For thousands of years, Persian culture has been distinguished by customs that revolve around honor and esteem. Preserving one’s aberu [saving face] is tantamount to maintaining one’s dignity. There are almost no instances in modern Iranian history when maslahat [expediency] has trumped aberu. The West has poorly understood these concepts. This was particularly true under President Bush, who rewarded Iran’s tacit acceptance of the American invasion of Afghanistan by labeling Iran a member of an “axis of evil.”
Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the Swiss ambassador to Iran reached out to Washington with an unofficial outline for a “grand bargain” with Tehran that would cover everything from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the region. Despite this bold step, Iran was left out in the cold. Vice President Dick Cheney is said to have dismissed the initiative, reportedly asserting that “we don’t talk to evil.”
We now know, thanks to a recent memoir by the former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, that the Bush administration reached out to Tehran a year after dismissing the proposal. Not surprisingly, partly because of the blow to its pride, the Iranian government rejected the offer of direct, high-level talks as insincere. In the nine years since, Iran’s nuclear program — a major symbol of prestige for Iranians — has grown immensely. Things have gotten a lot more complicated.
I don’t care what you think personally about Iran, Iranians, Shiite Islam (the dominant form of Islam that is practiced in Iran), Ahmadinejad’s antisemitism, or anything else Iranian for that matter, if your goal is to reduce tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, while at the same time reducing tensions in the region and specifically between our two nations, then you have a responsibility not to assume that the Iranians will negotiate on your cultural terms alone. You need to be able to talk and respond to them in ways that respect who they are and where they come from – just as you would expect them to do with you. It’s worth reading the entire op-ed.