Below is a lengthy passage (the underlining is mine) about the relationship between the US and Iran.  I’ll paraphrase to save your eyes the workout.  Iran and the US have narratives about themselves and the other, and everything is interpreted through that narrative.  The final part of the passage is the meat.  Beeman explains one of the communicative differences between Iran and the US: a (non)European model of diplomacy.  Given these differences of communicative style there are misunderstandings, which are then filtered through the already operating narratives.  This article does a great job of falling into this pitfall.  Imam details a misunderstanding and provides the Iranian explanation and then the article does the narrative filtration of ‘dem bad, we good’ to try and make a coherent argument.

Many of the conservatives (I do not mean Republicans as there are plenty of Democrats just as, possibly more so, hawkish) dismiss articles like Beeman’s as ivory tower ephemera.  But those people are not reading the bottom portion of Beeman’s passage.  There is a materiality and empiricism to what the (many within) the academy are saying.  If the risks are precisely as catastrophic as conservatives claim, then shouldn’t they pay attention to all commentary?  This myopia in the face of catastrophe either proves their incompetence or the insincerity of their supposed catastrophes.

Beeman, William.  (2003).  Iran and the United States: Postmodern culture conflict in action.  Anthropological Quarterly, 76(4)

For Iran, Iraq, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and terrorist organizations such as Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, the United States became the “Great Satan,” to borrow Iran’s epithet. The Middle Eastern oppositionists saw America as an external illegitimate force that continually strove to destroy the pure, internal core of the Islamic World. It was also seen as the inheritor of the mantle of colonialism carried out earlier in the 20th Century by Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. For the United States, the resistant forces of the Middle East took on a demonic form—that of the “crazy outlaw” nations and terrorist groups whose activities were illegal, unpredictable, and irrational. Every president from Ronald Regan to George W. Bush vilified these forces. In Nader’s terminology, they represented disharmony in an extreme form, because they threatened the international social and political order. Each side’s mythology of itself and its role in world affairs complimented this “mythology of the other.” All of the Middle Eastern forces counted their efforts against the United States as proof of modern success in confronting a formidable enemy. For Iran this was the Revolution of 1978-79 and the subsequent 444 day hostage crisis. For Iraq, it was the Gulf war. For Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, it was a series of aggressive attacks against the United States. These included bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington. These groups thus become not just revolutionary oppositionists; they become the guardians of justice and equity for the people of the world. For the United States, a more complex structure which I term below the “U.S. Foreign Policy Myth” held sway. As I will explain below, this myth sees the “normal world” as a body of nation-states arranged in a dichotomous structure—for or against the United States and its interests. The oppositional forces of the Middle East confound this model. The United States therefore places them in to a residual category, and tries to eliminate them—to purify the world, as it were. The United States therefore becomes not just the guardian of democracy or freedom, but of world order. These mythologies became ideological filters for transmission (or, more accurately, non-transmission) of messages between the two cultural worlds. Such filtering might be sufficient to create the kind of abortive understanding that took place between the two nations with such relentless regularity. However, the ideological problems were reinforced by a communicational structure that was equally conducive to reinforcing the mutual negative images both nations held of each other. A Problem of Discourse The communicational problems can be thought of as problems of mutual discourse which became more and more severe as time went on. The United States and all of the Middle Eastern opposition forces mentioned above have operated with different, often contradictory notions of how discourse on an international level should be managed. This often caused drastic misreadings of the content of communication between the two cultural worlds, and mutual accusations of deviousness, insincerity and bad faith. The formal study of discourse has seen considerable growth during the past two decades. Discourse analysts posit a set of implicit contextual agreements between parties which allow face-to-face conversation to take place in an unimpeded manner. Critical theorists such as Bourdieu, Derrida and Baudrillard have extended the term discourse to include the culturally contextualized rhetorical practices of governments, scholarly institutions and commercial business. The theoretical relevance of discourse studies for this problem will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter, but I wish to underscore here the need to understand the contextual factors which underlie disturbed discourse as a key to explaining. The United States government is bureaucratically geared to speaking to foreign powers using a set of communicative routines and principles inherited from eighteenth and nineteenth century European diplomatic practice. The practices emphasize face-to-face communication between elite governmental officials at equivalent levels (head of state to head of state, secretary or minister of foreign affairs to secretary or minister of foreign affairs, etc.). Special protocol rules apply for communication between persons who are of non-equivalent hierarchical position. These principles thus imply a universal hierarchy of bureaucracy, and a universal set of understandings about management of discourse parameters within that hierarchy. The routines are widely used because they are implicitly accepted by the international community who learned them from colonial powers.


