The Key to Nuclear Negotiations With Iran is Respecting Cultural Pride

"Think of the most chauvinistic Texan you know and add 5,000 years [of history], and then you begin to understand just how proud they are."

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists during a news conference in New York. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sat down with Fareed Zakaria on Sunday and declared “Iran is a proud nation. We believe we have the technological capability… [and] the human resources in order to stand on our own feet.”

Western experts have also picked up on the importance of this pride factor in our dealings with Iran. Robin Wright, a journalist and Atlantic contributor who has written extensively about Iran, said at a recent Brookings panel, “the best way to understand Persians is to think of the most chauvinistic Texan you know and add 5,000 years [of history] and then you begin to understand just how proud they are.”

The Iranian government has harnessed this powerful sense of nationalism to shore up greater domestic legitimacy. From a common bank note showing an image of an atom superimposed over a map of Iran, to signs in Tehran that boast of the country’s nuclear achievements, this “pride investment” is hard to miss.

One reason the government can’t roll back its nuclear projects now is that it has already invested so much capital (both political and financial) into the program. Therefore, a successful deal between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) and Iran will have to not only reassure Western audiences about Iran’s intentions, but also come off as a victory for Iran’s domestic audience.

How did this Iranian “pride factor” come about?

However one may perceive Iran today, Iranians tend not to dwell on their country’s current situation. Whether it’s a curse or a gift, Iranians have very, very long memories. Their identity is rooted in the country’s historical power, dating back to Cyrus the Great and other ancient rulers, rather than a calculus of modern power dynamics. The regional dominance of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia is still etched in Persian minds today, and it causes an immediate schism between the Iranian self-image and attempts by the current superpower--the United States--in trying to pressure Iran.

How will pride factor into negotiations?

From day one, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly called for “respect” when it comes to dealing with Iran. In the context of being able to sell a potential deal at home, this is Rouhani’s way of saying that the language and tone surrounding negotiations is just as important as the substance of the deal, if not more so.

Just take a look at the immediate reaction from Zarif after President Obama reiterated that “all options are on the table” when it comes to dealing with Iran:

Whether it be directly articulated in the above tweet or indirectly through Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent comment recommending “heroic flexibility”, the Iranian government clearly wants to be seen as coming to the negotiating table of its own accord, rather than through external pressure.

The challenge for the Iranian government now is to balance its “pride investment” with Rouhani’s promised moderation, which was heavily endorsed by Iranian voters in this year’s election.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.