The Kid-Gloves Approach to Iranian Honor/Shame

The following article, in today’s Independent, was written by Gabrielle Rifkind, a specialist in conflict resolution (i.e., in positive-sum, win-win, negotiations). While war should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, Rifkind’s solutions — hot lines, shuttle diplomacy, and regional summit — seem to be written from a stance of ‘avoid war at all cost’, instead of’ ‘keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons at all cost’. Once Iran understands that the West will not go to war against it, they are even more unlikely to give up their aspirations of regional dominance. Without the credible threat of military force, the U.S. would have to give Iran a free hand in Iraq in order to get them to surrender their nuclear ambitions. (Si pacem vis, para bellum.)

Rifkind also constantly draws parallels between ‘hardliners on both sides,’ which fails to understand the radical asymmetry of the role of the belligerents/peace makers on ‘both sides.’

She does make the very important point that we must understand Iran’s motivation, something we in the West have not done well. Much of what she describes as driving Iran is the manifestation of Iranian Honor/Shame. However, if the West ever fully comprehends Iran’s motivation, the result will not be the one Rifkind is advocating.

Gabrielle Rifkind, a specialist in conflict resolution, is a consultant to the Oxford Research Group

Further reading ‘Making Terrorism History, Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind (Random House, £3.99)

Prefatory remarks by Lazar, inter-textual remarks by rlandes.

Gabrielle Rifkind: This dialogue of the deaf is making war more likely
Only the hardliners in the US and Iran are helped by their mutual mistrust – but they are winning
28 October 2007

Sabre rattling and ratcheting up tensions is the dominant discourse between Iran and the US. The BBC was yesterday full of talk of whether war had become inevitable. A US attack could make problems in Iraq look like a sideshow. There are plenty of hardliners on both sides who would welcome such an attack, as it would strengthen their positions. It could lead to the declaration of an emergency government in the country that could keep the hardliners in power for a decade.

Of course, there are other outcomes as well. This sounds like an echo of “War is not the answer,” which only makes sense when both sides want positive-sum outcomes.

Diplomacy is currently framed around carrot and stick. There is some engagement, but there is also a process of demonisation on both sides. The US has designated the foreign wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. The Iranian parliament for its part has voted that both the US military and the CIA are terrorist organisations. This is not the climate in which deep political differences are accommodated.

Here we see clearly the catastrophe of adopting the “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” approach, one that our media — BBC in the forefront — have taken as policy. The problem here is, is the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization? Do they support, help, and deploy people who target civilians as a matter of policy? If so, then it’s not demonization to call them terrorists. The other side does not cease from its demonization (on a much grander — cosmic — scale), and the author is working from a place in which maybe, if we stop “demonizing them” (i.e., identifying the centrality of their most radical elements), then maybe the people we have ceased to demonize will return the favor.

But on the battlefield of information warfare — something Rifkind seems unaware exists — our move merely disguises the radical nature of our foe, and fills us with a false hope that our concessions will produce counter-concessions rather than proof of our suicidal combination of stupidity and weakness. Think aliens in Mars Attacks laughing themselves silly over the President’s message of peace.

The US administration believes the Republican Guard will be weakened by the sanctions. They control a third of the country’s economy. The US move will deter foreign countries from dealing with them for fear of economic retaliation by the former. The latest economic pressure from the US, rather than bringing internal collapse in Iran, could further deepen the polarisation and the escalation of a military solution.

For the West, this seems a perfectly logical argument, but it misreads the mindset of the Iranian elite who are consumed with the asymmetry of power. They, seeing themselves as embodying a proud and ancient civilisation, regard the US as their equals. They are deeply mistrustful of Western governments who they believe have set the agenda for too long. While the current regime in Iran with its revolutionary ideology makes a full relationship with the West problematic, there is still room for stabilisation, mutual understanding and negotiations.

What on earth does this mean? Iran (like France, like the Arabs) has a badly misplaced sense of its grandeur. Should we grant them the status of equals when they are, right now, a failed and failing culture that has not made it out of the prime divider stage and wants to use nuclear technology to pad its codpiece? And what does “there is still room for stabilisation, mutual understanding and negotiations” mean?

I would have thought the opposite from her previous remarks. If Iran is driven by a fantasy of grandeur, a legend in its own mind, an honor-shame commitment to “face” that can only be satisfied with a position of equality, doesn’t that doom to failure any kind of discourse with her that doesn’t address that problem? And how will you do that without poking at some raw nerves? And if you don’t poke at some of those nerves, how do you address the problem that this nation’s leadership, for whom having the bomb is a mark of honor, have already announced it would like to use it against another country?

The US and Iran have now met on two occasions to discuss Iraq, breaking a taboo of not communicating for 30 years. But the atmosphere is one of suspicion and there have been recriminations on both sides. A process of continuous engagement is required, to allow both sides’ genuine security anxieties to be addressed. Anything less is a high-risk policy. When power and strategic interest are mixed in the cauldron of mistrust, suspicion and extreme sensitivity, this brew can lead to war.

