American Exceptionalism vs. Iranian Xenophobia

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Student in International Relations

Active ImageOne of the most important reasons for the continuation of challenges between Iran and international community, especially the United States, from 1979 till 2010 can be better understood by suitable perception of two main characteristics of the Iranian and American cultures.

A careful study of xenophobia, which has been embedded in the Iranian culture, vis-à-vis the American exceptionalism will help to better analyze the existing situation of imbalance, misunderstanding and misjudgment which dominates each country about the international position and role of the other.

The American exceptionalism is one side of the equation which shapes the current ongoing challenge between Iran and the United States. Exceptioanlism is a prominent feature of the American culture and stems from evolutionary course that the nation-state has taken since 1776. As put by Matthew Spalding, the United States is a product of the western civilization made by a combination of Jewish-Christian culture and political freedoms handed down by the Great Britain.

Remarkable potentials of the American nation-state, its goals and principles, and its prominent role in international interactions during the past two centuries, have fostered a sense of exceptionalism which explains how Americans see their country’s position in the world.

Meanwhile, many experts maintain that aggressive engagement of the United States in international developments, especially following the World War II, has worn down many of the country’s goals and foundations. The United States’ confrontations with the Communism during the Cold War, its expansionist and interventionist policies in Vietnam as well as its frequent interferences in internal affairs of such countries as Iran (1953), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) constitute good evidence to deviation of the country from its original strategic goals. On the other hand, there is an Iranian concern, which should be taken into consideration. The Iranian xenophobia has its roots in political culture, historical memories and chronic skepticism of the Iranian people as a result of its international interactions during the past few centuries. Lack of respect for Iran’s sovereignty and the right to self-determination by such hegemonic powers as Portugal, the Netherlands, UK, France, Russia and the United States in the past centuries has been a major factor in fostering xenophobia and shaping a pessimistic political culture as well as negative attitude toward big powers. It has also made the Iranian elite too skeptical about any form of coalition and cooperation with big powers.

One of the most important causes of the Iranian xenophobia is bitter experiences of the country’s coalition and collaboration with big powers from 1945 to 1979 which ended in the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution. Those experiences combined with later reporting of Iran’s nuclear issue to the UN Security Council (March 2006) have provided a fertile breeding ground for a negative attitude toward the international system and its hegemonic powers. Thus, the Iranian political elite have taken a new approach to achieving Iran’s national interests by getting the country closer to the Asian powers. They are currently redefining the country’s security requirements on the basis of Iran’s special approaches to neighboring countries.

Under the current circumstances, study of domestic political developments is not enough to deal with the Iranian xenophobia and American exeptionalism, but a correct understanding of these phenomena will depend on due attention to Iran’s rights to be a part of international decision-making process where the US exceptionaism has the first say.

Alexander Wendt believes that “what individuals and groups most want is not security or power or wealth, but recognition of, and respect for, their rights.”

Various aspects of the Iranian xenophobic culture like pride, skepticism, radical nationalism, religious views, and historical disillusionment as well as exceptionalisitc facets of the American culture like hegemony, support for liberalism, and protectionism should be all used to good effect to assimilate Iran in international management system, not pitch the country against it.

In the closing months of 2010, it is for international decision-makers to take steps and somehow reconcile the American exceptionalism with the Iranian xenophobia. Correct management of such feelings on both sides, will practically defuse pessimistic schemes aimed at Iran.