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Iran-US: the meaning of Mutual Respect

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law

Negotiations between Iran and United States, whether it gets to a compromise or not, is in the making.  The two sides have expressed readiness for negotiation on the basis of mutual respect.  However, it seems that they do not agree on the meaning of this concept.

The package proposed by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in response to the P 5+1 has reiterated that: "...commitment to the Mutual Respect, justice and rule of law can open the way for a new stage of negotiations for materialization of the long term cooperation in the direction of consolidating the sustainable peace and security in the regional and global levels." (1)

 At the same time, President Obama had said in his message to the Iranian people and rulers on the occasion of Nowruz: "... My administration is committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." (2)  President Obama has said earlier, "in the coming months he will be looking for ways to open direct talks with Iran geared towards developing a relationship of mutual respect". (3)  Almost the same day Iran's President, Ahmadinejad, said the country was ready for dialogue under a just climate and "mutual respect". (4)

 So, are they talking about the same thing?

"Mutual Respect" has been a signature phrase of the Islamic Republic for years. Former UN Ambassador Javad Zarif used the line regularly, as did Iran's former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi, and former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. Ahmadinejad even used the phrase in an interview with state media while he was still Mayor of Tehran and running for President. Former Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Dr. Hamidreza Assefi elaborated on Iran's concept of "mutual respect" in a May 2003 session with local reporters: "Mutual respect has a clear meaning. Iran expects the US to follow the principle of 'mutual respect' toward the Islamic Republic by refraining from interfering in Iran's internal affairs, accepting the principle of equality, and living up to the requirements of mutual respect..." (5) Ahmadinejad said recently...I tell those who say they want to create change: this is change:  apologize to the nation of Iran and try to make up for their dark history and crimes they have committed against the Iranian nation. We welcome change but on the condition that the change is fundamental... if a real change occurs in a fundamental way, we shall welcome." (6)

These are exactly the points that he said in his congratulatory letter to Obama on the occasion of his victory in the presidential elections.  He said: "... the opportunities that God create are limited and you should take this opportunity to leave a good name for yourself. Nations of the world are longing that the policies based on warmongering, occupation, force, deception, humiliation, and imposed discriminatory and unjust relations are set aside and instead of them, they want to see the respect for peoples and nations rights, friendship, and non-intervention in others affairs..." (7)

 Ali Larijani, Majles Speaker, addressing the security conference in Munich on 6th of Feb. 2009 said:  "here is the list of our grievances against the USA:

  1. The US arranged 1952 Coup against the national government of Mossadegh.

  2. The US sent a delegation headed by General Hazier to Iran in 1979 to arrange a coup.

  3. After the Islamic revolution, the US orchestrated separatist and terrorist movements through its embassy in Tehran

  4. The US pushed Saddam to attack Iran

  5. The US confiscated Iran's properties in the early days of the revolution.

  6. The US violated its nuclear agreement with Iran in the early days of the revolution and did not act according to its commitments for delivering the fuel for the Tehran nuclear reactor.

  7. Under the pretext of combating terrorism, and WMD occupied Iraq and Afghanistan

  8. The 33 days of war in Lebanon was planned and executed by the US assistance.

  9. The unjust 22 days of war in the Gaza was accompanied with all out US help.

  10. In the nuclear case of Iran, the US has been the main trouble maker and the party that created stumbling blocks in the diplomatic ways of solving the crisis.

He also, proposed four ways to tackle the global issues:

  1. The US must stop the unilateralism

  2. The East has different conditions due to various reasons. The Islamic revival in the Middle Eastern states is not a phenomenon that you can tackle with it through negation of the facts. The world today needs a reasonable, just and realistic theory for security.

  3. Domineering and terrorism are two sides of the same coin. The era of dominance of the West over East is over.

  4. Instead of following the unrealistic patterns, the US must respect the regional specifications. (8)

H. Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, talking about Ahmadinejad's speech which was widely reported as Iran's readiness for direct talks to the US,  said:

"The reference of our respected president regarding readiness of Iran for negotiations with the USA in his speech on the occasion of 22nd of Bahman [anniversary of the Islamic revolution on 12 Feb] had extensive coverage in the political and media circles of the West...president said: " in order to walk towards negotiations the change must be real and fundamental, not tactical.  The people of Iran welcome real changes. The people of Iran are ready to talk but in an atmosphere of justice and mutual respect. It seems that Mr. Ahmadinejad was trying to respond to the trick of the new US president  and by putting emphasize on two expressions of "justice and mutual respect", which have no place in the jargon of the USA, he tried to reveal the true face of the USA for the public opinions of the world.  This incentive is respectful per se.  However, with all due regards to the president of our state, I have to say the remarks of out president was contrary to his revolutionary incentive and his expectations are only playing in the enemy's field. It is necessary that that they are corrected immediately and in a wise way.  This wrong thinking should not be created [out of his words] that the Islamic Republic of Iran had made a revision in its revolutionary, logical and dignified stances..."  (9)

