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How not to write about Iran

An Iranian woman walks a street of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA)

In the Western imagination, Iran has long been a kind of bogeyman. It's the land of hostage crises and headscarves. It was part of the Axis of Evil (whatever that was). Its leaders grouse about defeating Israel, an American ally. Its mullahs, say Iran's critics, plot terror and continental hegemony.

Supporters of the ongoing talks in Vienna, where Iranian diplomats and their international counterparts are wrangling over a final agreement on Tehran's nuclear program, are in part hoping to change this overwhelming narrative.

Rapprochement between Iran and the U.S., they argue, would signal a new era for U.S. relations in the Middle East — and, at the very least, put to rest fears of yet another American military escalation in the region.

[Here's what is in the way of a 'good' Iran nuclear deal.]

But whether that changes the actual Western discourse around Iran is another matter. Every society or culture gets stereotyped in some way by others — but Iran, even before the rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979, has been a very conspicuous victim.

That's in part a consequence of its history. As the inheritor of Persia's ancient empires, Iran has been the Other — the enemy of the nominal "West" — since classical times and the famous wars with Greek city-states. In the 18th century, some European writers and thinkers popularized the image of a "decadent" and "despotic" Persia as an allegorical device to critique their own societies. A century later, as Europe's empires gained in power, the Orientalist cliches hardened and served to bolster the West's own sense of racial and moral superiority.

Even in the present day, many of the old tropes have been trotted out during the nuclear talks. While giving testimony to Congress in 2013, Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official and lead negotiator with Iran, counseled caution when dealing with the Iranian regime because "deception is in their DNA." The remarks, which infuriated Tehran, gestured at much older Western perceptions of Iranians as "wily" swindlers who cannot be trusted.

Sherman was hardly alone in conjuring up this stereotype: Those opposed to her efforts have also done the same. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal last year warned against "haggling in a Mideast bazaar" and embarking on a "Persian nuclear carpet ride." This April, Michael Oren, Israel's former U.S. ambassador, went on a cringe-worthy ramble about the crafty tricks of Persian rug salesmen.

"The Iranians are not just expert carpet merchants," Oren wrote, stretching the ungainly metaphor to its frayed, tasseled edges. "They also deal in terror and endangering American allies."

Other more nuanced assessments fall into similar traps, too. Earlier this week, James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral, top NATO official and the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, painted a picture of the Iranian regime with the broadest brush he could possibly find.

"Tehran’s geopolitical strategy," he wrote, "is taken directly from the playbooks of the first three Persian empires, which stretched over a thousand years."

To no great surprise, this view of Iran as a mysterious realm, beholden to its past (and its vast store of carpets), irks some observers.

"Iran is an ancient civilization with a rich culture that definitely has roots in its old history," Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi tells WorldViews. "But to stereotype modern Iran and Iranians based on what happened thousands of years ago is wrong."

Mortazavi argues that you would never see such simplistic, overreaching appraisals of American allies: "Do we view today's Europe through the affairs of the Vikings? No. Do we look at Saudi Arabia through the lens of its old Islamic Empire when it was taking over the world? No."

Arash Karami, the Iran editor of the Middle East news site Al-Monitor, dismisses the idea "that Iran has imperial ambitions in the Middle East simply because of its history." He adds that "most Iranians only have a vague understanding" of the long-gone Achaemenid dynasty or the medieval Safavids.

The stereotypes in play seem to support the contention of some hawks that Iran is not a normal, rational state actor. Critics of the Islamic Republic may see nothing wrong with that, but these sorts of characterizations were being made well before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the collapse of U.S.-Iran ties.

In a write-up published in January 1952, Time magazine named Iran's democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh  as "Man of the Year." The recognition was not particularly flattering. It sneeringly described Iran as "a mountainous land between Baghdad and the Sea of Caviar." And it went on to attack both Mossadegh's plan to nationalize Iran's oil — at the expense of British and American energy interests -- and the leader's character.

Time actually called the Iranian politician "a strange old wizard."

A year later, the Ivy League buddies of Time's editors in the C.I.A. helped engineer a coup that ousted Mossadegh, scrapped Iran's fledgling democracy, and re-installed the country's monarchy as an American client. Memory of that event still informs the political conversation within Iran, but is rarely recognized in the West.

"In American media, it seems that either those wily Persians are calculating 'chess masters' outwitting the well-meaning Westerner," says Karami, "or they're bumbling idiots" who resent how "the West rules the Middle East."

To be sure, there are many negative things that should be said about Iran's political status quo — where a repressive theocratic government curbs dissent, jails journalists and actively supports armed proxies elsewhere in the Middle East. But you don't need to start quoting Xenophon or Morier to get there.

"If you’re writing about a country of more than 77 million people," says Kia Makarechi, news editor at Vanity Fair, "and the metaphors or signifiers you draw on come more from 'Aladdin' than a serious understanding of that nation’s politics and culture, you should probably hand the assignment to someone else."

See also on WorldViews

Here's what is in the way of a 'good' Iran nuclear deal.

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