As the ideological groundwork for military strikes on Iran is laid by certain media outlets and hawks in Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv, there is a wide array of parallels to be drawn between the disastrous past and the contentious present. One underlying presumption that is a constant recurrence, however, warrants special attention, as it is a key impetus for intervention — the fallacy that leaders in much of the developing world and Iran in particular, are emotional, unpredictable, and, most importantly, do not calculate in the same rational manner that western leaders do. Consequently, there is a belief that they cannot be trusted to their own devices.
In the 1950s TIME Magazine, one of the most influential publications in the U.S. at the time, did not merely parrot the arguments uttered in the corridors of power in D.C. to overthrow Iran’s nascent but burgeoning democracy — the publication seriously affected the contours of the debate.
Indeed, TIME made the case for intervention and lobbied for it by effectively yet erroneously portraying Iran’s Premier Mohammad Mossadeq as a “demagogic, emotional, child-like fanatic” who could easily be duped by communism. The central idea was that Iran’s leaders could not be trusted to govern their own country simply because they were too immature to be trusted during the Cold War to safeguard vital western interests —access to the resources that fueled the capitalist west’s economic superiority, namely oil and gas. Such portrayals and logic rendered Iran an acceptable area for the exercise of U.S. power and supposed that the U.S. knew better than Iran how the Middle Eastern country should be governed.
This racism was not limited to western depictions of Iran’s leadership. During the Cold War, much of the developing world was targeted for intervention under a similar rubric of rationality or lack thereof. In the case of the Congo, for instance, Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba was likewise depicted much in the same vein as Iran’s leadership had been cast. As noted by historian Odd Arne Westad: “While most U.S. political leaders up to the early 1960s had thought of Africans as children who were destined to remain children, the Kennedy administration began seeing Africans as adolescents, in the process of growing up, as witnessed by the creation of new states and political movements.
The anti-Communist argument was no longer that socialism did not fit ‘the African tribal mentality’… but the fear that Communists might seduce adolescent African leaders.” Lumumba, like Iran’s Mossadeq, was judged to be fickle and immature, and therefore unfit to rule such a resource-rich country vital to Western Cold War strategic interests.
As a result, armed right-wing allies backed by the West overthrew and summarily executed him.
Unfortunately, after decades of interaction with Iran, this arrogant demeanor has not only persisted, but worsened. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War and almost 60 years after the U.S.-British overthrow of Iran’s “child-like fanatic” Mossadeq, Iran continues to be portrayed as emotional and irrational and, more troubling, is also presumed to be “suicidal” because of its roots in Islamic culture. Expatriate Iranians are equally guilty of such depictions.
For instance, last year, a journalist of Iranian descent at the Los Angeles Times referred to Iran, a country of more than 75 million, as “steeped in a culture of Shiite Muslim martyrdom.” Such labels, erroneous as in the past, cast Iran and its leadership as unpredictable and irrational.
Consequently, Iran is judged unfit to be trusted with its own affairs, such as developing nuclear energy — a legal right to all signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a designation that Iran gained in 1968.
Should “child-like” Iran be “allowed” to continue to develop nuclear technology, the anachronistic argument goes, the world would be threatened with the possibility of a nucleararmed Iran that would not be governed with the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine that kept the “peace” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Iran would not abide by the doctrine because it is seemingly “suicidal” and “steeped in a culture of Shiite Muslim martyrdom” and could use a nuclear device on its adversaries even if it guaranteed its own destruction.
Thus Iran, scrutinized under such racist and grossly inaccurate categorizations, warrants intervention in 2012 as it did in 1953.
Until the media and Western leaders break with such depictions that justify, indeed demand, ruinous intervention in the developing world (and Iran in 1953 in particular), the contours of the debate will continue to be shaped in a direction that will make future military conflict unavoidable and possibly even more disastrous than in the past.
Pouya Alimagham is a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan’s history program and a UC Berkeley alumna.