Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010
Iranophobia: The Panic of the Hegemons
by Ira Chernus
Iranophobia (noun): an excessive, irrational fear of Iran, almost always expressed as fear of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Israel's Iranophobia may in part be traced back to domestic tensions between secular Ashkenazi (European-rooted) and the Orthodox and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African-rooted) communities, according to Haggai Ram, an Israeli expert on Iran. As the Ashkenazim have gradually lost their power and privilege, he argues, they've been stricken with a "moral panic" and have looked for a scapegoat to blame.
Back in 1979, elite Ashkenazi voices condemned the Iranian revolution for the same reasons they condemned and feared the Orthodox and Mizrahim: for promoting traditional religious and cultural values that the Ashkenazim saw as barriers to the advance of Western modernity. They saw in Iran's present a vision of Israel's future. They still do; hence their fear.
That may well be part of the story. But there must be more to it, because Iranophobia is just as intense, perhaps even more intense, among the Mizrahim and the Orthodox as among the Ashkenazim.
We face the same paradox in the United States, where Iranophobia is also rampant. Polls show between 56 percent and 66 percent of the public supporting military action to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. In some liberal circles, the attack on Iranian theocracy echoes fears of America's own religious Right, which may well heighten Iranophobia. But in the United States as in Israel, much of the hawkish fearmongering comes from the Right, including the religious Right. How can the moral panic theory explain that? Moreover, the same kinds of fears now directed toward theocratic Iran were aimed, just a few years ago, at the secular government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
So the problem goes beyond moral panic. For U.S. elites, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran symbolizes the more frightening prospect of Iran challenging U.S. hegemony in the greater Middle East. Questions of moral panic pale in comparison to competition for power and oil. In Israel, too, the warnings about an Iranian bomb sound like fears of losing Israel's nuclear hegemony in the region.
Nevertheless, the kind of discourse analysis that Ram offers is very useful. In politics, language always matters. Control of discourse is a central element in any kind of power. And the elites are not merely cynical manipulators of public opinion. They and the masses are tied together by a common bond of political discourse, as George Lakoff has taught us.
What cultural frame might explain the scope and intensity of America's Iranophobia? We can get some important clues from Israel, if we put that nation's Iranophobia in the broader context of assumptions shared across the Israeli cultural spectrum. Ram offers occasional glimpses of this broader context; for American readers this may be the most valuable contribution of his book.
The Need for a Threatening Enemy
Ram notes that Iranophobia first appeared during the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"To convince Israelis that peace could be made with the Arabs it was, at the same time, also ‘necessary' to construct the image of threat from elsewhere," he writes. "Israel needs an existential threat."
The Iranian revolution, coming right on the heels of the Begin-Sadat agreement, gave Israel "a golden opportunity" to fulfill that need. In the years that followed, Iran's leaders offered plenty of words that could serve to substantiate Israel's culturally necessary image of foreign threat.
Another key element in Iranophobia is the assumption that Israel has done nothing to provoke such menacing language. In fact, according to Ram, "this rhetoric is part of a long-standing Iranian and Israeli exchange of threats and counterthreats." But that truth is largely ignored in Israeli public discourse. Instead, he writes, the Iranian threat is ascribed to an "unprovoked hatred that ‘Islam' nurtures against Jews in general and the Jewish state in particular," which is why Ahmadinejad is so often linked to Hitler.
Iranophobia in the United States also has deep roots in a history of fears of Iran and other foreign nations, accompanied by a firm insistence on U.S. innocence. Unfounded Cold War fears of a communist takeover of Iran in 1953 prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to authorize a CIA-led coup that overthrew the elected government and installed the autocratic Shah as ruler. But all the elements of the Cold War frame were already prominent in the anti-fascist rhetoric of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, even before the United States entered World War II. In my own research, I've found numerous examples of Eisenhower and Roosevelt voicing the same fears in private as in public that the enemy, if not stopped by force, would destroy the United States -- and civilization itself.
So the same kind of narrative frame that shapes Israeli Iranophobia has also shaped U.S. foreign policy for at least seven decades. Although these seven decades have been dubbed the era of the "national security state," it would be more accurate to call them the era of the "national insecurity state." And the insecurity that has haunted the general public has pervaded the private discourse of policymakers and elite leaders too.
The National Insecurity State
The language of the "national insecurity state" -- a shared discourse based on irrational fear of enemies and a conviction of one's own innocence -- is an essential thread in the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States. The view that Israel, like the United States, is an innocent nation facing enemies who would destroy it is widely held by the U.S. public, which may go far to explain the surprising degree of public support for Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
In the United States and in Israel, political and media elites stir up fear of Iran by emphasizing the theocratic, anti-modern bent of its rulers. That characterization of the Iranian leadership may well be accurate in many respects. Certainly the Iranian regime has kept itself in power by repressive measures repugnant to democracy, which should not be taken lightly.