What do we do with the fantastic security anxieties? What about the perception that the very existence of a powerful USA (or an existing Israel) are threats to the very identity and civilization of Islam? With the moral equivalence implied in the constant repetition of “both sides” in this analysis, we are faced with a negotiating strategy that at once capitulates a priori on critical points and formally adopts a position of ignorance/stupidity about the issues and stakes that can only cripple any negotiations.

Understanding what motivates the other is key. Iranians are much more multi-faceted and complex in their thinking than is often communicated. They are proud not to lose face in the world and – with good reason – historically extremely sensitive to external intervention. Equally, the isolated Iranian regime lacks analysts who understand the mindset of the US administration. At present, the US, mindful of the 1979 hostage crisis, is growing impatient for a resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue.

This piece pastes trite PCP dictums, with direct contradictions. On the one hand, “the Iranians are much more multi-faceted…”, followed by an analysis that lumps them all in the honor-shame world of losing face and pride.

The potential for misunderstanding is huge. I recently attended a meeting of senior Iranian and US decision-makers to discuss the nuclear crisis. They were on parallel trajectories, intent on the rightness of their own case. Neither side seemed to understand each other’s fears or genuine concerns. It was a dialogue of the deaf. The Iranian senior diplomats had been brought up during the Iranian revolution and talked of justice, symmetry of power and not being pushed around, and the negotiations taking place on a level playing field. The senior US official seemed genuinely affronted by the Iranian position and was mistrustful of being manipulated.

That’s (hopefully) because the Iranian demand for “symmetry of power” should be absolutely unacceptable to the USA. The idea that a society run by “revolutionaries” who embrace a suicidal apocalyptic ideology in which “destroying the world to save it” is a major goal, should have “parity” with modern western societies whose use of force is remarkably restrained (at least by historical standards, even if not to the liking of our messianic progressives), is just plain ludicrous. And if it takes a war to convince the Iranians that this is a “no,” then maybe that’s what we need to do. And unless Rifkin and her fellow “negotiationg specialists” have a face-saving way for Iran to back down, then proposing that we negotiate “as equals” is a recipe for a capitulation that we cannot afford.

This kind of encounter could make negotiations seem futile and strengthen the voice of those calling for war, but Western diplomacy, if it is to mean anything, must seek dialogue with those who do not think like us.

This is a fascinating remark. If our negotiating specialists could come up with a way to seek dialogue with those who don’t think like us, then more power to them. To do that would mean addressing the problem of our liberal cognitive egocentrism (LCE), and our inability to think about what a zero-sum mentality involves.

Judging from this piece, all they seem to have to offer is more LCE, even as they acknowledge that we’re dealing with a different kind of thinking.

In 2003 the Khatami government discussed a secret “Grand Bargain” with Swiss interlocutors at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein. In return for US security guarantees of non-interference, the end of sanctions and the opening of the possibility of joining the World Trade Organisation, Iran offered support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine in which it said it would accept the 2002 Beirut Declaration, in which the Arab League endorsed this objective. It also offered to give up supporting terrorist groups. The US government, fresh from toppling Saddam Hussein, showed no interest in responding.

This was over four years ago in a different political climate – but there is still much to talk about. Chaos in Iraq and in Afghanistan is not in the interests of Iran, which, convinced that the US is trying to destabilise the current regime, wants a non-intervention pact. Iran has recently stated it will accept a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict which is acceptable to the Palestinians. As things stand, Western expectations are unlikely to be satisfied.

I don’t know about this offer, but it sounds like more of the Avi Shlaim kind of history: every offer they make (Saudi initiative) is sincere, every time we turn it down, we’re at fault for passing up a chance for peace. This only sounds good if you’re dealing with an Iran that’s sincere and a Palestinian culture that’s ready for peace through division of the land. If not, it’s a bluff and you’re a hope-addict and a dupe for taking it seriously.

[UPDATE: The memo may well be a “pious forgery.” We may be dealing with dupes (Rifkind) of dupes (Guldimann) of demopaths (Iranian negotiators).]

As for the assurance that “chaos in Iraq and in Afghanistan is not in the interests of Iran,” that’s more projection — they, like us, are rational actors who want stability. On the contrary, chaos in those two places, especially in Iraq are much to Iran’s advantage given the game they’re playing — i.e., chaos will drive the Americans out, and open up all kinds of possibilities. Regimes like Iran — and it’s an essential part of their proud Persian history — welcome foreign adventure as a way to distract an unhappy public. Rifkind doesn’t even take her own warnings about the Iranians “thinking differently” seriously.

