• 5 June 2012
  • Posted By Milad Jokar
  • Diplomacy, Israel, Neo-Con Agenda, Nuclear file

As a French-Iranian who has been exposed to both Iranian and Western mindsets, I have witnessed the lack of understanding that exists between Iran and the United States firsthand. During my travels and personal meetings, I have been able to access both narratives and what has struck me most is the harsh and intense misleading characterization of “the other” made by the political and media presentation. These different narratives create a problematic rift that heightens the political cost of finding a compromise between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany). Hence, the decision-making on both sides is constrained by a political narrative driven by ideology more than the geostrategic and economic realities. One step to de-escalate is to lower this political cost by deconstructing the “otherization” of each side to allow a diplomatic resolution to be framed such that neither side loses face.

Unlike France, the United States and the Islamic republic have had more than 30 years of institutionalized enmity and this is why the political discourse on both sides has specifically been more aggressive and more prone to misconceptions. The rhetoric between the United States and Iran is still ratcheting up and the representation given of “the other” still deeply divides the average uninformed citizens in both countries. It is increasingly evident that the discursive strategy used by both the United States’ and Iran’s hardliners has been to simplify the representation of “the other” and to frame its complexity as an evil/demonic monolithic entity.

On the one hand, the soul of the Islamic republic was built on a strong anti-American sentiment which has institutionalized the hawkish rhetoric toward the United States. The Iranian population’s support for the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) mostly comes from low-income families that are often unfamiliar with foreign affairs and more susceptible to propaganda. In my conversations with them, I frequently heard the same nominalizations used by the populist message of Ahmadinejad or Khamenei such as Sheytan-e bozorg (the Great Satan) or the Zionist regime in their ideological framing of Amerika or Israel. One even kindly told me not to listen too much to the “Western propaganda.” I realized that a direct confrontation would never work if I wanted to soften their vision based on a monolithic and simplified representation of “the West.”

On the other hand, since the hostage crisis of the US Embassy in Tehran, the US media and political discourse have also simplified the representation of the Islamic republic whose complexity has too many times been conceptualized in expressions such as “the Axis of Evil,” “rogue State” or “regime of the Ayatollahs.” If in a short sentence you combine these nominalizations with the words “nuclear” and “weapons,” it makes it harder for the American general public to navigate the complexity of the issue. This framing creates a distorted conception of Iran, and it becomes easier for the media to draw a simplistic and false image of Iran. A clear illustration is this recent poll which shows that 71 percent of Americans think Iran has nuclear weapons despite the fact that US intelligence services have said many times that Tehran has not made the decision to have a nuclear weapon program. A blatant example is then-GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachman who, foolishly, repeated that Iran has stated they wanted to use a nuclear weapon against the United States!

Hence, there is a significant rift between the populations (in Iran and in the United States) who favor – and too often repeat — the hawkish political discourse of their leaders. This kind of discourse hardens the conception of the American public opinion and seems to legitimize tough stances toward Tehran as well as the Iranian people by many in Washington. At the same time – though domestic affairs remain by far the most important factor – the simplifications in the political discourse of Iran’s current leaders have contributed to the election of a more hard-line Majles (parliament), thus making it more difficult to ease the rhetoric and reach a compromise that would allow the Iranian authorities to save face.

To make matters worse, this dynamic also applies in a more hawkish basis between Israel and Iran where the threats of Israeli military strikes are as real as they are dangerous. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and president Shimon Peres insist on framing Iran as an “existential threat to Israel” and that it wants to acquire nuclear weapons. These statements contradict what former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs say about such a threat. And of course, the same analysis can be made about the similarly hysterical and inflammatory discourse of the Iranian hardliners vis-à-vis Israel.

Since neither the Islamic republic nor the United States and Israel want to lose face, softening the rhetoric requires time and must be included in a process. These misconceptions radicalize the simplified and essentialized conception of “the other” and the first step of this long process of de-escalation is to deconstruct the misperceptions that feed the ultra-conservatives from each country – especially when it comes to framing the outcome of the talks between the P5+1 and Iran. This means that a resolution of the standoff requires political space – to alleviate the pressure – and time. It means that it is a long process that needs to be solved gradually and, so far, there have been some positive moves from the Obama administration to deviate from the hardline framing of Congress and the Netanyahu administration that push hard for a more unrealistic resolution to the deadlock. Moreover, Khamenei – who commented positively on Obama’s warnings against war – has demonstrated seriousness about negotiations. In this tough process, trust, political goodwill and good gestures from both sides are needed, but a diplomatic resolution will also require ending the demonization of “the other.”

Posted By Milad Jokar

    One Response to “Ending characterization of “the other” is key to an Iran agreement”

  1. ShawnA says:

    Good read.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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