Foreign Policy Magazine

Pride and Prejudice in Tehran

To understand Iran’s foreign policy, you need to learn a little Farsi.

MISCOMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND IRAN is nothing new. But now that U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran, guaranteeing that tensions will worsen in the months ahead, those hoping to avoid a crisis should start studying a little Farsi, beginning with one word: nafs. The concept most purely defines the essence of Iranian political culture stretching back centuries, especially as it relates to interactions with foreigners. It also offers insight into how the Iranian government approaches difficult diplomacy of the sort it now faces.

Nafs literally means “self,” but what matters is the nuance with which Iranians use the term. The most common usages are etemad be nafs, which means self-confidence; shekast-e nafs, which means

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