US-Iran Misperceptions

In the U.S., longstanding perceptions of Iran as a devious and hostile force have led large numbers of senators and representatives to sign onto resolutions meant to constrain if not undermine the nuclear negotiations. But it's not a set of perceptions that is rooted in any reasonable calculation of threats.
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Co-authored by Abbas Maleki

Misperceptions often rule international politics. Nation-states foster narratives about themselves and their rivals, and those narratives gain a life of their own. These narratives -- heroic renderings of one's own history laced with suspicions about others' intentions -- create a sturdy frame for understanding global politics. They rarely account for change, or altered interests, or new alignments abroad. In that, narratives are innately conservative, yielding misperceptions when the real world changes unexpectedly. And those misperceptions can be deadly. Just look at Crimea.

This dynamic of national narratives and misperceptions has long been at work in the U.S.-Iran relationship. The decades of chicanery, distrust, and clashing interests shaped national narratives that reflected and explained the bitter feelings of animus one felt for the other. It has led to outsized suspicions, military gamesmanship, isolation, and violence. However one reckons who is at fault for all that has broken the relationship, it has indeed been broken for 35 years and nearly irreparably so.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the sudden, favorable change in the possibilities for a nuclear agreement occasioned by last June's election of Hassan Rowhani to be president of Iran would result in both progress in negotiations and a sharp rebuke from the conservative forces in both countries. The progress is palpable in the Joint Plan of Action achieved in November, and the commencement of talks for a comprehensive agreement. But the backlash is equally evident.

In the United States, the longstanding perceptions of Iran as a devious and hostile force have led large numbers of senators and representatives to sign onto resolutions meant to constrain if not undermine the nuclear negotiations. It's not a set of perceptions that is rooted in any reasonable calculation of threats (Iran's military capability is minuscule compared with the U.S., although it does have asymmetrical capacities). Rather, the national narrative at work here is rooted in a centuries-old perception from Europe that often regarded Muslims as corrupt, untrustworthy, and even savage. The confrontations with the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Sunni militants in Iraq -- none of which directly involved Iran -- only reinforce these deeply held attitudes.

The Capitol Hill effort to undermine the nuclear talks relies on an old trope of national narratives -- namely, imputing extraordinary powers to the adversary. The notion that a low-level of uranium enrichment capacity somehow makes Iran a mortal threat to Israel is preposterous, yet it's the fulcrum of the case against an agreement. A nuclear accord, based on readily observable technology and actions, vitiates the fears and anxieties the national narrative stirs, and so one way to derail the negotiation is to fetishize its central objects -- the process of enrichment and the lifting of sanctions. Both have grown vastly more symbolically important than they deserve.

The reaction to the nuclear negotiations in Iran also shows the persistence of misperceptions. In some quarters, the United States is viewed as a hegemon that seeks to dominate Iran as it had under the last Shah. The nuclear negotiations, in this reckoning, are a means to deny Iran its rights to a full nuclear cycle and constitutes an assault on national dignity -- a key element of the national narrative.

The interim agreement is regarded as giving away much for little in return. The opposition to the nuclear talks is also part of a larger narrative that warns of rapprochement with the West and seeks to strengthen Iran's independence.

It is also notable that the state (Nezam) of the Islamic Republic of Iran is different from the administration (Doulat). It seems that the Rowhani administration is seeking a rapprochement with United States, while the Nezam feels that "no war-no peace" with America would be a better choice for Iran. This distinction is also applicable to the U.S. system: the administration faces a gap with Congress and a significant portion of the political, media, and financial elite.

It is doubtful that U.S. policy elites see a near-term détente with Iran as a real possibility, much less a scenario in which the United States could or would want to "dominate" Iran. Even with some capacity to disrupt oil flows, Iran is much less important to the United States than the United States is to Iran, yet the misperception of some kind of parity in this regard persists as a standard of anti-Americanism in Iran. Thus, any compromise is viewed as a profound failure, rather than an instrumentality, say, to a stronger economy.

What can overcome the lingering distrust on both sides is to address it directly, rather than use these old bits of myth and hostility for short-term gains. There is no need to claim victory over the other or exaggerate the terms of the agreements. Most impartial observers see a comprehensive accord as a boon to a region sorely in need of good news and a win-win on security for all players. Think and speak outside the constraints of the narratives, and perhaps the narratives and perceptions themselves will finally change.

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. Abbas Maleki is Associate Professor of Energy Policy, Sharif University of Technology, Tehran. They are editors of U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue.

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