Rhetorical Wars Without An End: U.S.-Iran Practice of “Mutual Satanization”

Iran and the United States have been indulging in a regular exercise of “mutual satanization,” a phrase coined by Rouhollah K. Ramazani, Professor Emeritus of University of Virginia.  Mutual satanization is referred to an endless rhetoric of mutual demonization.  Iran adopted that policy in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  The United States also implemented an analogous policy during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.  It was during that time that the Iranian revolution took place.  The highly turbulent relationship between United States and Iran during the revolution and, most important, Carter’s inability to gain the release of American hostages taken by the Iranian revolutionary zealots, set the ostensibly permanent context of the relationship.  Iran’s own anti-Americanism was the result of the Anglo-American sponsored coup of 1953 that ousted a nationalist government of Premier Mohammad Musaddeq and brought back Mohammad Reza as the pro-American Shah of Iran.  Since then both sides are practicing the policies of mutual satanization. 

The United States has been demonizing its enemy for a long time.  The entire Cold War was conducted within that framework.  For the United States, the Former Soviet Union (FSU) was the guardian of the “enslaved world,” while America was the leader of the “free world.”  Who can forget the famous “iron curtain” speech of gloom and doom given by the British Premier Winston Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri in 1946?  That speech complemented the pervasive thinking of that era, when the entire Cold War was depicted–especially during the tenure of President Dwight Eisenhower–as a struggle between “the good and the evil.”

Similarly, no one can forget Ronald Reagan’s renowned phraseology that described the FSU as the “focus of evil,” and an “evil empire.”  The FSU, to be sure, used a similar rhetoric to denounce the United States and its policies.  However, as an atheist polity, its rhetoric was devoid of the religious tinge that people all over the world so readily understood and personalized.  Whereas the American rhetoric always had that religious allusion, which was not so latent even when it was not olvertly couched in religious phraseology.  The very idea of America as the “shining city on the hill” (a Reaganite phrase) had the assumption that the rest of the world was in the dent of ignominy or downright immorality, ranging from the absence of democracy to not practicing Christianity.

As journalist Joyce Marcel writes:

I first heard the word “demonizing” in regard to what happened – deservedly – to Richard Nixon’s presidency, but hatred has a long and ugly history in America. The many outrages of slavery made it easy to demonize African-Americans. … The Chinese were demonized in the West when they came to build the railroads. In the East, it was the Irish. In my grandparents’ time, Eastern European Jews were demonized. In fact, Jews have been demonized for most of the 5,768 years we’ve been around. … When I was growing up, Jews and “coloreds” were the targets – remember the iconic photograph of Southern water fountains labeled “white” and “colored?”

Sadly, that process continues and, indeed, it seems to have been intensified during our time.  Marcel states,

“Demonization has become a national way of life. It’s also become the national way of death. Everybody hates somebody somewhere, to paraphrase Dean Martin. The conservatives demonized Saddam Hussein in order to invade his country. Now they’re in the process of demonizing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so they can invade his. They can’t really win a war with, or even occupy, these countries. They’re just striking out blindly.  Exporting our hatred has becomes an ugly and bloody American reality that will kill hundreds of thousands and destroy our national soul.

The Islamic Republic of Iran started a parallel practice of religious rhetoric of demonizing the United States in its policy pronouncements.  The phrase “great Satan” is understood by Muslim at large as a shibboleth for immorality and a condemned force, as the devil himself.  In the post-9/11 era al-Qaida further underscored the alleged “anti-Islamic” nature of the United States by incessantly depicting the lone superpower as the “great enemy” of Islam.

Even for a country where the press is free and prides itself as the chief critic of the government, the American elite media almost uncritically bought lock stock and barrel into the political rhetoric of the government, which portrayed Iran, as a “rogue state” starting the last decade of the Cold War. 

In the post-9/11 era, the administration of George W. Bush initiated a policy of global demonization by declaring to the world that in the so-called “global war on terrorism,” “either you are with us or with the terrorists.”  Washington became the self-styled judge of which nations belong to the category of “evil” or a sponsor of terrorism, and which countries fall into the rank and file of worldwide promoters of “virtue.”  As a subtext of that global demonization, President Bush depicted Iran as part of an imagined “axis of evil.”  As Ted Rall writes, “Capitalizing on the reliable ignorance of the American public and the indolent gullibility of its journalists, the Bush Administration regularly conflates its numerous targets of regime change, pretending they love each other to death and are united only in their desire to slaughter innocent American children. There are gaping chasms in this narrative, but they vanish into our national memory hole.”

Even in the post-Saddam Hussein phase of conducting their foreign policy, neither the United States nor Iran abandoned the policy of “mutual satanization.”  And in the highly intricate and equally charged post-9/11 era, there were plenty of reasons on both sides to pursue that rhetoric.

After the dismantlemennt of the Saddam regime, and after conducting a policy that could not bring about the denuclearization of North Korea, the United States never lost hope that, even if it were not to succeed in “subjugating” Iran by carrying out a military invasion a la in Iraq, it would bring about a complete denuclearization of Iran.  There is, to be sure a world of difference between the nculear policies of North Korea and Iran.  The general expectation is that North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons, while Iran does not.  More to the point, Iran continues to insist that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, a position that the Bush administration finds least credible.

