Small World: Trying to understand Iranians

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

No one can say how quickly — or even if — U.S.-Iranian relations will develop. Everything will depend on the ease or difficulty with which the final details of a deal on Iran’s nuclear program are worked out.

So far, we can be encouraged by the discipline apparently enforced on Iran’s hard line elements by the supreme leader: Say something nice or keep quiet. (The leader himself might follow that advice.) Polls in this country are positive: most Americans want to see a negotiated settlement rather than the threat of another Middle Eastern war.

The depressing reaction comes from Israel’s adamant opposition to the agreement formulated by Secretary Kerry and the Iranians in Switzerland. Taking their cue from Prime Minister Netanyahu and cash donations from Israel fans, Republicans and some Democrats in Congress appear determined to kill the deal.

Let’s put aside the politics for a moment and think about what kind of Iran the United States is likely to encounter if the deal succeeds as designed. I’ll offer my thoughts based on four years working in Tehran in the 1970s and closely following the country since then, aided by an assortment of Iranian friends.

First, a sketch of the 85 million people who inhabit the place and the large diaspora in this country. American travelers to Iran — almost without exception — report friendly, helpful encounters with Iranians casually met. It is probably no exaggeration that Iran has a more pro-American population than any Arab country. After all, a majority of Iranians weren’t alive during the lowest points of enmity between the two nations.

What about the “Death to America” chanters, you ask? They exist, but in fading numbers and are not abetted by the government. Every country has its extremist factions — “Death to Arabs” shouted in Israel; anti-White or anti-Black gangs in this country. Iran had a revolution; a revolution is not a dinner party, said Chairman Mao. A conflagration always leaves embers, which will sputter a long time in dark places.

But back to the average Iranians. They are, in my experience, hospitable, generous, intelligent and, most important, fiercely proud. That pride encompasses the nation as a whole. Intense nationalism means Iranians are determined to raise their country to the level of those they used to match up with: Japan, South Korea, India. And that accounts for the national determination to master nuclear and other advanced technologies and to advance their general level of development.

The Shia faith honors martyrdom and Iranians are prepared for long resistance in defense of their principles. It isn’t easy dealing with them because pride mixed with martyrdom generates deep suspicion. Historically, Iranians are a people abused by homegrown and foreign oppressors. To survive they became deeply pragmatic. The trick for the deal-seeking outsider is to locate and latch on to that trait.

Iranian pride is translated by many of their neighbors as arrogance, often a correct perception. It is not religiously based, however. Rather it is an ethnic attitude: Persian culture and attainments are believed (by them) superior to Arab output.

I have never discerned any anti-Semitism among Iranians I know. Sympathy for the Palestinians, to be sure, just like other Moslems. Former President Khatami once said that Iran could support any agreement with Israel that the Palestinians agreed to. No Iranian leader has threatened Israel with obliteration — as opposed to predicting its disappearance “from the pages of history.” In fact, Iran has not seized a neighbor’s territory or waged aggressive war in over 200 years.

Since the revolution, Iran has registered significant achievements, surpassing it neighbors in education, urban infrastructure, social services. Much work remains: The judicial system is an anachronistic disgrace. Equal rights for women cannot be denied forever. Corruption is a persisting problem. The economy is poorly managed (but improving). And on and on.

Iran is not an easy country to partner with, especially for foreigners without abundant experience, patience and respect. The central problem for the Obama administration is how to manage our domestic and Middle Eastern politics to stop demonizing Iran and explore how to bring out its valuable qualities to contribute to achieving regional peace.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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