Saturday, May 5, 2012

Perceptions of Persia:
The Persistent & Pervasive Orientalism of the West's Iran Policy

A Marketplace in Ispahan (Edwin Lord Weeks, c. 1895)
"[I]ndeed, it is a question whether constant attention to the requirements of diplomacy does not occasionally tend to obscure the vision and narrow the judgment in arriving at a true estimate of those for whose special edification we are moulding our speech and actions. In the case of non-European nation, the difficulties of this kind of study are still more accentuated than with a people more nearly approaching our own standard of civilisation, because we almost invariably (if often unconsciously) commence proceedings by stepping upon a pedestal of quasi-superiority, which prevents the exercise of impartial judgment in any intercourse that may ensue."

- from Major-General Sir Frederic Goldsmid's 1897 introduction to James Justinian Morier's The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824)

Explicit Orientalism has long been a hallmark of the West's condescending and patronizing attitude towards Iran.

In their second volume of "Major Problems in American Foreign Relations," published in 2010, Dennis Merrill and Thomas Paterson explain that Western cultural representations of the Third World are so steeped in "'orientalist' tones - exotic yet primitive, weak, female, childlike, racially inferior, and in need of supervision" that "Cold War era policymakers were themselves socially conditioned and often viewed others through the Orientalist lens" and "tended to perceive fiery Third World emotionally unstable, politically immature, and threatening to U.S. interests."  Consequently, "[t]hese perceptions justified policies designed to control Third World nationalism and equated self-interested U.S. intervention with parental or civilizational duty."

As renewed negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over the former's IAEA-supervised nuclear energy program are set to continue on May 23 in Baghdad, politicians, pundits and the press have been energetically reinforcing the Orientalist narrative.  Well-connected American journalists Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen recently penned an article entitled, "Can Western Women Tame Iran’s Nuclear Negotiators?," invoking psychosexual models of "Persian proverb[s]" and Scheherezade as a basis for nuclear talks with the male Iranian negotiators.  Meanwhile, Iran hawks are taking every opportunity to paint Iran and its government as caricatures of irrational, untrustworthy, genocidal, suicidal lunatics - serial liars and deceivers bent on world domination - despite the protestations of top U.S. and Israeli officials, among them IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Mossad head Tamir Pardo, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Defense Intelligence Agency Director General Ron Burgess and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former IDF head Dan Halutz, who insist that Iran is a rational state actor, guided, like any other sovereign government, by self-preservation and strategic cost-benefit analysis.

Perjurer and deputy war criminal Elliott Abrams, writing in neocon flagship The Weekly Standard on April 20, sought to cast a shadow on the diplomatic proceedings even before they began by suggesting it was "worth recalling the classic analysis of Iran's negotiating style sent in from the U.S. embassy in Tehran on August 13, 1979."

In his effort to establish the nefarious and deceitful nature of Iranians - thus dismissing any possibility of genuine diplomacy or potential détente emerging from the talks - Abrams quotes extensively from a cable written and authorized by American diplomats in the turbulent aftermath of the Iranian revolution and just a few months before those two officials, along with 64 others, were taken hostage when the Tehran Embassy was seized that November.

It should be noted that WikiLeaks uncovered the cable that Abrams references as evidence of inherent Iranian duplicity and selfishness.  As such, his reliance on WikiLeaks to condemn Iran is ironic, considering that when these cables were released in late 2010, Abrams wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he claimed that "the WikiLeaks disclosures are less likely to promote more open government than to give aid and comfort to the enemy."

Abram's use of such leaked cables in The Weekly Standard as supposed proof of the intransigence of Iranian interlocutors is even more absurd due to the fact that the very same media outlet has devoted hundreds of thousands of words to the vilification of WikiLeaks as a "criminal enterprise hostile to the United States" which is "dangerous to our democracy" and which urged the U.S. government to employ "all necessary means to respond to and...degrade, defeat, and destroy WikiLeaks."  The Weekly Standard not only reveled in the character assassination of Bradley Manning but its editor and founder Bill Kristol even indicated immoral support for the actual assassination of Julian Assange in an article entitled "Whack WikiLeaks."  Needless to say, the source of the referenced cable is not mentioned in Abrams' piece.

