June 5, 2012

Ending characterization of “the other” is key to an Iran agreement

As a French-Iranian who has been exposed to both Iranian and Western mindsets, I have witnessed the lack of understanding that exists between Iran and the United States firsthand. During my travels and personal meetings, I have been able to access both narratives and what has struck me most is the harsh and intense misleading characterization of “the other” made by the political and media presentation. These different narratives create a problematic rift that heightens the political cost of finding a compromise between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany). Hence, the decision-making on both sides is constrained by a political narrative driven by ideology more than the geostrategic and economic realities. One step to de-escalate is to lower this political cost by deconstructing the “otherization” of each side to allow a diplomatic resolution to be framed such that neither side loses face.
Unlike France, the United States and the Islamic republic have had more than 30 years of institutionalized enmity and this is why the political discourse on both sides has specifically been more aggressive and more prone to misconceptions. The rhetoric between the United States and Iran is still ratcheting up and the representation given of “the other” still deeply divides the average uninformed citizens in both countries. It is increasingly evident that the discursive strategy used by both the United States’ and Iran’s hardliners has been to simplify the representation of “the other” and to frame its complexity as an evil/demonic monolithic entity.
On the one hand, the soul of the Islamic republic was built on a strong anti-American sentiment which has institutionalized the hawkish rhetoric toward the United States. The Iranian population’s support for the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) mostly comes from low-income families that are often unfamiliar with foreign affairs and more susceptible to propaganda. In my conversations with them, I frequently heard the same nominalizations used by the populist message of Ahmadinejad or Khamenei such as Sheytan-e bozorg (the Great Satan) or the Zionist regime in their ideological framing of Amerika or Israel. One even kindly told me not to listen too much to the “Western propaganda.” I realized that a direct confrontation would never work if I wanted to soften their vision based on a monolithic and simplified representation of “the West.”
On the other hand, since the hostage crisis of the US Embassy in Tehran, the US media and political discourse have also simplified the representation of the Islamic republic whose complexity has too many times been conceptualized in expressions such as “the Axis of Evil,” “rogue State” or “regime of the Ayatollahs.” If in a short sentence you combine these nominalizations with the words “nuclear” and “weapons,” it makes it harder for the American general public to navigate the complexity of the issue. This framing creates a distorted conception of Iran, and it becomes easier for the media to draw a simplistic and false image of Iran. A clear illustration is this recent poll which shows that 71 percent of Americans think Iran has nuclear weapons despite the fact that US intelligence services have said many times that Tehran has not made the decision to have a nuclear weapon program. A blatant example is then-GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachman who, foolishly, repeated that Iran has stated they wanted to use a nuclear weapon against the United States!
Hence, there is a significant rift between the populations (in Iran and in the United States) who favor – and too often repeat — the hawkish political discourse of their leaders. This kind of discourse hardens the conception of the American public opinion and seems to legitimize tough stances toward Tehran as well as the Iranian people by many in Washington. At the same time – though domestic affairs remain by far the most important factor – the simplifications in the political discourse of Iran’s current leaders have contributed to the election of a more hard-line Majles (parliament), thus making it more difficult to ease the rhetoric and reach a compromise that would allow the Iranian authorities to save face.
To make matters worse, this dynamic also applies in a more hawkish basis between Israel and Iran where the threats of Israeli military strikes are as real as they are dangerous. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and president Shimon Peres insist on framing Iran as an “existential threat to Israel” and that it wants to acquire nuclear weapons. These statements contradict what former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs say about such a threat. And of course, the same analysis can be made about the similarly hysterical and inflammatory discourse of the Iranian hardliners vis-à-vis Israel.
Since neither the Islamic republic nor the United States and Israel want to lose face, softening the rhetoric requires time and must be included in a process. These misconceptions radicalize the simplified and essentialized conception of “the other” and the first step of this long process of de-escalation is to deconstruct the misperceptions that feed the ultra-conservatives from each country – especially when it comes to framing the outcome of the talks between the P5+1 and Iran. This means that a resolution of the standoff requires political space – to alleviate the pressure – and time. It means that it is a long process that needs to be solved gradually and, so far, there have been some positive moves from the Obama administration to deviate from the hardline framing of Congress and the Netanyahu administration that push hard for a more unrealistic resolution to the deadlock. Moreover, Khamenei – who commented positively on Obama’s warnings against war – has demonstrated seriousness about negotiations. In this tough process, trust, political goodwill and good gestures from both sides are needed, but a diplomatic resolution will also require ending the demonization of “the other.”

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