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Iran – pride and humiliation

Published on August 23, 2012 by: in: Culture

“The watchword: ‘Death to America’, which can be heard from Iranians as well as burning American flag on every anti-imperialistic mass-meeting in Teheran are deceptive indicators of Iranian feelings toward the United States. The ones who shout and burn, do this because they are filled with authentic emotions, yet these emotions are directed against American foreign policy, not against the country and its citizens.”

  1. “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy. An Iranian Challenge” is a multithreaded book. It deals with:
  • world’s notorious riots, which occurred during summer 2009, presumably after rigged elections in which current ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the surprise of all beat Mir Hossein Mousavi – the most dangerous of his opponents, representing the reformist camp – with a crushing majority of votes.
  • specific political system of Islamic Republic of Iran, called “religious”, “Islamic”, or “Iranian” democracy.
  • extremely complicated – according to our, European or more widely: Western standards, anyway – structure of authority, divided between various governmental institutions/bodies, religious or military.
  • history of Iran and its current foreign policy, not deprived of imperial ambitions.
  • unfortunately, permanently current problem of Iran’s nuclear potential. ‘Iranian psyche’, i.e. national and social nature of Iranians, is more or less deeply analyzed.

Born in Teheran, and living in New York Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd – as much shaped by Western culture as conscious of mother culture, with which keeps in touch – seems to be particularly predisposed to literary elaborating reflections on above-mentioned themes. He does it in intelligent, adequate way, and with journalistic verve, although there are moments, as it seems, in his whitewashing of Iranian ‘black annis’ tinged with a pinch of subjectivism. As Marek Kręskawiec mentioned in the review of Majd’s previous book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The paradox of modern Iran in some measure as a reaction to opposite tendency: “Writers, especially Western ones, have a tendency to creating an image of Islamic republic as ‘black annis’, who dreams of nothing else but blowing oneself up together with the whole world” (“Tygodnik Powszechny” 2010, no. 50). Meanwhile, as the author convinces, dreams of modern Iranian are quite different.

In Europeans’ consciousness there are many similar stereotypes about Iran. We find the concise list of them in a portal peron4 (one of the book patrons). “What we actually know about Iran? that it is an Arab (sic!), Muslim country in Asia, that it is governed by clergymen, that it is an enemy of the USA and Israel, and that it wants to built an A-bomb, and together with Iraq and Northern Korea it is a part of the ‘Axis of evil’ – the term was defined by G. W. Bush. Homosexuality is punished there by death, women wear burkas and drinking alcohol is forbidden” (J. Markovich, Many conventional expressions of this type are problematized by Majd and as a consequence successfully questioned.

2. One of more interesting threads in the book is the description of uneasy relation between Iran and the USA abounding in regular and strong tensions, as evidenced by the fact that the USA officially did not acknowledge the Iranian government since severance of relations in 1980, and in this country Iran “doesn’t have any diplomatic representation, yet only the representation to the UN” (p. 21). In July 2009 – well shortly after problematic elections – visiting the officials of Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New York , i.e. that “representation”, the writer noticed that just now they have to “pass through the worst period of their carrier […] especially for this reason that they serve in the USA, in the country, in which hostility towards their government is the highest in the world. In addition, American authorities forbade them to recede more than 40 km from the Columbus Circle square, which makes them de facto prisoners of New York” (pp. 54-5). Let’s admit that it isn’t normal situation. However, it hasn’t always been like that.

As a reminder: until Islamic Republic of Iran proclamation in 1979 the American administration supported the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule. This support went even to such an extent that in 1953 with the help of CIA it carried out a coup directed against democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, thereupon general Fazlollah Zahedi, Shah’s brother-in-law, becomes the new Prime Minister, and since then the Shah himself is treated as the puppet ruler, totally dependent on the USA. “Although results of the Mosaddegh’s deposition and the return of absolute monarchy for the most part are said to be the origin of anti-Americanness of Iranians – in a way it is right – the story doesn’t end here” (p. 119). How it continuous?

The chapter entitled  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Iran and America in the Age of Obama, entirely devoted to relations between the two countries, is preluded by a motto taken from a civic education textbook for the 12th grade students of public schools in Iran: “For United States of America it is important to maintain the dominance over other countries” (p. 133). Therefore the reluctance to the USA is inculcated in Iranians as early as school, and the quoted passage seems to express an opinion of quite substantial part of the world, what Americans still ascertain with astonishment and/or they try to decrease the scale of this phenomenon. Why, they perceive themselves mostly as defenders of  the world peace, because the power status oblige them to that.

picture: A. Davey

So it appears that both countries, dangerously radicalizing in their  beliefs, perceive themselves no longer as possible, but as the most current threat. Americans see in Iran mainly religious fundamentalism and adobe of terrorists, who soon may possess nuclear arsenal. “However Iranians, especially mullahs, are the masters of rhetoric and from their perspective it’s not Iran that has clenched fists (because in its own opinion it never threatened the US), Obama mentioned this in his inaugural speech, but rather the USA, if you look at their threats of violence or the army and fleet surrounding Iran, not to mention one-sided sanctions and different pressures put on the Islamic Republic by the USA” (p. 156).