The confidential cable in question is ascribed to political counselor Victor L. Tomseth and charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen who address the diplomatic difficulties experienced between the embassy and the nascent Islamic government by analyzing "the underlying cultural and psychological qualities" of their Iranian counterparts using language befitting the most imperial of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th Century European ambassadors in the mysterious and exotic Middle East.  The Islamophobia is explicit, the Western condescension palpable.

The cable states, "Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism," which manifests in "an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own."  The American officials then state that Iranians suffer from extreme paranoia, "a pervasive unease about the nature of the world in which one lives," and a neurotic belief that "nothing is permanent" and "hostile forces abound."

It continues:
This approach underlies the so-called 'bazaar mentality' so common among Persians, a mind-set that often ignores longer term interests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages and countenances practices that are regarded as unethical by other norms.
Iranians are deemed to possess "psychological limitations" which, when combined with "a general incomprehension of causality" that the cable credits to their Muslim faith, results in "difficulty grasping the inter-relationship of events."  "This same quality," the cable says, "also helps explain Persian aversion to accepting responsibility for one's own actions."

The cable also emphasizes a number of "lessons" to be drawn from such an immature Persian psyche, such as this: "Statements of intention count for almost nothing" and this: "[C]ultivation of good will for good will's sake is a waste of effort."

The cable concludes,
[O]ne should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment and not be cowed by this possibility.  Given the Persian negotiator's cultural and psychological limitations, he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.
Such commentary echoes the equivocation of former Mossad cheif Meir Dagan on the subject of Iranian rationality. During an interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes in early March, Dagan said that "[t]he regime in Iran is a very rational one," but, he quickly added, "not exactly our rational."  Dagan continued his Orientalist disclaimer: "Maybe not exactly rational based on what I call 'Western thinking,' but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions."

Persian Breakfast (James Justinian Morier, 1810-16)
Over a century ago, Major-General Sir Frederic Goldsmid, a longtime representative of the British Empire in the Middle East and India, wrote the 1897 introduction to British diplomat and Orientalist author James Justinian Morier's 1824 picaresque romance The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan.  The introduction included the following observations:
Nothing is perhaps more striking to the Western stranger than the great importance attached by Orientals to trifles. On the other hand, the difficulty of impressing upon the Eastern mind the serious nature and urgency of certain public matters which are heedlessly thrust aside to suit personal convenience, exhibits almost as remarkable a trait of native character. With Persians there is a meaning in our next-to-nothing minutiae, the comprehension of which is of vital import to our envoys and the cause they advocate...

That civilised outsiders might succeed in enlarging and instructing the minds of the younger and more advanced of Persian statesmen, so far as to gain their co-operation in reforming the ceremonial code which they have been inherited, is quite possible; but, to be effective, the task must be committed to joint European action; and this hypothesis involves removal of the stumbling-block of international jealousy.
Western perceptions of Iran and Iranians grew more offensive and propagandistic with time.  One look at our media's presentation of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh - who, in the early 1950s, attempted to nationalize Iran's oil industry and end Western exploitation of its natural resources - demonstrates just how integral Orientalist tropes are in Western conception of the Middle East as the same epithets, phrases, and references are repeated over and over.

For example, Time magazine dubbed Mossadegh "Man of the Year" in 1951, but it called him "the New Menace," "a weeping, fainting leader of a helpless country," and a "strange old man" who "put Scheherazade in the petroleum business and oiled the wheels of chaos." He was a "dizzy old wizard" with "acid tears" and "grotesque antics," issuing a "defiant challenge that sprang out of a hatred and envy almost incomprehensible to the West," stoking a "fanatical state of mind" in millions of Iranians, and who evinced a "suicidal quality" to his own "fanaticism."  Time even began its feature on Mossadegh with "Once upon a time, in a mountainous land between Baghdad and the Sea of Caviar..."  According to another Time article, "Better than most modern statesmen, Iran's Premier Mohammed Mossadegh knows the value of the childlike tantrum."

Articles planted in the press by the British government were similarly offensive.  The Observer painted him as an "incorruptible fanatic," "impervious to common sense," and with only "one political idea in his gigantic head," while the Times of London described him as "timid" except when "emotionally" agitated, "nervously unstable," and "martyr-like."

