For several months Republicans and Democrats have been jawing over the nuclear “deal” with Iran.  Unlike so many partisan debates, this one may actually involve issues of national security, but only if both sides are serious.  The Iranians have legitimate reasons to be afraid of an American Empire that has destroyed Iraq; plunged Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt into chaos; and taken the lead in being the first country since the end of World War II to bomb a European capital.

Americans, however, have their own reasons for harboring doubts about Iranian sincerity.  These are not the same people as the ancient Persians, whose simple moral code was “ride a horse, shoot straight, and tell the truth.”

Back during the Iranian hostage crisis, I became acquainted with an executive in an international oil firm who had just managed to get his family out of Iran.  He had spent much of his career in the Middle East and learned how to survive and succeed in a culture of dissimulation and baksheesh.  The Iranians were the worst of a bad lot.  Arabs and Turks, once they had taken a bribe, would frequently make good on a promise.  An Iranian would do nothing, typically, and if asked to fulfill his side of a bargain, would then ask for double.  As the executive followed the negotiations of the Carter administration, he shook his head.  “They don’t understand the people they’re dealing with.”

My friend’s view of the Iranian national character did not take me by surprise.  I had known several Iranians in San Francisco.  Talking one day with Nasser, who worked in the kitchen of the restaurant where I waited tables, and his friend Tony, I asked them if there were any Zoroastrians left in Iran.  They gave me a blank stare.

“You know, followers of the Persian prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra . . . ?”

“Oh, yes, followers of Zardusht!  They are strange people.  If one of them borrows money, he does not sign anything, but he will always pay back the money.”

When I asked if that was so unusual in Iran, both Nasser and Tony quite literally fell on the floor laughing until they cried.  The idea of keeping a promise or paying a debt was incomprehensible to them.  When I learned that baksheesh, the defining term of public life in the Middle East, is a Persian word, some things began to make sense.

What can explain the apparent blindness of Jimmy Carter and Warren Christopher or Barack Obama and John Kerry?  Perhaps they are just clever hypocrites, pretending to bargain in good faith with the Iranians, but the track record of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East would seem to indicate that when it comes to lying, our “professionals” are really amateurs attempting to play in the major leagues.

One reason for the blindness of American diplomats and politicians lies in their education.  Anyone who has been to Harvard or Yale or Berkeley knows that people are the same the whole world over.  They know that poverty causes crime and that religious traditions shackle the free spirits of humanity.  If they are at all educated, they know something of Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals,” which shows the superiority of man-eating savages over French Catholics, and they might have taken the same lesson from dozens of enlightened books in which a Turkish or Persian or Chinese visitor ridicules the Catholic Church and European customs.  It is unlikely that either Warren Christopher or the proudly Francophone John Kerry read any of these works, but the worldview that their professors handed on to them was shaped first by the Enlightenment, and then by the anti-European diatribes of 20th-century French and American intellectuals.

A little learning, truly, is a dangerous thing, and if our diplomats had read books written by Europeans who had actually spent time in Persia, they might have gone into negotiations with a bit less naiveté.  If they would only read James Justinian Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, they might begin to understand what they are up against.  Morier was born in Turkey, where he spent many years, before going to Persia as secretary to a British special envoy.  His novel is a picaresque masterpiece, but Morier does more than entertain his readers.  When Hajji Baba casually recounts his lies, crimes, and betrayals, he is delineating the national character of Iran.

Here is what a wise old Kurdish character tells his nephew, when he warns him against moving to Iran:

Lying is their great, their national vice.  Do you not remark that they confirm every word by an oath?  What is the use of oaths to men who speak the truth?  One man swears by your soul and by his own head, by your child, by the Prophet, by his relations and ancestors; another swears by the Kebleh, by the king, and by his beard; a third by your death, by the salt he eats, by the death of Imam Hosein.  Do they care for any one of these things?  No, they feel all the time that they lie, and then out comes the oath.

It hardly matters what deal we make with Iran, if we understand that they do not intend to live up to it.