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This pace seems to represent assurance, but this is always paradoxical. Pace no longer represents competence; now, it is a reversal. New destabilizers constantly emerge to confound the stability of the nuclear age. The signs of safety continually appear as accompaniments of chaos, and the inherently chaotic (the nuke) raises possibilities of a more managed society than anyone had ever imagined. Reagan’s well-known inability to understand how our “defensive” capabilities could appear obviously “offensive” to the Soviets is only a symptom of a larger tendency that pervades nuclearism. As Gary Willis has explained, resources will inevitably be confused with intentions; resources become the sign of intentions, and the reality of the sign is continually overestimated, perhaps more so when the stakes are higher.

Naturally, the enemy’s intent and willpower are less visible than his resources; so we overestimate them in much larger degree – this is called the “worst-case” scenario. If we must presume the worst in order to be prepared for anything, then the slightest increase in enemy resources must be read as part of a larger design being implemented. Even a cutback in one area will be read as an economy called for by greater expenditure elsewhere.

Transposed into the reverse logic of deterrence, the consequence is that assessments of enemy strength – a more or less routine affair in peacetime – become permanent destabilizers when the balance of terror is institutionalized. The rationalistic management that modern nuclearists proclaim as their achievement will continually threaten to produce aggression and unbalanced terror. In such a strange setting, as Deleuze and Guattari explain, desire will stage breakouts along all sorts of unexpected lines. Chaloupka, William. 1992. Knowing nukes. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press. 76-77.

The block quotation (that I have marked in bold) from Chaloupka here is a citation from Gary Willis’ Critical Inquiry 1982 article. As a combination of security studies and rhetoric this is an important book for me. What I remember not being adequately dealt with by Chaloupka is the break in thinking which supposedly occurred with the development of nuclear arsenals. I tend to think people were always nuclear a la Latour’s “we have always been modern.”

People have always known their lives are fragile and may come to a sudden end beyond their control. The advent of a nuclear arsenal overseas did not change this. There is the risk of a sudden cessation collectively. The immediate move into the remainder-less world might now be a new concern ushered in by nuclear weapons, but how this has wide reaching changes in signification I am not sure. Regardless, the passage above is important, especially to-day.

The new destabilizers to-day are easy to see: terrorism and their mechanisms such as email, cell phones, and porous borders. The signs of safety that accompany these destabilizers are border patrols, the National Security Administration and their Predator program, the Patriot Act and military commissions just to name a few. It is hardly contentious that these mechanisms have led to a more managed and manageable society.

The contentious part is the Gary Willis block quotation. The Bush Administration has become the ultimate peddler of the worst-case scenario. According to statements we are to believe that not only Iraq but also that al Qaeda was/are nuclear threats. The lack of evidence proving the nuclear threat is spun to mean that al Qaeda is not seeking nuclear weapons because they (here we will find carefully inserted words such as ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘possibly’, but the message is the same: be afraid) have nuclear weapons. The worst-case scenario then becomes a lens through which al Qaeda is viewed. If there is movement from Afghanistan it means al Qaeda is leaving and taking the offensive. If there is silence it means al Qaeda is preparing for a spring offensive.

