Stretching My Gambes

Iran’s new ‘Great Satan’

with 5 comments

The post-election scenes in Iran have grabbed ‘Western’ media institutions and social networking sites for a number of reasons. However, I want to pick up on two related issues that have been misrepresented or overlooked in the majority of the coverage: the possible impact of the election on Iranian foreign policy and why Great Britain has been demonised by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The idea that a Presidential victory for Mousavi would have shifted Iranian foreign policy to a significant detente with the ‘West’ (particularly the US) is far too simplistic.

Yes, all four supported improved relations with the ‘West’ (particularly the US).

Yes, all four candidates supported the completion of the nuclear cycle.

Yes, regardless of who has been President since the revolution support for the Palestinian cause has not significantly altered (including current members of the opposition: Khatami, Mousavi and Rafsanjani).

Whilst a change from the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad may have been a popular outcome among foreign diplomats, I personally do not think Iranian policy would have shifted dramatically.

There are certain recurring proclivities that are represented in the foreign policy of the Iranian state since the 1979 revolution: radical cultural and political independence; economic autarky; diplomatic and ideological mobilisation against Zionism; and resistance against US interference in regional and domestic affairs. More succinctly, anti-imperialism, cultural authenticity and independence can be identified as the central parameters of the Islamic Republic’s identity discourse.

These proclivities and preferences are a result of the dominant ideological narratives of the revolution: Bazgasht beh-khish and Gharbzadegi. The former juxtaposed the allegedly perfectly true and authentic identity of Iran as a nation with the unauthentic status of the fallen present under the Pahlavi Shah (Ali Shariati). Similarly, the latter articulated the growing gap between the supposed authentic self of Iran and the decadent and unauthentic status of Pahlavi Iran, distorted (‘Westoxified’) by ‘Western’ modernity (Jalal Al-e Ahmad).

I do not feel that any of the political figures involved in the current power struggle in Iran would have significantly shifted from these dominant revolutionary narratives. However, a rhetorical break from Ahmadinejad may have led to an improvement in relations with the US. Similar to the break from Bush that Obama achieved.

That break brings in my next point regarding the demonization of Britain by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Britain has a poor reputation amongst elements of Iranian society. Since the discovery of oil in 1901 Britain has a poor record of meddling in Iranian domestic affairs. Most infamously in 1953 with the coup to oust the nationalist Mussadiq, replacing him with the repressive Shah. Such sentiments towards the interfering British have been popularised through Iranian television series, like Uncle Napoleon.

However, during the 1979 revolution it was America and, partly by extension, Israel that was demonised by Iranian society. They were respectively known as the ‘Great Satan’ and ‘Little Satan’. However, following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech on Friday, Britain appears to have taken that mantle.

I maintain that Britain has replaced America as the ‘Great Satan’. Obama has shifted the American language towards Muslims and the Middle East so significantly that an attack on him would be politically damaging for Ayatollah Khamenei at this moment in time. On the other hand, Gordon Brown is a sitting duck. The current domestic unpopularity and weakness of the British government makes Brown such an easy target when one considers Britain’s historical record in Iran. It is just too easy.

That said, Obama’s comments today may lead to a verbal backlash from Iran. Perhaps Britain may take a backseat role again.

However, I disagree with Obama when he claims that the Iranian government’s criticisms of other countries is just an attempt to divert attention from the domestic situation. Alternatively, it is reflective of the normative currents contained in the revolution of 1979, which appear alive and well today. Personally, I believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is aware of how his claims regarding Britain resonate domestically.

It is not the 1979 revolution that is being questioned in Iran, rather where Iran moves next and under whose control.


5 Responses

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  1. A general comment. A non-proselytising Islamic nation is something positive in my book. It’s no different from France’s stance on the agricultural policy really: an attempt to save some features of traditional society seen to be valuable in the face of modern capitalism. In Sweden in particular, but also in the west in general it seems, this is being framed as a new revolution, finally liberating the Iranian people from their religion and into the arms of liberalism and full-fledged capitalism. Hallelujah.

    Of course, I’m conservative when it comes to such things.

    Let me ask you this: how powerful is the Ayatollah today? As you say, he couldn’t attack the US just now because of the public mood. So is he a mere demagogue then? Can he sway people? How many? I know less of this then you, but from my perspective it very much looks as if Iranians are ambivalent about their republic. They are, just like every other people on earth with strong traditions, naturally conservative about their culture. But they also live in the modern world now, so in a sense everything can be questioned (in precisely the way in which religions must not be questioned).