In the meantime, the United States found itself embroiled in the quagmire of Iraq, whereas Iran has emerged as a perpetual “kingmaker” of that country.  Iran’s intelligence agents are deeply penetrated in Iraq.  They have flooded the Iraqi streets with Iranian money and propaganda whose sole purpose is to create instablity and chaos in Iraq.  Iran’s Quds force is constantly being referred to by the United States as an entity causing much turbulence and backing the insurgents.  If the charges are indeed true, that is Iran’s way of conducting an asymmetric war against the mighty superpower.  The purpose of that asymmetric war–as Iran envisages it–is never to allow a long respite to the U.S. forces, for they would use such a breather only to ensure their  prolonged stay in Iraq. 

In Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Washington has found a perfect “villian.”  He periodically issues statements questioning the historical reality of the holocaust, and states that the very creation of Israel was a mistake.  The American phraseologists of paranoia and demonization have more than ample fuel at their dispoal, as long as Ahmadinejad remains at the helm in Iran.

To add even more fuel to the fire, Iran has become not only an influential actor in Iraq, but its clout in Lebanon is also at a very high level, especially since the July-August 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war.  Hezbollah’s prestige in the Middle East skyrocketted by the fact that it could survive the punishing attacks of the superior Israeli armed forces during that conflict.  Conseqeuntly, as one of the chief backers of Hezbollah (another backer being Syria), Iran has emerged as an important powerbroker in Lebanon.

The common difficulty faced by the U.S. decisionmakers in Iraq and Lebanon involving Iran is that they can do very little to control the political powerplay.  Because the United States has a large force presence in Iraq, there is that possibility that the use of force will provide Washington a slight edge; however, its long involvement in Iraq has also demonstrated the limitations related to the use of “hard power.” 

There is an entirely different picture in Lebanon, where the United States and Iran are regularly colliding for influence and strategic upperhand.  The recent flareup between the U.S. backed government of Premier Fuoad Siniora and Hezbollah pushed Lebanon to the brink of another civil war.  Thanks to the intervention of the Arab League, that crisis seems to have been averted.  The ensuing Doha Accord of May 2008 further escalated the clout of Hezbollah and Iran in the Lebanese politics.

However, the political betmakers within and outside Lebanon could not agree on “who’s up and who’s down” as a result of this latest skirmish.  The West-leaning TV stations and journalists inside Lebanon were calling Hezbollah’s recent takeover of West Beirut as a “sign” that it was nothing more than a Shia militia.  The U.S. officials in Beirut were also promoting similar arguments. 

The pan-Arab sources inside Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, on the contrary, were painting a different picture.  As a dispatch of Los Angeles Times from Beirut noted: “During the recent violence, news media, politicians and clerics throughout the Sunni Arab world refrained from depicting Hezbollah’s push as a Shiite or Iranian coup d’etat, as it was described by pro-government Lebanese politicians and TV.  The widely watched Qatar-based Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera described the unrest as a political conflict rather than a sectarian clash.” 

But Iran’s rising influence in Lebanon is on everyone’s mind.  That might have been one reason why Israel decided to conduct indirect negotiations with Syria.  Israelis clearly hope to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria by offering the latter ample “carrots” to break away  from Iran.  However, unless Israel is ready to make a major deal with Syria on the Golan Heights, the likelihood of any “wedge” between Syria and Iran is merely wishful thinking.  And the government of Premier Ehud Olmert is too weak to make a deal of any significance with Syria.

There is no suggestion here that Iran has emerged as an invincible actor because it enjoys palpably significant political advantages over the United States in Iraq, and because it has an upper hand over the U.S. backed government of Lebanon.  What is true, however, is that Iran has definite advantages of time and geography over the United States. 

The chief American disadvantage is that it would not stay in Iraq for a long period of time, while Iran will always be Iraq’s next-door neighbor.  In that capacity, there are infinite opportunities for Iran to shape the internal political dynamics of Iraq.

There is also an active debate inside the U.S. that it should carry out a phased redeployment of its troops from Iraq, and that it should engage Iran in diplomatic negotiations covering a variety of issues of mutual contention.  Iran knows that it is just a matter of time before United States will be forced to conduct negotiations regardless of who wins the White House in the presidential elections of 2008.  While John McCain has taken a hardline position of no negotiations, he will come to the negotiating table in 2009 if he were to win.   Senator Barack Obama has already made clear that he prefers negotiations to no-negotiations.  

Given those realities, logic as well realism dictate that Washington should engage Tehran.  However, the ill-will inside the United States–that stems from a long-standing hostility and demonization of that country–drives the lone superpower toward a disdainful insistence that Iran change its policies in Iraq and Lebanon, and abandon its nuclear program, with no discussion of any related rewards associated with such notable potential policy changes.

Iran, on its part, finds such American posturing both repugnant and unacceptable.  The outcome is a prolonged impasse, which also carries public speculations in the international press that the United States would conduct some sort of military operations against Iran before President Bush leaves office.

If the U.S. invasion of Iraq of 2003 has proven anything, it is that the exercise of hard power should precede a calculated thinking regarding its long-term implications for the political stability of that region.  If the United States were to learn that lesson and decides not to opt for another exercise of hard power in Iran, it would enhance the prospects of peace and stability in an already turbulent West Asia.  One necessary precondition is an immediate end to a mindless policy of mutual satanization in Washington and Tehran.  Only then the initiation of a process of determined and purposeful engagement would lead to peace and harmony between two long-standing adversaries.

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