This lens will produce a ratchet of violence. Tensions will always be escalating and the other will see every action one side takes as aggressive. This is easily seen in the bin Laden assessments. Initially he was just a Saudi critic, but his threat assessment has gradually ramped up, sometimes as a result of a violent action and sometimes not. For example we can look to his early statements, which have now been entirely discounted. Initially bin Laden claimed to want the US out of the Kingdom (the Kingdom is not just Saudi Arabia, but also the holy land of Mecca and Medina.) Those claims are now dismissed (whereas his more radical and catastrophic claims are uncritically accepted as truth) by our administration as lies to make him seem more moderate and appealing to others. Signs of moderation are seen as recruitment attempts. Is this not the perfect example of Willis’ “even a cutback in one area will be read as… greater expenditure elsewhere”?

Iran is another illustration. Not only does Bush fall into this pattern when looking at Iran, but it is this very pattern that allowed Ahmadinejad to be elected. Iranian aid to Shiites in Iraq is seen as an anti-US gesture, when it may possibly be merely a means to protect a minority, which faces violent persecution. The US media, Bush is not alone in this error, links Iraqi insurgents into one anti-US group. There are places in Iraq where the Shiite insurgents and the US troops are fighting the same enemy and Iran might possibly be helping US forces.

What was the threat to US interests when the Iranian revolution occurred? Why was it treated with such disdain? Our response was to arm Iraq and the Baath party; Saddam Hussein was our preferred weapon against Iran. And now we are bogged down in Iraq trying to clean up that mess while Iran has reacted to our hostilities and moved into a new tier of US threat assessments. The Iraq war is misnamed. This is all the same battle of the US versus Iran, which is really a battle of modern forces versus conservative forces. It is odd that the preferred weapon of the US to fight these conservative forces is an evangelical President that has celebrated his disavowal of nuance. Instead of focusing on killing the conservative forces, maybe we ought to instead focus on converting those forces. The real question then becomes the one Chaloupka finds begged by Deleuze and Guattari: what is the desire of modernity, which keeps staging breakouts in all these unexpected lines?

To-day’s National Review piece to be scrutinized is by Farhad Mansourian who is a research fellow at the Center for Promotion of Democracy & Human Rights. His piece is short yet it is packed with arguments and assumptions that need to be dissected. This article comes on the heels of increased public discussions about reconciling with Iran and is an attempt to silence those calls by arguing for a continuation of a hard-line approach while “aiding internal efforts that strive to bring about democratic regime change from within.” I am not sure exactly what these internal efforts are or whom they are going to and I get the impression that Mansourian does not know either.

My alternative would allow for some sort of rapprochement with Iran and also allow some of these same internal efforts Mansourian lauds. By removing the demonization, I contend, moderates would have increased leverage in their contestations with non-moderates and would then be able to reform the government. People voted for Ahmadinejad because they feel increasingly antagonized by the outside world and felt he was the best way to regain some strength. Removing this fear and opprobrium might just be enough to keep people from voting for him and others like him.

Mansourian claims my policy would fail because there is no room for moderation in Iranian politics because “all Iranian politicians, regardless of faction, are subject to the dictates of the Supreme Leader.” I will hesitatingly posit that this is correct, but it still does not defeat my prescription. The Supreme Leader’s dictates are not to wipe Israel off the map. Those dictates are not to engage in a violent struggle; rather they can be interpreted as such. Those dictates can also be interpreted to allow Iran to play a more constructive role more in line with US interests. What is needed is a moderate government that interprets those dictates in such a way. Mansourian’s argument about the one style politics is a contradiction with his later claim, which I discussed above. Mansourian’s prescription is to foment internal change, yet he forecloses that very possibility in my prescription. Why does this argument carry weight with the soft-line policy and not in the hard-line policy? If anything it would be easier for the more powerful members of Iranian society to create change than the more marginalized groups, which Mansourian seems to champion.

