A WikiLeaks cable written three months before the takeover of the
US Embassy in Tehran is at times insightful and at times sweeping in
its condescension about the 'Persian psyche.'
As top Western diplomats sit down at the negotiating table with
their Iranian counterparts in Geneva, they will have no shortage of
advice, some of it freshly culled from the trove of secret US State
Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
Pointed, sometimes insightful, though also sweeping at times in
condescending assumptions or schoolteacher-ish advice, the releases
show a narrow snapshot of US diplomacy and America's perceptions of
one of its most enigmatic foes.
Coping with the Islamic Republic since it came into being with
the 1979 Islamic revolution has been a top priority of Washington -
but also one of its most challenging battles. Less than three months
before the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant students,
taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, diplomats posted there
crafted a "how-to" guide to negotiating.
Some elements of the Iran analysis have in the past three decades
been revised or changed in practice - if not in text, as so far, few
other similar documents have been leaked. Yet the confidential cable
notes the "special features" of negotiating with Iranians, and
reads, "We believe the underlying cultural and psychological
qualities that account for the nature of these difficulties are and
will remain relatively constant."
The cable posits that, "Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the
Persian psyche is an overriding egoism" stemming from the "long
Iranian history of instability and insecurity which put a premium on
self-preservation." The result, the cable says, is "an almost total
Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for
understanding points of view other than one's own."
A time of little love for Americans
The Aug. 13, 1979, cable came at a time of great change in Iran,
and little sympathy for Americans, when Islamic revolutionaries had
toppled the pro-West Shah and were consolidating their power.
Militant students had already once made their way into the US
Embassy in February - and been forced to leave. "Death to America"
was a common slogan; US flags were increasingly burned.
In that troubled milieu, the cable portrays Iranians as almost
impossible to deal with or even to befriend, and as acting
irrationally at times with a "socalled 'bazaar mentality' so common
among Persians, a mind-set that often ignores longer term interests
in favor of immediately obtainable advantages and countenances
practices that are regarded as unethical by other norms."
More than a few Iranians might not recognize themselves in the
two-page description. But among the "lessons," the cable concludes:
"Finally, one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in
negotiations at any given moment.... Given the Persian negotiator's
cultural and psychological limitations, he is going to resist the
very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view)
The view today: a regime bent on self-preservation
In sharp contrast, US and Iranian analysts alike have come to
view Iran's foreign policy for decades as relatively cautious and
rational, if prone to exaggeration in public declarations. They see
a regime determined to preserve itself, above all else.
A changed American view of Iranian rationalism was noted in the
late 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which has never been
officially superseded. It determined that Iran halted a nuclear
weapons program in 2003 "in response to international pressure
[which] indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit
approach rather than a rush to a weapon..."
1979: a pervasive unease about the world
Yet some aspects of the 1979 cable are as recognizable today as
they would have been from the start of the revolution, and in fact
decades before. …