April 2, 2007

Cultural Miscalculation

I was given a very intriguing idea today. The U.S. and its European allies have been, until quite recently, quarreling about continued military activity in Iraq. But for the past week or so, there has been remarkable solidarity amongst the NATO nations and those in their immediate orbit. This galvanizing effect, of course, has been an immediate and nearly reflexive closing of ranks to support the British in their righteous demand for the immediate and safe return of their young men and women seized illegally in Iraqi waters by an overreaching Iranian military and held as human shields by an unwise and apparently desperate regime.

Seeing a deep and powerful disagreement between the U.S. and European countries, and seeing substantial dissent and disagreement within these nations played out in the media, perhaps the Iranians sensed a chance to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, and to weaken the political resolve of all of the western nations to continue their involvement in the Persian Gulf.

George W. Bush and his coterie of advisers have fallen under great criticism for failing to appreciate the cultural structure of Iraq prior to invading it. But there is nothing unique about America and its leaders in projecting their own cultural view of the world elsewhere, and perhaps the Iranian leadership is similarly guilty of misapprehending the nature of western nations' relationships to one another.

Is it possible that to the Persians who are calling the shots in Tehran misunderstand the nature of Western culture? That they misunderstood the deep and passionate disagreements amongst us westerners for a genuine fragmentation of our society? That they really thought that we would not stand shoulder to shoulder with the British in demanding the return of their sailors? That we would not take the seizure of British sailors as personally as we would the seizure of our own?

I can't think of any enduring international alliances that the Iranians have made since 1979, when the mullahs took power. They have made short-term arrangements of convenience with other Muslim nations, and Iran is a member of OPEC. But there is also a sense that Iran has a history and a tradition of its own; Iranians are quick to point to the long and rich tradition of Persian culture and power. They really seem to have a go-it-alone, every-nation-for-itself outlook on geopolitics -- Kissinger's realpolitik taken to its logical extreme.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Persians lack enduring and powerful friendships, or that such friendships cannot take place on a larger than individual scale. I've had friends of Persian descent who have been intensely loyal and good people. Of course, the people my age or younger are culturally American, having been raised here; their parents and older siblings who spent substantial time in Iran tend to have done so prior to the revolution, and to have left during or shortly after 1979. So perhaps my experience with Persians is drawing from a limited sample unrepresentative of the kinds of people who live and vote and worship and make political decisions in Iran today.

But I am suggesting that there is a very atomized world view, at least at the high levels of Iranian policymaking. Without offering a normative evaluation, it is nevertheless a fact that there are some significant cultural differences between the Middle East and Europe (and here I am including the United States and Canada as, essentially, European in our outlook on the world, due to the powerful cultural heritage of our European ancestors). Just as we may have miscalculated the Iraqis' sense of nationalism relative to their religious affinities, so too the Iranians may have miscalculated the nature of political disagreements within and between European democracies. We have figured out how to disagree -- intensely, sometimes -- and not balkanize; there are still things that can unite rather than divide.

Of course, I still hope that there will be a political and diplomatic resolution to the crisis. War with Iran is the last thing any sane Westerner would want. Not for fear of loss -- but for fear of what would come after the victory. The past four years have been a horrific lesson in the intensity of problems that arise after toppling an unfriendly but strong regime. The upcoming forty years may well prove the terrible effect of our diminished reputation within these national and religious quarters, and the last thing we need is to aggravate that hatred. But we also are both morally in the right to demand our people back -- and three aircraft carrier groups on high alert just outside of Iranian maritime claims later, it should be readily apparent that we consider the freedom of those sailors as valuable as if they wore the Stars and Stripes instead of the Union Jack.

It is Iran that needs to back down and not the West. They can claim that the "apologies" of the sailors themselves are sufficient to "save face," and let them go. That's the only way out of the terrible brinksmanship going on now that I can see.


zzi said...

How come people who come from Iran call themselves Persian? I see you use it. I wonder when they go back to their country do they still call themselves that? I never refer to myself as a Roman.


[All above is not, however, my major point in writing this today. What I've been wandering about is that I see many of my compatriots introduce themselves as "Persians" and not Iranians. In a conversation with an Iranian when it is clear that I am an Iranian, I will introduce myself as Persian or from the city I was born in, if asked, but when talking to a non-Iranian, I will call myself "Iranian" or "from Iran" and not "Persian" or "from Persia" although I was born to Persian parents. ]

Burt Likko said...

I could talk about how "Persia" refers to the region or the culture or the traditions of the area, and "Iran" refers to the nation state more formally known as the "Islamic Republic of Iran" that now exists in the area where "Persia" used to be. But I must admit that my use of the language is not so exact as that. Most Iranians or people of Iranian descent I have met have referred to themselves as "Persians," so that's why I use the term.