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Diplomatic lessons for Julie Bishop in Tehran


Julie Bishop

Diplomacy is one of those areas where both tact and secrecy have their uses. There are few things less palatable – or likely to persuade others to see your point of view – than public humiliation. (Exhibit A – Australia’s recent run-ins with the Indonesians over everything from border incursions, to spying to attempts to link past aid receipts with clemency.)

This week, as Julie Bishop visits Tehran, there are already some signs that these lessons may not have been well-learned. Whatever one might think of the Iranian Government – and there are good grounds for disliking its human rights record, including the second-highest number of executions in the world – the Iranians are very good at negotiations, having had 4000 years in one of the more challenging global neighbourhoods to polish their skills.

One of the more striking, and often confusing, Persian customs that I discovered very early on in starting to learn the language is ta’arof.

The term is not really translatable but refers to a very courtly form of politeness which permeates relationships at all levels from diplomacy to bargaining to basic interactions. Thus, the qualities of the other person are exaggerated in conversation and payment for services is refused until it is virtually pressed into your hands. Not being aware of what is going on and accepting the praise at face value or bluntly attempting to force your point of view can lead to hurt, insult or at least a perception of boorishness. Ta’arof pervades the language itself: one of an almost infinite number of polite ways of saying ‘thank you’ in Persian is ‘may your hands not hurt’ (to which the standard response is, ‘may your head not hurt’).

Of course, both Australian and Iranian diplomats are likely to be well enough informed about the others’ cultures that the differences between Australian and Iranian ways of doing things will be well-known. (Australia has, after all, been one of the few Western countries to maintain diplomatic contacts with Iran). Nevertheless, when Ms Bishop’s trip is prefaced with a demand that Iran take back its citizens whom we wish to forcibly return after rejecting their refugee claims – itself rather undercutting our moral lectures – this must impact on our effectiveness in negotiations. Likewise when, in the same breath as we call for a ceasefire, we loudly demand support for the ‘legitimate’ leader of Yemen in the teeth of Iranian attempts to broker a settlement, this cannot but create discomfort for those to whom we wish to speak (who will hear just another loutish colonialist trying to push their views).

The situation in Yemen is, in fact, fiendishly complicated. Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, is the ousted president who is currently supported by the Saudis and the Americans. Aside from Saudi Arabia being in a poor position to talk about democratic legitimacy (being far less respectful of democracy and human rights than Iran), Hadi was, in fact, ‘elected’ in a one-person election.

Some months after his two-year term expired he resigned in the face of a growing insurrection. This was spearheaded by North Yemeni forces (the Houthis) who had long claimed to be marginalised and persecuted. They, in turn, formed an alliance with Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdallah Saleh (who once described governing Yemen as ‘like dancing on the heads of snakes’) and, as the consummate snake-dancer, had himself forged an alliance with a number of Yemen’s tribes.

Having fled to safety, Hadi rescinded his resignation and pleaded for external intervention. In the meantime, the Houthis and Saleh had extended their control over the country, leading the Saudis to fear that Iran had been backing their Houthi Shi’a co-religionists. While there has been a ‘cold war’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Gulf, there is no direct evidence of Iranian involvement and the Houthi and Iranian versions of Shi’ism are very different. During all of this, Al-Qaeda have been making hay while the sun shines, expanding their influence across Yemen. Of all places, Yemen is therefore a place where simplistic notions of ‘goodies and baddies’ are very dangerous indeed.

Given all of this, it would not be out of place for Australia – if it really wants to make a positive difference in the Middle East – to listen carefully to the many voices there rather than using it as yet another forum for pushing its tired and cruel demands for the boats to stop and for the world to be remade in its own image.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is a Jesuit currently studying for the priesthood. He has previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.


Topic tags: There are few things less palatable – or likely to persuade others to see your point of view – than



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Existing comments

Our obsession with forcing refugees to stay home and die has reached such derangement levels is it all our government can talk about where ever they go.

Marilyn | 14 April 2015  

Thank you for clarifying a complex situation in such lucid, informed way. Please keep writing about both Iran and Yemen – and diplomatic paths to elusive peace.