Undoubtedly, the way of pursuing a foreign policy by American government may raise many objections, and sometimes it is simply outrageous. Majd reproaches e.g. President Obama for his first public speech about Iran, in December 2008 in NBC Meet the Press: “In response to a question what strategy will he adopt towards Iran, he answered that it will be the ‘carrot and stick’ approach, in order to induce this country to change its actions. Hearing such words, probably every Iranian had to wince. Former Secretary of State James Baker once said frankly in Ali G’s satirical programme that the carrot and stick may be the tools of diplomacy, especially in superpower’s arsenal, but such a language is offensive for the nation, which doesn’t perceive itself as worse than the USA, and what is more, it hangs in” (p. 242). Writer’s comment is merciless: “Ministerial officers would ask probably like Ali G: ‘What if we won’t be needing the carrot?’. Iranians don’t perceive themselves as naughty children, or what’s worse, donkeys, which need to be disciplined, unless they behave properly, and reward, when they are obedient” (p. 243).

The primary sin of American diplomacy seems to be an instrumental treatment of its partners and underestimation of sense of dignity and  pride of the nations, which they don’t consider to be the key players in the world politics. And it is particularly important just in case of Iran, whose inhabitants foster on one hand remembrance of former greatness of Persia, and on the other one years of humiliating dependence on the USA. It is surely one of the roots of “Iranian sense of superiority linked with inferiority complex, which provoke Iranians to perceive themselves as victims of more powerful West, being at the same time very proud of one’s culture and sometimes far too firmly convinced of one’s power” (p. 249). It causes inevitable dissonances in Washington-Teheran relations, often leading to serious crises, including the most important one, concerning the matter of Iran’s nuclear programme.“ When Obama said at a press conference that ‘Iran building a nuclear weapon is unacceptable’, it was quite straightforward statement, but for some Iranians offensive at two levels: firstly, it assumed that Iranians lie about their nuclear programme, and the Supreme Leader, who issued a fatwa against production and use of nuclear weapon, is a supreme liar; and secondly the result from it was that the United States of America have moral advantage and may decide for the rest of the world, what is ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’. (The thing that Israel possessing nuclear weapon is ‘acceptable’ in America’s eyes causes even bigger irritation, not only among Iranians)” (pp. 245-6).

If it was true that Iran never intended to build nuclear weapon, and enriched uranium is needed for peaceful purposes, then all sorts of United States ‘preventive’ actions (coming down to threats mainly) led possibly to the situation that such concept appeared in their heads at all. Because nuclear potential became Iran’s most significant asset in its negotiations with much stronger superpower: “Iran is ready to reach a compromise concerning enriching uranium, if the United States and the West respect Islamic Republic of Iran and discontinue threats – run one of headlines in a newspaper controlled by the government (p. 292). Meanwhile the declarations are clear: “If we wanted to make a bomb, we wouldn’t get scared of the United States – said [President Ahmadinejad] – but we don’t want to” (p. 293).

Nevertheless, Hooman Majd tries to convince us that Iranians’ attitude towards Americans is not so hostile as it might seem, and their protests concern only the ways of pursuing foreign policy by the government of the USA. The watchword: “Death to America”, which can be heard from Iranians as well as burning American flag on every anti-imperialistic mass-meeting in Teheran are deceptive indicators of Iranian feelings towards the United States. The ones who shout and burn, do this because they are filled with authentic  emotions, yet these emotions are directed against American foreign policy, not against the country and its citizens” (p. 237). The writer also suggests that Iranians burning American flags model themselves on Americans, who did happen to do the same thing e.g. during protests against the war in Vietnam.

The result from reading the book is that actual Iran’s attitude towards the USA might be expressed by words of Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali  Khamenei, which also articulate the beliefs of majority of Iranians: “If you change, our behavior will also change. If you don’t change, our nation also won’t change, because within the past 30 years it was becoming more and more experienced, patient and powerful” (p. 248). It sounds reasonable, but Americans basically speak the same, don’t they?. “If you do change …”. Neither of sides want to show weakness and resign as the first.

The key to solve conflicts would be rapport, and above all a change of communication language: “American politicians are often blissfully unaware of psychology and motivation of Iranian leaders, unless Iranian culture itself. During the implementation process – lasting almost two years –  of three packages of sanctions by UN Security Council against Iran its citizens gave to understand that they have an ‘allergy’ to some sort of language, as the former ambassador to the UN said – to language of threats and deterring, language devoid of ta’orf” (p. 246).  Ta’orf is a specific language code or a convention full of polite expressions, while it is true that unflattering contents, and even threats may hide behind this. But the code expresses the basic respect for the interlocutor. That disarmingly (literally) simple way to soften mutual relations in the world of modern politics however is often unavailable. A belief of superiority of one’s arguments over others still prevail over the will of agreement and ordinary, as it would seem, human empathy.

As David Howarth in his book about discourse writes: “veracity or falsity of a given statement is set within the same field of meaning (paradigm), in which questions are asked and analyses are done”. In this case we definitely deal with establishing the truth within radically diverse paradigms, so in fact with two conflicting truths, fighting for domination. “The world of truth has deeply agonic nature – we read in Adam Ostolski’s afterword to  Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute – and determining between different truths takes place not only within the sphere of ‘mind’ (arguments, rights, empirical verifiability), but also within the scope of ‘will’”. As long as there aren’t real ‘will’ of agreement and mutual, truly empathic understanding of one’s arguments, till the discourse settlement won’t happen – i.e. establishing common ‘field of meaning’, within which it might realize oneself – and either of the sides will persist in their own version of truth. Neither of them, obviously, won’t have much in common with the real ‘truth’.

Translation: Katarzyna Kołodziej

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