Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.

 

 

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Iranian-American Diplomacy

June 15, 2015

My wife and I are back from a reunion of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who had served in Iran, and a conference with some of this country’s experts about Iran.

Our first plenary speaker, Bill Beeman of the University of Minnesota, is a very well-known scholar about Iran. He described the complexity of their system of manners and the ease with which foreigners misunderstand Iran. I asked about Iran experts in the State Department. Beeman explained that Secretary Kissinger attacked what he called clientitis, where experts sympathize with the country they study and resist what political leaders want to do. Following Kissinger, the foreign service routinely rotates diplomats to prevent too much specialization. That has advantages and disadvantages; dialogue between experts deeply steeped in a culture and generalists with other concerns is important.

Beeman added that many in Washington claim expertise about Iran, connected with think tanks with axes to grind. Scholars independent of ideological organizations can afford to see reality without coloring it with what they want to happen. Certainly independent scholars need to be heard.

I am convinced that Beeman’s message about the complexity of Iranian culture and the ease of misunderstanding it is accurate. All former Peace Corps Volunteers, and others who have immersed themselves in a foreign culture, can attest to the ways that cultural signals are easily misunderstood in both directions. In diplomacy that can spell disaster.

Our headline speaker was former Ambassador John Limbert, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran and a hostage for 444 days. Limbert now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I brought Beaman’s comments to Ambassador Limbert. He responded that the State Department has some knowledgeable people and a seasoned negotiator like Secretary Kerry can pick up a great deal by listening closely. I teach interviewing and I know the importance of active listening that seeks to understand without substituting one’s own assumptions. But I couldn’t shake concern that decades of detachment from Iran will handicap negotiators on both sides. It’s too easy to see each other as hostile and assume the worst, or to miss what is really important to them and misunderstand what they are actually offering. That’s especially difficult because so many people claim to know what Iran intends.

As an example of the complexity of our and Iran’s interests, Ambassador Limbert described the U.S. expectation after the Revolution that Iran would be hostile toward the Soviet Union. The Russians had treated Iran as part of its empire for a long time and there were good reasons for Iranian hostility. But Iran did its best to maintain friendly relations and trade with the USSR. Had they suddenly become pro-Soviet? Or were they defending themselves by trying to avoid incurring Soviet wrath. Limbert’s point was that we have to learn to see their actions through their eyes, not our own, to understand and respect their own Iranian nationalism just as they must respect ours.

We have many overlapping interests. But Iran also cares about the mistreatment of Shi’a populations in the Middle East. Iran sees that as defensive and about justice, not about conquest or aggression. It is easy for Iranians to see the US as supporting a ring of Sunni dynasties around Iran.

That doesn’t create any clear picture of what should happen. Limbert’s point is that diplomacy is both necessary and difficult. Seeing it simply as us against them misses the complexities and the opportunities. In other words, give diplomacy a chance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2015.


Misunderstanding Iran

August 12, 2014

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


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