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.


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