Under the recently negotiated deal between Iran, the United States, and five other world powers, Iran will remove two-thirds of its centrifuges and reduce its supply of enriched-uranium in exchange for an easing of sanctions, a return of frozen assets and an eventual lifting of the arms embargo against Iran. U.S. media reaction to this arrangement has been revealing. To say that elite American opinion makers are hostile to Iranians is obvious enough. But examining the exact forms of this can provide insight into how the imperialist mindset operates in contemporary America.
A broad spectrum of U.S. media commentary on the accord portrays U.S. global military supremacy as natural and desirable, and treats Iran as a nation that belongs under the control of the U.S. Underlying responses to the agreement in U.S. media is the belief that the American ruling class has an unlimited right to pursue its interests in the Middle East; Iran, on the other hand, has no such right. Iran’s regional alliances are frequently referred to but never discussed in detail or with reference to specific facts. These are merely presented as ipso facto illegitimate.
The editors of the Boston Globe, for example, say they are concerned by “Iran’s support for terrorism and its troublesome meddling in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.” The New York Times’ David E. Sanger writes that Iran “pose[s] a significant threat to the United States’ interests” and predicts that “Iran’s generals will compensate for the loss of a nuclear program by stepping up their financing of Hezbollah and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and by flexing their muscles in other conflicts across the region.”
By contrast, the deadly conduct of the U.S. and its Middle East allies are not called into question. According to these perspectives, it is intrinsically objectionable for Iran to support the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen, but perfectly fine for the United States to consistently invade and attack the peoples of the region and to prop up dictators; for Israel to occupy and colonize Palestine; for the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition to devastate Yemen; for Turkey, a NATO member, and the U.S.-allied Gulf States to arm and finance violent sectarian religious fundamentalists in Syria.
Media hostility toward Iran is so intense that analysts are worried about the possible outcomes of increasing wealth in Iran. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, for example, writes, “The U.S. could reimpose sanctions on Iran if Tehran cheats on the deal, but it would be reimposing these sanctions on what will be a much-richer country, one that could withstand such sanctions for quite a while.” The suggestion here seems to be that removing sanctions is a mistake because that will increase Iranian prosperity and, if sanctions are reapplied in a few years, it will be difficult to drive Iranians back to the austere economic conditions they currently face.
Similarly, also in The Atlantic, David Frum complains that “the most effective sanctions against Iran” are being “suspended in a way that is very difficult to reimpose.” The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, opposes the lifting of sanctions and thinks it a good thing that these “finally started to get tough in December 2011” because they produced supposedly welcome outcomes such as the following: “By 2013 Iran had an official inflation rate of some 35%, its currency was falling and its dollar reserves were estimated to be down to $20 billion.”
Goldberg, Frum, and the editors of the Journal evince little to no concern for the welfare of the Iranian masses. These analysts are saying that they think it might be better to keep the population of Iran as poor as possible so as to maximize U.S. control over the country.
Yet a problem arises, U.S. media coverage suggests, because Iranians are supposedly uniquely shifty. This concern, which is among the oldest of Orientalist tropes, consistently arises in the coverage of the Iranian agreement. That no such criticisms are made of the conduct the U.S government suggests that the U.S. is eminently trustworthy.
Following from these assumptions is the view that Iranians are a people who need to be managed and that the U.S. should be among the principle managers. The Post considers it imperative that the deal lead to “the transformation of Iranian behavior.” The Times says, “The United States has to be extremely vigilant in monitoring how Iran uses” the extra money expected to flow to it from the deal.
Goldberg wants Obama to “push back against Iran’s ambitions.” Frum is concerned because, in his assessment, under the nuclear accord, “The United States has surrendered much of its leverage over Iran.” And the Journal claims that the Obama government failed to employ “coercive diplomacy,” a strategy of being as belligerent as possible during negotiations until Iran “concludes that it must make more concessions.”
Nor should this control be finite. The Globe, for example, seems to suggest that management of Iran should continue in perpetuity when it complains that “the deal’s biggest flaw is that it curbs Iran’s production of enriched uranium for only a decade.” Implicit in these assumptions is that it is not necessary for the U.S. and its allies to be similarly supervised by any actor — despite these states’ long records of extraordinary violence.
What all of these images of Iran add up to is a portrayal of Iranians as eminently killable. Coverage of the accord contains multiple instances of remarks that treat mass violence against Iran by the U.S. as just.
Goldberg says, “If I thought that preventative war — air strikes against Iran’s three or four most important nuclear facilities — could have led to the permanent de-nuclearization of this anti-Semitic terror state, I might have considered supporting such a notion. But I suspect that war would have only accelerated Iran’s push for a bomb.” For him, an all-out, illegal international aggression is strategically unwise — but not, as it can more accurately be described, an intrinsically criminal idea.
To the Journal, a war against Iran is undesirable, but such threats should continue anyway — even though such threats are illegal and even though such sabre-rattling escalates tensions in ways that can make war more likely. “The truth is that war becomes less likely when diplomacy is accompanied by the credible threat of war. The President removed that credible threat from Iran by insisting war was the only (bad) alternative to his diplomacy.”
Maintaining these attitudes toward Iran is useful to the American ruling class because it is perfectly conceivable that the current deal won’t hold and U.S. elites will want to amp up hostility toward Iran, possibly to the point of taking military action. To guard against this possibility, we should insist on shifting the harmful ways that Iran is viewed in the American imagination.