He meant that there was no change in Iran's position and what Ahmadinejad has said under the title of "mutual respect" contains all of Iran's grievances. In response to the question of what is mutual respect in the Iranian diplomacy, a prominent Iranian-American scholar, Professor R. K. Ramazani (Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia) has said:

"First, respect means that American negotiators should recognize Iran's fierce sense of independence. The Iranian people remember repeated foreign invasion, occupation, interference, dictation and domination during many tumultuous centuries.
Second, respect means the United States should acknowledge that Iran has strategic importance and is a major player in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, where it straddles the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil chokepoint; where it connects the Middle East to Central Asia and South Asia. Third, respect means that the United States should treat Iran on the basis of equality. ..Iranians resent that the United States has imposed untold economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran; has sided with Saddam Hussein's regime against Iran in the Iraq-Iran War; has shot down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people; has depicted Iran as the world's greatest sponsor of terrorism; has called for regime change; has threatened military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities in Natanz, and has engaged in covert operations against Iran. Fourth, respect means America needs to demonstrate empathy toward Iranians for what it and its friends and allies have done to Iran in the past  Fifth, respect means that as a state that is more powerful than Iran, the United States should make the first move to engage Iran." (10)

Also, three experts ( Farideh Farhi from the University of Hawaii, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group) have given response to a similar question.

"Margaret Warner: Let me go back to a phrase that both President Obama and president Ahmadenijad used in the early days of this administration about - that they were ready for dialogue in an atmosphere of "mutual respect" - and they both used that phrase. And if we think about the atmospherics of this, what does that mean and - George Perkovich, starting with you - what does that mean in each country's case - mutual respect?

George Perkovich: Well, I think this is very important and I think it should be doable, especially in the U.S. side, to convey that kind of respect. And I think President Obama has begun to do that. But in particular, for the Iranian leadership - for the Iranian government - there's a sense that it's fair that - you know, the U.S. has never accepted the revolutionary government of Iran - the government that is - whose supreme leader is a religious figure, now Ayatollah Khamenei - the U.S. never conveys respect for that government but basically says that this is a government that is more or less, you know, illegitimate, should be changed, is not democratic, and so on.

Farideh Farhi: From the Iranian point of view, I think the parliament's speaker, Ali Larijani, speaking in Munich, used the language that the United States should stop boxing with us and start playing chess with us. And I think in terms of the dynamics of the current situation -the current talks - Iran is essentially beyond the general ideas about the United States accepting the Iranian Revolution and so on and is focused on the nature of the conversation.

Cliff Kupchan: just [coming] from my visits to Tehran, it really is striking - I think there's kind of a cultural factor here. Respect is something, almost in a Middle Eastern sense that Iran demands.

When you ask Iranian leaders, well, what do you want? Do you want us to lift sanctions? Do you want security guarantees? The answer is, we want respect...I think approaching them as a legitimate country is the right way to go." (11)

What I think?

I believe when the regime of Iran is talking about the "mutual respect", it has certain points in mind, which goes beyond what these scholars are thinking. The Iranian leaders have some far reaching points in mind.  The code words of "mutual respect" contains not only grievances of Iran but also the security guarantees that the regime wants in addition a free hand to matters that it considers as internal or regional or peculator its Muslims or the Iranians ( Shiites especially).  There are:

  1. Do not interfere in our internal affairs.
  2. Do not talk to us about human rights (issues such women, students and press freedoms, NGOs, human right activists, the UN resolutions about condemnation of the violations of the human rights in Iran, the obligations of Iran as a state according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the UN Conventions on the Civil and Political or Economic and Social Rights)  
  3. Do not interfere in what we do under the pretext of religion
    ( stoning of adulterers and gays, killing those who change their religion, assassination of opponents, killing those who humiliate Islam in our view and so on, if necessary by terroristic tactics )
  4. We do not need your democracy.  Your democracy is the offspring of Christianity and Judeo-Christian culture, and Anglo-Saxon history and Western liberalism.  We have an Islamic theocracy based on Shiite-Islamic views of our regime (no matter that many do not consider the existing ideology in Iran as Islamic or even Shiite. ) and it has nothing to do with you, even when it says that you are the enemies .

In return, we do nothing what? Nothing. 

Yes Nothing, because we were not doing anything bad.


(1),  "complete text of Iran's proposed package to the 5+1",  09/12/2009 in Persian



(4)   ISNA


(6)   www.mohammadmossadegh

(7), in Persian

(8), 02/07/2009

(9), No. 19304, 29th of Bahman 1387

(10), 5 Feb. 2009


... Payvand News - 09/16/09 ... --

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