Daniel W. Drezner

What Iran doesn’t know about the United States will really, really hurt them

It is now standard operating procedure for commentators to observe how large the gulf of ignorance is between the United States and Iran.  If any American observer tries to analyze Iranian domestic politics, there will be at least three commentators waiting to jump on that analysis as lacking in depth and nuance. This is all ...

It is now standard operating procedure for commentators to observe how large the gulf of ignorance is between the United States and Iran.  If any American observer tries to analyze Iranian domestic politics, there will be at least three commentators waiting to jump on that analysis as lacking in depth and nuance.

This is all well and good, but after reading Jon Lee Anderson's New Yorker story on his visit to Iran,  I think it's safe to say that other countries suffer from this same problem when they try to understand the United States.  Consider the following: 

Despite Ahmadinejad’s assurances that I was free to interview whomever I liked, a senior government official told me that I should avoid behaving “sneakily” during my stay, illustrating his point with a serpentine movement of his hand. In the end, I was authorized to interview only one other person: Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Khamenei, and the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, the daily newspaper that speaks for Iran’s clerical establishment. Shariatmadari was imprisoned in his twenties for his activities as a militant follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, and was serving a life sentence when the Shah fled Iran, in 1979. When Khomeini took power, he was freed, but the Shah’s torturers left him without any of his original teeth. Though he is sixty-one, his mouth is sunken like a very old man’s.

It is now standard operating procedure for commentators to observe how large the gulf of ignorance is between the United States and Iran.  If any American observer tries to analyze Iranian domestic politics, there will be at least three commentators waiting to jump on that analysis as lacking in depth and nuance.

This is all well and good, but after reading Jon Lee Anderson’s New Yorker story on his visit to Iran,  I think it’s safe to say that other countries suffer from this same problem when they try to understand the United States.  Consider the following: 

Despite Ahmadinejad’s assurances that I was free to interview whomever I liked, a senior government official told me that I should avoid behaving “sneakily” during my stay, illustrating his point with a serpentine movement of his hand. In the end, I was authorized to interview only one other person: Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Khamenei, and the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, the daily newspaper that speaks for Iran’s clerical establishment. Shariatmadari was imprisoned in his twenties for his activities as a militant follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, and was serving a life sentence when the Shah fled Iran, in 1979. When Khomeini took power, he was freed, but the Shah’s torturers left him without any of his original teeth. Though he is sixty-one, his mouth is sunken like a very old man’s.

Shariatmadari is a frank speaker, and his pronouncements are a generally reliable barometer for the opinions of Iran’s Supreme Leader….

The Green Movement, he said, was part of a grand conspiracy—conceived by, among others, Michael Ledeen (a veteran foreign-policy hawk), Richard Haass (the president of the Council on Foreign Relations), Gene Sharp (an authority on nonviolent resistance), and George Soros (the financier and philanthropist)—with the aim of overthrowing Iran’s government. The protests were not against Ahmadinejad, he explained, but “against the whole system.” Fortunately, “the people” had been mobilized and had stopped the conspiracy in its tracks.

Soros again!!  Is there any conspiracy this guy isn’t a part of? 

Seriously, Ledeen and Haass loathe each other, and Ledeen and Soros probably loathe each other even more.  None of these guys have any direct influence over Iran policy, and I’m willing to bet that Ledeen and Soros’ indirect influence is exactly nil.   

Now, take a moment to imagine a world in which Ledeen, Haass and Soros  are secretly meeting to overthrow the Iranian regime, and I guarantee that the color of the sky in that world is not blue. 

It’s incumbent upon the American foreign policy community to develop a better appreciation of the domestic politics of other countries.  But, damn, it would be good if other countries could get a better working knowledge of the U.S. foreign policy community.  It’s not like we’re all that opaque. 

[Does this matter?–ed.  It does if Iran develops some serious misperceptions about U.S. intentions and capabilities.  Based on the article, the Iranian leadership is well on its way towards achieving that end.]

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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