iPouya: “Depicting Iran: How Western Portrayals Justify Intervention”

Here is my most recent article. It has appeared on PBS’s Tehran Bureau, University of Michigan’s  The Michigan Daily, and UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian: As the ideological groundwork for military strikes on Iran is laid by hawks and certain Western media outlets, there is a wide array of parallels to be drawn between the disastrous past and the contentious present. One underlying and constantly recurrent presumption warrants special focus as it is a key impetus for intervention — that leaders in much of the developing world, Iran in particular, are emotional, unpredictable, and, most importantly, do not calculate in the same rational manner that Western leaders do. Consequently, they cannot be trusted to their own devices.

In the 1950s, Time, then one of the most influential publications in the United States, did not merely parrot the arguments uttered in the corridors of power in support of overthrowing Iran’s nascent but burgeoning democracy, but seriously affected the contours of the debate. Indeed, Time made the case for intervention and lobbied for it by erroneously yet effectively portraying Iran’s Premier Mohammad Mosaddegh as a “demagogic, emotional, child-like fanatic” who could easily be duped by communism. The central idea was that Iran’s leaders could not be trusted to govern their own country simply because they were too immature to be trusted during the Cold War to safeguard vital Western interests in — access to the resources, oil and gas, that fueled the capitalist West’s economic superiority. Such portrayals and their underlying logic thus rendered Iran an acceptable arena for the exercise of Western power: Americans knew better than Iranians themselves how the Middle Eastern country should be governed.

This was not limited to Western depictions of Iran’s leadership. During the Cold War, much of the developing world was targeted for intervention under a similar rubric of rationality and its lack. In the case of the Congo, for instance, independence leader Patrice Lumumba was depicted much in the same vein as Iran’s leadership had been cast. As Odd Arne Westad describes in The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times,

While most US political leaders up to the early 1960s had thought of Africans as children who were destined to remain children, the Kennedy administration began seeing Africans as adolescents, in the process of growing up, as witnessed by the creation of new states and political movements. The anti-Communist argument was no longer that socialism did not fit “the African tribal mentality”…but the fear that Communists might seduce adolescent African leaders.

Lumumba, like Iran’s Mosaddegh, was judged to be fickle and immature, therefore unfit to rule a resource-rich country vital to Western Cold War strategic interests. As a result, the West supported and armed right-wing forces that overthrew and summarily executed him.

Unfortunately, after decades of interaction with Iran, this arrogant demeanor has not only persisted, but worsened. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War and almost six decades after the U.S.-British overthrow of Iran’s “child-like fanatic” Premier Mosaddegh, Iran continues to be portrayed as emotional and irrational. Even more troubling, it is now also presumed to be “suicidal” because of its Islamic culture. Expatriate Iranians are hardly innocent of promulgating such depictions. For instance, last year a journalist of Iranian descent at the Los Angeles Times, referred to Iran, a country of more than 75 million, as “steeped in a culture of Shiite Muslim martyrdom.”

Such labels, erroneously as in the past, cast Iran and its leadership as unpredictable and irrational. It is consequently seen as unfit to be trusted with its own affairs, such as developing nuclear energy, a legal right to all signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), among which Iran can be counted since 1968. Should “child-like” Iran be “allowed” to continue to develop nuclear technology, the anachronistic argument goes, the world would be threatened with the possibility of a nuclear armed Islamic state that would be unconstrained by the mutual assured destruction doctrine that kept the “peace” between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Iran would not abide by the doctrine because it is seemingly “suicidal” and “steeped in a culture of Shiite Muslim martyrdom” and could imaginably use a nuclear device on an adversary even if it guaranteed its own annihilation. Iran, scrutinized according to such grossly inaccurate presumptions, thus warrants intervention in 2012 just as it did in 1953.

Until the media and Western leaders break with such depictions that justified, indeed demanded, ruinous intervention in the developing world generally and Iran in 1953 specifically, the contours of the debate will continue to be shaped in a manner that will make military conflict unavoidable and potentially even more disastrous than in the past.

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