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The New Orientalism: Iran as a Political Commodity

"Entrance of a Caravanserai in Isfahan" (1840), by Eugène Flandin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Entrance of a Caravanserai in Isfahan” (1840), by French Orientalist painter Eugène Flandin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Iran is a hot commodity. Whether it is being sold as a misunderstood land of mystery, or eyed as a potential business or investment opportunity, it is difficult to find a narrative which does not reduce the country to a means to a particular end. Historically, this included the vilification of Iran as an anti-western wasteland, divorced from historical context, geopolitical significance and diversity.

“Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” - Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 3

Today, however, that orientalist perspective has shifted: in place of a distorting demonization there is now a new, liberal view that Iran is ripe for profit, if only we have the courage to reach out and grab it. The oversimplified tropes and cultural fetishization remain, but according to this new version, instead of fleeing Iran’s barbarity we must instead “uncover” the truth about Iran through a process of orientalist investigation and a narrative produced not by Iranians, but by those who can profit from them.

The viewing of Iran through an orientalist lens is nothing new. However, this new form of orientalism, in spite of pursuing engagement with Iran instead of war, presents its own troubling aspects. The veneer of liberal enlightenment worn those who hope to “uncover” Iran is in many ways more disturbing than the outright racist discourses seen in the past.

“The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire….” – Edward Said, Orientalism, p 202-3

Edward Said noted that one could learn more about the Western psyche through the study of orientalism than from the actual subjects they sought to study. I believe the same could be said about the current Western narratives about Iran.

A prime example of this new form of fetishization is the “Iran: Tales from Persia” tour offered by Times Journeys, the travel arm of New York Times. For US$7,195 the tour offers you the chance to travel with “experts who will help untangle this nation’s complex timeline.”  Because if Iran is anything it’s “tangled”, and mysterious and complex. And of course the New York Times is well equipped to untangle this knot of a country.

The tour description makes no mention of Iran’s long tradition of dissent, of course, nor its current repressive regime, or underground civil society. Providing a voice to Iranian citizens with regard to these issues might muddy up the narrative. Instead we are to be guided by Iran experts like Roger Cohen, who, over the last decade, has presented us with gems like the following:

“Iran, … is full of defiance…But it is equally full of longing. Most people are under 30. Like these soldiers, they thirst for contact with the outside world and, above all, an America that looms with all the power of myth.”  (Iran’s Inner America, February 11, 2009 )

Cohen's paternalistic narrative reduces Iran to a childlike cartoon whose main desire is not freedom, independence or actualization, but the desire to see a mythical “America”. Under the gaze of the benevolent American journalist, the Iranian subjects are caricatures, described in simple terms and invested with naïve ideas about politics and the world. The assertion implicit in Cohen’s articles not only pushes engagement with a dictatorship, for the supposed benefit of the United States, but dismisses any hope that Iranians might have legitimate democratic aspirations that could possibly succeed in their country.

In March 2009 Cohen wrote that “The June presidential election…will be a genuine contest as compared to the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states.” In fact the elections that year would be famously mired in fraud, and the world would witness the bloody repression by the theocracy in power—an outcome which apparently shocked Cohen, but was not surprising to Iranians who had lived under 30 years of repression.

In 2016 Cohen has not changed. Iran is still a golden goose ripe for the plucking. Interestingly, he is urging European banks to invest in Iran, making the ludicrous claim that this would undermine the Revolutionary Guard, which by some estimates controls up to half of Iran’s economy. He joins John Kerry in an awkward push to convince international banks that doing business with a theocratic dictatorship is in the interest of everyone.

Cohen's simplistic cheerleading for the Iran Deal stands in contrast to the diverse spectrum of opinions provided by Iranians in another article by the Times. But the latter frames Iranians’ views in only a few brief words, and an accompanying photo. Again, a commodity for consumption.

This trend is apparent across a number of western outlets, in articles like “I Went to a Secret Illegal Party in the Iranian Desert” and “Was this really how women dressed in IRAN before the revolution?” Stories purporting to uncover artifacts from time immemorial to reveal a forgotten and forbidden past.

The problem with the current discourse on Iran has little to do with whether or not engagement is the correct policy. What is concerning are the sweeping generalizations westerners make about the “Iranian psyche” derived from cultural traditions or sayings, or the morally relative justifications for human rights violations they often provide.

“…Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been considerable material investment.” - Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 6

What is troubling for myself and other Iranians is what we aren’t seeing in these articles and pictures. This includes the voices and perspectives of Iranians living inside the country. I don’t mean sound bites about their love or hatred for America, or about their hijabs and subversive clothing styles. But rather articles with actual depth and coherent representation. Or just facts, for starters.

Last year Reuters ran an long investigative piece detailing the 95 billion dollar empire controlled by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, including the use of state power to seize assets from ordinary Iranians. The report noted, incidentally, that sanctions relief would directly benefit this empire–a fact so complicating for individuals like Cohen that they simply cut it out of their narrative on Iran, because citing an old Iranian proverb is far more interesting.

There was no lack of irony in the fact that the New York Times organized tours to Iran, while Iranian reporters, including the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, remained behind bars in the country. The fact of the matter is that such expeditions would not be possible without the blessing of the theocratic regime. For dissidents and political prisoners, or for refugees living in exile, the tours organized by the Times is a slap in the face.

The fact that New York Times simultaneously controls the narrative on Iran in the mainstream while peddling $7,000 tour packages to experience “beautiful landscapes, arid mountains and rural villages” only adds insult to injury. Never mind the conflict of interest or lack of journalistic integrity. But when your country is little more than a commodity to be bought, sold, and consumed, this is what you come to expect.

Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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