Persian 101: The Art of Diplomacy

For those of you not familiar with Iranian culture and mind set, last week’s presidential elections with over 72% turnout serves as a mini lesson into the subtleties of Persian temperament and multilayered subtext.

Lesson number one in the art of diplomacy: Do not criticize undesirable behavior.  Instead, encourage and congratulate what you wish to see as final outcome. Persians are by nature pleasers and would much rather extend a hand of friendship, kiss and make up and let bygones be bygones. You just have to know which button to push.

Hassan Rouhani secured the 7th presidency of Iran with 18 million votes, over 50% of the electorate, running on a campaign of “Hope and Wisdom” — a slogan reminiscent of the euphoric 2008 election of Obama who ran on a promise of “Hope and Change”, in the Iranian case “Wisdom” being the operative word.

Foto Credit: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty image

“Thank you for choosing Hope and Wisdom.”  Rouhani opened his first press conference, congratulating the good people of Iran for having opted for reconciliation, collective interest and rational response. This, he said, was a signal to the world that the people of Iran are declaring solidarity, extending trust and choosing moderation, rule of law, respect and civility instead of self interest and belligerence — a clever opening, moving to close the gaping fissures created during the Ahmadinejad years, and ease the bitterness ensuing the violent crackdowns of the previous election.

To be sure, in a time when so much of the Middle East and beyond is burning in violent conflict from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, not to mention the recent unrest in Turkey; previously known as an exotic oasis of stability, Iranians have laid down a reconciliatory card through moderation, a sure set back for the sanction hawks who have been working steadily towards an imminent implosion.

Lesson number two in the art of diplomacy: Be all things to all people. “If anyone has been alienated in the past, we must find out why and include them.”

Mr. Rouhani’s first press conference presented us with a complex and intriguing character.   In spite of the austere clerical garb and Turban, he exuded a light and personable charm. He spoke in rational and pragmatic terms laced with a glint of humor, even a twinkle in his eyes.  He spoke of inclusiveness, mutual respect, economic growth, importance of civil engagement and justice.   He reached out to the gulf countries, in specific to Saudi Arabia as allies with common interests and history. He hinted at the possibility of progress on the enrichment issue if dialogue and negotiations are pursued on a platform of respect and recognition of international rights rather than cruel and outdated methods of sanctions and threats.  He even extended a cooperation hand to his adversaries; to all persons qualified whether from the old guard or new.

Our very own Obama, I thought – ok –minus the beard; minus the turban; a little rounder perhaps; but the national euphoria was an uncanny echo of the 2008 U.S. elections.  At that time people celebrated in the streets from sea to shining sea, sang the theme to Darth Vader and waved good-bye and good riddance to Bush and Cheney.  This week in Iran, videos went viral within minutes of the election results showing millions rejoicing all across the provinces; men and women dancing to the audible chants of Ahmadi Bye! Bye!

The soft spoken cleric vowed not to allow insults hurled at anyone and promised to advance the cause of cooperation and inclusiveness presenting himself as the man who could be all things to all people; the sole cleric on the panel of candidates, with the name Rouhani – literally meaning “spiritual” – bringing back the lost legitimacy of the supreme leader who this time allowed a genuine tally of the votes; running on the reformist agenda through the backing of Rafsanjani and Khatami; and reminding the international community of his pragmatic approach to the nuclear issue.

Lesson number three in the art of diplomacy: When faced with hostile adversaries; the calmer, the more reasonable you are, the crazier the adversary will seem.

In no time at all, even as it was clear that Rouhani had the backing and support of the majority of the electorates, even as he publicly announced there would be more transparency, even as he reminded the world that never had the world been closer to a nuclear deal than during his tenure as chief negotiator in 2005 before the deal was torpedoed by the US and the UK and that he would work to reopen the talks on a platform of respect and recognition of sovereign rights, Netanyahu dismissed his victory as irrelevant, his promises as wishful thinking, and issued a warning that international pressure must continue on Iran “…to stop their program by any means.”

The white house in turn praised Iranians for their participation in the process but did not congratulate Dr. Rouhani, instead focused on reminding everyone that the elections took place “…against the backdrop of a lack of transparency, censorship of the media and intimidating security environment;” maintaining their big brother, stick in the hand posture which has proved futile and ineffective to say the least — hardly diplomatic if indeed a rapprochement is sought, leading one to believe that either the Iran experts in Washington need a refresher course or U.S. is singularly focused on regime change and simply using the enrichment issue as a pretext.

"Hope and Wisdom" foto credit: Saeed Karimi Nejad

“Hope and Wisdom” is Rouhani’s promise.   It turns out Rouhani may be talking to the U.S. and Israel as much as his own people.

It is not clear how Mr. Rouhani’s presidency will evolve.  Is his message of “Wisdom” rather than “Change” meant as a clue not to expect radical departure from what has been policy till now.  Will he turn out to be “window dressing”, like Khatami before him.   After all, the office of the presidency has its limitations, as even Obama supporters have come to find out judging by the debate on the drones, Guantanamo, NSA eavesdropping and the expanded war on terror – which – granted has been rebranded in the post-Bush era, yet continues full force.

But since the sanctions and hard lines taken against Iran have produced nothing, why not take lesson number one from the new president and practice a little Persian diplomacy.   Extend a hand of good will and burden Dr. Rouhani with the collective confidence that finally the one with the key to unlocking the troubles has arrived.

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