Diplomacy that leaves Iran feeling cornered is more likely to lead to a more dangerous escalation than a climbdown. An offer that allows it to extricate itself with dignity, such as the recent ElBaradei proposal of a firm timetable for Iran to clear up controversies about her secret nuclear activities while improving access for the IAEA inspectors is less likely to lead to confrontation.

The problem is, that if it’s just a way to delay Western intervention until it’s too late, adopting it is losing.

There is a real danger of a path to accidental war or contrived confrontation. The immediate situation calls for safety nets to be put in place to contain this possibility: hot lines, shuttle diplomacy, direct channels of communications and a regional summit that addresses the security concerns of all parties.

Western diplomats are not going to take the risk that Iran does not have nuclear ambitions nor any regional ambitions. Paradoxically in response to fear, engagement rather than confrontation is critical. It will need to be robust, sustained and long term in spite of the nuclear anxieties. Ultimately, it would need to be based on inclusive security architecture that addresses common interests, irrespective of ideological differences. These players may not be natural allies but there can be pragmatic accommodations.

Shades of Dennis Ross. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with the “way to yes” everyone is a potential positive-sum (pragmatic) negotiator. What if pride makes accepting anything less than nuclear weapons unacceptable (like accepting any Israeli entity)? What if only the prospect of losing a lot (Iran in a war), will make the zero-sum side more inclined to accept a face-saving way out? What if this advice is exactly wrong?

4 Responses to The Kid-Gloves Approach to Iranian Honor/Shame

  1. Joel says:

    Ms Rifkind errs when she reports that the ‘Khatami government discussed a secret “Grand Bargain” with Swiss interlocutors’.
    That “Grand Bargain” was actually a fraudulant piece of diplomacy concocted by a rogue Swiss diplomat stationed in Teheran.

  2. Mark M says:

    In support of Joel’s post, below is an exchange concerning the alleged Iranian diplomatic initiative in 2003. Additional information is available at the Middle East Forum (

    Dear Reader:

    As diplomatic tensions build between Washington and Tehran, a myth has developed that the Bush administration spurned a 2003 Iranian offer to abandon terrorism and its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. recognition. By extension, therefore, fault for Iranian behavior now lies not with the mullahs, but rather in the White House.

    In a recent article, “The Guldimann Memorandum,” Michael Rubin (who was an Iran policy director at the Pentagon in 2003) exposed the incident as a myth, one sold by a free-lancing Swiss diplomat to credulous reporters. USA Today correspondent Barbara Slavin takes issue with this; she and Rubin debate the issue in the November 5, 2007, issue of the Weekly Standard.

    The MEF Staff.


    THERE ARE A NUMBER of inaccuracies in Michael Rubin’s article (“The Guldimann Memorandum,” October 22). The 2003 memorandum was written by Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran’s ambassador to France at the time, with Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, and edited by Javad Zarif, then a deputy foreign minister and one of Iran’s premier experts on the United States. Far from being merely “circulated,” as Rubin writes, the agenda was approved by Iran’s senior leadership, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—a relative by marriage of Kharrazi.

    The agenda was not shot down by Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith but by Bush administration indifference. In my book, I quote a senior U.S. diplomat then dealing with the Iran issue as saying that the overture was never seriously considered by the administration, then in a triumphalist mood over Iraq. The reference to Wolfowitz and Feith comes in a quote from Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state. Armitage said Wolfowitz and Feith blocked a swap of leaders of the Mujahedin e-Khalq, the Iranian terrorist group harbored by Saddam Hussein, for al Qaeda detainees in Iran.

    Washington, D.C.

    MICHAEL RUBIN RESPONDS: Barbara Slavin is wrong. In a May 4, 2003, cover letter, Tim Guldimann writes that he developed the proposal in conversation with Sadegh Kharrazi. Other reporters recognized the red herrings involved in the Guldimann offer:

    (1) Most diplomatic correspondence is signed; Guldimann’s memo was not.

    (2) Real diplomatic correspondence is on official letterhead; the Iranian offer was not.

    (3) Governments do not send proposals with which they disagree; at his 2003 meetings, Guldimann said the proposal had the “80 percent” acceptance of the Iranian government. He did not know with which portions they disagreed.

    Nor can Slavin explain why Guldimann would pass an Iranian offer to undersecretary-level American officials when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was an established go-between with the Iranian foreign minister on sensitive American issues. There was already direct dialogue between the United States and Iran above Guldimann’s and Sadegh Kharrazi’s level; indeed, American and Iranian officials had met in Geneva the day before Guldimann unveiled his proposal.

    Slavin has been misled by her sources. Former Iranian UN ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif represents the Islamic Republic’s interests. He lied when he promised a month prior to the start of the Iraq war that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would remain outside Iraq. And, when he sees the opportunity to use credulous journalists to pour fuel on the political fires, he does not hesitate.

  3. RL says:

    Joel, do you have any references on this. It’s important. We might even start an archive of forgeries that serve the cause.

  4. fp says:


    do you have enough storage for all the forgeries? :)


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