The Never-Ending US Misperceptions of Iran

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

One of the ironies of the landmark nuclear agreement is that while it has generated serious efforts toward rapprochement with Iran on the part of various European governments, in the United States the opposite has happened and even some of the supporters of the deal, such as the presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, have expressed hawkish Iran-bashing sentiments that reflect the absence of a much-needed 'paradigmatic shift' on Iran potentiated by the nuclear agreement.

Such Iranophobic political expressions in the US may stem from political expediency rather than firm analysis, yet nonetheless it is amply obvious that they are more than "pure rhetoric for domestic consumption" and are bound to fetter their speakers in the future, particularly if they assume positions of power. Thus, Clinton's pledge of coercive diplomacy toward Iran if she is elected as president will not be easy to cast aside, when such pledges result in political support and serious funding for her campaign by the pro-Israel, anti-Iran forces. 

In other words, there is a functional utility to the planned Iranophobia in American political discourse that evinces a conspicuous absence of strategic foresight and the recognition of both Iran's regional importance and the policy demands in terms of cooperation with Iran on issues of shared or parallel interest, such as the threats of terrorism and narco-traffic. But, on the other hand, the dysfunctional side of the Iranophobic discourse shows itself without much ambiguity once we examine the negative policy ramifications that, for instance, preclude select US-Iran cooperation on issues of mutual interest, principally as a result of the sedimented misperceptions that depict Iran as an enemy pure and simple. 

Consequently, the nuclear deal's potential role as a catalyst for broader non-nuclear dialogue has been overlooked in the US, just as the necessity of "post-containment" new narrative to replace the one-dimensional "Iran containment" doctrine has been ignored.  In order to reach the level of understanding for a "post-containment" US strategy, a conceptual housecleaning that would release the potential for a more accurate, and fair and balanced, perception of today's Iran is needed, one that can be advanced with greater theoretical and methodological vigor and sophistication, instead of the current reductionist images that as stated above are tissues of misperception rather than correct perception. This recalls the content of a recent book on US-Iran perceptions and misperceptions, which raises the important point regarding the importance of avoiding cliché stereotypes and grounding analysis in apt theoretical frameworks. Indeed, political theory has its work cut out here, insofar as it can assist with and contribute to the requirement of deconstructing the enemy image of Iran in favor of a more realistic understanding that takes into account Iran's complexities and net of national interests.

The authors of that book on US-Iran have correctly identified the roots and manifestations of harmful misperceptions -- that are candidates for theoretical and empirical debunking and, yet, may seep in the discourse of US presidential contenders for the months if not years to come, by virtue of their political functionality in a two-party environment. The deeply-implanted misperceptions of Iran serve a limited purpose that do not at all outweigh the benefits of astute empirical understanding of the roots and purposes of Iranian power. The purpose of Iranian power in the region is not to foment chaos and instability, as suggested by Clinton as well as other US politicians and officials, but rather stability and development. Indeed, this much is clear by examining Iran's relations with all its neighbors including Saudi Arabia and other members of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The old American 'divide and conquer' might be behind the Iranophobic discourse, but then again the end result of such divisive policies may turn out to be more chaos, more terrorism, and so on, that is, the exact opposite what the US policy-makers maintain publicly is their aim in the region. There may be a chasm between rhetoric and reality, but then again that has always been a staple of US foreign policy.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, Ph.D, is a former political science professor at Tehran University and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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