Iran: Perceptions and Politics

When I put out the feelers for potential companions for a trip to Iran not long ago, I was struck by the incredulity with which people regarded my plans. There seemed to be a widespread notion that embarking upon such a trip equated to, at best, terrible taste in holiday destinations and at worst, an ill-disguised death wish. What hit me most was how dissimilar this view was to my own imaginings of Iran: a bustling mosaiced Tehran; the precious antiquity of Persepolis; the breathtaking Swiss-reminiscent landscapes of the skiing hotspot in the Alborz mountains. I started to wonder where these overblown fears of modern day Iran stemmed from and think about how it would be beneficial to dispel them.iran karaj dam

(Photo: Iran’s Amir Kabir dam. Also known as Karaj dam. Credit: Ramon Sijmonsma)

Undeniably, over the past decade, reports and footage of dessicated, war-torn Middle Eastern cities have become as frequent an item on Western evening news as the weather forecast. Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, Syria have been omnipresent in the media, most often illustrated through bombed out towns and bullet-ridden building facades, the aftermaths of car bombs and derelict streets containing only militants, soldiers and the dead. The haunting memories of the “Highway of Death”, where US air forces, from an advantageous airborne position, gunned down tens of thousands of Iraqi military vehicles which were complying with an order to retreat from Kuwait; the destruction of Kabul; and the ravaged Syrian cities of Homs and Damascus all come to mind when one thinks of much of the region. So much of the verbal and visual rhetoric surrounding the Middle East has been centred on instability, war, terrorism and threat that it is not surprising that popular opinion generally evokes an adversarial “us and them” binary.

iran persepolis

(Photo: Persepolis. Credit: Ramon Sijmonsma )

However, cushioned between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has by and large thus far resisted the spillover into its borders of widespread violent conflict- though concerns are growing about the knock-on effects of the enduring sectarian conflict in Syria. The country has the second largest economy in the MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa), despite the extensive international sanctions which cause grave deflation of the currency and circumscribe production. Human development indicators are also comparatively high for the region. According to World Bank statistics, youth literacy rates increased from 77% to 99% between 1995 and 2009, rising significantly for girls. Inequality, which soared during the Ahmadinejad years, is still high, yet the country is evidently assuming a leading regional role in the Gulf in tackling both wealth and gender inequality with women playing a greater role in the economy. Indeed, the country’s five-year development plan for 2011-2015 focuses mainly on social policies and this trend is strongly expected to continue under the rule of the moderate President, Hassan Rouhani.

Nonetheless, attitudes towards Iran have continued to deteriorate for the past decade. One significant factor is that the tone and content of media output concerning Iran has intensified public anxiety to hyperbolic levels. In February 2012, the percentage of Americans citing Iran as the US’s top enemy had risen to 32% from 25% in 2011, according to a Gallup survey, and in February 2013, 83% of Americans saw the development of Iran’s nuclear programme as a ‘critical’ threat.

In US Congress, Obama has had to campaign staunchly against bill S.1881 being put to the Senate vote. The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 proposed the imposition of further sanctions on Iran in spite of the interim deal reached in November 2013 in which Iran agreed to strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief. Such misgivings, though understandable, fuel animosity and could end up hindering the prospects of diplomacy. Furthermore, the US State Department Under Secretary, Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator in Geneva, warned shortly before the interim deal was reached that “deception is part of the [Iranian] DNA”. This entrenched recurrence to adversarial relations from sceptics will be difficult to turn around, however, the evidence is starting to mount in the opposite direction.

Following the 20th January commencement date for the terms of the interim deal, the IAEA has issued a report confirming that Iran is upholding its end of the deal and has ceased enriching uranium above 5% U-235. Such findings are monumental and suggest that neighbouring countries such as the UAE were right in accepting the deal on good faith and calling for an end to sanctions. What’s more, Rouhani and Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, have demonstrated strong tendencies towards improving Iran’s international relations. Their displays of ‘twitter diplomacy’ were internationally commended as both figures wished Jews in Iran and around the world a happy Rosh Hashanah, marking a deliberate ideological contrast to former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is remembered for denying the holocaust. Such changes won’t happen overnight, but Iran is clearly re-positioning itself in world affairs. The statements coming from Tehran since Rouhani stepped in, far from seeming like elaborate ploys to mislead andsubvert, have been backed up with affirmative actions to try and stamp out doubts as to Iran’s intentions.

There may be good reason for this. Wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have essentially eliminated the competition for regional hegemony and Iran is well aware of this (though keen to reassure its neighbours). Thus, as it stands, the country has a lot to gain from improving relationships and changing its image abroad. But so does the international community have a lot to gain from Iran – much more than the simple economic gains of imposing sanctions. There is strong cause to believe that the panicky aire of securitisation discourse surrounding Iran is actually detrimental to our wider foreign policy interests given that unrest in the Middle East and ongoing conflicts with no satisfactory end in sight could be far more effectively addressed by having a regional partner in the negotiations.

Unfortunately, under the world spotlight, an important opportunity to invert historic adversarial relationships was recently missed. In the lead up to the Syrian peace talks (Geneva II), UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon made a case for Iranian presence at the negotiating table in order to make effective progress. Iran had accepted, signaling willingness to play a ‘positive and constructive role’ in the talks, however, their invitation offset a string of retaliations. The official Syrian opposition, the National Coalition, threatened to withdraw from the talks unless the invitation was rescinded, and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, personally lobbied the UN to the same end. It was finally revoked last Monday on the grounds that statements coming from Tehran rejected attendance being bound to fixed preconditions, namely the formation of a transitional government which is part of the Geneva Communique.

These developments were very ‘disappointing’ for the Secretary General, who had insisted on the importance of Syria having a ‘friend’ at the table to aid negotiations. Having traditionally been allies, Tehran’s recent condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria (albeit without pinning blame) was as welcome as it was uncomfortable for Iran (in criticising its closest ally). For Iran to have attended the negotiations accepting these terms would have amounted to betrayal for Assad, thus squandering the opportunities for heightened collaboration which the presence of trusted yet critical support would have offered. Though these negotiations are some of the most historically complex, especially now that Assad has indicated that he will run for a third term in government whilst the National Coalition are adamant that he steps down, allowing some participants to assist with a more open position would probably therefore have been beneficial. However, mistrust may have stymied this opportunity, the compliance with the interim deal being too short-lived for either side to gain real confidence, but we should hope that the longer relations remain cooperative, the greater the level of trust that will be forged for future endeavours; Iran’s participation would be similarly advantageous for efforts to create stability in Afghanistan.

One thing is for certain though, in order for the West to be able to embark on ventures with Iran which require mutual confidence and cooperation, we have to see a change in rhetoric surrounding the country. Repeated diplomatic breakdowns have instilled a grave level of mistrust on both sides, not only at senior, governmental levels, but filtering right down into public perceptions. Our media should heed the fact that there is much more to be presently gained from ousting damaging discourses and,instead, airing a tone of optimism. A good place to start would be representation which isn’t based on fear-mongering and the injection of some positive imagery into the discourse on Iran at a time which is currently shaping up to be ‘groundbreaking’.

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(Photo: Esfahan. Credit: Ramon Sijmonsma)

These are the thoughts and opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC.


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