Blue Mosque, Jean-Léon Gérôme
"We are always wrong when we believe that Orientals think logically as we do."
- President Dwight Eisenhower, in comments to his National Security Council, 2/17/1955
"Really, it seemed hardly fair that dignified and correct western statesmanship should be defeated by the antics of incomprehensible orientals."
- L.P. Elwell-Sutton, Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics, 1955
As talks between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States and Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program are set to resume on October 15 after a long hiatus, much is being written by establishment analysts and the Beltway think tank commentariat about the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough and what it will take to get there. As always, racist and derogatory tropes – echoed, if not influenced, by the often disparaging and ignorant words of both Western and Israeli officials about Iran – are common in assessing what is often referred to as “the Persian mind.”
We hear that Iranians can’t be trusted, that they are wily rug merchants fooling the world with soothing talk tinged with jasmine and saffron. We hear they are wolves (in both wolf’s and sheep’s clothing – but never in denim, of course), that they are snake charmers, and are warned against succumbing to their silky and seductive talk of constructive engagement because “leopards do not change their spots.”
A week ago, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman - who will be the United States' lead negotiator at the upcoming talks with Iran - told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "deception is part of the DNA" of Iranians.
This is par for the course. Nearly a year and a half ago, with a new round of nuclear negotiations on the horizon, in a post entitled, “Perceptions of Persia: The Persistent and Pervasive Orientalism of the West’s Iran Policy,” I wrote:
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 [between American and European female interlocutors and] 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…This Orientalist rhetoric, which serves to sufficiently dehumanize and objectify Iranians to the point where collective punishment through economic sanctions, assassination, sabotage, surveillance, cyber attacks, regime change and even threats of bombing and devastation are justified and normalized in Western commentary, has remained unchanged.
Take, for example, some comments made by Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of Britain’s MI6 secret intelligence service, this past March at the UK Zionist Federation’s annual gala dinner. After describing Iran as “a state with many flaws and weakness, and a political system that is very fragile,” he told the crowd that “Iran is equivalent to a dangerous adolescent, [and] one does not want that adolescent to have access to certain technologies and weapons. The route the international community is on is the best and most practical.” At the same event, former Mossad chief and head of Israel’s National Security Council Efraim Halvey noted his ”indelible impression that Iran is dead scared of Israel.”
One is immediately reminded of the way in which the Western press described Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who led Iran to nationalize its oil industry in the early 1950s. A TIME magazine profile called Mossadegh 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.” The magazine derided him as a “dizzy old wizard” who ”knows the value of the childlike tantrum.” The British media called him a “fanatic,” “impervious to common sense,” “nervously unstable” and “martyr-like.”
These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – whose words are often approvingly parroted by influential American journalists - routinely describes Iran’s current leadership as a “messianic, apocalyptic, radical regime” with “wild ambitions” and “bent on world domination.”
In an article for Al Jazeera English, headlined, “Of Persian snake charmers: Racism and global hegemony,” foreign affairs analyst (and, full disclosure, one of Muftah‘s excellent editors) Murtaza Hussain addresses the very phenomenon of Orientalizing Iran and points to a number of recent examples:
The neoconservative hawks who were the architects of Iraq’s destruction – apparently unfazed by their ghoulish record in this regard – have in recent years set their sights on the nation of Iran as their next target. To this end, crippling sanctions – designed to literally “take the food out of the Iranian peoples’ mouths” – have been implemented in an effort to inflict maximum suffering on the civilian population and to generate favourable conditions for another war. Disregard for the basic humanity of the many Iranians who will die in the course of such policies is a necessary accomplice to this project.
However, in recent weeks it would seem that a major setback has occurred to the neoconservative plan for another US war. A new Iranian government – conciliatory in its tone where its predecessor was shamelessly provocative – has come to power with the stated intention of reaching peaceful detente with the United States. Such a development necessarily makes the possibility of war more remote, and, to the chagrin of the neoconservatives, these overtures appear to have been cautiously welcomed by the administration of President Barack Obama.
With their prized new war seemingly snatched from their grasp, it has been remarkable to watch the vast tantrum of anger and indignation among some hawks, in which the same racist beliefs which characterised past imperialism have bubbled back to the surface with remarkable speed.
From warnings to "beware of Persian snake charmers", to allegations that for Iranians "deception is part of their DNA", the prospect of a peaceful detente with Iran has brought out a seemingly inexhaustible cavalcade of frankly racist rhetoric.
As part of this campaign, long-time Pentagon official and neoconservative stalwart Harold Rohde has published a helpful primer on the apparently-monolithic “Iranian mind” and the dangers it poses in any negotiation. According to Rohde:
“Compromise (as we in the West understand this concept) is seen as a sign of submission and weakness. When the West establishes itself as the most powerful force and shows strength and resolve, Iranians will most likely come on board … it is for this reason that measures of good-will and confidence-building should be avoided at all costs.”
In this are clear echoes of the stunningly ignorant claim – popularised during the era of the Iraq War – that "Arabs only understand force", and that thus uniquely among human beings, they are incapable of appreciating empathy or conciliation.
Similarly, according to this overtly racist argument, Iranians too are unlike any other humans on Earth and are in fact more akin to animals or small children who must be shown firm discipline as opposed to respect or decency in the course of any negotiation.
With remarkably ignorant worldviews such as these informing their strategies, it is unsurprising that US foreign policy in the Middle East has been such a catastrophic failure over the past decade.
Dispatches from ‘the villa in the jungle’
On October 1, Binyamin Netanyahu attended the UN General Assembly to deliver an unapologetically aggressive, demeaning and hostile speech directed towards the just-elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. In his address Netanyahu used language completely alien to the typically careful discourse of international diplomacy, calling Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, characterising him as an untrustworthy liar, and bizarrely stating at one point that “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake [uranium] and eat it too”. It is difficult to imagine such language openly directed against any other elected leader in a diplomatic forum such as this.
But as a representative of Ehud Barak’s “villa in the jungle” and the state that Theodor Herzl correctly said would exist as “a rampart of Europe against Asia”, Netanyahu was not alone in his overt condescension towards Iran and the Iranian people. A senior Israeli official also advised his US counterparts not to trust any Iranian offers of dialogue as "Persians have been using these [duping] tactics for thousands of years, before America came to be".
The darkly humorous coda to this spectacle was Netanyahu’s suggestion – days later – that he would “consider” taking a phone call from Rouhani if one were proffered. Ostensibly, this consideration would come only if the Iranian president were to grovel on his knees and beg for such an opportunity, even in the wake of Netanyahu’s unabashed insults and threats towards him.Casting Iranians as inherently duplicitous, devious and irrational is a sure-fire way to undermine diplomacy before it even begins. Of course, this is precisely the point.
Originally posted at Muftah.