American State Department and British Foreign Office memoranda from the same period routinely described the Iranian Prime Minister as "moody," "impractical," and "unrealistic."  As Kent State history professor Mary Ann Heiss pointed out in her 2001 study of "Anglo-American Cultural Perceptions of Mohammed Mossadeq and the Iranian Oil Nationalization Dispute," Mossadegh was criticized as living in a "dream world," being "emotional," lacking the capacity "to carry on complicated negotiations for any length of time in a single direction" and for having a tendency "to change his mind, to forget, to become confused."

These Western cables and messages were rife with references to the Prime Minister as "crazy," "sick," "mad," "hysterical," "neurotic," "demented," "periodically unstable," and "not quite sane."  His supporters were called "mad and suicidal...lemmings."  To his Western counterparts, Mossadegh was a "wily Oriental" whose conception of Iran's national and sovereign rights to its own resources was "almost purely mystical."

British scholar and diplomat L.P. Elwell-Sutton, a former employee of both the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and the BBC, summed up the attitude of the colonial and imperial powers toward Iran's effort of nationalization, self-determination and sovereignty at this time, writing, "Really, it seemed hardly fair that dignified and correct western statesmanship should be defeated by the antics of incomprehensible orientals."

In 1951, Gladwyn Jebb, Britain's permanent representative to the United Nations, told the Security Council that Iran's oil resources were "clearly the property of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company" and called Mossadegh's effort to nationalize Iran's oil industry a "threat to the security of the world."  Similarly, in response to Iran's current progress toward energy independence using nuclear technology, Western politicians are employing the same language to bully the international community into abrogating Iran's sovereignty and inalienable national rights.

On January 14, 2006, George W. Bush (after he, officials in his administration, and countless members of Congress used the same exact formulation about Saddam Hussein's government prior to the invasion of Iraq three years earlier) told the U.N. Security Council that Iran's nuclear program poses "a grave threat to the security of the world."  Barack Obama declared on September 26, 2009 that Iran is "threatening the stability and security of the region and the world.  Late last year, Mitt Romney insisted that "a nuclear Iran" is "frankly the greatest threat the world faces."

Due to the Western perception that Mossadegh was "suspicious" and "entirely impervious to reason," it was determined that the "ordinary rules [of] logic" were inconceivable to him.  The Prime Minister was "insolent," "intransigent," and a "naughty boy" who had to be disciplined and "humored" like "a fractious child" during talks. It was said that Mossadegh's "megalomania was now verging on mental instability."

Consequently, Western diplomats concluded that negotiating an agreement with the government in Tehran would be impossible and placed the blame solely on the "characteristic defects in the Persian mode of conducting business" inherent in the "Iranian mentality" and the "Oriental mind."

Heiss explains,
Such descriptions were dripping with the arrogance and superiority of Western colonialism...They denigrated Mossadeq's capacities, questioned his fitness for office, and justified Anglo-American opposition to his regime - opposition, of course, that ultimately resulted in the coup that overthrew him in August 1953.
By questioning the Iranian capacity for self-determination and capability for self-governance, Western officials and commentators laid the groundwork for a policy of foreign intervention and regime change, a violent and patronizing way for Westerners "to save Iranians from self-destruction."

Tropes casting Iranians as invariably conniving and devious were echoed by former Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in a September 2001 interview with PBS' "Frontline."  In response to question his role in the Iran-Contra arms deal scandal, Weinberger said,
Well, from the very first, it was that any attempt to work out a negotiation or an agreement with the people who were running Iran was doomed to failure. You simply have to understand that there's some people you cannot trust...And so the idea that you could make an agreement that will have any effect or be of any use with people who aren't going to keep it is a useless exercise and a dangerous exercise.
For Weinberger to speak about the duplicity and dishonesty of Iranians is stunning considering he was indicted for perjury and for the obstruction of a Congressional probe into the Iran-Contra affair. Despite the fact that he had been caught lying to federal investigators to cover up crimes of the Reagan administration, Weinberger, along with four other officials, were pardoned by the outgoing George H.W. Bush shortly before going to trial.  One of the other defendants pardoned after pleading guilty to obstructing a federal investigation was Elliott Abrams.

That Abrams (and his colleagues) subscribes to Orientalist imagery and amplifies a diplomatic cable that alleges Persian untrustworthiness is unsurprising, especially when viewed in the context of the endless neoconservative push for Western intervention to foment regime change in Iran and Abrams' own constant apologia on behalf of the aggressive ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and colonization policies of the Israeli government.  His worldview - and that of so many like him - clearly follows the doctrine of Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, which views a Jewish garrison-settler state as a "rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism."  Abrams' violently vitriolic, unequivocally racist, and truly unhinged wife Rachel Abrams probably doesn't help either.

