Playing the Game of Taarof: Obama's Letter to Khamenei


Two weeks ago, President Obama wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. According to the Wall Street Journal, the letter "described a shared interest between the US and Iran in fighting Islamic State militants and stressed that any cooperation would be largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran's nuclear program by the November 24 deadline."

And then all hell broke loose in Washington.

The onslaught of criticism by foreign policy observers was deafening, even from those who support the nuclear talks. The President, they wrote, had committed a grave tactical misstep with this letter, where he entreated the Ayatollah to support the finalization of a nuclear deal with the P5+1. Furthermore, Obama made it sound like the US was beseeching Iran for its help against the Islamic State, thereby conveying a sense of "American desperation and weakness in the face of Iran's position of advantage."

Instead of this undignified plea for Iranian flexibility, Obama should have told it to the Iranians the way it is: Iran needs this nuclear deal more than the US does; only a deal will allow its economy to recover from the concussion of P5+1-imposed sanctions, and were Tehran to blow up the negotiations, harsher sanctions would not be outside the realm of possibility. Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic even wrote a semi-farcical fake letter of what Obama should have said - a showcase of American self-assertiveness to remind Tehran that 'all options are [still] on the table'.

The fact of the matter is, this is precisely what Obama should not have said. Many Western observers of Iran may possess a perfect command of the technical intricacies of the nuclear issue, but time and again, they evince a lack of one thing: an understanding of the Iranian psyche.

The vast potential for cultural misunderstandings between Americans and Iranians is best embodied in the Iranian concept of taarof. Taarof is "a form of civility" that "encompasses a wide range of social behaviors." In its Western understanding, taarof could be merely translated as etiquette: refusing that a friend pay his share for a meal at a restaurant; letting him or her enter a room before you; showering a distant acquaintance with unending expressions of courteous greetings when you see them on the street.

But taarof is much more than polite language. It is "the opposite of calling a spade a spade; it often involves some degree of self-abasement, through which the giver of taarof achieves a kind of moral ascendancy--what the anthro¬pologist William Beeman has called getting the lower hand." It is the very antithesis of the American style of basic interpersonal interaction-- an indirect, serpentine, highly ambiguous way of conveying a message, often full of poetic imagery, and yet extremely efficient for those who master it.

Americans say things the way they are. If an American thinks their country is the world superpower and nobody can resist them, not only are they not ashamed to say it, but they are convinced the best way to achieve their goals is to make an open display of their self-confidence. Pragmatism and straightforwardness are the best friends of efficacy in negotiations, Americans believe.

Iranians, on the other hand, perceive and use language in a radically different way. What is implied matters more than what is being actually said or written. You can say all sorts of things--praise or invite someone for dinner, refuse to take a customer's payment, or promise something you know you can't deliver--that you don't mean. It does not make you a liar, because everybody understands the gap between actual words and underlying meaning.

Another particularity of taarof, and probably the most arcane in Western eyes, is self-deprecation. Unlike Americans' love for one-upmanship, Iranians will consistently belittle themselves in everyday dealings as well as high-level negotiations, instead of underlining their superiority. This faux modesty is more than meets the eye: it is both etiquette (you belittle yourself to flatter your partner) and tactics (it is precisely by belittling yourself that you show your own grandeur).

Taarof, in that sense, is a very special brand of negotiation technique at which Iranian nuclear negotiators have been particularly deft in their dealings with their Western counterparts. On one hand, European and American diplomats who have forayed into negotiating with Iran have repeatedly expressed their exasperation in the face of what they perceive as the Iranians' misleading statements and false promises.

On the other hand, using the kind of no-nonsense approach cherished by American culture could be highly counterproductive in an Iranian context. Sending a letter like Goldberg's would have been perceived in Iran as yet another display of American arrogance, and an attempt to bully Iran into bending to American requests.

"Communication" - veteran CIA agent Paul Pillar reminds us - "is a tool of diplomacy." Since President Obama's first days in the White House, he has been adept at using public diplomacy tools, either by sending letters to the Iranian leadership, or by courting the Iranian public with YouTube messages for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, while simultaneously elevating America's public image - an undertaking long overdue after 8 years of disastrous Bush policy in the Middle East. His engagement has been consistent, and not only under the spotlight. Away from the public eye, a year and a half of secret negotiations with the Iranians lead to the unprecedented interim deal of November 2013.

Needless to say, Obama's latest letter won't be a game changer in the negotiations. At the end of the day, realpolitik will be about haggling over centrifuges and allowing inspections to make sure Iran's nuclear program is peaceful, not about a piece of paper.

But maybe this letter wasn't about realpolitik. Maybe it was just about that: conveying a message (we want this deal, and we thing you should too; we want to crush ISIS, and you're welcome to join the battle) in a manner that would speak to their Iranians counterparts.

In other words, the letter is playing the game of taarof. It is somewhat flattering to the recipient (we Americans are reaching out to you Iranians), but the recipient knows better than to take it at face value. Rather than bullying the Iranians, it cajoles them, all the while reminding them that the one engaging in taarof is precisely the one with the upper hand. In the poker game of international diplomacy, it is a sign of respect towards the Iranian player, but a subtle reminder that America still holds the cards.

Cynics will contend that this is too sophisticated a move for the Obama administration to have willfully used it in the negotiations. But whether it was intended or not as taarof does not really matter. By displaying a modicum of cultural awareness, the letter spoke to the Iranians in a language they can understand. After all, what is diplomacy, if not exactly that?