The Buzz

Talking in Circles

What happens when an Englishman tries to apply for Iranian citizenship? Christopher de Bellaigue has the answer. In a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, he recounts his attempt to do so in 2004. The result provides some interesting insights into Iran’s culture and the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear file.

De Bellaigue writes that upon his initial application, he was greeted by a smiling official who promised him that “it would be an honor to consider your case” and that he had “a good chance of success.” He kept returning month after month to hear that his case was “going very well.” But as the process dragged on, he got suspicious. Finally, he learned that there was no real process by which he could gain citizenship. It would have to be awarded by the Iranian cabinet—“a prospect that seemed rather unlikely.”

De Bellaigue attributes his treatment to the deeply ingrained Iranian practice of “ta’arof.” Coming from an Arabic word, he says, in Iran it “refers to a way of managing social relations with decorous manners.” It involves treating others with the utmost kindness, offering them every courtesy, sometimes in a sort of overdone, playacting ritual. But it can also be “a way of letting people down very, very slowly,” of saying no without actually saying it, as it was with de Bellaigue.

As the author notes, this way of conducting business has long frustrated Americans, “who tend to prize efficiency, frankness, and informality.” The clearest parallel is the continuing saga over Iran’s nuclear program. Americans understand the negotiations in concrete terms: quantities of uranium, red lines and so on. There is also a felt need for a clear timeline to resolve the issue—hence the current debates about when to strike if diplomacy has “failed.” In contrast, “Ta’arof is not always supposed to have a resolution; the best conclusion may be an open-ended one.”

Obviously, there is a limit to this analysis. Iran is clearly concerned with the same concrete factors that the P5+1 is. There is a compelling strategic rationale for Iran to drag the discussions out without a definite conclusion: it allows Tehran to keep its options open. But the lesson is still worth noting. As TNI has long contended, cultural differences matter in international affairs. De Bellaigue’s thoughtful piece offers an example of this principle at work at both the personal and national levels.