Success in U.S. Iranian Negotiations Depends on Cultural Knowledge
New America Media, News analysis, William O. Beeman Posted: Jul 24, 2008
Editor's note: On July 19, 2008, U.S. and Iranian representatives met for the first time in almost 3 decades. Nothing substantive happened, and yet, as according to NAM contributing editor William O. Beeman, it was a diplomatic watershed. The event brings Iran closer to the conditions they eventually want for these talks--namely having the United Sates and Iran meet on equal terms.
Iran and America met openly in diplomatic talks on Saturday, July 19 in Geneva for the first time in 28 years. U.S. officials called the event a failure, for which they blamed Iran.
The Iranians, on the other hand, declared the event a success. The difference in assessment is due largely to a massive clash in cultural styles of negotiation. In this case, the event favored symbolism over substance--anathema to American negotiators. However, if both sides learn from this how better to talk to each other, future talks will be more productive.
Aside from European negotiators, the attention of the world was focused on William J. Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief secretary of its Supreme National Security Council, and by virtue of this office, the chief nuclear negotiator of Iran.
American expectations were undoubtedly too high. These talks were not in any way meant to be definitive. At best they were a prolegomena to a preface to an introduction of substantive talks to be undertaken in the future. Additionally, Mr. Burns was on a short leash as an "observer" only allowed one trick--to bark "Iran must suspend its uranium enrichment." Apparently he didn't even do that, so his presence could have only been symbolic.
Mr. Jalili gave a speech, and handed the European negotiators a two-page response to earlier proposals. The Europeans were disappointed that Iran didn't immediately acquiesce to demands to suspend uranium enrichment, gave Mr. Jalili two more weeks to respond and the meeting was essentially over. It did seem as if nothing much had happened.
However, the symbolism of the meeting was deeply significant for both the United States and Iran. The United States wanted to avoid what it saw as unfavorable symbolism in favor of immediate substantive agreement, while Iran wanted the event to be almost entirely symbolic in nature.
For Iranians, just to sit down face to face with an American official without having to acquiesce to pre-conditions was a diplomatic watershed. The event brings Iran closer to the conditions they eventually want for these talks--namely having the United Sates and Iran meet on equal terms.
The Bush administration has resisted this equality of status tooth and nail. President Bush worried publicly about giving Iran prestige as if the United States at this point had any prestige to confer to anybody, and when pressed, his administration made desperate, absurd analogies to "appeasement," invoking British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's acquiescence to Hitler.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who likely had to fight hard to allow Mr. Burns to appear at these talks, was noticeably frustrated. She reported in a public statement in the United Arab Emirates on July 21 that Iran had "given the runaround to envoys from the United States and five other world powers." She reported that instead of responding directly to U.S. and European demands, Mr. Jalili had delivered a "meandering" monologue full of irrelevant "small talk about culture."
As for Mr. Jalili, of course symbolism was all he had to show for this round of talks, so his statements to the Iranian press constituted a fine old Iranian tradition of verbal obfuscation, described by one of my Iranian friends as "chert o pert," roughly, florid nonsense. This is a form of discourse that every Iranian knows well, since it is used whenever someone doesn't know what to say and wants to put the best face on the situation. Mr. Jalili was at the height of his inspiration in his rhetoric, rambling on in an elaborate poetic metaphor about how the talks were analogous to weaving a Persian carpet where each tuft must be slowly incorporated into the whole "beautiful" pattern.
But no one should be fooled. A great deal transpired. It is the fact of the meeting that is important, not the substance of the discussion. We have very poor diplomats indeed if they don't understand this basic truth. Additionally, the Iranians scored a teeny little point getting Burns to the table. The point was not lost on Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper going so far as to label Mr. Burns' minimal presence at the talks "détente" with Iran on July 23.
This prelude of a meeting also shows that if negotiations go forward, they will be protracted—as long as it takes to weave Mr. Jalili's rug, and then to sell it.
That analogy—buying and selling rugs—is overused when speaking of the Middle East, but in this case it is apt. Anyone who has ever bought a rug knows how lengthy and involved the process can be. The buyer and the seller drink endless cups of tea, they feign indifference, they shout, they walk away, they come back, they misdirect, and they finally come to a conclusion. American diplomats despise this kind of process, favoring quick and direct dealings based on the hard logic of mutual self-interest. However, the rug-buying process may be the only basis on which common ground for negotiation with Iran can proceed.
People can only imagine what they can imagine, and if one is serious about dealing with Iran, one has to understand at the very least where the Iranian imagination about negotiations is coming from. Mr. Jalili is an intelligent man—a Ph.D. scholar (as are Mr. Burns and Secretary Rice)—but he cannot escape his culture any more than Secretary Rice or Mr. Burns can escape theirs.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and former Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, University of Chicago Press.
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