Philip Carl Salzman: President Obama speaks to Iran

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President Obama used the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, to reach out to the Iranian people and the government of the Islamic Republic, promising a new start and relations based on mutual respect. The President stressed the commonalities between Americans and Iranians, who both spend their holidays by congregating with family and friends, exchanging gifts, and celebrating. The great historical achievements of Iran, including its literature, music, and painting, were acknowledged, as were the rich culture and high potential of Iran today. (If you cannot see the embedded clip of his remarks, click here.)

Notwithstanding President Obama’s misleading implication that previous American regimes had not extended a friendly hand to Iran, his brief speech-not broadcast on Iranian television-was gracious and I expect would be received favorably by the Iranian people. The President’s emphasis on the commonalities of Americans and Iranians reflects the major cultural frame of “progressive” American culture, a frame which emphasizes and celebrates “diversity” and “inclusion.” In this frame, Iranians and Americans should be able to get along just the way Iranian-Americans get along with Spanish-, Jewish-, African-, Italian-, and other hyphenated-Americans. We are all human, the President seems to say, and we all want the same things, which, if we work together, we can all gain. This is another assumption of the “progressive” American frame: all can be winners; there need be no losers; life is not a zero-sum game. And, if we are all winners, we can all be equal, a third element of the frame.

How will this message be received by the Iranians? Well, of course, there are Iranians and Iranians. Many have been and are positively disposed toward the United States. A public opinion poll done after President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech showed that a small majority of Iranians agreed with the characterization. (The pollster was quickly incarcerated.) Many Iranians would like better relations with America. But these Iranians are not the ones in charge. The government of the Islamic Republic is a self-perpetuating theocracy, supported by muscular control agencies, such as Revolutionary Guard. It decides policy, and the populace must conform or take the consequences, often deadly.

What is the cultural frame of the theocrats running the government of the Islamic Republic? For these mullahs, Shia Islam is the raison d’etre of their regime. They work for the greater glory of Shia Islam, for the conquest and subjugation of their mortal enemies, the Sunni Muslims, and the final triumph of Islam through the subjugation or eradication of non-Muslim infidels. These are ultimate goals, but in the shorter run the triumph of Shia forces in Lebanon and the annihilation of the Jews of Israel would be satisfying achievements. Shiism is the one true way, and “diversity” beyond Shia Islam is not celebrated. “Inclusion” is only possible within a hierarchy of Shia dominance. “Common humanity” does not apply to “sons of apes and pigs.” The Shia cultural frame of the Iranian theocrats and their civilian agents, such as Ahmadinejad, is highly particularistic, defining its values and strategy in terms of Shia Islam. Pleas based on “common humanity,” “diversity,” and “inclusion,” will be like drops of rain in the desert.

The people of Iran, on the other hand, would be more receptive to the President’s message. They know that many Iranians have settled happily in the United States and are doing well. Many Iranians are fed up with government by mullah and, given a chance, would chuck them out. Feeling against the mullahs is so strong in some segments that at least some people refuse to say the Islamic greetings of salaam alekum and khoda hafez, and have reverted to the ancient Persian greetings of darood and bedrood.

President Obama has come far, fast, with pretty words. But it seems highly unlikely that the rulers of Iran will be swayed, and almost certain that they will continue on their chosen path. What else, beyond words, does President Obama have in his quiver?

Philip Carl Salzman: President Obama speaks to Iran

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

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