Orientalism and the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

This post has also been published on Mangal Media

From the Democratic-leaning supporters to the Republican-leaning opponents, Orientalist conceptions have dominated Western representations of the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations. While many differing perspectives on the topic exist, the two dominant voices in this controversy have found common ground through evoking an us/them dichotomy as the basis for their positions. Within this discourse the Iranian regime is depicted as a barbaric/uncivilized/irrational ‘Other’ by being juxtaposed against the discursive construction of a civilized/rational West, produced for the purposes of its own self-legitimization. Through drawing on this colonial discourse of Orientalism, yet displaying a more aggressive American neo-Orientalist rhetoric, both supporters and opponents of the deal have come to depict an Iranian ‘Other’ which requires harsher international action vis-a-vis notions of a civilized/rational US who maintains global peace in cooperation with its allies.

It is this Orientalist conception which underlies what the issue at hand is perceived to be. As such the controversy between the conservatives and liberals begins not at how to resolve the very threat posed to human security by the existence of WMDs. The issue instead is purely a nuclear-armed Iran. The very violence of the status quo and US/Western foreign policy in the Middle East is in this manner naturalized or excused, and further positioned as one to be maintained against the Iranian regime responding to its own security concerns.


The non-nuclear power who has agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons is contrarily depicted as owning nuclear arms as opposed to the side who does own the weapon

For supporters of the deal, the issue of Iranian nuclear capabilities is seen to be best resolved through the path taken by the Obama administration; harsh economic sanctions and political diplomacy.[1] They hold that the deal has proven itself the most successful option as the Iranian regime has agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment below the requirements necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, and also to vigorous surveillance by the IAEA which would detect if Iran was not in compliance with the negotiations.

The video below shows a pro-deal propaganda ad campaign, featuring prominent celebrities supporting the deal. Though comical, it aims to highlight liberal frustration with Republican opponents for opposing what they see as the only non-military way to ensure Iran does not build a nuclear bomb. For this reason, within the video, supporting the deal is made synonymous with avoiding war with Iran, and opposing the deal with supporting a war with Iran.

Similar to supporters of the deal, the opponents do not oppose on the basis of supporting a nuclear-armed Iran. For the conservative opponents, it is often said they oppose as either the deal is believed to be opening up the opportunity for Iran to develop nuclear weapons, not completely closing that potential, or just not being harsh enough on Iran in general.

Fox News host Eric Bolling can be used as an example. In a September 2015 segment on the negotiations, when controversy over the deal was at a peak, Bolling linked Iran to 9/11, al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in his opposition to the deal. This unsophisticated understanding of the Middle East ignores the very diversity and complexities of the region by assuming a homogeneous Middle Eastern ‘other,’ unified by all the common stereotypes and by the political aspiration of annihilating Western nation-states and their peoples. Contrarily to Bolling’s assumption, however, all of these examples reference Sunni related incidents and groups – all of which Iran either challenges directly through funding proxies, or ideologically as they are a Shia led regime.[2] It also forgets that all these groups or the groups related to the attacks referenced have been directly or inadvertently supported by the US or its allies. Nonetheless, Bolling links Iran to these acts in his belief of a freedom spreading US being not only justified, but requiring harsher foreign policy towards an aggressive Iran.

So, does a nuclear-armed Iran pose a threat? My answer to this question is also yes. While the West and Israel, across the supporters and opponents, have assumed this an issue of their own security, to whom a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to is not them. The Iranian regime is not suicidal and would not consider building a nuclear weapon to use offensively. For Iran, and in an international context, the weapon would deter other nuclear-armed nations or otherwise from engaging militarily against Iran – as nuclear-armed nations avoid war with one another due to the risks involved.  As it stands Iran is in a vulnerable position to economic or military aggression from the US – a position which the negotiations very goal is to maintain. If the Islamic regime are pursuing nuclear weapons, it has resulted from these very conditions of hostility and insecurity. Yet when attempting to grapple and tackle this issue, the supporters and opponents in the West have naturalized this arms race that they are a part of, rendering their own role invisible to justify the continuation of over a century of imperialist agendas towards Iran and the wider region.

The threats towards Iran have particularly elevated under the Trump administration; with a cabinet of aggressively anti-Iran members and a bill which allows the President to pre-emptively attack Iran without needing congressional approval. While a nuclear-armed Iran may stop a potential war with the US, nuclear-arms should, nonetheless, themselves be opposed because the very weapons themselves are a problem regardless of who owns them. It is particularly the Syrian people who will suffer from a more weaponized and strengthened Iran, the Iranian people and other peoples across the region also. We do not need a nuclear-armed Iran or world. What we need is forms of organizing which exceed and override the nation-state, state-violence, warfare, imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, colonialism and so forth. These are the issues that the nuclear negotiation cannot, nor desires, to take into consideration. Yet by ignoring this we naturalize certain states as rational and rightful possessors of the weapon and others as rogue/irrational. We also legitimize certain forms of actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the sanctions on Iran, both over suspicions of WMD’s. These Orientalist and imperialist manifestation in global politics only serve to maintain the prevailing colonial/capitalist hegemony and not the global security they contend to uphold. There is no other solution to this issue other than the complete dismantlement of all nuclear arsenals globally and abolishing the very existence of the weapon as we transition into another world, another way of organizing.

[1] While the Islamic Republic has faced sanctions since it came into power through revolution in 1979, the sanctions Iran faced under the Obama administration have been the worst Iran has endured. The economy has greatly deteriorated, with people losing jobs, earning less and the costs of living increasing. Others sectors such has public health has also faced massive limitations. Due to restriction on importing raw materials to produce medicine, many forms of vitally necessary medicine are either no longer able to be produce or face shortages due to material limitations. Nonetheless, or potentially because of this, these sanctions  are also now commonly touted by both liberals and conservatives as an effective foreign police strategy against Iran.

[2] Muslim belief is not itself homogenous, but has many strands. Two of the most prominent of schools of thought is Sunni and Shia.

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Posted in All Posts, Postcolonialism

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