For millennia, Iran represented one of the most important symbols of the East, a wide land coveted by so many would-be conquerors and kings. According to its dominant geo-political position and culture in the world, Iran has directly influenced different cultures and people as far away as Italy, Macedonia, and Greece in the West, Russia in the North, the Arabian Peninsula in the South, and South and East Asia in the East. Iran is divided into five regions with thirty-one provinces each governed by an appointed governor. The provinces are divided into counties, and subdivided into districts and sub-districts.
Culture and Traditions
In the 21st century, country’s charisma endures, sustained by the remnants of a rich culture along with the art heritage and renewing appearance of many disciplines including architecture, painting, weaving, pottery, calligraphy, metalworking and stonemasonry. Iran’s culture is one of the oldest cultures in the Middle East with a spirited modern and contemporary art.
Thus an eclectic cultural elasticity has been said to be one of the key defining characteristics of the Persian spirit and a clue to its historical longevity. Furthermore, Iran’s culture has manifested itself in several facets throughout the history of Iran as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. Among the Iranian ceremonies still being held are Norouz, Charshanbeh Suri, Sizdah Bedar, Yalda Night and Haft Sin. Sitting around Haft Sin and reciting Hafez, visiting family and friends during Norouz celebration, night of Charshanbeh Suri and jumping over the bonfire in the hope of getting rid of all illnesses and misfortunes, spending Sizdah Bedar, the 13th day of the New Year, in nature, are old interesting traditions coming from the Achaemenid Empire.
Another eminent feature of Persian culture is art. In fact, culture and art are two closely interwoven concepts forming the soul of human civilizations. Iranian art has gone through numerous phases. The unique aesthetics of Iran is evident from the Achaemenid reliefs in Persepolis to the mosaic paintings of Bishapur. The Islamic era brought drastic changes to the styles and practice of the arts, each dynasty with its own particular foci. The Qajarid era was the last stage of classical Persian art, before modernism was imported and suffused into elements of traditionalist schools of aesthetics. Persian exquisite carpets, subtle soulful classic music, outstanding tile work of unique blue mosques, old influential architectural style and countless brilliant literary works are famous in the world.
Cinema was only five years old when it came to Persia at the beginning of the 20th century. With 300 international awards in the past 10 years, Iranian films continue to be celebrated worldwide. The best known Persian directors are Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Asghar Farhadi.
Persian or Farsi, is one of the world’s oldest languages still in use today, and is known to have one of the most powerful literary traditions and potentials. Several languages are spoken in different regions of Iran. The predominant language and national language is Persian, which is spoken across the country. Persian poetry with masterpieces of Saadi, Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam is well known around the world.
As all Persians are quick to point out, Farsi is not related to Arabic, it is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. Azerbaijani is spoken primarily and widely in the northwest, Kurdish primarily in the west as well as Luri, Mazandarani and Gilaki at the Caspian Sea coastal regions, Arabic primarily in the Persian Gulf coastal regions, Balochi primarily in the desolate and remote far southeast, and Turkmen primarily in northern border regions. Smaller languages spread in other regions notably include Talysh, Georgian, Armenian, Assyrian, and Circassian, amongst others.
Prior to the foundation of Islam in Iran, Persians are noted for the development of one of the oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism. In this religion, there is one “Lord Wisdom”, known as Ahura Mazda. Also important to the religion is the concept of the nature of good (Senta Mainyu) and evil (Angra Mainyu). One can see how the later monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have taken many of their teachings from this religion. Zoroastrianism was the national faith of Iran for more than a millennium before the Arab conquest. It has had an immense influence on Iranian philosophy, culture and art after the people of Iran converted to Islam.
Today of the 98% of Muslims live in Iran, around 89% are Shi’a and only around 9% are Sunni. This is quite the opposite trend of the percentage distribution of Shi’a to Sunni Islam followers in the rest of the Muslim population from state to state (primarily in the Middle East) and throughout the rest of the world.
WORKING IN IRAN
The working week in Iran begins on Saturday and ends on Thursday. Friday is a Muslim holy day for Iranians which should be respected when scheduling meetings. Working hours tend to be from 9.00 to 17.00. Be aware of Muslim holidays like Ramadan and schedule business meetings around them.
Iranians have a flexible attitude towards time. Therefore, foreigners should not expect meetings to always start and end on time even though Iranians will expect punctuality from them. Being patient and including some extra time in your schedule can help business relationships.
Muslims will pray five times a day. This routine may interrupt business schedules so consider this when making business appointments with your Iranian colleagues.
STRUCTURE AND HIERARCHY IN IRANIAN COMPANIES
In Iran most companies have a top down hierarchy. Decisions are made by directors and initiative and input from employees is not always welcomed.
When addressing an Iranian colleague or client you have just met, it is crucial to use the correct title and to be formal. The appropriate title for men is ‘agha’ followed by the last name while women should be addressed with ‘khanoom’ and the last name. Once the relationship becomes less formal, your Iranian counterpart will probably call you by your first name.
WORKING RELATIONSHIPS IN IRAN
Personal relationships are very important in Iranian business culture. It is common to build a close personal relationship before starting to do business.
Today, an increasing number of women are working at all levels of business in Iran but there is still a very traditional understanding of gender roles which should be considered when doing business as a woman.
DOING BUSINESS IN IRAN
Greetings in Iran are usually initiated with a handshake between men. If a woman is present, wait until she initiates a handshake. “’Salaam ‘Alaykum’ (peace be upon you) and the response ‘Alaykum As-Salaam’ (and upon you be peace) or the short form ‘Salaam’ are common greetings in Iran.
When exchanging business cards with your Iranian colleagues, it is important to use your right hand or both hands as the left hand is considered unclean. When given a business card, review it carefully before putting it away.
In business meetings in Iran decisions tend to be made by the directors of the company. The decision making process can take a while due to their indirect style of communication. Avoid putting pressure on the decision making process as this can have a counter-productive effect and might give a negative impression.
Generally speaking, business dress in Iran is modest. Men wear suits and a shirt but ties are relatively uncommon. Women should dress conservatively and when in public it is advisable to wear a scarf to cover their hair.
IRANIAN BUSINESS ETIQUETTE (DO AND DON’TS)
DO try to get to know your Iranian business partner personally in your first meeting. Establishing trust and a good personal relationship is important in Iranian business culture.
DO avoid topics of conversation like Iranian foreign policy and politics and also avoid criticizing Islam as this can cause offense. Also avoid talking about the female relatives of your Iranian colleagues and if they introduce the subject avoid asking too many personal questions.
DO be aware that typical physical distance maintained when communicating in Iran is closer than in many western countries. Though you may not be comfortable with this close distance, it can be perceived as impolite if you back away.
DO show respect towards your Iranian business associates by taking a sensitive approach to behavior and cultural gestures. Avoid using the left hand when passing something, drinking alcohol or eating pork while in the presence of your Iranian colleagues.
DON’T criticize your Iranian counterparts in front of other business colleagues as this may cause a loss of face and harm their sense of honor.
DON’T schedule business meetings during the holy month of Ramadan if at all possible as business activity tends to be reduced. Ramadan is a major Islamic tradition that includes fasting for an entire month.
DON’T give the ‘thumbs up’ sign while in Iran as this is considered to be an offensive gesture.
DON’T display emotions or affectionate behavior to people of the opposite gender in public. This is very uncommon in Iran and can cause offense. In contrast people of the same gender often display affection in public and it is not rare to see two men holding hands.