Iran and the West: How portrayals justify intervention

Kira Walker
Kira Walker

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.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

    [I think you guys missed the point of the article, or rather, affirmed
    it. If “Iran and Iranians are Aryans,” assuming your Euro-centric racial
    hierarchy is actually true, it makes no difference as most of the
    leaders and media personalities look at Iran as a non-white inferior
    other.]

    You lefties go through a lot of contortions trying to see race as a factor in everything. Give it a rest…

  • Haste and Telegraph

    I think you guys missed the point of the article, or rather, affirmed it. If “Iran and Iranians are Aryans,” assuming your Euro-centric racial hierarchy is actually true, it makes no difference as most of the leaders and media personalities look at Iran as a non-white inferior other. As for Stan De San Diego’s comment… the USSR was no less brutal to its people and its sloganeering was no less aggressive, yet the American leaders trusted that the Soviet Union’s leadership could be trusted to calculate the use of nuclear weapons rationally. Yet, Iran is viewed differently not because of what its leadership says, which is no more threatening than that of the Soviet leadership’s, but because Iran’s leaders are, as in the past, viewed as “young and dumb.” Again, your comments only confirm the author’s overall point.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

      How many Soviet suicide bombers were there vs. the hundreds of thousands who are willing to blow themselves up in the name of Allah? As bad as the CCCP was, their higher leadership had some semblance of self-preservation and wasn’t screaming about obliterating their neighbors with nuclear weapons. When someone would gladly kill themselves for the chance to kill you, that’s a whole different ball game.

  • Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

    This author is an idiot. My mother is from Iran and Iranians are Aryans i.e. Germanic in origin. Sheesh. All people in Iran are white. My grandmother from Iran had blonde hair when she was younger. What an ignorant article.

  • Calipenguin

    The author plays the race card by claiming Western powers are discriminating against the brown people of Iran who are just going about doing their ‘thang and tryin’ to make a living with some nu-clear street knowledge.   However, we can play the race card too.  Iran was racist by threatening to destroy Israel, so Iran clearly is wrong since racism is wrong.  Thus we cannot be racist when we say we are out to stop the nuclear proliferation of the racist government of Iran.

  • Stan De San Diego

    “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.”

    No, Iran is perceived as a threat because it commits brutal acts against its own citizenry, sponsors and provides save haven to terrorists organizations such as Hizbollah, and threatens to use nuclear weapons to wipe one of its neighbors off the map. Now maybe this type of behavior is accepted in the Muslim world, but most people in the rest of the world realize its a problem, even if your own cultural blinders and personal pride do not.