Center for Strategic Communication

For years, public diplomacy academics and practitioners have espoused the importance of listening.

Let’s take a moment to do just that, and listen to what’s going on in Iran.

At the core of the issue lies the question: “What do the Iranian people think?” As the United States has no official diplomatic presence in Iran, this can be difficult to determine. In 2009, the world witnessed the Iranian Green Revolution erupt in the streets of Tehran and other cities, continued to watch as those protests were put down.

In 2013, Iran saw the election of President Rouhani, a relative moderate who offered stark contrast to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Certainly, the legitimacy of the “democratic” structure in Iran is always up for debate. But what is abundantly clear is that the opportunity presented by Rouhani’s Presidency to explore a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear question should not be passed up.

Remanants of the Great Seal of the United States on the former US embassy in Tehran. Photo by Bertil Videt

Remanants of the Great Seal of the United States on the former US embassy in Tehran. Photo by Bertil Videt

As the diplomatic efforts between Iran, the U.S., and the international community take center stage, there has been some notable concern emerging about what is still going on publicly in Iran. On the 34th Anniversary of the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis, huge crowds demonstrated outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, shouting “death to America.” Posters have been spotted in Tehran questioning the tactics of America’s diplomacy. Parades attended by Rouhani have featured anti-American propaganda.

All of this raises the question of whether or not Rouhani is making a legitimate effort to change the status quo between Iran, the United States, and the international community.

At this point, it may be difficult to determine what it is exactly that “the Iranian people” think. And that’s to be expected. Before looking outward, Americans should look inward, realizing that much as there are divisions within our own country, there are divisions in others, and it is often difficult to categorically make statements about the political stance of an entire population.

This is what listening in public diplomacy is about: gaining a nuanced understanding of a population, its history, its culture, its politics, and how it is impacted by American policy. Of course, part of understanding the politics in that country is analyzing how the public factors into that process. Rouhani may very well be playing a very nuanced political balancing act on the public stage at home in order to carry out his negotiations on the nuclear issue. We cannot expect Iran, or Rouhani himself, to explode in a wave of completely pro-Western celebration or rhetoric.

Significant numbers of Iranians may be protesting America in the streets, but as the New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink explained in an interview with NPR, this may not be reflective of their true sentiment. These happenings cannot always be taken at face value, as I have explored before in the case of American flag burning in foreign protests. As Erdbrink revealed, private conversations with Iranians revealed strong desires to continue talks with the U.S.

But does the sentiment of the Iranian public, whether expressed privately or publicly, actually matter to the course of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program? At first glance, the answer is no, as nuclear issues clearly fall within the realm of high politics, and western diplomats are certainly aware that supreme power in Iran falls in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet even given this sobering fact, those negotiators must also carefully gauge the delicate political dance going on internally in Tehran.

At second glance, given what the Iranian public did (and failed to do) in 2009, and given the way they may be used as pawns in public protests, the U.S. and international community could benefit by making efforts to better understand how the public fits into this very tricky game of chess. Even if politics in Iran are not entirely beholden to the will of the masses, the role of the public in having “elected” Rouhani should not be discounted.

The fact that Rouhani is currently president, whether elected by the Iranian people or merely “permitted” by Supreme Leader Khamenei, is not an insignificant step. That there is so much opposition within Iran coming from the politically powerful and entrenched hardliners—erecting posters and organizing demonstrations like the one seen at the former U.S. Embassy, is indicative of divisive political winds that could tear down the scaffolding currently helping to maintain the diplomatic process.

Certainly, the U.S. should exercise some skepticism in negotiations with Iran, as it should in any diplomatic foray. However, it should not allow this skepticism to interfere with legitimate outreach by the Iranians, for fear the U.S. should not appear as a credible negotiating partner. Keeping in mind the forces within Iran that are obviously tearing at Rouhani, and perhaps even the Supreme Leader, the U.S. should continue to negotiate in good faith. It should refrain from taking actions or making demands that appear too unreasonable, which would ultimately cause whatever support exists in Iran for Rouhani and moving diplomacy forward to collapse and be withdrawn. The alternative leaves much to be desired.

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