    Concerning the remarks on Britain, perhaps you overstate the importance of these remarks. It’s classic rhetoric to gather people around an enemy, the vaguer the better. When the US was not an option, there was perhaps only Britain, but might as well have been Mordor, if you know what I mean.

    Hmm. You’ll have to read my mind a bit on some of these comments ;). Coherent as ever.


    24/06/2009 at 01:51

  2. With regard to the Britain/’Great Satan’ stuff – while the trio of the US, Israel and Britain are undoubtedly the foci of antipathy in Iran — I believe Britain’s the only one with diplomatic relations and an embassy there etc. Therefore it’s pretty logical that Brown’s going to bear the brunt of the western intervention discourse – as we saw yesterday with the expulsion of two British diplomats (reciprocated by Britain).

    Also I think you’re right about it being a bit tricky for Khamenei to go straight for Obama in the light of all his seismic rhetoric (whether you buy it or not it’s definitely grabbed people’s attention in the ME as well as around the world) – Khamenei called it his ‘sweet and beautfiul words’!

    But the US is surely still the bête noire – I was going to write a list of gripes, but do I need to?
    Convince me otherwise!

    In the same way that you say the Iranian candidates are enmeshed with the foundational discourse of the Iranian revolution, I think there are distinct discursive underpinnings which, for all their differences, both the Obama and the Bush administration share. So in that sense, why’s America any different now to a couple of years ago, when it comes to Iran’s concerns – apart from the language of force which Bush was a lot more liberal with?


    24/06/2009 at 09:59

  3. Daniel: I think that the Ayatollah Khamenei is a popular figure with aspects of the Iranian population. However, he does not carry the respect, even devotion, that Ayatollah Khomeini had. He is not a particularly high ranking cleric and there are certain figures within the clerical establishment who rejected his succession. He appears to have now bound himself to Ahmadinejad, out of political weakness or ideological proclivity is hard to tell, but I would lean to the former. However, one should not necessarily read dissatisfaction with an individual as dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic!

    My comments re. Britain were just to emphasise that they can only be understand in relation to revolutionary paradigms that still permeate in Iran.

    Luke: whilst the US maybe the bête noire still in reality, ultimately it is perceptions that matter. Obama has begun to unravel the negative perceptions.
    Something I wish that I had included in this piece is the idea that anti-imperialism is one of the strongest normative currents in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, so it was always likely it would be mobilised.
    The point you make about Britain’s diplomatic relations is a good one, but I would still suggest that if this was under Bush’s tenure it would have been the US who were the focus.
    Yes, there are shared discursive underpinnings, but there are substantial differences. The effect this can have on people’s perceptions can be quite substantial!
    I must say though, that I don’t think the spat with Britain will have any influence on the trajectory of the following weeks. Alternatively, we should keep a close eye on the impact of the mourning rallies called for by Ayatollah Montazeri.


    24/06/2009 at 10:26

  4. I agree with you on the anti-imperialist discourse – pretty prevalent when it comes to mobilising nationalist (as well as transnational) sentiment in the Middle East.

    YES: If it was Bush’s tenure he would certainly be stoking the fires with inflammatory rhetoric – so yes Khamenei’s reaction would probably be more predictable/clear-cut anti-US stuff.

    AND: I agree that ‘Obama has begun to unravel the negative perceptions.’

    BUT: Isn’t this all the more dangerous for the stability of the regime? Wouldn’t Khamenei feel the need to counterpose this rhetoric and discursive shift? Reassert the binary rhetoric which Obama has muddied.

    Well, I think yes. This can be seen in his approach before the elections – in a strategic speech before Obama’s Keynote Cairo speech – he said the US remained “deeply hated” in the region and “beautiful and sweet” words would not change that. ( and “If the new president of America wants a change of face, America should change this behaviour. Words and talk will not result in change.”

    I think that outside of the more modernising/West-facing urban centres these words have a very serious resonance.

    Finally I agree that Britain will have a relatively marginal role in actually SHAPING events in Iran in the coming weeks – whatever role it’s fulfilling – e.g. as a ‘whipping boy’ of the imperialist clique!


    24/06/2009 at 13:14

  5. To be honest, I don’t think Khameini would attempt to reassert the binary rhetoric – an America which matched positive words with deeds would not need to be demonised! The country is not demonised because it is America, but because of it’s track record and ongoing behaviour. Indeed, following Obama’s recent speech much of what I initially stated might be blown out of the water…


    25/06/2009 at 17:04

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