We had dinner the other night with a friend who had lived in the same city in Iran where I had. We missed each other there by a few months. We were talking about the tense situation in the Persian Gulf and what they might do.
Carl asked what I thought an Iranian who had been insulted would do in response. I don’t have much farsi left but the words “qorbani shoma” came out of my mouth. I knew how to use it but not what it meant. Carl explained that it means “I sacrifice myself for you.” In other words a typical Persian response would be to shame the other with an excess of courtesy. Not the only response, certainly, but a common one.
I commented that there was another Persian expression I did know the meaning of and resisted using, “Chashm.” My wife related that the Persians said that when the Mogul rulers conquered their country they responded to any statements or behavior they disliked by putting out people’s eyes. “Chashm” literally means “On my eyes,” short for if I don’t do what you ask you may put my eyes out. I hate that expression and the cruelty it recalls. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will do what they promised. It’s a form of hyperbole now but they’ll do what they please.
We shared a third memory, of bargaining for the things we wanted. Over tea and over several days, gradually testing each others’ limits. Unless either of us mistakenly identified whether we were acting American-style or Persian-style.
These memories prove little about what Iran will do now. But they bespeak a subtle and sophisticated culture. Persians certainly make mistakes, like we all do. Their leaders often say preposterous things, but I think they’re crazy like a fox, not stupid. They know the face of danger. They certainly seek their own ends. They may have been involved in bombings around the world, bombings that have been somewhat difficult to prove. But make war? Not if they can avoid it. They are not only a subtle and sophisticated people; they also have quite a lot of experience with and in the west, including this country.
The 1979 seizure of the American Embassy took on a life of its own and had unintended consequences but it was done against the background of history that few Americans knew but Persians did. They acted to prevent a counterrevolution being launched from the Embassy like the coup that Americans organized from the Embassy in 1953 when the Eisenhower Administration ousted their Prime Minister. So they certainly can and did make mistakes, and miscalculate, but I’d be very surprised if they want to start a war.
Their image is not high in the rest of the Middle East right now. The best thing we can do is to stay calm, speak the language of greater courtesy, and try to figure out what bargains are possible.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 24, 2012.