Still, his reliance on a cable authorized in 1979 by Bruce Laingen, the senior-most American official in Iran at the time, in order to discredit and dismiss negotiations with Iran is disingenuous.

Speaking on Minnesota Public Radio in June 2009, shortly after the reelection of President Ahmadinejad for a second term and in the midst of massive protests and demonstrations in the streets of Tehran disputing the results, Laingen himself presented a clear-eyed analysis of the situation in Iran, as well as his own thoughts on how the United States should approach negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

"The bulk of these people under 30 today in Iran want to get on with their lives. They are not revolutionary children, if you will. They are beyond that," Laingen said. "They are stoutly in support of their government, including one element of that government, on that policy, which we shouldn't forget: the nuclear issue. On that issue, the bulk of those people under 30 are solidly behind their government, believing that Iran has the natural and legal right to pursue nuclear energy," which he said includes "the natural right to pursue enrichment."

Laingen knew then what too many so-called "experts" are only beginning to understand now as he explained that he does not "embrace the belief that the Iranians are hell-bent on developing a nuclear weapon. That's not clear," adding, "The Supreme Leader, if you will, has issued a fatwa, pointing out that the use of nuclear power, nuclear energy, to produce nuclear weapons is contrary to the precepts of Islam."

When he was asked whether the U.S. government should "talk to those people," Laingen was unequivocal:
[W]e should talk with them...I have no hesitation in saying that I believe we will eventually be talking, even with an Ahmadinejad regime however discredited it seems to be at the moment, because it will be in our national interest to talk with Iranians directly. We have failed to do that for thirty long years.  We have wasted thirty long years.
Laingen said that negotiations and cooperation with Iran is of vital importance to the United States because "we share with the Iranian government, whatever government that is, a whole range of interests today," namely, of course, the U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region.  With regard to the post-election protests in Iran and whether or not the United States should push for regime change, Laingen couldn't be clearer:
Who are we to make that decision as to who leads that country, who runs that country?  It is not us, it should not be us, it can not be us. We can be influential in terms of how our image is seen by Iranian people, and I emphasize "people" because it is the people on the streets today who will be very consequential to the future of the country. But we will have to recognize that, in the final analysis...their government whatever it is at that point, even in the hands of an unfriendly Ahmadinejad [administration, is] a country, a government that we have to deal with.
One need not wonder which of Bruce Laingen's advice - the 1979 or the 2009 version - Elliott Abrams and his ilk subscribe to.  The question remains which one the current U.S. administration will heed.

A Persian Cafe (Edwin Lord Weeks, c.1895)



sammy said...

Nima, you're awesome. You should be writing for new York times, WSJ, Washington post.

ooh, but that's right, they won't hire you because you are a truth teller and not a lying, cheating zionist.
I tell everyone I meet about all of your good work here on this website, and I regularly post your articles on my Facebook page.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran is fully within its rights to enrich uranium for non-weapons purposes. There is nothing to negotiate. If the Western Powers want Iran to give up any of its rights under the NPT, they must offer something in return. No, promising not to attack Iran, or repealing sanctions on Iran doesn't count.

Artemesia said...

Prof. Mahmoud Omidsalar has been confronting the Orientalist astigmatism in his books on Shahnameh.
He is concerned, and rightly, that Western scholars are distorting Iran's literary cultural legacy by interpreting it through Western eyes and comparatives, and for Western purposes.

As a non-Iranian Westerner/ American but Iranophile, I am sympathetic with your view, Mr. Shirazi, as well as Dr. Omidsalar's; it is extremely important for Iranians to retain control over their own history and culture.

But as an American Iranophile with no other access to Iranian culture, I have to confess that I have relied on some of the translations of some of the same scholars that Omidsalar criticizes; namely, Dick Davis.

Perhaps the Iranian expat community -- Dr. Omidsalar and you, Nima, would be willing to collaborate with persons such as Davis, and together open up Iranian culture and literature to even more Americans.

I'm unsatisfied with Davis's part-prose part-poetry rendition of Shahnameh, and I'm eager to read the epic in all its beauty, and then devote what energy & time I have to making more Americans aware of it.

" 'c'mon people now, smile on your brother; Everybody get together, try to love one another right now."