Bye bye handshake diplomacy, hello namaste

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 14, 2013
handshake, diplomacy,

An Iranian diplomat is allowed to shake a man’s hand but not that of a woman and the same rules apply to high-fives

In the world of diplomacy, a handshake and a high-five can mean too much and be quite the wrong thing. Especially if they’re photographed and go viral on the internet.I owe it to my friend and former colleague on the London beat, Nazenin Ansari for posting and highlighting this account about the trouble caused when  Iran’s ambassador to Germany, Reza Sheikh Attar, met Germany’s Green Party chairwoman Claudia Roth at the annual Munich Security Conference earlier this month. The two are supposed to have high-fived each other, an innocent enough act one might have thought, except in the touchy world of international statement politics  and the microcosm of Iranian  diplomatic taboos.

Apparently, Ms Roth was seen as too friendly with an official who represents a regime she has formerly criticized for human rights abuses. And the Ambassador was seen as a little too free with a woman who was not his wife.

Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Farah, Empress of Iran

Westernized in more ways than one: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Farah, the last Shah and Empress of Iran

Iranian diplomats don’t travel the world shaking hands with women and Mr Attar has denied he did so, going so far as to tell the quasi-official Iranian news agency Fars that he merely raised a hand in greeting. Such a kerfuffle is a world away from the reign of the Westernized Shah of Iran.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a fact that diplomacy in the Islamic world follows totally different rules, especially when the engagement is with female chancellors, foreign ministers and parliamentarians. The problem is that diplomacy is famously the art of letting someone else have your way. Perhaps that should include letting someone else have your hand? Should a Muslim diplomat refuse to conduct a private conversation with, say, the unveiled female German Chancellor? Should he insist on the presence of a chaperone when meeting a female ambassador?

Persian miniature depicting Timur’s campaign in India

Persian miniature depicting Timur’s campaign in India

As the Radio Free Europe report says, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad adopted a “Hindu greeting”, ie a namaste, or joined palms, when meeting a woman on his recent visit to Egypt. Is the Indian way the right physical balance for Iranian diplomacy then?

Never mind the high-five, handshakes too can become controversial. When President Obama shook Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s hand with a smile at the 2009 Summit of the Americas, the virulently undiplomatic Republicans declared it was  “irresponsible” and unhelpful to seem so friendly with a leader best known for his rabid anti-American remarks. But President Obama himself saw it in a more relaxed and more balanced way. “It’s unlikely,” he said at the time, “that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez, that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”

High-fiving is just as anodyne. Except, it seems, when a Muslim diplomat and a woman are in the picture.