Morag Fraser | 15 April 2015  

Justin Glyn writes well on Ms Julie Bishop's diplomatic foray into Iran. After the refugee deals with Cambodia & Sri Lanka, if looks like another Australian "limbo pole" dance ie how low can Abbott government go on its poor treatment of refugees. No doubt, PM Abbott would like to put his oar into the water over President Obama's detente with Iran as well. Not a place for Abbott-style "shirt front" diplomacy !

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 15 April 2015  

As Australians realise the challenges we face because we are no longer able to fund our own soclal systems without major taxation and other imposts it would be a disaster for a political party which promoted a more generous position re boat people. !!

Brian | 15 April 2015  

Best Ta'arof story I know: 19th C British Ambassador & wife at official dinner. The wife admired dinner service & was told: "It's yours, take it, please." Unfortunately, not understanding ta'arof, the Ambassador's wife sent her servants around next morning to collect the dishes & cutlery.

Ross | 15 April 2015  

Yeah Brian, so many people dying of starvation and thirst in our streets we have to blame and deny the most desperate people on the planet a small space to live in freely.

Marilyn | 15 April 2015  

Yeah Marilyn, about 6500 people sleep in our streets every night and besides being half-starved at times, are often subject to muggings and even rape. Many also have mental health and drug abuse and alcohol problems. They are Australia’s urban refugees and are the most vulnerable segment of our 105,000 homeless. Since 2008, the stream of asylum-seekers to Australia has cost us $12 billion. About half of that would solve our homeless problem and a couple more billion of that total would provide women’s shelters accommodation for thousands of women fleeing domestic abuse with their kids. As for truly desperate refugees one only has to look at the millions living in Middle Eastern camps, whole families to one tent, subsisting on UN rations. Their numbers are swelling at the moment with thousands fleeing Ramadi to escape ISIS terror. These are the people Australia should be helping (among “the most desperate people on the planet”) not well-heeled asylum-seekers with dubious claims of persecution – made even more so by their propensity to throw their passports etc in the water before being taken into custody by Australian customs. Such practices are designed to make it even harder to verify their claims of persecution, often resulting in them getting asylum by default.

Dennis | 17 April 2015  

Australians have become so insular, selfis, ignorant and uncaring, we are now an international embarrassment. Why, oh why!!! And Fed Govts just go along with it - even stir it up - just so they get elected, for God's sake! We are a bloody international disgrace. Why this "fear" of asylum seekers - people seeking safety from oppression - cruelty and death!! This has got to change. For starters Oppn. Leader Bill Shorten should be replaced - he's pathetic. Labor needs a leader like Albanese or Plibersek. Someone with the guts to strongly lead a failing nation of wealth and privilege. Someone with policies that include teaching he electorat how to care caring for "foreigners" who seek refuge, who should be taken care, here, within our own communities. NOT locked up in concentration camps. In Third World countries.

Louw | 17 April 2015  

Looking at comments of Brian, Marilyn & Dennis on refugees & homelsss people here and overseas, I have some comments. I am NOT an expert on these matters by any means. However, I see a Christian's duty is to help those in distress anywhere, including our own homeless & indigenous citizens who need our help & government assistance urgently as well. We cannot turn away, or worse still, lock up boat refugees who are desperately looking for a better life here. As Dennis says, the current Middle East refugee problems & human suffering there are IMMENSE. Let us do our bit there too, via our government and through our donations to charitable aid agencies. To not help boat refugees as well would be like the good Samaritan in Jesus' parable leaving the victim beside the road because he knew of a worse case in the next village.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 17 April 2015  

I thought the pre-visit public refugee refoulement demand was a bit crass - probanbly it was demanded by PM's office - but once she was in Iran Julie Bishop did pretty well as FM in terns of style and substance. And she looked as if she was enjoying herself, which helped.

Tony kevin | 21 April 2015  

Yes, Brian, let's save a few bucks on our social welfare budge by sending a 5-year-old Iranian refugee with post traumatic stress disorder to Nauru - or better still to Cambodia where they don't have the burden of worry about welfare.

AURELIUS | 22 April 2015  

A voice of considered reason on a very delicate matter, thank you and continue to enlighten us.

Nic | 29 April 2015