know precisely what is taking place behind closed doors, but it would be reasonable to assume that the presence of the other P5+1 nations may have resulted in mediation in the problematic US-Iran relationship.

Unfortunately, congressional legislators in the United States have not evolved in terms of communication with Iran. They entertain the belief that harsh economic sanctions have forced Iran into a lower status position at the negotiating table. The U.S. Senate recently tried to pass a new bill that would actually put new sanctions in place if negotiations with Iran did not result, essentially, in the dismantling of its nuclear programme. This bill was clearly designed to humiliate and subordinate Iran even further. Foreign Minister Zarif was clear that if this bill were passed, it would result in the abandonment of negotiations. Many U.S. legislators completely misread this statement, opining that this showed just how insistent Iranians were on making progress toward building a nuclear weapon. In fact the real objection on Iran's part was once again the prospect of being forced into a subordinate position.

One hopes that the sophistication of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif will allow them to accommodate the historic blind spots and deficiencies in American cross-cultural communication abilities. Secretary of State John Kerry is multi-lingual with a lot of foreign experience. He seems to be confident in his ability to talk to foreign leaders. However, it is clear that most of the accommodating is currently being done by the Iranian diplomats. The unsophisticated American leaders at home only make this job more difficult.

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Since people-to-people communications cannot actually be controlled by either government, the United States would be wise to graciously endorse the suggestions of Iranian leaders to widen them. President Khatami clearly made a strong opening to Washington in 1998. President Rouhani has repeated these suggestions and has shown the way for further productive communication at informal levels. Ironically the whole world travels to Iran regularly -- except U.S. citizens (who can travel there, but largely believe they cannot).

Sadly, here again, the United States presents an obstacle. The U.S. Treasury Department, citing currency transfer restrictions, throws up financial roadblocks for cultural and intellectual exchange at every opportunity - sometimes violating their own regulations. 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 both in official and unofficial settings. 

Update: The Geneva talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations, led by the United States were preliminary discussions leading to a six-month negotiation period in Vienna starting on January 20, 2014. The first round of talks ended on March 7, 2014.

An updated version of this article will appear in Anthropology Today Vol. 30 No. 2 (April 2014). The journal can be accessed at http://www.wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/anth