Solving the Riddles of Iran

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2) Iranians/Shi'ite Muslims are culturally prone to dishonesty

Iranian diplomats can be faulted for many things: they play checkers instead of chess, obsessed with winning the next move instead of the game. Iranian politics too can be criticized for factional infighting, and a chronic inability to forge consensus. Some observers say these weaknesses stem from Iranians' habitual dishonesty, indeed a whole culture of communication that prizes insincerity, and makes it impossible to know what an Iranian actually means. This line of analysis leads us straight into the woods, mainly because it involves a faulty understanding of how language shapes Iranian social relations.

There is a concept in Iran known as taarof, a set of social manners that can be defined to make Iranians sound exquisitely polite or deceitful, depending on the point you're trying to make. At heart, it is a form of etiquette intended to harmonize social encounters, and involves displays of flattery and deference. Taarof does not seek to mask the truth, it simply rests on the belief that life is more pleasant when you do not needlessly inform every jerk you meet that he is indeed a jerk. What does this mean in practice? Say you go to meet the deputy foreign minister. You may not be certain if he likes you, for either way taarof will demand that he greet you warmly, pour you tea, and suggest you meet again. It would not, however, compel him to obfuscate matters of political substance.

In the years I have spent listening to Iranian politicians fight viciously amongst themselves, I can report that a lack of candor is not a problem here. It is a mistake to elevate such social manners as taarof to an essential characteristic of political behavior. If an Iranian politician hedges a question, replies ambiguously, or reverses an earlier position, there are usually concrete reasons involved, and it would be more instructive to focus on those than a slippery Persian tendency toward dissembling.

A more popular reference to Iranians' loose relationship with the truth is the Islamic and especially Shi'ite principle of taqiyya, the practice of hiding one's religious faith under life threatening circumstances. Taqiyya evolved during the early centuries of Islam, when Shi'ite Muslims faced persecution for their minority status at the hands of majority Sunnis. The concept is not, as sometimes described, carte blanche for telling lies or promoting one's interests, but rather a moral pass to tell one very specific lie (I am not a Shi'ite') expressly to avoid being killed. From this ancient practice that is today irrelevant (in Iran at least, where no one is persecuted for their sect), modern Iran observers sometimes draw the conclusion that Iranians have inherited a disposition for lying. As with invoking taarof to explain Iranian behavior, this line of thinking focuses on the process of communications instead of their content. Besides, does anyone truly believe Sunni politicians are less adept at dishonesty?


1) Nationalism, everyone's on board

The broad spectrum of Iran's political factions, including reformists, backs a nuclear program as a way of ensuring the country's regional status. Former President Mohammad Khatami might have made the point more softly, but consensus existed long before the arrival of firebrand Ahmadinejad, who makes the case in louder, more menacing tones. There's certainly disagreement over how much Iran should risk in running this course, and what incentives it should settle for in suspending it altogether. But there is a core belief here that without a nuclear program, Iran will be blocked from consolidating its growing influence in the region.

Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iranian leaders felt their role in the region was incommensurate with its geostrategic location, educated population, oil resources, and proud national history. The fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein created new spheres of Iranian influence, in fact a whole new regional dynamic that has neatly granted Iran a short-cut to great power status it could not have dreamed of otherwise. The system establishment views its nuclear program as a way to entrench those ambitions, and ensure its own survival.

If Iran's main ambition is a nationalistic drive for regional prominence, it is natural to ask why it cannot pursue this goal by aligning its interests with the West, and normalizing relations with the United States. After all, the strategy Iran pursues today — backing Islamic militant groups, keeping Iraq in a state of controlled chaos, and playing to the Arab/Sunni street with anti-U.S., anti-Israel rhetoric — is both risky and near-sighted. It is a strategy that rests on regional instability (on Hizballah never being disarmed, on Syria and the Palestinians never reaching accord with Israel, on Iraq remaining chaotic), and on discrediting and bogging down the U.S. in Iraq, to keep its sights off Iran. Tehran's real, long-term interests would be better served by a stable Middle East, especially a stable Iraq, but abandoning these needling policies would mean trusting that the United States is not a threat.

2) Normalization anxieties

The Iranian establishment is convinced that the United States cannot simply not stomach an Islamic regime in Tehran, and will seek to dislodge it with time, no matter what it may say to the contrary. You can call this paranoia if you like, but it is a fixed perspective held at the highest levels of government; Iran's ayatollahs deeply fear they are a personal target of Washington. Most view normalization and offers of Western incentives as poisoned carrots designed to open up the Islamic Republic at the seams. These fears existed under the Clinton administration as well, for the very concept of normalization makes the clerics uneasy, but the open hostility of the Bush Administration's stance on Iran has made them paralyzing.

Normalized relations mean increased contact with the outside world, and the emergence of professional groups with the expertise needed to manage such contact. This alarms the clerical regime, for Iran's political history is dominated by the competition of professional and clerics for power. The Islamic revolution and its constitution vested clerics with control of everything, and this state of affairs is most secure when the country remains closed, with professionals kept at bay. If Iran is opened to the West, if Western-educated lawyers, businesspeople, and engineers expand their influence, in 10 years who will want a cleric as speaker of parliament or interior minister? These historical tensions are at the heart of Iran's problems of governance, and they are exacerbated today by the Bush Administration's objective of regime change. The perception that the U.S. is a threat to Iran removes any basis for agreement from the outset, for cooperation ceases to hold any benefit. What incentives do the clerics have to open the doors, when they know they will be the first ones to go?

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