But the Iranophobic response -- the push for ever-tighter sanctions, the covert efforts to destabilize the government, and the constant drumbeat for military attack -- is counterproductive. It only strengthens the hold of the current leadership and thereby undermines the forces working for secular democracy in Iran. So despite all the valid criticisms leveled at Iranian leaders, Iranophobia remains a dangerous, unconstructive, irrational attitude, and Americans still have a pressing need to understand its dynamics.
What's the Cure?
A first step is to point out the obvious: the United States and Israel maintain massive nuclear arsenals of their own, so it's irrational to think they would have anything to fear from a few Iranian bombs, which are currently (and may always be) only figments of imagination. But logic never cured a phobia.
Any real cure for Iranophobia must include a more equitable sharing of economic resources, both in the United States and around the world. If we did not have so many Americans struggling with or worrying about unemployment and all its attendant ills, fear of a nuclear-armed Iran would find a less fertile breeding ground in public opinion. And at the elite level, the American project of globalization -- leading the world toward a single, integrated, democratic, capitalist system -- has been shadowed since FDR's day by a persistent fear of foreign enemies who might thwart that project. If U.S. policymakers were willing to undertake a global Marshall Plan and share the earth's riches with other nations, they would have less reason to spread fear of Iran or any other nation.
Yet the urgency of the problem doesn't allow us to wait until economic good times return or the aims of U.S. policy fundamentally change. We have to find steps that we can take to alleviate the dangers posed by Iranophobia now. Fortunately, a cultural malady differs from a medical malady in one important way: merely naming and describing the cultural malady as a disease can have significant curative effects. Once the widely proclaimed "Iranian threat" and the purported empirical evidence to "prove" it are recognized as narrative framing, they lose their power to be taken literally. Thus they become far more open to interrogation; it becomes much harder to take the "Iranian threat" for granted as a basis for foreign policy.
Such a change in perception is a slow and hugely difficult task, of course. For three decades, college students have been learning that the traditional hierarchies of race and gender should not be taken as literal fact but as culturally constructed frames. Yet we are still struggling with and against those hierarchical views. But there has been significant progress on those fronts, and it has been spurred by the new way that the old hierarchies are now perceived. Imagine the impact on foreign policy if it were widely seen as motivated by constructed frames rather than literal fact.
This is only one half of the change we need, however. As we've learned from the history of science, old paradigms are not abandoned simply because they do not fit the facts; they are abandoned when a better paradigm emerges. Similarly, old narrative frames are likely to persist in foreign affairs, regardless of their dangerously counterproductive results, until a new frame is widely available.
This is the greatest challenge to, and perhaps the greatest weakness of, the progressive peace movements in the United States. Those movements do an excellent job of using facts to debunk the existing frame. But because they, too, are focused on literal fact, they've not offered the public a persuasive alternative frame.
A New Frame: Not Hegemony, But a Web of Nations
Any successful American narrative will have to include a meaningful sense of national pride (at least for the foreseeable future). But a true alternative will also have to depict the entire world as a web of mutually supportive nations, "woven together in a single garment of destiny," as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, rather than a competitive battlefield of good guys against bad guys. National pride will have to be measured by success in helping all peoples and all nations in need, serving them in the ways they want to be served, rather than by success in fending off supposed threats through intimidation and force.
Though the United States has been locked in the frame of "national insecurity" for some seven decades, we have a much longer history that provides many resources for this kind of alternative frame. The same is true of Israel and its Zionist heritage. In both nations, there is fertile ground for a new vision of patriotism as tikkun olam (repairing the world). It's time to weave together the separate and often conflicting strands of olam, to see the whole world as a holy universe.
This is not a task that can wait for the backing of elite leaders or experts. Across the political spectrum, conservatives and progressives alike contribute to the pathology of language by taking it on a strictly literal level, overlooking the cultural forces that shape every interpretation of the facts. We all share responsibility for beginning to heal that pathology. The analysis of Iranophobia is a perfect place to start. Having a name for the syndrome and making initial efforts toward an in-depth diagnosis are useful first steps in the healing process.
Ira Chernus is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy. His writing on Israel, Palestine, and the United States is collected at http://chernus.wordpress.com.
Source Citation: Chernus, Ira. 2010. Iranophobia: The Panic of the Hegemons. Tikkun 25(6): 27