Inside the Arab (and Iranian) Mind: A New Text Reveals the Dangerous Disconnect for Western Diplomats
By Barry Rubin, Rubin Reports, September 14, 2010
There are basically two ways to approach the Middle East:
• Option 1: Understand what makes Farsi- and Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority societies different from the West given their history, experiences, culture, politics, and other features.
• Option 2: Pretend that these countries and leaders think precisely the same way as do Westerners.
The second approach is often taken by government officials and journalists nowadays and produces instant miscomprehension and disastrous policies. This lesson has been provided over and over again. Yet actually things are worse today than has usually been true in the past.
Why? Because, paradoxically, Politically Correct Multiculturalism decrees that diversity is the highest value of all yet, strangely, amidst this diversity equally argue that everybody is basically the same!
Another reason is that if you are completely ignorant about other countries and societies or know the barest minimum, option 2 is much easier to take. After all, you already know something about politics and manners in the United States so simply transliterate them into situation thousands of miles away!
Now that Harold Rhode has retired from his long career at the U.S. Defense Department, however, we can expect a really good teacher explaining Option 1. In his new paper, "The Sources of Iranian Negotiating Behavior," Rhode lays it all out in clear language and less than 20 pages. Even if you don't usually read studies like this, make an exception here. You won't be sorry. [FLAME Hotline Editor: You can read this paper at www.jcpa.org/text/iranian_behavior.pdf.)
The title, I assume, is taken from George F. Kennan's classic post-World War Two article explaining Soviet behavior that came to be the basis of U.S. policy during the Cold War. Would that Rhode's writing would have the same effect. This is going to be a critical text for the Nuclear Iran era we are about to enter, one way or another.
As you read it (or just the summary) make mental notes on all the mistakes it shows being made by U.S. leaders and how much reality varies from the model Western academics, leaders, and mass media use and try to teach you to use about the Middle East. One good theme to keep in mind is that power is more important than politeness. All of the speeches about respect for Islam, feeling Arab pain, and proving you're nice by making concessions not only amount to nothing but actually are often counterproductive by making you look weak and hence someone to be walked over.
And some—the part dealing most directly with perceptions of Western behavior—of this analysis can be transferred to an understanding of Arab politics and policies also.
I want to stress that I don't think merely putting on pressure will make the Iranian regime give in, change direction, or be overthrown but such a policy would be more likely to do so than a strategy focusing on concession and flattery. At a minimum, too, it will reduce the regime's ability and eagerness to act in an aggressive manner.
Another issue that could be raised would be that things like dissimulation are also seen in Western democratic diplomacy. Of course, that's true. But there are other features - willingness to compromise, eagerness to avoid conflict, high priority on understanding the other side, etc. - that are different, too. Remember also that even the Obama Administration's containment policy for a post-nuclear Iran is also based on a fair amount of parallel thinking about the use of power deterring Tehran, though of course there are major differences as well.
Here's the executive summary:
• This analysis identifies patterns exhibited by the Iranian government and the Iranian people since ancient times. Most importantly, it identifies critical elements of Iranian culture that have been systematically ignored by policymakers for decades. It is a precise understanding of these cultural cues that should guide policy objectives toward the Iranian government.
• Iranians expect a ruler to demonstrate resolve and strength, and do whatever it takes to remain in power. The Western concept of demanding that a leader subscribe to a moral and ethical code does not resonate with Iranians. Telling Iranians that their ruler is cruel will not convince the public that they need a new leader. To the contrary, this will reinforce the idea that their ruler is strong. It is only when Iranians become convinced that either their rulers lack the resolve to do what is necessary to remain in power or that a stronger power will protect them against their current tyrannical rulers, that they will speak out and try to overthrow leaders.
• Compromise (as we in the West understand this concept) is seen as a sign of submission and weakness. For Iranians, it actually brings shame on those (and on the families of those) who concede. By contrast, one who forces others to compromise increases his honor and stature, and is likely to continue forcing others to submit in the future. Iranians do not consider weakness a reason to engage an adversary in compromise, but rather as an opportunity to destroy them. It is for this reason that good-will and confidence-building measures should be avoided at all costs.
• What Iranians really believe, they usually keep to themselves. Instead, they tell those with power what they think their leaders want to hear. This is the concept of ketman, or dissimulation. Iranians do not consider ketman (taqiyah in Arabic) to be lying. And they have developed it into a fine art, which they view as a positive form of self-protection.
• Western cultural biases regarding, and demanding, honesty make it easy to misunderstand Iranians. Iranians have learned to cope with adverse situations by being warm, gracious, polite, and obsequious. Westerners, especially Americans who place a high value on candor, straightforwardness, and honesty, are often bamboozled by Iranians who know that those in the West are easily taken in by their effusively friendly, kind, generous, and engaging behavior.
• Negotiations are opportunities to best others, to demonstrate power, and to make sure opponents know who is the boss. In politics, Iranians negotiate only after defeating their enemies. During these negotiations, the victor magnanimously dictates to the vanquished how things will be conducted thereafter. Signaling a desire to talk before being victorious is, in Iranian eyes, a sign of weakness or lack of will to win.
• When the West establishes itself as the most powerful force and shows strength and resolve, Iranians will most likely come on board. They do not want to be on the losing side. If military action is eventually required, the targeting of national symbols and leadership strongholds may be enough to demonstrate that the balance of power in Iran is quickly shifting. By applying this principle, the West may not need to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities or launch a large-scale invasion to bring down Iran's rulers and stop the nuclear program.
• Iranians look around them and see that others in their neighborhood such as Russia, Israel, Pakistan, India, and China all have the bomb. To say that Iran shouldn't have the bomb is considered an affront to Iranian patriotism. Using a little ingenuity, we could drive a wedge between the Iranian government and the Iranian people. We should make clear that we are not opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. We are only opposed to the current government having a nuclear arsenal because it is the largest state-sponsor of terrorism in the world and does its utmost to undermine its neighbors and remove U.S. influence in the region. If the current government acquires nuclear weapons, it might very well use them.
• If the West is to succeed, Iranians must be convinced, in terms they understand, that America is prepared to establish itself as a powerful force and help the Iranian population liberate themselves from the tyranny under which they live.