There is one other argument Mansourian makes that needs to be addressed. He claims the soft-line policy would teach the ayatollahs to foment chaos in the region. However, Mansourian again betrays himself. He says they will “sense that all they have to do is keep the Middle East in chaos.” The word I want to focus on is ‘keep’. The Middle East is already in conflict so where then is the risk of the soft-line policy? Iran is actively fomenting chaos under a US hard-line approach. Maybe the soft-line approach, for a change, is the way out of the morass into a new status quo. Mansourian hints at what would be his response: deterrence. The US can punish Iran for bellicose behavior by letting them “understand that there are consequences to their actions.” This punitive function of US foreign policy, I contend, lacks credibility in to-day’s world. The US military is over-extended and US public opinion for another engagement with a larger-then-Iraq adversary is likely to be non-existent. A punitive option would also be easier to secure with a soft-line policy because it can then be demonstrated that we tried and Iran is intractable in their aggression. Not only would the world be more in line with our policy (see Putin’s recent comments) but US public opinion would also be more easily secured.

Mansourian wants the US to match Iranian bluster with American bluster, meanwhile people are dying and an irreversible course towards more chaos and death is being set upon. It is time for a change and as long as we keep up the saber rattling we cannot honestly expect the change to come from Tehran first. It is time to look within and realize how we have helped create this mess.

Here is a paragraph from Lea Brilmayer, a professor of international relations at Yale University, which does an admirable job representing one of the arguments made by the neoconservatives:

Even if all states would like an agreement not to build nuclear weapons, there are formidable practical problems with constructing a compliance regime because enforcement is costly and few states are willing to contribute to the cost. The hegemon has more to lose from violations than smaller states (both because it is large and because it is more subject to nuclear threat). Its existence makes a nonproliferation regime possible, because smaller states would not get enough benefit to make it worthwhile to enforce the regimes themselves. Enforcement of nonproliferation treaties by the United States is a public good; for when states keep their promises to the United States, they are simultaneously keeping their promises to one another. The smaller states can all free-ride on the willingness of the United States to undertake the cost of enforcement, and in this way they benefit from American hegemony. (American hegemony: Political morality in a one-superpower world, 1994, page 118)

This is a typical realist explanation of proliferation motivations. The obvious answer, I will call it the ‘empirically denied argument’, others will make to this argument is that it is an old theory and recent events (if post-94 events, 1995, can be considered recent) disprove the theory. That argument goes something like this: since 1995 the US has been the sole hegemon with few drains on its willingness to fight and ability to do so. But there have been proliferation efforts regardless of the US presence, forcing the above theory to be inaccurate.

However, instead of disproving the argument, it actually helps bolster Brilmayer’s argument. The realist conception says a nation will not pursue nuclear weapons because it is not in their interest (the weapons are not needed and therefore those resources would be wasted.) But, what if the hegemon were seen to be a menace to one of these free-riding states? It seems the realist account would then explain why some nations do proliferate. The empirically denied argument then uses the Brilmayer thesis to explain why Iran and North Korea did begin proliferation efforts.

This is not to say the Brilmayer view is complete. There are surely other factors that influence a state’s decisions than just the security dilemma. Iran is a great case study here, because the Persian people have a culture that actively remembers itself as great. Darius, after all, once challenged Alexander the Great not just for regional supremacy but also for global domination. Nuclear weapons have a status and can be seen as granting a status to those that possess them.

What does this mean for current US policy towards Iran? I contend it means the US should take a more conciliatory approach to Iran. The stability of the unipolar world was not seen to include Iran because of US condemnation since 1980. Maybe a more friendly approach would have staved off the current crisis. It also seems the harder the line we draw with Iran the more we emphasize a fundamental difference between Iran and the US, the gap in military proficiency. By emphasizing Iran’s deficiency we only make it more attractive for Iran to close that gap. The quickest and easiest way to do that is by acquiring nuclear weapons. I will concede the possibility that the genie is out of the bottle and a concillatory approach now would be too little too late. That is a subject for later exploration