Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) walks in a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, March 28, 2015.
Brendan Smialowski / Reuters

In November 2013, just before Tehran signed the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) with the P5+1 negotiating partners, the Iranians released a YouTube message. The video went viral, partly due to the content, which was remarkable, but even more so because of the choice of medium. Seated against a backdrop of books and a flag, Iran’s English-speaking foreign minister became the first-ever Iranian leader to directly address the world, through an outlet long banned by the Islamic Republic.

Mohammad Javad Zarif did not begin his address with a lecture about Iran’s “rights,” which, to some, appeared odd. At the time, custom held that any official utterance about the nuclear program begin with a demarcation of Iran’s declared rights. Indeed, “nuclear energy is our inalienable right,” had turned into the Iranian mantra under the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   

But Zarif, who holds a Ph.D. in International Law and Policy from the University of Denver, had other plans. Instead of offering a lecture on international law, he began his YouTube address by rhetorically asking: “What is dignity? What is respect?”

The Iranian foreign minister’s choice to reframe the discourse on the nuclear issue as a question of dignity had two important consequences.

For years, negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program had been deadlocked by Tehran’s demand for explicit recognition of its “right” to enrichment and Washington’s zero-enrichment posture. Western powers could never give in to Iran’s demand. Doing so would pave the way for other nations to enrich uranium, potentially opening a Pandora’s box. It could also cause the collapse of the UN-backed sanctions on Iran.

By focusing on dignity rather than rights, Iran smoothly removed a key obstacle to negotiations, while giving the West incentive to reciprocate by implicitly recognizing enrichment on Iranian soil. This cold calculation paved the way for the interim agreement struck in November 2013. Indeed, upon signing that agreement, Zarif asserted that “the Iranian people demand respect for their rights but demand respect for their dignity [too]…and I hope this process can do that.”

The dignity discourse had another, domestic, dimension. Although Iranians are broadly supportive of their country’s nuclear program, many of them were alienated by Ahmadinejad and found it hard to accept his administration’s confrontational stance. The softer dignity approach was more appealing. In addition, it also resonated with the religious conservatives. Every year, as Iranians commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the third Shia Imam, they chant “we do not accept humiliation.” Widely attributed to Hussein, who died fighting the forces of Yazid­—his nemesis­—rather than submit, the chant is a staple of Shia oral tradition across the Middle East—from Afghanistan to Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.        

Sixteen months after his groundbreaking YouTube message, Zarif remains true to his rhetoric. Last week, in response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s annual Nowruz address, in which he urged young Iranians to pressure their government to be more flexible at the negotiating table, the Iranian foreign minister sniped back, on Twitter: “Iranians have made their choice: Engage with dignity. It’s high time for the U.S. and its allies to choose: pressure or agreement.”

The benefits of the dignity discourse have been clear. Iran and the United States have made much progress over the past year-and-a-half. But to go the final mile, the United States will need to try to better understand the Iranian perception of dignity in the context of the nuclear negotiations.

Simply put: What does it even mean to “engage with dignity”? Despite its broad use, discussion of the concept has been largely absent in the Iranian public debate. On occasion, hardline elements in Tehran have pointed out what isn’t dignified, such as going on strolls with the U.S. secretary of state, for which Zarif was broadly criticized earlier this year, but rarely do they offer definitions of what is. Part of the reason for the latter may be that some find dignity and engagement to be mutually exclusive concepts.  

In his November 2013 YouTube message, Zarif argued that, for Iran, the nuclear program represents a leap into modernity, and that Iranians wish to be treated like any other nation. “To seize this unique opportunity,” he emphasized in his YouTube address, “we need to accept equal footing and choose a path, based on mutual respect and recognition of the dignity of all peoples, and more so on the recognition that no power, however strong, can determine the fate of others.”

It is reasonable to assume that most of Iran’s 75 million citizens would agree that they wish to be treated like any other people. But beyond the lofty ideals of “equal footing” and “mutual respect,” dignity in the eyes of Iranians can also be quantified in practical terms. For most Iranians, the state of their dignity can be measured through the value of two crucial pieces of paper: their national currency and their passports.

In Iran, the rial’s value is not perceived as merely a function of central bank policy, balance of payments, and inflation. It is widely seen as a reflection of the country’s stature. Those who’ve visited Tehran know that it is impossible to engage in discussion on the rial without being reminded that 70 rials exchanged for one dollar in 1979. In the decade preceding 2012, the rial remained stable. But then Iran’s central bank was sanctioned, and the Europeans cut oil imports. For the next year-and-a-half, Iranians went through a great ordeal. The rial’s value plunged from 12,000 to 40,000 against the greenback. Confidence in the national currency was badly damaged, leading people to rush for dollars and euros, precious metals, and property. To many Iranians, this was not a simple matter of devaluation. It was a psychological shock. Their sense of their own dignity, and Iran’s, had been hurt.

The same can be said about the Iranian passport. Based on regulations as of July 2013, Henley & Partners rank the Iranian passport as the 16th worst in the world. Iranians can only enter 40 countries without a visa, one rank below citizens of Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, and North Korea, who have visa-free access to 41 countries. Shut out of Europe and North America, Iranians (who still can) holiday in Turkey and Malaysia, or the United Arab Emirates (which does require a visa).

Despite its often lofty rhetoric of what dignity constitutes, the current Iranian administration is well aware of how Iranians quantify it. In fact, it has not hesitated to capitalize on that knowledge. In his election campaign, President Hassan Rouhani made the economy a top priority, arguing that “it is important for the centrifuges to spin, but people’s lives should run too.” He also explicitly stated, to cheers, that “I promise to return respect to Iranian passports.”

“Returning respect” implies Rouhani’s recognition that respect has gone. In his YouTube message, after asking what dignity and respect mean, Zarif wondered: “Are they negotiable? Is there a price tag?” In the context of the negotiations, the lifting of sanctions—and particularly UN Security Council sanctions­—is thus not merely about economic relief. Perhaps even more, it is about Iran terminating its current membership of the Chapter VII club of nations, that is, those nations under sanction by the United Nations Security Council. It is not just a question of economic prospects. It is about Iran’s international stature as well.

As Iran and the world powers near their June 30deadline to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement, Western decision makers would be wise to gain a better grasp of the expectations their Iranian counterparts face. They must appreciate how Iranians quantify dignity, and what the Iranian definition of “engaging with dignity” really means. To seal the deal, both sides must go beyond platitudes about what brought whom to the negotiating table, and look to what is keeping them there. If not, the current window of opportunity will certainly be lost.  

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