Newsletter #49: Understanding Iran Beyond East-West Binaries, with Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi and Golnar Nikpour

By Maia Silber

Many Americans who were alive at the time had their first impression of Iran formed on November 4, 1979, when militant Iranian students seized the US embassy and took sixty-five hostages. For 444 days, until the hostages were released on the day of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, the American news media speculated about the hostages’ dire conditions, interviewed their fearful family members, and discussed the developing terrorist threat in the Middle East.

As media scholar Melani McAlister has argued, the Iranian hostage crisis was the singular media event that transformed US–Middle East relations into what many Americans perceive as a Manichean battle between good and evil, victim and aggressor, and secular rationality and religious fanaticism. The 2012 film Argo renewed these tropes for a younger generation, depicting a heroic CIA rescue of six escaped embassy personnel. In the film, the first American is taken hostage after he attempts to reason with a violent, inarticulate Iranian street mob.

This Orientalist media narrative has obscured the more complex history of the Islamic Republic, which The Dig examines in the final two installments of its five-part series on modern Iran. In the fourth episode of the series, Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi and Golnar Nikpour situate the hostage crisis in the context of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s efforts to consolidate power in the wake of the 1979 Revolution. After overthrowing the authoritarian Shah, factions motivated by a range of ideologies competed to determine the direction of the country. Khomeini’s Islamic Republican Party (IRP) feared usurpation by the revolution’s liberal wing, its Marxist left, its religious left, or another Anglo-American coup. For Khomeini, the hostage crisis served as a means of consolidating a base of religious clerics within Iran while also staking a claim to regional leadership as other Islamist movements arose in the Middle East.

Listen to this week’s episodes of The Dig here and here.

Far from a polity united in hatred of Western values, post-revolutionary Iranians were and are deeply politically and religiously divided. As Sadeghi-Boroujerdi and Nikpour recount in the fifth and final episode of the series, the protest movement led by young women in Iran today channels the long-growing anger of many Iranians who have seen both Khomeini and subsequent hardliner and reformist leaders alike fail to deliver the liberation of the nation’s working class that was promised after the overthrow of the Shah.

While US media outlets are eager to represent the protests’ target as a uniquely repressive Islamism, Iranians have also expressed outrage at conditions that might appear all too familiar to Westerners: the casualization of their labor force, the pollution of their water supplies, the rise of a repressive system of policing and incarceration, and the deathly mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To be sure, the Iranians protesting the murder of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini by state morality police are fighting against the particular injustices of their nation’s government. But they’re also part of a global wave of protests — from the Black Lives Matter rebellions, to the feminist Ni Una Menos marches in Argentina, to campaigns for climate justice — led by youth, who have borne a disproportionate share of the violence and neglect that characterizes the treatment of the world’s marginalized and poor. Listening to Sadeghi-Bouroujerdi and Nikpour describe the historical events of the last forty-some years in Iran, I couldn’t help but identify parallels in the US in that same period: the repression of leftist movements, the rise of religious fundamentalism, the turn toward neoliberal economic policies, and the growth of a massive state carceral apparatus.

We should seek to understand Iran’s history first and foremost on its own terms. But flattening media depictions of the Middle East prevent us from understanding the broader, global forces that defy perceived binaries between regions and nations. We’ll continue to examine them on The Dig.

Further reading For more on US media representations of the Middle East, see Melani McAlister’s Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and US Interests in the Middle East. Much of Nikpour’s scholarship situates the history of incarceration in Iran in a global context. Westerners often distinguish between criminal policing in their own countries and the policing of political prisoners under authoritarian regimes. But Nikpour has underscored how the Iranian state has intentionally blurred the lines between political dissidence and social disorder, repressing potential opposition largely through arrests of drug users, sex workers and others labeled “deviants.” Her articles in Jadilyya (“Is Abolition Global? Iran, Iranians, and Prison Politics: Part 1” and “All Prisoners Are Political Prisoners: Rethinking the Campaign to #FreeThemAll Beyond Borders and Beyond COVID-19”) offer an accessible introduction to these ideas.

For related Dig listening, check out our conversations with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò about why the US left should be internationalist, Mariame Kaba and Geo Maher about the recent rise in policing as a form of “counterinsurgency” in the wake of the rebellions of summer 2020, and Verónica Gago about Ni Una Menos and global feminism.